By Anne Lowenkopf
Anne Lowenkopf is the author of American Indian Religions, The Hasidim: Mystical Adventures and Ecstatics, and several other nonfiction books. This article originally appeared in Living Wisdom: Vedanta in the West. She teaches writing in Santa Barbara, California.
We catch the Godhead much as we catch light. The very structures that enable us to experience both limit how much of each we can experience. Since we catch God with our human hearts and intellect and will, since we reach out to the Godhead because of our human need and desire, it is not surprising that what we catch—our visions of God—have both points of similarity and points of difference.
We experience anything—everything—through ourselves. It is all we have to experience with. And so, not surprisingly because we humans are gendered life forms, often our experience of the Godhead has gender.
God the Father is familiar to those of us who have grown up in the Judeo-Christian tradition; round the globe and in the past various peoples have perceived and worshiped father gods and other male deities in love and terror, hope and dread.
Though no statistic count that I know of exists, abundant evidence makes it safe to estimate that we humans have “caught” goddesses as often as gods. Some of these goddesses like the Navaho’s Spider Woman and the ancient Greek’s Athena have specific functions: you would not go to Athena for aid in childbirth nor to Spider Woman for strength in warding off enemies.
But some of us have caught a Mother Goddess who is all-encompassing, beyond role: “I am all alone in the world here. Who else is there besides me? See these goddesses who are but my own powers entering into my own self!” a flat announcement of monotheism from the Great Goddess herself in the famous Sanskrit hymn Devi Mahatmyam, Glory of the Divine Mother. Again and again the Devi (Goddess) of the Devi Mahatmyam is described as the one without another: ultimately no duality of any kind exists, no division between matter and spirit, no division between created and creator. The Great Goddess contains within herself not only all other deities but existence itself. Her children and all things reside within her, are of her substance, and she indwells inside them. The shortest distance to the Mother is within yourself.
This vision of the Mother is exciting attention today when for the first time in history so many young adults live alone, outside family and organized peer groups. As the constrictions of paternalism break down and are replaced by the bewilderments of choice and lack of structure, the concept of a Mother deity who all alone creates and sustains begins to feel right; young people are feeling they can understand such a deity and such a deity can understand them. A nexus of empathy radiates support, comfort, and understanding in a two-way flow.
This concept of the Mother first attracted me as a young woman who was rebelling against the notion of being born in the need of redemption for the actions of others. I still remember the thrill of excitement at my discovery of a Goddess who did not punish the created for what went wrong in her creation, who took the heat for evil and death and yet was untouched by both.
Empathy for a deity who exists alone and copes alone grows stronger as more and more young people have been raised by single parents, and more are coping with the difficulties of being a single parent. The Devi of the Devi Mahatmyam could and did act as a warrior queen even though she was the monotheistic deity. Its hymns are part of an exciting story in which the Goddess is approached by gods who are being harassed by bandits and neighbors, and she agrees to help them fight off their enemies. No question of damnation and eternal punishment here but of will against will, skill against skill, with the Devi, as one who plays chess with herself, taking all the parts.
The layering of abstract philosophy and dramatic personification is molded into the story itself. Its monotheistic concepts are unwavering even while the battles and their equipment are described with all the ferocious glee which you would expect from a poet of raiding peoples. And the Goddess, though described as young and beautiful and caring, was savage and intent when she threw herself into battle.
An American brought up in the climate of Victorian notions of maternal behavior asked a contemporary devotee of the Devi how he could be drawn to such a fierce deity and was told, “Ah, but you need a strong mother who will go to battle for you when you are in trouble.” Single parents who find themselves battling for survival in their work worlds, battling traffic to get home at the end of the day, battling to feed their kids and educate their kids and keep their house reasonably sane resonate to the concept that one can be both and at the same time nourisher and warrior.
The Mahatmyam (sometimes called The Chandi ), first recorded in writing around 600 A.D., is by no means the oldest of hymns. But the concept of the Great Mother is ancient indeed. Anthropologists believe a vision of a Mother Goddess to have emerged in neolithic times as early as 7000 B.C. and that her worship extended in a vast area, at the very least a great arc stretching from parts of Africa northward to Lithuania and westward to Crete and Greece. Some make a case that pushes the range of her worship into Italy and Spain and as far west as the British Isles and Ireland.
Stone carvings and pottery figures can resist time, but ideas do not fossilize. So there is much debate among academics as to exactly what beliefs inspired those stone and pottery figures of female deities. Did the neolithic people worship a supremely monotheistic Goddess like that extolled in the Mahatmyam, or a God the Mother who holds the whole world in her hands, or was she a specialized deity in charge of childbirth and the abundance of the foods that sustain human life? Did the artifacts of female deities our archaeologists have found all belong to one related Goddess worship, as all the forms of Christianity today are related and can be traced back to a single source, or did those artifacts belong to separate and unrelated visions that were caught by mystics in different tribes? Academicians argue the point, and will continue to, because the evidence is scanty and mute.
Are the visions those mystics “caught” real? Is there an actual Mother Goddess, or any deity in human form and personality? Asking whether the Mother Goddess is real is very much like asking whether red is “real.” We have discovered that red is a particular vibration of light and what we call light is waves made up of particles, and that our experience of them is their impact on our sensory apparatus together with the subsequent processing of the coded messages of those impacts by our central nervous system. We are not seeing particles and waves as such, we see red. But that experience—red—works for us; it helps structure our behavior; we react to it emotionally.
We cannot truly know whether my experience is the same as your experience of what I call red. But whatever we experience is similar enough so that once we agree on terminology—red, for example—if I ask for something of that color what you bring back is more likely than not going to be acceptable to me. The same seems to be true of mystical experience. Details differ from culture to culture, and they shift from age to age as peoples’ own customs and understanding shift. But within the details a central core of experience is startlingly similar.
I can ask a Buddhist, an American Indian, a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim to bring me back an experience of God, and what they bring back meets my needs. Look at Gladys A. Reichard’s description of the Navaho’s Changing Woman: “She is the mystery of reproduction of life springing from nothing, of the last hope of the world, a riddle perpetually solved and perennially springing up anew. . . .” How similar to this description from the Devi Mahatmyam: “You are the origin of all the worlds! . . . You are incomprehensible even to Vishnu, Shiva, and others! You are the resort of all! This entire world is composed of an infinitesimal portion of yourself! You are verily the supreme primordial Prakriti (nature, creator) untransformed.” China Galland in her book Longing for Darkness tells of turning her back on her Catholic origins to search for the Tibetan Buddhist black Mother Goddess Tara only to find herself as part of that search walking through the fields of Poland in pilgrimage to the Black Madonna.
Every mystic who has experienced the Godhead, personally, intensely, unmistakably, assures us that the experience is real and open to anyone who truly reaches for it. Ramakrishna, that man of God who was the inspiration for the Ramakrishna Order of monastics, replied when asked if he had seen God, “As clearly as I see you now.”
What Ramakrishna saw so clearly was often a goddess, the Great Goddess, the Mother of the universe. He called her by more than a dozen names as if to demonstrate that the particulars of dogma and tradition were of little importance compared with the vision itself. (Ramakrishna made this same point in other ways, practicing the disciplines of many different religions and catching God with each of them.)
Catching sight of the Goddess may not come easily. For years Ramakrishna cried after her—a child wailing for his mother. And when he first caught her it was as a mother who gave him comfort, affection, attention, guidance. Later he discovered that “his” Mother was indeed that monotheistic deity who creates the universe and holds it within her being, and yet resides within living beings and objects.
The Devi of the Devi Mahatmyam came to us in Sanskrit that was written by Aryan peoples, who worshiped masculine deities. They had poured into India from the north, over the mountains, conquering, and eventually living off, the dark peoples who grew crops there. The Devi belonged not to the invaders but to the growers of crops.
Mystics from each of these two traditions report they have glimpsed behind the veil of their deities’ human forms and personalities, a formless impersonal Godhead. Aryan mystics called that Godhead Brahman. Another name is Satchidananda, which is a linking up of three Sanskrit words meaning Existence-Knowledge-Bliss that describes as nearly as possible their understanding of Brahman. And similarly some followers of the Devi have encountered behind the Mother’s form and personality, a formless, impersonal Godhead they named Shakti.
Descriptions of Shakti and Brahman are exactly the same—except in one particular. Brahman is eternal and unchanging while Shakti is eternal and always changing. The two actually are one, Ramakrishna said, “like fire and its power to burn.” According to East Indian cosmology Shakti’s creative force spews out and develops this universe, which after an “age” draws back into itself to rest in the blissful, unchanging being of Brahman, only to spew out again through Shakti’s restless power. This model is not so different from the theoretical model, proposed by some contemporary physicists, which depicts the universe exploding from a tiny and incomprehensibly dense core of existence to expand farther and farther until finally, drawn by gravitational pull, it falls back upon itself into a tiny and incomprehensibly dense core of existence, which will once again explode and expand.
And come to that, descriptions of Shakti/Brahman are uncannily similar to contemporary physicists’ descriptions of the force field which creates and comprises all existence.
I find it comforting to learn that science, which I absorbed along with my mother’s milk, and the mystics I go to for help in coping with myself and my world are, at core, in agreement. Nevertheless force fields, waves, and particles, though interesting, are abstractions. But the color red, however ultimately unreal, hits my perceptual and emotional self with mood-changing, behavior-altering impact. Similarly I find strength and comfort in catching glimpses of a Mother with a human face and responses reminiscent of my own human passions.
Some of the visions we humans catch in mystical experience may not be the ultimate reality of the Godhead, whether we experience a Mother Goddess or a God the Father or some other deity. Perhaps we lack the physiological equipment to experience that ultimate reality. Certainly catching any mystical experience however anthropomorphized or astigmatic takes time and effort and desire enough to convert to laserlike focus of will.
Ramakrishna, who had caught God by using the disciplines of all the various religious traditions available to him, spoke in his conversations interchangeably of Shakti and Brahman, Shiva and Durga.
Brahman is without change; Shakti, the creative energy, is ever changing. Both are one: in Ramakrishna’s phrase, fire and its power to burn, or as we put it, two sides of the same coin. Ramakrishna knew from his own experience that all the different forms of God were different perspectives of the one unchanging, ever-changing, formless Godhead.
But Ramakrishna spoke most frequently of Mother, because this was the perspective that he most cherished. And he had no more doubts about the reality of that perspective than you and I have of the reality of the color red.
Ramakrishna’s experience and the experiences of other mystics assure us that many of the perspectives of the Godhead open up to a Mother Goddess who functions in the lives of her devotees as protector and companion and mentor. What is important for us today is that the ability to “catch” the Great Goddess for ourselves in our own vision is open to us if we want to reach for it.