Ecofeminism and Tantra

By: Chandra Alexandre


Ecofeminism understands our current planetary predicament to involve crises of the environment and spirit, crises that impact all of creation regardless of particularities; crises that will only be undone when women and nature, the marginalized and the oppressed, are no longer contained within a patriarchal paradigm. Goddess spirituality of the west is one counter-force that acts on multiple levels to undermine manipulative patriarchal identity branding and control. It is a subversive tactic in part because it can and does, as many of us have experienced personally, transcend national, political, and religio-cultural interests. With this, the goddess of the west (however envisioned) is today joining together with a goddess-centered spirituality of the east known as Sakta Tantra. At SHARANYA, we call our tradition Sha’can.

As the founder of SHARANYA, it is important to share that ecofeminism and Tantra both encompass and engage my personal beliefs on political, spiritual, theological/thealogical, cosmological, and practical levels. I come to this work of spirituality as an ecofeminist and woman of deep spiritual conviction. I am an initiated Sakta, an initiated Tantrick and an hereditary witch. Although much of how I identify sits readily outside of the normative, I have been nevertheless socialized from birth to fit within the dominant socio-cultural frameworks of the United States. With this and given the privilege of a good education, I have found that my own identity and on-going struggle to emerge, for a variety of reasons, from a patriarchal paradigm benefits from both an ecofeminist deconstruction of the western worldview (a worldview based upon duality), and a Sakta Tantrick[1] cosmology that reveres the immanence of spirit and in turn provides ritualized as well as lived practices in which the body acts as and becomes substance for the Divine.

The Goddesses of both these contexts, I believe, are coming together now at least in part to help establish an identity politic that transcends patriarchal gender valuations, in order to finally break the bonds of the patriarchal paradigm that hold both men and women. Patriarchy, after all, is not simply something with which women contend; it is an oppressive paradigm with which the whole of society the world over contends, while gender itself, of course, cuts across categories of race, class, ethnicity and other such distinctions. And while it is obvious that oppression is not limited to gender, oppression based on gender is similarly not independent of other factors. But within a revisioned gender-identity framework (an example of which I will talk about in just a moment), one based upon spiritual values such as those the Goddesses of east and west empower, I believe alternatives can be found and implemented that actually promote life as a rich and diverse system of interrelated and interdependent actors and functions rather than as a field for pathological experimentation.

Both ecofeminist and Tantrick philosophies and practices can be articulated as integralism. Neither promotes the sublimation of diversity within a life-negating One. Rather, both visions hold Trinitarian notions—notions that in my mind foster the unfolding and dynamic spiraling of life. Each specifically has an articulated theology of divine immanence (as mentioned already for Tantra), and to greater or lesser degree (somewhat lesser, I believe, in the case of ecofeminism, but one nevertheless) of transcendent spirit in relationship to it, making these systems ready partners in many respects. And indeed, the scholarly literature has already produced an ecofeminism of Tantra.[2] With particular reverence for the human body, Earth, and indigenous traditions as sacred and meaningful, and an approach that brings together eastern and western philosophies, spiritualities, and cosmologies, an ecofeminism of Tantra (informed by writers, traditions, philosophies, rituals and visions from both contexts) becomes, in my opinion, a much clearer lens through which to view and act in the world.

 

The Work of Our Spirituality

Tantra’s point most generally is the realization of an integrated wholeness of polarities.[3] Framed as integralism, or what I like to call a radical non-duality of relationship, this means that already extant in this eastern system of spiritual thought is a model for unpathologized and dynamically balanced relationships. In Sakta Tantra specifically, this idea is placed in an environment where none other than Goddesses (or The Goddess, known generally as Devi, or more specifically as Kali) rule; by this, I mean they are considered supreme, at once the ultimate creatrix of and point of dissolution for the Universe as well as the holders of paradox. As an aside, although the Sakta and Tantrick traditions are often conflated because of the importance of the goddess within Tantra generally, the followers of Tantra are not all primarily worshippers of the goddess. There are distinct paths within Tantra; however, it is devi who engages my heart, mind and soul, and hence not only my choice of tradition, but of exploration for a realized pathway out of patriarchy.

Through SHARANYA’s work in the world, we seek to develop an understanding of the Hindu fierce goddesses as they function to serve women and men in a rapidly transforming world. I therefore tend put my eye to the realm of Sakta Tantra where Mahakali (The Great Kali) of the Tantrick tradition is herself the triune vision of the goddess—Maid, Mother, and Crone, who supports all diversity in relationship. I do this because within this tradition, as Rita DasGupta Sherma[4] has suggested, are found (to western senses at least) ecofeminist principles and an empowering recognition of the Goddess that helps alter perspectives and paradigms. And this is of special importance in parts of the world such as ours, which are historically and most generally goddess-less lands…although that is has been changing now for some time with the presence of more and more people committed to an awakening and re-emergence of the Divine Feminine.

In terms of paradigms, ecofeminist methodology uncovers the project of patriarchy as a universal paradigm that destroys relatedness and promotes homogenization by rendering women and nature passive objects to be largely developed, controlled or consumed. One counter to this is found within Indian philosophy generally, and as proposed by Vandana Shiva, the call is to embracing the notion of Prakriti as living nature or Feminine principle, a principle that according to her, is the entirety of nature, inclusive of its ability to create, sustain, and destroy.[5] Shiva believes that such a philosophy can accomplish a more balanced worldview while promoting environmental sustainability and the well being of diverse, autonomous communities. Her work is important, I believe, in part because represents a non-dominant perspective, one garnered from India and proposed by an Indian woman. I also value Shiva’s contribution because she has been willing to bring spirit to the table as a viable source of empowerment in the larger ecofeminist discourse.

Shiva’s position also helps formulate that revisioned gender-identity framework to which I referred earlier. Hers is a transgendered approach to reworking dominant paradigm systems that accords with a relational radical non-duality. In it, prakriti asserts respect for everyone, meaning “both a holistic perspective and an inclusive agenda of concerns based on its considerable respect for diversity—both in turn being principles of nature.”[6] In this, ecofeminism as a philosophical position explicitly deepens a conversation about the creative tension of holding a universal/particular duality. In particular it stresses, along the lines of Ernesto Laclau’s description, relevant here, that it is the, “unresolved tension between universalism and particularism [that] opens the way to a movement away from Western Eurocentrism, through an operation that we could call a systematic decentering of the West.”[7]

This decentering provides not only a gateway, but serves an irresolvable paradox whose, again according to Laclau, “non-solution is the very precondition of democracy.”[8] This paradox is being articulately theorized, for example, by Shiva’s ecofeminism and is extant within Sakta Tantra. Sakta Tantra itself holds a strong conceptual container in which understanding the necessity of paradox exists. Created from the tension between the opposites of Purusa (the Masculine principle) and Prakriti, these principles are responsible for creating the world; for creating a balance of opposites required to maintain what Ajit Mookerjee calls “macrocosmic equilibrium,” or a state by which a “collective uniqueness realize[s] the feminine fullness of the universe.”[9]

 

Women, Feminism, Spirituality & Goddess

With this conception of goddess-centered spirituality in mind, it is important to ask regarding the innovations of women’s or feminist spirituality today: what is the exact nature of the spiritual traditions being “innovated” for our purposes; by whom does that innovation get enacted; what or who is left behind in the process; and further, is feminism a concern only of women-occupied spaces (and it may be asked who defines those feminist spaces), or can feminism open a space within itself to include all women, all continents, and all genders? If so, what does that “inclusiveness” look like, particularly for peoples across differences of race, age, ethnicity, class, and culture?

Specifically of interest in developing an ecofeminism of Tantra are the contexts in which Indian women, Hindu spirituality, and feminism exist and overlap. Chandra Mohanty’s critique of Northern (First World) feminists who totalize Southern (Third World) women and ignore the differences among them is relevant here. Mohanty challenges Northern feminists not to essentialize Southern women, [10] and it is with this in mind that we at SHARANYA urge us all to endeavor a globalized feminist stance that includes sensitivity to the particulars; including, the relativism of truth claims that serve in the overall fight for an emancipatory discourse.

Also important in these areas of intersection and overlap among contexts and disciplines just mentioned is the kind of awareness Carol Lee Flinders brings to a conversation of feminism and spirituality in which she specifically recommends that western feminists enter into dialogue with Indian feminists so that each can learn from the other, particularly given the living goddess traditions of Hindu India and the ways in which these traditions inform some Indian feminisms.[11] Specifically because, while for some Indian feminists (as is true for many western feminists) spirituality is not an important focus, for others it is.

Then, if engaging an east-west dialogue under the rubric of an ecofeminism of Tantra, looking at feminist concerns about the treatment and status of women in spiritual contexts is also necessary. Within Sakta Tantra especially, the literal position of women generally pales in comparison to the status afforded the goddess. While women may occupy a metaphysically high position—they may, in some cases, be said to be a small part of the devi’s sakti with some resultant real-world benefits—they are still most generally marginal. On the one hand, the Sakta tradition has been said to be:

suited to all constitutions and to all stations of life. It is for the prince as for the peasant, for the poor as for the rich, for the man of business as for the man of leisure. It makes no distinction of caste, colour, creed, or nationality, welcoming one and all who will bow to the lotus-feet of the Divine Mother. [12]

Yet, it is still a tradition where many interpreters and practitioners often avoid discussing the role and status of women. For example, Barada Kanta Majumdar just quoted, seems to have left at least one distinction off his list—gender.

On the other hand, as David Gordon White notes:

…it would be hasty to conclude, on the basis of the general Tantric exaltation of feminine energy, that female practitioners have ever dominated the religious or political Tantric sphere. Even in her transformative initiatory role, the Tantric consort has remained instrumental to the requirements of the male practitioners she transforms.[13]

Other recent attempts to discuss women’s place in Sakta Tantrism have, while not exhaustive or entirely feminist, at least opened a door to a critical conversation in this regard. Some recognize that in many interpretations, women within the Sakta tradition have not generally been viewed as serving as anything other than ritual instruments for men’s sadhana or spiritual practice. But many, perhaps attempting to legitimate a feminist Sakta Tantra, are claiming women to have a significant role to play in the formal worship rites, in which they sometimes primarily act as initiator.[14] Nevertheless, taken with a critique in mind, Sakta Tantra can provide a model not only for the elevation of women’s status in Hindu society, but for the reclamation of goddesses and women’s empowerment the world over.

 

Conclusion

Within SHARANYA’s vision, Kali as the Supreme Goddess again manifests, serving not only an ecofeminist reconceptualization of Sakta Tantra, but also a western push to break open the bounds of the Abrahamic faiths. For westerners, as Rita Gross argues, Kali may be telling us, “it’s okay to be female,”[15] and more generally, perhaps She’s telling humanity that it is okay to restore honor and dignity to the Feminine.

To conclude this brief introduction to an ecofeminism of Tantra conversation, we at SHARANYA offer that a collaboration of ecofeminist and Tantrick principles can help foster the development of a community supportive of life-affirming struggles rather than the struggles of continuing domination. An articulated ecofeminism of Tantra can become a rooted category of challenge to the dominant culture. In this awareness and action, women and nature will create real and individually meaningful values that translate to positive world transformation. In this awareness, we believe that subordinated communities will find ways to reclaim marginalized ideological and literal spaces. No matter where in the world, the creation and reclamation of such space can act on multiple counts to empower individuals and institutions.

An ecofeminism of Tantra can therefore:

  • help build self-worth and positive identity frameworks;
  • foster the development of an “earth family”;
  • foster a participatory and sustainable environment; and
  • develop an ethic where exploitation is not conceivable in any context.

Lastly, it can help promote specific action, including ritual work and personal spiritual practice that informs engaged spirituality, as well as provide the tools for the unpathologizing and healing of relationships on all levels—between men and women, between the marginal and the normative, and ultimately, between our human species and the rest of the planet.

 


 

[1] For an overview of Tantra not limited to the goddess-centered Sakta tradition, see for example, Georg Feuerstein’s Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy (Shambhala: Boston) 1998. Also, please note that this spelling, “tantrick,” denotes my personal preference based on some older Hindu scholarship as well as my intention to complement the western traditions in which spelling of “magick,” as opposed to “magic,” is specificly used so as to not confuse it with anything mudane, but rather draw out meaning as a sacred path. See, for example, Crowley, Aleister. Magick (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London) 1973
[2] See, for example, Rita DasGupta Sherma’s article “Sacred Immanence: Reflections of Ecofeminism in Hindu Tantra” in Nelson, Lance E. ed. Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India (SUNY: Albany) 1998, or the earlier article by Lina Gupta, “Ganga: Purity, Pollution, and Hinduism” appearing in Ecofeminism and the Sacred, Carol J. Adams, ed. (New York: Continuum) 1993. More generally, Hinduism (which does not always include Tantrick elements) and environmental issues have been brought together in Christopher Key Chapple’s “Hindu Environmentalism: Traditional and Contrmporary Resources” in Worldviews and Ecology: Religion, Philosophy, and the Enviornment Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim, eds. (Orbis Books: NY) 1994
[3] Mookerjee, Ajit and Khanna, Madhu. The Tantric Way: Art, Science, Ritual (Thames & Hudson: London) 1977, p. 16
[4] Sherma, Rita DasGupta. “Sacred Immanence: Reflections of Ecofeminism in Hindu Tantra” in Nelson, Lance E. ed. Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India (SUNY: Albany) 1998
[5] Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development (Zed Books: London) 1989
[6] Kothari, Rajni. Foreword in Staying Alive Ibid., p. X
[7] Laclau, Ernesto. “Universalism, Particularism, and the Question of Identity” appearing in The Identity in Question (Routledge: New York) 1993, p. 106
[8] Ibid., p. 107
[9] Mookerjee, Ajit. Kali: The Feminine Force, ibid., p. 27
[10] Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse” in Colonial Discourse and Post Colonial Theory Laura Chrisman and Patrick Williams, eds. (Columbia University Press: NY) 1994, pp. 196-220
[11] Flinders, Carol Lee. At the Root of this Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst (Harper: San Francisco) 1998, see especially pp. 235-273
[12] Majumdar, Barada Kanta. “Introduction: Vaidik and Tantrik Systems of Spiritual Culture Compared” in Principles of Tantra Part I, Woodroffe, Sir John (Ganesh & Company: Madras, India) 7th Edition, 1991, p. 153
[13] Tantra in Practice (Princeton University Press: NJ) 2000, p. 18
[14] See, for example, Feuerstein, Georg. Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy (Shambhala: Boston) 1998, especially pp. 102 and 136, or for the Tantras as a paradigmatic model for women’s empowerment, see, for example, Rita DasGupta Sherma’s essay “Sacred Immanence: Reflections of Ecofeminism in Hindu Tantra” in Nelson, Lance E. ed. Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India (SUNY: Albany) 1998, especially p. 93
[15] Gross, Rita M. “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XLVI/3, September 1978, p. 286

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