In the Harvard Classroom: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary

Cambridge, MA. When I wrote last, about the value of more rather than fewer religious images in our lives, I cited my essay, “Goddess in the Classroom.” Then it occurred to me that I’ve said little about my teaching this semester, even my current course on Hindu Goddesses and the Blessed Virgin Mary — which intellectually at least brings goddesses into a Harvard classroom, along with Mary. But teaching is extremely important to me; like anyone worth the title of teacher, much of my joy finds its source in the classroom amidst the learning that takes place day by day, and not in the swirl of political and ecclesial news around us,— when fascinating students read fascinating texts and we all engage in fascinating discussions. So in this entry and the next, I will report on my current courses.
     My lecture course this semester is indeed, “Hindu Goddesses and the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Though I’ve taught it before, this time around it is a complement to my 2009 spring course, “God Hindu and Christian.” I knew from my visits to India and years of study that one of the distinctive features of Hinduism is the fact of goddesses and religious traditions oriented to female deities. These religious have been practiced for a very long time and — unlike goddess cults in many parts of the world — have been lived in continuity and with a long paper trail: there are very many texts about Hindu goddesses, narratives, rites, and hymns, and images abound everywhere. So the first dimension of my course is to read three great hymns in praise of important goddesses, to get clear on what it means to believe in and worship a goddess.
     In this, I am drawing on my 2005 book, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which I study the three hymns and commentaries on them. Using my book, we read the Sri Guna Ratna Kosa of Parasara Bhattar (13th century), the Saundarya Lahari attributed to Sankara (8th century), and the Apirami Antati of Apirami Bhattar (18th century). These hymns respectively praise the Goddesses Sri Laksmi (the auspicious, eternal consort of Narayana), Devi (“the Goddess,” a supreme Goddess, yet associated with Siva), and Apirami (the “beautiful one,” consort of Siva). Much of the course is simply a reading of the hymns, since this is the necessary ground for comparative theological work. Studying such hymns, prayers in direct address, is also a powerful theological event, for study draws us in as we read the hymns, and opens us to their spiritual meaning.
     A second part of the course is to reconnect with the Catholic Christian tradition by attention to the Blessed Virgin Mary: not a goddess, to be sure, but that superlative woman of the Catholic piety who stands in an extraordinary position in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. To balance the goddess hymns, we read three Marian hymns, the Greek Akathistos (6th century or so), the medieval Stabat Mater, and the Tamil Mataracamman Antati (19th century) hymns that give voice to key dimensions of Marian wisdom. Here too, reflection on the hymns was indispensable. Although Catholic tradition of course does not give us a way to worship Sri Laksmi, Devi, and Apirami, the Marian hymns and their piety offer by way of resemblance a mirror in which we who are not Hindu take seriously the wisdom of traditions that do praise superlative feminine persons. When we return to Mary after learning from the Goddesses, our Marian devotion will be different, richer, and more captivating of our minds and hearts as well. In fact, Mary turns out to be a quite popular figure in the Harvard classron, and we’ve still not gotten to Pope Pius IX’s dogmatic declaration on the Immaculate Conception.
     Our use of my book is supplemented by additional hymns, Biblical and papal teachings on Mary, several articles by feminist writers such as Carol Christ and Julia Kristeva, David Kinsley’s Hindu Goddesses, and books by theologians George Tavard (The Thousand Faces of Mary) and Elizabeth Johnson (Truly Our Sister). We take feminist questions about the divine very seriously — taught elsewhere in many courses — but our distinctive goal in this course is to learn from Hindu traditions how to think newly and freshly about God and our images of divine reality, and how to see anew Mary in Catholic tradition.
     The class is a reasonable size, just under 25, mostly graduate students. Some are Catholic, most are from a wider variety of other Christian denominations. A few are more closely aligned with Hindu traditions and quite comfortable with goddess worship. (A small group gathers to sing hymns to both the goddesses and Mary before class; while I’ve not joined them, I admire their commitment to draw the course into their practice.) We mix well in the classroom, and never has a class passed without some excitement and good discussion.
     The mix of the course is thus quite extraordinary: some wonderful Hindu and Christian texts read by a great group of students, as we discuss a wide range of issues about scripture, our images of God and humanity, and what to make of the varied religious experiences of the human race. Harvard is not the place wherein to reach single, definite conclusions about truth, but I think that this learning across religious boundaries does open us to truth, to Truth. By studying the traditions of the goddesses and Mary together, we understand both more clearly; those of us who are Catholic at Harvard find ourselves brought closer to devotion to Mary, who holds her own in every discussion. The goddesses too fare well, though each of us has to make up her or his own mind on how to appropriate these goddess traditions.
     I hope all this all makes sense; I realize that for some of you reading this, it will make little sense to reflect on Mary and Goddesses together; some may think it impossible, or at least a very bad idea. So post some questions and comments if you wish.
     Next week, I will write about my seminar on the great Hindu theologian Sankara’s reading of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, which we study alongside St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses.

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Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 4 months ago
It sounds like a fascinating class and I would love to be a part of it.
As a Catholic child, I was inundated and captivated with the Marian apparition stories, only to later become so skeptical of them.  There was scientific proof, after all, that Juan's cape (Guadalupe) had been tampered with.  Then someone was telling me of some recent apparitions in S. America, and she said: "the same wind that was blowing through her hair, was blowing through ours!" and I became intrigued again.  There is a boundary that is being crossed in these Mary stories - between the here and hereafter? between the conscious and the unconscious?
I don't know.  But the words: Mother of God, just blow me away.  The notion of a human woman (in time) giving birth to God(!) totally confounds any hold I might have on the order of Time and Eternity.
david power
9 years 4 months ago
Father this sounds like a great way to teach.I envy your students as it is obvious that you are willing to do more than go through the motions. My question to you is how do you manage to keep it from falling into a type of Relativism?.To not lose the originality of either the Godesses of the Hindu Religion or the sharp difference with the very historical Virgin Mary? How do you not offend sensibilities in such a diverse setting as the one you have,without omitting the Christian claim?I wish you well and all of your students too.
James Lindsay
9 years 4 months ago
I would think a more fruitful comparison would be between the Hindu goddess and Ashura, who at one time was considered the consort of Yahweh and then contrast this with scholarship on the Holy Spirit, Who's gender is feminine in the original Greek.
Murali Karamchedu
9 years 4 months ago
One curious difference (among many) between these traditions is that, while in catholicism Virgin Mary is venerated as the mother of god, the distinct veneration of any of the mothers of god's incarnations is absent as such in Hindusim. Devaki and Yashoda (Krishna's mother and foster mother) and Kausalya (Rama's mother) are celebrated and sung about, but not worshiped in the way the Lakshmi/Sri and Parvati/Shakti/Devi are worshipped. There is  an exception, there is one tradition that does worship Renuka, mother of Parashurama (another incarnation, who is himself curiously not generally worshiped in temples).
Krishna's playful revelation of the macrocosm as contained within his mouth, when Yashoda censures him for eating mud, and majestic revelation of himself superlatively as god - the substance, basis, ordainer and the ultimate destiny of the universe ,upon his birth to Devaki, are some of the most beutiful and adored parts of this mythology.


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