Approach in Religious Studies:
An Attempt of Interdisciplinary Discussion
we try to compare two spheres of scholarly research – religious
studies and gender studies – we will at first glance not find anything
in common. These disciplines have their own subjects of research,
different goals and methods of research. However, if we look closer
we will find “black holes” – particular moments that cannot be explained
from the point of view of only one discipline and require specialists
from other areas of knowledge. There are such well-known examples
of cooperation as sociology and religious studies (sociology of
religion), psychology and religious studies (psychology of religion),
history and religious studies (history of religion), or philosophy
and religious studies (philosophy of religion). We also know about
interrelations between such disciplines as theology, ethnography,
linguistics etc. with religious studies, which testifies of marginal
character of this discipline and of its openness to other spheres
of knowledge. However, religious studies scholars have not been
paying due attention to gender researches that, as we think, could
assist in solving many “problematic areas”.
Many researchers of religion have noted that the masculine and the
feminine may show themselves differently in different religions.
Shy steps in the direction of gender research have been taken (and
are still being taken) by contemporary Russian and Western religious
studies scholars but they are not structured and are founded more
on an intuitive approach rather then a firmly based position.
If we take gender studies, we will see that the area of religion
has been covered in them by both those who were the roots of the
“feminist movement” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton ) to contemporary scholars
There are also attempts of cooperation between gender and religious
researchers in the Internet. There is plentitude of sites devoted
to female religiousness in the English language Internet . Unfortunately,
the Russian language Internet does not reproduce even a tenth of
this variety. One of the attempts to cover female religiousness
is an informational-analytical portal “Woman in Religions” , which
is still the only “borderline” project in the sphere.
We are sure that religious and gender researchers are interested
in each other, but this interest has not fully shown itself yet.
We are also sure that there are common problems affecting interests
of two areas of knowledge and, therefore, dialog between these areas
is not only possible, but also necessary.
Therefore, we can speak of an inter-intrestedness of religious and
gender areas of study.
This, in turn, means that there are some common problems which touch
on interests of both of these areas. This is what we are led by
when we turn to three “bordering” problems for Religious and Women's
Masculine and feminine gods: their images, functions and basic differences.
2. Perception of gender and the role of women in various religions.
3. Woman and power: key to the problem
will try to cover try to open all of them below.
Masculine and feminine gods: their images, functions and basic differences.
of mythology is one way or another based on the opposition between
masculine and feminine. This opposition first showed itself in so
called divine pairs. God Geb and goddess Nut (Ancient Egypt), god
Kosaana and his goddess Uichaana (Mexico), god Zeus and his wife,
the top Olympian goddess Gera (Ancient Greece), hero-forefather
Huandi and his wife Lei-Zu (Ancient China) – these are but few examples
of such pairs. But we already see a strict difference here. Thus,
masculine and feminine gods are given different attributes; masculine
and feminine gods have different functions.
Appearance of feminine gods.
feminine god may occupy the looks of a beautiful young woman and
then she will give people prosperity (Lakshmi in India, Demetra
in Greece etc.). In other cases she may look as a repulsive old
woman who brings death (Rangda in Bali, Zhalmauiz Kempir in Kazakhstan
and Kirgizia etc.). However, it is not rare that a feminine god
combines within herself the beautiful and the ugly, youth and old
age; in this case two natures live in the feminine god – one that
gives life and one that takes it away. The brightest example of
this is a goddess from Hindu mythology, Shiba’s wife Devi, who comes
forth dually – as a meek and merciful one on one hand (known as
Paravaty, Gauri etc.) and as a savage and threatening one on the
other (in the shape of goddesses Kali, Durgi etc.).
The appearance of a feminine goddess is closely related to her functions.
We can clearly see this if we look, for example, at the famous Paleolithic
“venuses”. The appearance of the ancient statuettes emphasize their
the function of fertility and motherhood. These feminine functions
are also reflected in some depictions of Malaysian goddess Kibela,
Hindu goddess Kali, anciant Greek Demetra and many other mother-goddesses.
Feminine gods’ functions.
a rule all gods – muscular or feminine – have their own functions
and in many cases these functions are clearly separated. As we have
already noted a fruitful and life-giving nature is attributed to
women (ancient Italic fertility goddess Dea Dia, Yakut Nelbey Ayisit)
alongside with a life-taking quality (in Hebrew tradition Lilit
is viewed as one who spoils child-birth). A male god comes forth
rather as a warrior, a hunter, a cultural hero etc.
Myths of different peoples depict goddesses weaving (giving or taking
life – the thread is in her hands), combing their hair (water goddesses
need to be propitiated, because they have the power to send a drought
or drown a person) etc. These are only a few examples of goddesses’
activities, that testify a similarity in their basic functions.
However, functions characteristic only for masculine or feminine
gods may be passed on to gods of the other gender in some cultural
traditions. Zeus gives birth to Athena from his head (a female fertility
function goes to a male god), and Athena herself (her main characteristic
feature – matriarchal independence – is deliberately underlined)
comes to life fully armed (a hint at a purely masculine function).
In relation to this it is interesting to remember one particular
moment when a goddess could change her gender and become a man.
Some goddesses, for example Akhsonnutli in the Navaho mythology
(North America), originally come forth having dual gender and this
androgynous nature left its mark on goddesses’ functions.
Now we believe is time to turn to the concept of matriarchy.
Matriarchy or patriarchy?
idea of matriarchy has not been viewed by many researchers as a
historical reality. “Myths about woman power that exist in many
versions should be viewed as a reproduction of consecutive stages
in real life of men” says Joan Bamberger in her book called “The
Myth about Patriarchy: Why Does Power in Primitive Societies Belong
to Men” (1974) . In spite of the fact that many researchers believe
that the cult of a mother-goddess and some examples of exceptional
status of women in history (the Amazon, for example) may evidence
in favor of matriarchy, many are still sure that the idea of matriarchy
never reflected itself in historical reality, it has been and still
is a myth, and it could only exist in real life during times when
myths were reproduced, i. e. in ritual processes.
Perception of gender and the role of women in various religions.
a rule, women in the social life have a role different from that
which men have. In ancient societies functions of men and women
were different and this differentiation and we can still see this
difference today. In fact, we see the very same strict order that
exists in the sphere of gods. Women come forth as a keeper of the
hearth, her motherly nature is underlined by all cultural traditions;
she brings up, teaches, feeds, performs household duties etc. Attempts
to “equalize” women in their rights with men usually have a grotesque
character, because manlikeness in then replaced by femininity .
The same difference may be seen in religious life too. Functions
of men and women in various religious traditions are stated not
only in sacred texts. They are directed at examples of life of the
gods and are often earthly copies of their divine actions.
There may, however, be exceptions. J. Frazer described an example
that he observed in the gallas society:
"When a gallas woman gets tired of caring for the house she
starts to talk nonsense and behave in absurdly. This is a sign
that the holy spirit of Kallo has descended on her. The husband
falls in front of her. She is not named “wife” any more, she now
has the “sovereign” title. She does not do household chores any
more and her will becomes divine law " .
A woman could go back to her normal activities in just the same
Woman and power: key to the problem
have singled out this, say, culturological component in order to
emphasize that the subject of woman and power is a separate one
and that it lies in the foundation of everything. Different functions
that gods play is nothing else but “competition” for power; the
role women play in religion only proves that the struggle is still
taking place. And this struggle goes on in order for the scale on
which men and women are on the opposite ends to shift one way or
another. The idea of “the golden middle” looks as an unreachable
ideal. Is it possible to talk about its realization? Perhaps, if
we are talking about a harmonic divine couple in which both halves
strive for complementing each other and in doing so to strengthen
the unified whole. It is also possible to reach harmony in an androgen.
But all this is gods’ domain.
As a rule, the ideal becomes unreachable in the world: masculine
and feminine struggle inside us, running into various stereotypes
all the time.
conclusions that we make can be as follows. Thus, female religiousness
is different from masculine religiousness and the very problem of
gender must be taken in account when one or another religion or
a religious belief is approached. Thus, accentuation of attention
on gender differences may help us to cover the picture of religious
life more fully.
Theoretically, unification of efforts of gender and religious researchers
could provide a key to a classification which would make problems
of gender and the level of closeness of one or another culture to
masculinity its “corner stone”. Something very different could be
of practical interest to us. The author of this article is convinced
that it is interdisciplinary dialogue that could provide noticeable
results in the sphere of researching new religious movements where
muscular and feminine are not static things but a way of life built
on specific paradigms or on the contrary denying them.
New religious movements are much polarized (and this is something
they have in common with traditional religions), but this polarization
is more grotesque. Religious movements of the “new age” cannot ignore
such an issue as gender. They emphasize it (The Great White Brotherhood
Yusmalos), they play with it ("The Adamite Church") ,
they use it ("Family" ) or they ignore it because within
themselves they are strictly oriented at a positive (Sahaja Yoga
, Brahma Kumaris ) or a negative (Mother of God’s Center ) attitude
towards female religiousness.
Thus, we can be sure that cooperation of various researchers including
gender and religion researchers will significantly enrich the scholarly
sphere and will provoke solutions of a number of relevant problems
and useful discoveries. It is because of study of religion that
we may be able to find the roots of female violence, of female susceptibility
and also the reasons of psychic influence, which sometimes leads
to extreme outcomes (terrorism).