Book review by Kent Davis
Buddhist Goddesses of India sets a new benchmark for the study and understanding of female deities in the context of Asian religion and society. In the field of Khmer studies, this work offers many clues towards a greater understanding of the female devata and apsara whose presence dominates the temples of Angkor Wat, Thommanon, Preah Khan, Ta Som, The Bayon and so many others.
Miranda Shaw devoted more than a decade of research to creating this epic work, greatly expanding on concepts she introduced in Passionate Enlightenment. Shaw’s sources include her own Sanskrit translations, extensive field work in South Asia, and an in-depth examination of existing research.
Her rigorous research explores Hindu and animist relationships for each goddess, carefully examining their historical origins and the evolution of their worship…which brings us directly to the high culture of the Khmer Empire.
Shaw’s work gives us hundreds of clues, visual similarities and logical relationships that relate to feminine traditions now under investigation in Cambodia. To her credit, Shaw designed this book as a reference that readers can explore in a non-linear fashion; each chapter is independent.
That said, the author constructed a brilliant hierarchy that is a pleasure to read in sequence. What makes this reference especially rare is Shaw’s writing style, which transcends the strength of her logic to give readers a work of beauty and inspiration.
Each chapter with a quote of original scripture relating to the goddess, followed by the author’s prose introduction. Here is one example from page 188, describing a goddess similar to Khmer devata, who are enshrined in places of honor in temples, frequently standing on pedestals adorned with, and surrounded by, images of flowers, vines, leaves and plants:
“Parnasavari dwells in a forest glade high on a mountainside. Her beauty reflects the allure of the forest. Her skin glistens with emerald light; the healing sap of trees flows in her veins; her limbs are robust and supple as saplings. Parnasavari adorns herself with nature’s finery: feathers, flowers, fruit, and berries. A skirt made of leaves sways around her hips as she dances in her primeval bower. Thus arrayed in tribal splendor, she wanders in a state of joyous, primal rapture, alive to the colors, fragrances, and textures of the forest. Her woodland home is a treasure trove of botanical riches and medicinal secrets….”
Shaw then conducts a thorough analysis of each goddess (see list below) including origin, development, iconography, sphere of influence, methods of worship, geographical areas of influence, temporal and regional variations, tantric manifestations, conflicting interpretations, relationships with other gods and goddesses, etc. Most goddesses are illustrated with multiple photos and the book includes 16 stunning color plates.
This systematic approach consistently gives rise to new insights, illuminating roles, iconography and relationships among gods and goddesses that have previously been obscure.
While some have criticized Shaw as a “feminist” my perception is that she is a realist, conducting research where previous scholars have missed crucial connections, or chosen not to make them. In this regard, her groundbreaking scholarship is an interesting comparison to Trudy Jacobsen’s work Lost Goddesses: Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History. Both researchers bring fresh perspectives to understanding the roles of women in history, both in India and in Cambodia.
Buddhist Goddesses of India is an indispensible reference on the evolution of female deities in Asian religion. But it is Miranda Shaw’s lifelong passion for this topic that makes her book an inspiration for anyone seeking to understand the feminine divine.
PART ONE – ASCENT OF THE SACRED FEMALE IN EARLY BUDDHISM
- Prthivi: Mother Earth
- Mayadevi: The Buddha’s Wondrous Mother and Her Sacred Grove
- Yaksinis: Voluptuous, Magical Nature Spirits
- Sri Laksmi: Glorious Good Fortune
- Hariti: Goddess of Motherly Love
- Female Buddhas: The Case of Gotami
PART TWO – MAHAYANA MOTHERS OF LIBERATION
- Goddesses in the Flower Ornament Scripture
- Prajnaparamita: Luminous Mother of Perfect Wisdom
- Parnasavari: Healing Goddess Clothed in Leaves
- Marici: Lady of Sunrise Splendor
- Jariguli: The Buddhist Snake Goddess
- Sarasvati: Divine Muse
- Vasudhara: Lady Bountiful
- Cunda: Saving Grace
- Sitatapatra: Invincible Goddess With a Thousand Heads and Hands
- Usnisavijaya: Bestower of Long Life and Immortality
- Tara: Mahayana Buddha, Universal Savior
PART THREE TANTRIC FEMALE BUDDHAS
- Vajrayogini: Her Dance Is Total Freedom
- Nairatmya: Her Body Is the Sky
- Chinnamunda: Severed-Headed Goddess
- Simhamukha: Lion-Faced Female Buddha
- Kurukulla: Red Enchantress with Flowered Bow
Note – Full Sanskrit diacritical marks that appear in the actual book are missing in the list above.
About the Author
Dr. Miranda E. Shaw is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Richmond specializing in Tantric Buddhism, South Asian Buddhism, Indian religion and gender studies.
Dr. Shaw received her Ph.D. and M.A from Harvard University, an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and her B.A. from Ohio State University.
Her book Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, won the 1994 James Henry Breasted Prize for the best book on Asian history. The Tantric movement, which dates to medieval India, promotes an ideal of cooperative, mutually liberative relationships between women and men while encouraging a sense of reliance on women as a source of spiritual insight and power.
Buddhist Goddesses of India won ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, Religion in 2006 and was one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2007.
Other Selected Publications:
- “Is Vajrayogini a feminist? A Tantric Buddhist Case Study?” In Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen M. Erndl, eds., Is the Goddess a Feminist? The Politics of South Asian Goddesses, pp. 166-80. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
- “Worship of Women in Tantric Buddhism: Male Is to Female as Devotee Is to Goddess.” In Karen L. King, ed., Women and Goddess Traditions, pp. 111-36. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1997.
- “An Ecstatic Song by Laksminkara.” In Janice D. Willis, ed., Feminine Ground, pp. 52-56. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Pub., 1989.
- “Buddhist and Taoist Influences on Chinese Landscape Painting.” Journal of the History of Ideas 49 (1988): 183-206.
- “William James and Yogacara Philosophy: A Comparative Inquiry.” Philosophy East and West 37 (1987): 223-44.
- “Nature in Dogen’s Philosophy and Poetry.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 8 (1985): 111-32.