Jewish Goddess, Hindu Symbolism

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An exploration of the Goddess tradition in Judaism should make us realise that what has been protected and handed over to us is precious.

It also places on us the responsibility to do our bit to preserve and nurture the knowledge of the Divine Feminine.

Three years before the great Indian uprising of 1857, there appeared a book in Sri Lanka. It was titled Remedy for the Abuse of Saivam. It was written by Sri la Sri Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879). It was a point-by-point rebuttal of the missionary attacks on Hindu Dharma in general and Saivam in particular.

The peculiarity of the book was two-fold. One, it used the Hebrew or Jewish Bible or Torah as the primary basis of its rebuttal. Second, rather than attack Biblical mythology superficially (similar to the way the Evangelists attacked on Hindu Puranic literature), Navalar went into the deeper aspects of the religion. He used the Jewish temple worship tradition as the basis for his rebuttal.

He drew the remarkable parallel between temple rituals and the conception of the divine behind the Jewish temple worship and the Hindu rituals and temple rites.

He demonstrated his uniqueness by not falling for the historicity trap that plagued the scholarship of his time. A plague which the then Eastern mind had contracted from colonial education. Navalar simply showed the parallels between Hindu and Jewish rituals and thus showed how hypocritical it was for the missionaries to accept the texts elaborating Jewish temple worship as genuinely divine while decrying Hindu temple rituals and worship as superstitions.

What Navalar did was a pioneering step in the study of comparative religions. His work went beyond the usual colonial-evangelical stereotype prevalent in the discipline. He shifted the focus from viewing the Torah-Bible through the lens of Christian dogma and viewed it through Jewish spirituality and showed how much it resonated with Hindu Dharma.

The book also deals with the usual missionary attack on Hinduism – Does not Shiva have a consort the Goddess Parvati with whom He is in union and then He is separated? Is that not transferring mere human carnal desires to the God?

Arumuga Navalar answered this by explaining the symbolism of the Goddess.

In Siddhanta Saivam the souls are uncreated. The act of creation is then essentially configuring the universe for the sentient souls, infinite and eternal, to realise the Shiva nature through Karmic cycles and Arul. In this creation, Shakti, who is inseparable in the gender-transcendent (beyond male, female and neuter) impersonal Sivam, becomes the feminine and the male principle becomes Sivam. Willing of all existence into being is the union of Shakti and Sivam and the dissolution and involution is the separation. This mystery aspect of Purana, Navalar pointed out, was beyond the comprehensive capabilities of missionaries.

Two hundred years later, Jewish religious scholars and Israeli archaeologists would provide further substantiation for the Navalar line of rebutting the attacks of proselytizers.

Judaism has surprising inner spiritual diversity – surprising because we are used to view Judaism through the Islamo-Christian lens. Judaism though also has a body of sacred mythological literature which has grown with the times.

It has long been debated among the scholars of religion that the Jewish G_d YWHW should be having a consort.

Esoteric traditions, often regarded as fringe in the mainstream Western religio-scape, spoke of the goddess in whispers. Yet, the Goddess tradition whose roots that could be traced to Torah itself did evolve in Kabbalistic traditions, where Shekhinah is spoken as the Bride of G_d. Initially a subordinated divinity to G_d, Her spiritual importance grew gradually.

Howard Schwartz, a Jewish religious scholar in his award-winning book that explores Jewish mythologies writes:

"Perhaps no Jewish myth undergoes as radical a transformation as does that of the Shekhinah. There is a complete cycle of Shekhinah myths to be found, which begins with God’s creation of the Shekhinah, and portrays the sacred couplings of the divine pair as well as their confrontations and separations. ..." - "This cycle makes it clear that the kinds of interactions expected of a divine couple, like those found in Greek and Canaanite mythology—and to some extent in the Gnostic mythology of the early centuries of the Christian era—are found as well in the kabbalistic myths of God and His Bride. However, unique to Jewish myths—to kabbalistic myths in particular—is the implication that the two mythic beings, God and His Bride, are really two aspects of the same divine being, of a God who contains everything, including male and female qualities. Indeed, this is stated directly by the Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl: ‘Only the Shekhinah and God together form a unity, for one without the other cannot be called a whole.’" - Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls : The Mythology of Judaism, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.xlvii

Howard Schwartz considers Shekhinah herself as the resurrection of a suppressed Goddess in ancient Judaic tradition – Asherah.

There have been a lot of scholarly theological discussions about the real nature of Asherah and Her relation to YWHW. Was she a Cannaite Goddess whose worship was suppressed and forbidden? What was her relation to G_d?

According to scholars, Asherah was the Goddess of the sacred groves in ancient Israel and was symbolised as the tree – as She gives life. Schwartz points out that in Judaism, the Torah itself is considered as a tree and at times G_d himself is identified with a tree. It is said in Jewish mythology that YWHW appeared in the vision of Abraham as a tree and Moses saw the G_d of Israel in a burning bush.

Apart from such insights gathered from ancient the Torah and later Kabbalistic texts, there is an increasing body of archaeological data which shows the nature of Asherah and Her relationship to YWHW.

Kuntillet Ajrud is turning out to be an important archeological site in this regard. Situated on a lonely hilltop in northern Sinai, the inscriptions discovered here speak of Asherah along with YWHW. The site itself is dated the first half of the 8th century BCE. The inscriptions on two jars (named Pithos A and Pithos B by archeologists) provide interesting insights into the original YWHW cult where the G-d definitely seems to have a consort. The inscription on Pithos A reads ‘' I have blessed you by YHWH of Samaria and to Asherata...' and Pithos B reads 'May he bless you by YHWH of Teman and Asherata ...'.

Biblical scholars consider her as the Goddess of the forest. In ‘Pithos A’, there is also a couple with the male like figure resembling Egyptian god Bes and along with him a female-like figure. According to many archeologists these depictions might have been added at a later age, after the line ‘…YHWH of Samaria and to Asherata’ was written.

In the same Pithos A there is also another curious depiction – a stylized tree with a lotus at its top that is flanked on either side by an ibex each. There is a lion at the bottom.

Has there been Indian influence? In one of the partially recovered painting, an Israeli leader was shown holding a lotus! In Harappa, we have a seal which is very similar. Here, instead of a tree ending in a lotus, we have a multi-branching peepal tree coming out of a lotus receptacle flanked on either side by animals with single horns.

Left: Harappan (3250-2750 BCE) Right Israel (circa 8th century BCE)
Left: Harappan (3250-2750 BCE) Right Israel (circa 8th century BCE)

In India the lion is the preferred mount of the Goddess. And she is vana-vasini – dweller of the forest.

Then there is also another curious depiction – the cow licking a calf drinking its milk. Though such depictions can be seen in ancient Babylon, such depictions are part of the living culture in India. If the Goddess is the cow then can YWHW be the calf? How can then she also be the consort of YWHW?

Perhaps one should look to India again for understanding such a symbolism. One of the archetypal ‘Sthala Puranas’ – the generational narrative of sacred geography in India, shows the cow nourishing the Shiva Linga. In Thiruvavaduthurai, a sacred Saivaite town in Tamil Nadu, the Sthala-purana speaks of the Goddess coming in the form of a cow and worshipping Shiva. The striking resemblance to the cow tending the Shiva linga and cow-calf presence in the inscription that speaks of the Goddess in Israel needs to be at least mentioned.

When in the timeless primal commencement, the Shiva, comes out of the Shakti, He is Her son. When He and She are united She becomes His consort. While this aspect of Judaism was lost and evolved only later in Kabbalistic traditions, in India such aspects of the Divine Feminine found their full expression.

Left: Israeli depiction, Right: Hindu depictions
Left: Israeli depiction, Right: Hindu depictions

Sri Lalitha Sahasranama says 'She lives in the forest of the lotus flowers (Maha padmaadavi samstha, Name 59). It calls Her the very root of the Cosmic Tree and hence is the cosmic tree ('Jagathi kandha', Name:325).

That a partial inscription, 2800 years old, found in Israel can connect us to a Goddess forgotten in her own culture, and to all her names we recite even today in in India, should make us realise that what has been protected and handed over to us is precious. It also places on us the responsibility to do our bit to preserve and nurture the knowledge of the Divine Feminine in India and awaken it globally.

As his bicentennial celebrations come next year SrilaSri Arumuga Navalar stands vindicated by Her.

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