It Takes Two
By Abby Pittman
March 5, 2015
Akka Mahadevi, a legendary Hindu figure, and Yeshe Tsogyel, a legendary Buddhist figure, are two of the most influential women within their respective religions. Mahadevi, said to be of great beauty, attracted the attention of a prince who ordered her to marry him, and when she refused he threatened to kill her parents. She consented to the marriage, but gave him three rules of conduct to adhere to so she could continue her religious practices and worship Shiva in peace. Once he broke all three, Mahadevi left him to seek spiritual enlightenment. Nude in the woods, Mahadevi meditated until she was tired of her earthly body, which she felt had been sullied by sexual contact with her husband, so she prayed to be freed and left her body. Tsogyel, also said to be a great beauty, wanted a celibate life of spiritual seeking. However, her father ignored her wishes and declared that whoever grabbed her could take her, but no one could. She was stripped, then whipped and beaten until she eventually escaped, then recaptured. But the King decided to have her as his wife; he recognized her spiritual faith and appointed her as custodian of the Dharma, and his desire for her was not physical but spiritual. The great master Padmassambhava helped her achieve Tantra, and she was later considered to be a female Buddha. Both of these figures suffered abuse from the hands of a male, but both also were able to continue on their spiritual journey because of male involvement. Neither the Hindu nor the Buddhist religions are patriarchal in their purest form, but overtime these religions have degenerated and given way to cultural norms that present a hierarchy with women at the bottom; however, the stories of Akka Mahadevi and Yeshe Tsogyel exemplify how women can break these restrictions and stereotypes while also showing how men can make positive changes to a patriarchal system.
An argument has been made that both of these women are just replacing one patriarchal figure for another. In Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition, Narayanan says, “Many historical women reject the ideology that promotes the notion that service to and worship of the husband is the path to salvation that is open to women,” (Narayanan 1999, 36). She later addresses the argument against Mahadevi’s poetry; “Certainly it is obvious that the overt framework of the poems is patriarchal, with the supreme Lord being the person with whom the poets seek a union. The symbolic structure of the poems suggests that that supreme one, the Lord, is the beloved and the husband,” (Narayanan 1999, 39). However, Narayanan goes on to explain that this Supreme Being is often androgynous. Shiva, who Mahadevi worshiped, is often thought of as the mother, or the father, or even the child – Shiva is beyond gender. As for Tsogyel, instead of a husband, she had a guru, a guru who said, “And the gross bodies of men and women are equally suited, But if a woman has a strong aspiration, she has a higher potential,” (Fisher 2007, 112). Neither of these figures were replacing one patriarchal figure for another. Instead, they were on a spiritual journey to achieve a unique kind of nirvana.
The main male character of Mahadevi’s story, the prince, is a negative character; he does not respect her religious practices, nor does her respect her as a sexual being. However, there is another male figure within the story that gives a better example of an ideal male who’s promoting equality. Once a Brahman man, Basva renounced his Brahmanic identity and reformed Brahamanic traditions. “He taught that women, with their nurturing and creative powers, and low-caste people, without any burdens of worldly power or wealth, were closer to God than the dominant Brahman males,” (Fisher 2007, 76). Because of his actions and the religious movement he started, many women were inspired to take a more active spiritual role.
Hinduism, in essence, is not a sexist religion. It is the society that surrounded and shaped it to the problematic culture that is discussed today. The most basic principle of Dharma is a code for all, to be executed by all. “Everyone is bound by prescribed duties to family members, to society, and to the Divine. Self-sacrifice is expected to supersede self-interest,” (Fisher 2007, 65). Mahadevi exemplifies how women can break the restrictions placed upon them, and even today is a great influencer for Hindu women; Mate Mahadevi has modeled herself after this legendry figure. “Akka Mahadevi has served as a role model for and has be reappropriated by a twentieth-century seeker and reformer. But Mate Mahadevi has also proved to be a scholar and an institutional leader,” (Narayanon 1999, 46). Even centuries after her Mahadevi, she continues to lead and inspire other women to break the ever-present patriarchy in the Hindu religion.
Tsogyel’s story has both positive and negative male characters; there are men who beat her so they can aquire her like property, there is her father that ignored her wishes to live a spiritual life, but there is also the king who was sympathetic to her cause and freed her from the grasp of the abusers. There was also her guru, Padmasambhava, who guided her along the path of nirvana despite her gender, and felt she was more adept because of her strong aspiration. This story shows three different type of men within the Buddhist religion; abusive and patriarchal men who view women as property, and men who recognize that females can also be spiritual leaders of Buddhist practices. Tsogyel is one of the most influential women in her religion and is still relevant today; “beliefs about Yeshe Tsogyel serve as one of the world’s strongest icons of women’s potential for spiritual development and service. There is also a positive value placed on her sexuality, quite in contrast with the usual attempts to control and deny women’s sexual power,” (Fisher 2007, 112).
Buddhism itself is not a sexist religion, in fact, “buddhism lacks a divinely revealed or eternally valid cosmic law code of lifestyle that defines gender roles and gender relationships,” (Gross 1999, 84). However, there has been a perception that women are in the inferior position because a result of negative Karma. This argument is combatted with logic; “The feminist, on the other hand, would eliminate the conditions, especially male privilege, that makes femaleness a liability, recognizing that femaleness itself is only one variant of the human, not a deficient, state of being,” (Gross 1999, 85). Figures like Tsogyel, show women in more powerful spiritual roles, and are needed in order to combat these negative ideas that have been formed around Buddhism.
Akka Mahadevi and Yeshe Tsogyel are figures that have inspired contemporary women and men to create a more equal society where their respective religions can be practiced in their truest forms. However, a debt is owed to the male characters that took the fist step that allowed these women to pursue the paths that they did. It takes both males and females to reform a patriarchal religion, and these legends exemplify how take a step towards religious equality.
Fisher, Pat. “Women in Buddhism.” In Women in Religions, 96-127. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2007.
Fisher, Pat. “Women in Hinduism.” In Women in Religions, 64-95. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2007.
Sharma, Arvind, and Rita M. Gross. “Strategies for a Feminist Revalorization of Buddhism.” In Feminism and World Religions, 78-109. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Sharma, Arvind, and Vasudha Narayanan. “Brimming with Bhakti, Embodiments of Shakti: Devotees, Deities, Performers, Reformers, and Other Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition.” In Feminism and World Religions, 25-77. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.