By all accounts, when Miranda Shaw’s book, Buddhist Goddesses of India, hit shelves in 2006, it filled a gap in the scholarship of Buddhism’s feminine divine.
With a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Shaw has spent the last year on sabbatical finishing the book’s companion, Buddhist Goddesses of Tibet and Nepal. She recently returned from a five-week research trip to Kathmandu.
Shaw has studied Buddhism since she was a graduate student at Harvard University. Her recent trip to Nepal is one of many she has made to the region since 1992.
Shaw, who went to college in the 1970s, was well aware of the ways in which women had been left out of the historical record. She was drawn to women in Buddhism because of the powerful female images she had encountered while studying the art of South Asia as an undergraduate student. She didn’t see a clear explanation for their significance in art and began to look at the religious movements propelling the aesthetic of the period.
Despite her curiosity, Shaw said that the scholarship of Buddhism hadn’t prepared her for female goddesses.
“In 1995, I decided to do an anthology of female goddesses. I had become interested in female deities while writing Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, and I thought it would be a modest sized book. In 2002, I had to divide it into two books—one on India and the other on Tibet and Nepal,” Shaw said.
Since there are so many figures, many associated with particular localities or lineages, Shaw chose to concentrate on major female deities. Two goddesses were particularly prominent in India’s Buddhist pantheon, leaving scholars with the perception that their status as religiously significant females made them exceptional. As Shaw traced the evolution of females in Buddhism, all the way through the demise of Buddhism in India in the 12th century, she recognized the continuity with which females had been worshipped.
On her most recent trip to Nepal, while tying up loose ends in the research for the upcoming book, Shaw spent significant time documenting the public rituals that take place at shrines throughout Kathmandu and its outskirts. She was particularly influenced by a rapidly growing temple site dedicated to Puran Guhyeshvari, a goddess of the sacred underground spring.
“Guhyeshvari is a cosmic figure, the source of creation. In high yogic practices, she manifests in the form of a sacred spring and conveys blessings through water. She can also manifest as a blue dancing goddess,” said Shaw. “While her main shrine is closed to outsiders, I was able to visit a newly established shrine and actually photograph the worship—something that I don’t believe had ever been done before. In the past, I had to have the worship practices described to me, which made it difficult to visualize how worship of a sacred spring takes place.”
The Newar Buddhists (Buddhists of Nepal) worship one living goddess, the Royal Kumari, who is embodied in a young girl. She is associated with kingship, and Shaw wondered how her annual festival would be received in the wake of King Gyanendra’s recent dethronement.
“People rallied to show that her importance would continue, even in the absence of a king,” said Shaw. “She is a symbol of nationhood and can be considered a national protector, even without a king.”
During the Royal Kumari’s festival, families dress up their little girls as goddesses, and hundreds of people come to worship them, giving them offerings of treats, juices, cookies, coins, cloth for new clothes, and even handmade gifts, such as little draw-string bags.
“In Newar Buddhist culture, girls and women have high status. A female’s birth is welcomed and girls are educated along with boys. They hold great responsibility in the household, control the finances, and when they marry, are welcomed into their husband’s household as the goddess of abundance,” said Shaw.
Another goddess, Vasundhara, the patron of agriculture, is honored during the harvest season when women dress in deep yellow to identify with her. They honor her by making offerings to themselves.
“In 1999, I watched a procession of 800 women carrying different kinds of food to all the shrines in Patan. It was an amazing procession and a great tribute to all the women of their society,” Shaw said.
“I look at female images in our own culture and ask whether there are images of female sacredness. The fund of positive female images is quite limited. I have observed that there is an affirmation when one is exposed to positive, divine images of females. It makes you think about gender in a different way.”