During my last semester of college at Saint John’s University, I took a theology class with Father Whalen. One day, he asked us, “If I told you that God would be here tomorrow, ready to meet with anyone who would come, right in Marillac Hall, first floor, would you go?”
The question spurred students to think about their faith or doubt, their relationship with God, their guilt or love.
I was struck by the image of God that came to my mind when he asked that question: an old White man in a suit, sitting awkwardly in one of our typical classroom desks. As a Hindu, who grew up with hundreds and hundreds of images from which I might visualize what God looks like, why did I end up thinking of an old White man?
Perhaps because that is generally what American culture tells us God looks like, aside from the occasional image of Morgan Freeman. I thought again and conjured another image, and Krishna, the beloved raincloud-dark god, came to mind. Though the image was more familiar, why again did I think of a male form?
After Krishna, I thought of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Surya and Ganesha, before any female forms like Durga or Kali came to mind. Although, keeping Kali pent up in a stuffy classroom would be a bad idea for everyone. But, is God an inherently gendered word?
Regardless of religion or spiritual path, many would argue that God is genderless, or beyond the confines of the labels we superimpose on human experience.
Yet, while God is frequently referred to as male (Him, He) and even as gender-neutral (It, Their, or always using the term God or God’s), it still feels a bit jarring to hear God referred to as “She” or “Her” in colloquial speech.
Theoretically, we may readily ascribe traditional feminine characteristics to God, such as tenderness, softness, an enveloping presence, and nurturer. But something within us might bristle against thinking of God as our Mother, especially when we frequently refer to God as our Father.
At our deepest essence, we are beings beyond the construct of gender, but we occupy bodies in a world where gender matters.
We grapple with questions of sexual preference and gender identity in our public and private lives. In our religious lives, however, we may challenge traditional gender roles, such as who is allowed to teach, serve, and guide. We’ve settled into a space where we’ve grown used to God being a “Him.” “Him” even seems the same as recognizing God as gender-neutral. But what would it mean for us to feel surprised if we heard God speak, and it was in the voice of a woman?
Perhaps there is some relationship with how we think of femininity in a societal context, and the worthiness and sacredness ascribed to femininity in our spiritual lives.
Stories of the major forms of Shakti (the feminine principle) such as Durga and Kali are well-known and frequently told in Hindu frames of reference. However, when it comes to more earthly incarnations, people are often unaware of the stories of female rishis, scholars and sages, like Gargi and Lopamudra, or of spiritual seekers and poets like Mirabai and Mahadeviyakka.
In America, if a new temple is opening near you, it will more likely be a Shiva, Vishnu, Rama or Krishna temple, and is less likely to be a Parvati or Lakshmi temple.
At the same time, the issue of a gender divide is not so black and white.
While women are usually not priests in most temples (depending on the sampradaya, spiritual tradition of the temple), many places of Hindu worship and organizations have women occupying significant roles on executive committees, teaching positions, and community outreach. Women do become sadhvis or swaminis, venerated as teachers and guides in the monastic or sacred ascetic ways of life.
In the Buddhist community as well, women are gaining voices as important scholars in various branches of Buddhist philosophy, and female monasteries are increasing in prominence. Through my involvement with the Hindu Student Council, I have noticed that the majority of student leaders in college-campus Hindu organizations are young women.
Hinduism is the only major world religion that widely engages with Devi (God-as-Mother or the Goddess) within nearly all of the indigenous traditions and philosophies encompassed within its religiopolitical umbrella.
Tantric Buddhism would be a closely related group subsumed within the larger categorization of “the Dharmic traditions.” Yet, as a product of the sociocultural climate of the places we live in, Hindu women, just like many other women in society, face the same questions and subtle indicators of a lack of privilege from time to time, even in religious spaces.
For example, when an opinion a woman shares is only taken seriously once a man voices it, we are forced to wonder:
“Is this happening because I am a woman?”
This type of experience is a shared struggle for all women and is not intrinsic to Hinduism. And men do not have to think of how their gender might affect how they are perceived or how they hold themselves as often as women do.
Engaging with the Goddess is a powerful way to use religion to increase egalitarianism across the gender spectrum. If both men and women alike can see God with a feminine face, we are likely to change whichever internal sociocultural biases we have against women that might be in place. This does not mean that simply celebrating the nine-night festival dedicated to the Goddess, Navratri, makes you a feminist.
There are plenty of people who claim to worship the Devi but contribute to the abuse or degradation of women in explicit and subtle ways.
This goes beyond thinking of God as having abstract “feminine” qualities. This is also about seeing divinity present in the female body. It is empowering to hear about sacredness being associated with the female body more so because globally, female bodies are the most objectified, trafficked and abused. Loving and ascribing sacredness to a female body is a radical act. When we think of God extending a caring hand to us, we might imagine Michelangelo’s famous rendering of God’s muscular, strong hand reaching towards the fingertip of Adam. What if instead we could imagine Adam reaching for a hand strengthened with the experiences of motherhood with soft, lovely, bangles delicately slipped around Her wrist?
This does not mean that seeing God as male or genderless is detrimental to our self-perception. We just must learn to integrate these concepts in balance with seeing femininity in God. It would be just as destructive to limit our understanding of God to only one or a few feminine representations—there must always be a balance.
But, is it even important for us to think of the different ways in which God is gendered?
We understand from research in race and psychology that seeing a lack of representation of People of Color in leadership positions and in popular media can reinforce ideas of one’s otherness, invisibility, or feeling of lack of belonging. By utilizing the various forms in which Shakti manifests and exposing more people to female-centric illustrations of God, we then refuse to accept one or two stereotypical ways for females to be, and empower women with choices as to what constitutes their personal concept of femininity.
Similarly, perhaps a general reluctance in one’s religious community to name God as Mother or Goddess reinforces women’s feelings of being secondary, less important, or as a companion and not a traveler in one’s own right on one’s spiritual journey. This does not reflect that male superiority is intrinsic to any practice of Hinduism or Buddhism, nor that the religious tradition itself is hesitant to acknowledge divine femininity, but rather that like much of society, we have culturally started to place slightly more value on male portrayals and characteristics of the Divine.
I was involved in planning a women’s panel for the Dharma Conference, an event dedicated to discussing both ancient and contemporary issues across the Dharmic traditions, and many questions arose of what it meant to bring gender to the forefront of our minds in our spiritual work.
On a community or organizational level, ask yourself these questions:
1. Are we supporting authentically female-led spiritual work?
2. Are women only providing support to men’s initiatives rather than leading their own causes, born from their own creativity and desires?
3. Do women feel that the work they are doing is just as important as the work that men are doing?
4. Are there female-led spiritual spaces that are well-supported by organizations?
5. Whose stories do we tell, and who is in charge of telling them?
6. Do we make a point to promote the work of female scholars?
7. Are there any of our service initiatives specifically aimed towards helping with global women’s rights issues?
8. Do we provide people or spaces in which women’s experiences of gender identity, menarche, childbirth, marital status, menopause, and other developmental issues can be discussed?
9. Are we afraid of having any awareness of tritiya-prakriti (third-gender) issues?
10. Do we truly respect the opinions and needs of children?
On a personal level, ask yourself these questions:
1. How does it feel to address God as “She” on a daily basis?
2. How does it feel to have a relationship with God like that of a mother, sister, female friend?
3. If women are to be viewed as keepers of the home/internal shrine, while men are viewed as keepers of the temple/external shrine, how can we reflect on the importance we are giving the home shrine?
4. Do we see the home shrine as important as the temple, or do we see it as inferior?
5. Some may donate hundreds of dollars over the course of the year to their local temple, but completely neglect or do not even have a sacred area at home dedicated to meditation and worship. Why have we made it so?
6. Which goddesses’ spirits do we see reflected in our own personality?
Considering sacred femininity does not impose dualism on our concept of God. It allows us to even out the influences of male-dominated institutions in society and religious traditions. Across cultures and religions, we have always recognized a strong, fascinating pull from the vama-marga, the “left side” of God, feminine aspect of the spiritual experience.
It is up to us to harness both ancient and modern spiritual understandings of Shakti to aid us in the human struggles associated with gender in our world.
Ultimately, we can move humanity towards a state of dynamic equilibrium, but towards the dance of the inner masculine and feminine, an evolving balance which is not bound by gender at all.
This post was also published by our friends at Coming of Faith.
Sarika Persaud is a PsyD candidate at Pace University and General Secretary on the national board of Hindu Students Council (HSC). Visit her blog to learn more about Persaud and her whereabouts.
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, being the only brown face in a room has never fazed me. I was always the little brown girl in the corner with waist-length hair and a name that made every teacher pause, but the feeling of “otherness” captured in this line was something I knew all too well.
This feeling isn’t unique. It’s the same experience of many immigrants and first-generation South Asian Americans, and that of the main character of “The East Indian”as well.
While a work of fiction set in the 1630s, the novel paints a very real picture of immigration and race in the United States today and the human need to belong.
It is the story of Tony East Indian, inspired by a real person documented in the country’s archives as the first known East Indian in the American colonies, but who is otherwise a work of the author’s imagination and research.
The son of a courtesan from the Coromandel coast of India, Tony unwittingly finds himself as an indentured servant in the plantations of Jamestown, Virginia at just 11 years old.
He accepts “Tony” as his first name — though he doesn’t care for it — because a fellow Tamil once suggested others in the world would find his real name “too hard to utter.” Then he adopts the surname “East Indian” simply because it is thrust upon him when he arrived in Jamestown. The protagonist can no longer even recall his birth name, but soon, he accepts it as a thing of his past.
Over the course of the novel, Tony lands at the center of scandal as he works to establish a new identity as a physician. All the while, he also struggles with isolation, prejudice and the challenges of trying to maintain pieces of the culture he carried with him from abroad.
He is confused as to why Native Americans are also called “Indians” and many colonists simply label him a “moor,” a term used for North Africans or anyone with darker skin, with no context for India or its people in this new world.
He, feeling disloyal to his “many Gods,” converts from Hinduism to Christianity, believing it will give him more credibility and a sense of connection to his peers. He begins to eat meat and spend time at taverns, all in hopes of belonging, and assimilating with colonist ways.
As he comes of age and furthers his physician’s apprenticeship, Tony also begins to ponder questions of race and social class to no avail. He reflects:
“I would talk to Doctor Herman and try to understand the reason behind white skin and black and brown and, more important, what greater distinctions of wit, sensibility, and soul the differences in hue signified. I read and was taught by my master the new ideas put forth by men of learning in England and Europe on the workings of the bowels, the brain, the blood; the causes of migraines, melancholy, and madness, but I never got closer to understanding the real meaning behind what they called different races of men, and if such difference exists in any profound sense that really matters.”
Overall, in “The East Indian,” Tony becomes a man. He learns of the world’s cruelty and its kindness. He learns to work, play, love, hate, scheme, grieve and care for himself and others. But, like most immigrants, he still longs for home.
“For home is singular and unique. Everywhere else is but a stopping place, a bed in a stranger’s house, eating off plates not one’s own, an unfamiliar view from a casement,” Tony said.
When attempts to head West and find an ocean back to India fail, Tony accepts that returning to his motherland is unlikely and resolves that he must learn to adapt.
He worries his love interest, born in the colonies, will not relate to him, for “her heart did not ache for another place beyond the sea” and also wonders what the future of his children will be. Nevertheless, he is never defeated.
“I would thrive wherever the wind laid me,” says Tony. “[I] will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me.”
Leaving or even kidnapped from their homes with little to no hope of return, thousands of Indians faced journeys fraught with violence, condemnation and injustice trying to create new lives and identities away from their homeland in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, and Jamaica. However, like Tony, they also found the strength and courage to survive and establish their own cultures and communities.
While no details are known about the real Tony East Indian, Charry weaves a compelling coming-of-age tale that takes him as well as readers across three continents.
The novel, like life itself, has fast and slow moments, but it is filled with vivid, historically accurate depictions of the colonial world and moving moments that keep you rooting for the main character’s triumph.
It is this authenticity and compassion that makes “The East Indian” an invaluable modern work. There are no known first-hand accounts of the indentured or South Asian colonists in America. The only proof of the mere existence of many are the generations that have come after them.
With several years of research put into it, Charry’s “The East Indian” serves as a rare realistic portrayal of what life may have been for these individuals; the hardships they endured, and the strength they embodied. South Asian or not, it is a rich history not only worth reading but sharing and celebrating.
To learn more about Brinda Charry and her professional work visit her website. The East Indian is now available in print and audiobooks from all major book retailers.
Featured Image: Author Brinda Charry was born and raised in India before moving to the United States for graduate school two decades ago. She considers herself “a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist | Photo Credit: Lisa Arnold Photography
This story was published as a collaboration between Brown Girl Magazine and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.
This is a special year for Ramadan. For the first time in three years my mosque will fill to capacity, giving my community a chance to rebuild lost connections and overcome heartache. It reminds me of a simple truth: healing comes not when you expect it but when you need it.
For Muslims, Ramadan symbolizes the time of the year in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran. Since Islam follows a calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon, the start of the holy month of Ramadan is determined when a crescent moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia.
The Quran is said to have been received throughout the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan marks the days it took for him to receive its first verses. When Muhammad received this revelation, it is said that he isolated himself in a cave to reflect and devoted himself to endless worship. In the same way that Muhammad secluded himself to focus on gratitude and prayer, Muslims around the world use the time to distance themselves from daily distractions and focus on spiritual growth through a month of fasting.
Siyam in community
The Arabic word for fasting is siyam which translates to ‘be at rest.’ Abstaining from eating and drinking allows us to take the rest our body and soul so deeply crave and ground ourselves and one another in a physical, mental and spiritual reset.
When I was a child, Ramadan symbolized the one time it was normal to spend your entire weekend in the Mosque. It was my first experience of a sleepover, with pajamas hidden under my abaya and Pakistani kurtas. Beyond the gender divide of the prayer halls, children would take naps on parents laps as the community prayed throughout the night. The Mosque was a beautiful gathering space open to anyone who needed a meal, whether or not they were fasting.
During the pandemic, Ramadan was different. Endless nights in the Mosque filled with prayer and community were scaled down to Zoom hangouts. Programs that were once filled with intimate in-person conversations on the floor of the Mosque, were now faceless squares on a screen, their names barely visible.
The Jummah or Friday prayers that were once so packed with people that the crowd spilled out onto the surrounding grass and sidewalks were conducted in parked cars. The mosque decorated the parking lot for drive-through visitors for the Eid Namaz, and community members waved from a distance to others with the same time slot.
I still remember when a friend’s mother died of COVID-19. What would have been a Janaza or funeral that surrounded the grieving family with community and prayer, turned into a Zoom call. Watching the tears of my friend’s family during the burial services, unable to visit her home and read the Quran together was heartbreaking.
Even before the pandemic, the world was not always a safe place for me and my community. From my family and I being yelled at to “go back to our country” when we were on vacation, to the looks my mother received when she wore her hijab in public, I understood even as a young child the ways in which Muslims were perceived as outsiders in our own country.
In many ways the pandemic compounded the islamophobia that my community began experiencing at heightened levels after 9/11. During Trump’s time in office, the Muslim community—which in the US mostly consists of people who identify as Asian and Black—faced heightened racism and incidents of violence, in part due to misinformation about the coronavirus. In the racial justice uprisings of 2020, Black Muslims—which make up more than 20% of all Muslims in the US—were not only targeted for their race but their religious background. Mosques across the country were vandalized, and continue to experience increased threats to this day.
Ramadan as a space to heal
These last few years made me realize how badly I craved the sanctuary of my Mosque, and to physically return to a space where I felt safe. I feel relieved and at peace to return back to nights where I am surrounded by familiar faces praying together side by side and breaking our fast without any fear of judgment.
Mental health in the South Asian community has long been stigmatized, and South Asian individuals who experience psychological issues might feel hesitant to express their concerns due to the shame they may encounter. Nevertheless, while there has been progress made in studying and openly discussing South Asian mental health, several topics remain in need of further examination; these include studying the relationship between mental health and gender, specifically the role of masculinity on mental health outcomes.
What is South Asian masculinity?
Masculinity and mental health have come under greater scrutiny by researchers, particularly as traditional masculinity is often cited as the reason why men are less willing to reach out for support regarding psychological issues. However, the influence of masculine norms on well-being has been insufficiently viewed through an intersectional lens and is understudied within South Asian mental health. From a South Asian context, traditional masculinity can include focusing on material success while displaying suppressed emotionality, which can be manifested through anger or practicing other harmful behaviors.
In order to understand its influence, it is critical to examine the impact of traditional paradigms of masculinity across the diaspora. For instance, some traits associated with traditional masculinity among South Asian men include displaying control over others. A Sri-Lanka-based study found that most male participants “associated manhood with dominance…” A Forbes India article asserted how boys in India are “taught to … apply themselves to the task of growing up to be a strong, unwavering support system for their families,” which in turn forces them to be silent about topics that may make them seem weak. This pattern of behavior becomes manifested in a particularly harmful way because boys grow up with the inability to handle their emotions or formulate healthy coping strategies during challenging circumstances.
These norms can have drastic implications and harm other community members. For instance, a focus group conducted among Nepali men found that failure to deliver for their household economically as breadwinners eventually resulted in heated disputes, which escalated and led them to engage in domestic violence. The presence of domestic violence can also be observed through media stories on the pervasiveness of gender-based harm within South Asian communities, as seen in the murder of Sania Khan.
Traditional masculinity also hides the wounds that South Asian men may be battling within themselves. One paper asserts that for a sizable number of Indian men, “…sadness and despair find a distorted manifestation in destructive behaviors that deny their emotional pain to themselves and to others.” Thus, performing conventionally masculine behaviors can mask deeper mental health issues.
Repercussions of South Asian masculinity on mental health
Because of the pressure to adhere to such strict standards of conduct, traditional masculinity has significant, greater repercussions for mental health and well-being. For instance, because of the narrow ability of men to compartmentalize their feelings, this restrictive emotionality can result in an inability for others to recognize their mental health issues, thus failing to target the deeper causes of men’s behavior. Furthermore, men themselves might engage in fewer help-seeking behaviors. This is also further complicated due to gaps in culturally competent services that can serve South Asian men when they do utilize support systems.
Additional social forces experienced by South Asian men might explain mental health outcomes, particularly when considering the role of immigration. Among South Asian American men in the United States, one study noted that “a lower social position” within their community was linked to higher distress, indicating how critical it was for first-generation men to be leaders and actively participate in their ethnic community’s organizations. Thus, social expectations of men within South Asian communities influenced their well-being, as did their social status and relative power.
What we can do to change the status quo on South Asian masculinity and mental health
In order to ensure that men in South Asian cultures can embrace their mental health, it is important to formulate a prudent, welcoming paradigm that encourages greater help-seeking behaviors. Greater attention to this topic can also contribute to theories on feminist and sociocultural therapeutic frameworks, which both offer the following includes suggested remedies:
Challenging gender stereotypes and encouraging mental health care as a means to discuss issues about well-being
It is imperative to encourage South Asian men to show more emotion, thus changing the existing narrative and social pressure they face to limit the expression of their feelings. Fortunately, there is a platform, known as @BrownManTherapy, that posts content about the struggles South Asian men experience. Furthermore, therapy ought to be recommended as a means to deal with mental health concerns, which should be combined with support from the community.
More South Asian male clinicians
In addition to instituting changes in community norms, there needs to be more diverse representation in the mental health field. In doing so, there will be greater platforms to have conversations about the negative repercussions of traditional masculinity that are unique to South Asian men. Furthermore, it is critical to challenge the social stigma that mental health is a female-dominated profession or that seeking therapy is emasculating.
More research studies examining cross-cultural differences in masculinity across South Asian cultures
The connection between masculinity and mental health ought to be investigated much further. Studies should particularly assess masculinity within non-white contexts in order to examine the standards of manhood across several communities and truly understand the unique stressors men face across different cultural backgrounds.
While the connection between South Asian masculinity and mental health is not discussed among psychology professionals, it is critical to study the association since it plays a role in South Asian gender inequities and in mental health behaviors among South Asian men. More broadly, given the prevalence of intimate partner violence within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and the role of patriarchal norms in inflicting this harm, it is now more important than ever to reimagine expectations surrounding men’s behavior.
By further examining the problems caused by adherence to traditionally masculine norms and implementing certain solutions, these ideas can be challenged and dismantled to create a progressive and more inclusive model of manhood. Above all, identifying and eradicating toxic ideas rooted in traditional South Asian masculinity will lead to liberation for all people.