Postgraduate students

Karina Guthrie

PhD candidate in the Religion Programme

Negotiating agency: A study of women’s participation in the Sri Vidya lineage of Indian Shakta Tantra in the West

Throughout history, worship of ‘the divine’ has vacillated between goddess-centred practice (or more pluralistic conceptions of ‘the divine’) and god-centred practice. Rabey (2013) argues that during the last fifty years we have begun to experience a re-emergence of the goddess. As a reflection of this trend, Hindu goddesses have become increasing popular in the West, influenced by the rise in popularity of yogic practices among Western practitioners, particularly women. Although many religious and spiritual traditions are replete with feminine imagery, this does not guarantee the elevation of women in those same societies (Lefebrvre, 2009). Even so, Longman (2018) and Warwick (2002) have posited that within the spiritual field, ‘goddess spirituality’ may offer women a sense of empowerment that is not available to them in more traditional, institutionalised religious settings. The Sri Vidya lineage of Indian Shakta Tantra centres on the worship of the divine in its benign feminine form, as the goddess Lalita Tripura Sundari. Shaktism evolved within traditional Indian culture, however, with its migration from India to the West Shakta philosophies have exerted a great deal of influence on the Western spiritual landscape (Tripathi & Tiwari, 1999; Thakur, 2017). They have also been influenced by Western social and cultural norms, including Western perceptions of the role of women in society. Drawing from Bourdieu’s sociology of religion and Bradford’s (2003) extension of Bourdieu’s theory to include spiritual capital, the present thesis will utilise demographic surveys, semi-structured group and individual interviews and narrative analysis to explore the impact of women’s participation in the Sri Vidya lineage of Shakta Tantra in the West on both their self-image and experiences agency in their secular lives. Using selective sampling, approximately 40 women from Shakta practice communities in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Germany and the United Kingdom will be interviewed with the view to answering the following research questions: Do Western ideas about the role of women in society influence Western women’s understanding of the ‘divine feminine’ in Shakta Tantra? Does this contradict, or does it reflect, the meaning given to the ‘divine feminine’ within the tradition itself? Do Western women’s encounters with the ‘divine feminine’ positively impact the way they experience their own agency? Do these encounters motivate them to challenge gendered power dynamics within a Western social context?

Supervisors: Prof Will Sweetman and Dr Lina Verchery

University of Otago Religious Studies Programme