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Reviewed by:
  • Buddhist Goddesses of India, and: Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History
  • Rita M. Gross
Buddhist Goddesses of India. By Miranda Shaw. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. 571 pp.
Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History. By Rosemary Radford Ruether. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 381 pp.

These two very large books should be of obvious interest to those concerned with Buddhist-Christian interactions and comparative studies. They are also especially timely and important, given how much goddesses and the divine feminine have been [End Page 175] overlooked and ignored by those involved in Buddhist-Christian interchange and comparative studies as well as by serious scholars of both traditions.

These books will function mainly as goldmines of information about goddesses in Buddhist and Western religions rather than as theoretical and theological analyses about what is at stake in the presence or absence of goddesses and imagery of the divine feminine in either tradition. As is well known, imagery of the divine feminine is longstanding and of considerable importance in Buddhist traditions, even though it was not part of the earliest layers of Buddhist traditions, whereas the divine feminine is largely absent in more recent Western traditions, even though it was common in the ancient Near East. Thus, these two traditions are mirror images of each other’s historical development concerning the divine feminine. It would be fascinating to explore this difference between the traditions. Because neither book is comparative in any way, such questions are not entertained in these books, but at least both books provide a great deal of information that others may use in future explorations of such similarities and differences between the traditions.

Most of Miranda Shaw’s analytical comments are found in her brief, thirteen-page introduction. The rest of the book is mainly descriptive. Most of this discussion concerns her choice of the term “goddess” to refer to the many nonhuman, divine females found in Buddhist art and literature. She notes that, while mention of Goddesses is widespread and long-term in works on Buddhist art and history, Buddhist studies in general has not paid much attention to goddesses, and the same basic information has been repeated over and over, with few advances in interpreting and understanding these figures. I would agree with this assessment. She also notes, correctly, that Buddhist goddesses have received scant attention in the recent spate of Western scholarly investigations of goddesses and the divine feminine. Nevertheless, as Shaw points out, various kinds of divine females occupy every niche of the divine hierarchy in Indian and Buddhist cosmology. Indeed, it would be impossible to look at any book about Indian Buddhist art without noticing many voluptuous, highly attractive female figures as well as some more fearsome figures.

Shaw justifies her use of the term “goddess” by noting that this is the literal translation of the term routinely used for female divine figures in Indian Buddhist sources. This justification is pointed at several other scholars who have written about Buddhist “goddesses” from a Buddhist point of view but who have avoided the term “goddess” for various reasons, but mainly because of the complexity and explosiveness of that term in Western contexts. The term has also been avoided by Western Buddhist scholars because of possible misunderstandings or confusion that could be caused by the use of such a theistic term in the context of non-theistic Buddhism. Nevertheless, Shaw is correct that the common translation of the terms used in Buddhist texts would be “goddess.” In her discussion of the term “goddess,” Shaw also justifies this English terminology by arguing that the “deities,” especially of Vajrayana Buddhism, are not merely symbols created by human beings or projections of human experiences but have another, transhuman reality. The metaphysics of “deities” or “goddesses” in Buddhism is, however, an extremely complex and subtle matter that cannot be adequately discussed in the few pages Shaw devotes to this issue. [End Page 176]

In the rest of her introduction, Shaw details her main emphases in her book, “the origins, iconography, and religious roles of each goddess and discussion of her place in Buddhist history and practice” (p. 4). She tells...