Buddhist Goddesses of India

Buddhist Goddesses of India

Miranda Shaw
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. Hardcover, $35.00, 571 pages.

Goddesses have always fascinated the Eastern mind, including Buddhists and Hindus, and there is good reason for this fascination. In these cultures, goddesses have presided over childbirth; helped farmers in agriculture; brought prosperity to households; offered the populace protection from disease, epidemics, and dangers; encouraged the arts, education, and learning; and, above all, provided the opportunity for spiritual awakening.

The use of the term "goddess," referring to female deities and divinities, is widespread in Eastern religious scholarship and is used extensively in South and Southeast Asian literature. Sharing the cosmology of the South Asian usage, Buddhism envisioned a universe inhabited by gods, goddesses, and other supernatural beings. Although Buddhists recognize the existence of a panoply of divine beings, they do not accord them moral or spiritual superiority, but simply count them among the array of sentient beings in the universe.

Beautifully written and illustrated, Buddhist Goddesses of India is a treat to read. It fills a growing need for information about Indian goddesses by chronicling the history, legends, rituals, and artistic images of these female deities. It also explains the complex role of goddesses in the cultures of India and the Himalayan plateau.

The reader will immediately notice how comprehensively Miranda Shaw has researched and explained the important attributes, character, powers, and traditions of nineteen goddesses, devoting a chapter to each. She has carefully divided these chapters into three sections, documenting the female pantheon as it evolved through (1) the ascent of the sacred female in early Buddhism, followed by (2) the Mahayana Mothers of Liberation, and ending with (3) the Tantric female Buddhas. She has also included two important human figures—Mayadevi, the mother of Shakyamuni Buddha, and Gotami, his foster mother and founder of the female monastic order. Even Hindu goddesses, such as the earth goddess Prthivi and Laksmi, the goddess of good fortune, find a place in this book. The method of treatment allows every chapter to be read independently.

In her epilogue, Shaw emphasizes how Buddhism, as a product of the Indian soil, evinced a rich and vital tradition of goddess veneration. The pantheon of goddesses reflects the religious sentiments and ideals of the Buddhist populace over the centuries, including the forms of divine assistance they have sought, and the types of beings in whom they have vested their hopes for blessings, protection, and guidance. The goddesses embody wisdom, knowledge, artistic aspiration, and spiritual realizations. We also find them associated with such natural phenomena as the earth, trees, plant life, the planetary system, mountains, and rivers.

But there is much more to fascinate the reader. Shaw offers sixteen beautiful color plates and scores of black and white pictures. Collected from museums and archeological sites across the world, they are among the best available anywhere in the field. These illustrations are the essence of the book, helping us to understand the subtle meaning behind these divine figures—why they exist, why they appear as they do, and what they teach us about Buddhist thought, practice, history, ritual practices, and other Hindu and folk traditions. Moving among these various representations, Shaw creates compelling accounts of each deity's religious significance.

This comprehensive book is for anyone directly or indirectly interested in topics connected with Buddhism, India, goddesses, Southeast Asia, Indian art and architecture, comparative religions, or religious art. Its stories and pictures engage and delight. The scholarship is impeccable, and Shaw's expertise is evident in her insightful interpretations. It is both a masterpiece and a very significant contribution to Buddhist literature. There is no question that this work will remain an important resource for some time to come. I recommend it very highly.

C. Jotin Khisty

The reviewer is professor emeritus of urban planning at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.