Ecofeminist Concerns


Abstract:  Dealing with ecological crises brings forth many questions in terms of its cultural, political and economic manifestations. Concerns of ecofeminism vary from the obvious connection between patriarchy and the subjugation of women and nature to a sustainable economy that is eco-women-centric. Ecofeminism also offers certain positions from where one can work towards a shift in power positions. This paper attempts to problematise ecofeminst spirituality. Spirituality within the parameters of ecofeminisim has diverse stances. Whether and how ecofeminist spirituality deviates from the mainstream spirituality will be answered indirectly in the course of the paper.

Keywords: Ecology, female principle, economist spirituality, Ecofeminism, interconnectedness, sustainable economy, ecological struggle, monotheistic religion, goddess-centered spirituality, patriarchy, Hinduism

Dealing with ecological crises brings forth many questions in terms of its cultural, political and economic manifestations. Do we need to isolate the ‘ecological crisis’ or is it necessary to prioritise various facets of the same? Where does ecofeminst concerns figure in such a debate? Concerns of ecofeminism vary from the obvious connection between patriarchy and the subjugation of women and nature to a sustainable economy that is eco-women-centric. Ecofeminism also offers certain positions from where one can work towards a shift in power positions. I contest these positions by attempting to show how irrelevant they are to the contemporary situation in India and also their precarious position given the current contexts. This paper attempts to problematise ecofeminist positions and its propositions on spirituality. Whether and how ecofeminist spirituality deviates from the mainstream spirituality will be answered indirectly in the course of this paper. Though a discussion on ‘what is spirituality’ is inevitable, I shall confine the discussion to ‘what is ecofeminist spirituality?’

Spirituality within the parameters of ecofeminisim has diverse positions. For some ecofeminists, it means a radical change from the male-centered monotheistic religions to a goddess-centered spirituality. This can mean ritualistic practices and theoretical positions that facilitate a shift in paradigms towards woman and nature based pantheist religions or spiritualities. Ecological spirituality also refers to a change in attitude where the value of ‘interconnectedness of life’ is recognized and held sacred. A radical position of non-duality within this interconnectedness, which celebrates the unity of women with nature as against an anthropocentric/androcentric life-view, is also strongly advocated within some circles. This position is more in tune with Deep Ecology’s biocentricism. The female principle, seen as the life-giving force that exists in all beings and non-beings is venerated. This life-force is connected to women’s sensuality, their sexual energy and their capacity to provide life and provide for life — a common trait they share with nature. Also, many prevalent studies on ecology and spirituality urge religious institutions and individuals to make use of their positions to create ecological and gender awareness. In what terms these can be done needs to be explored scrupulously. My contention is that none of these positions seriously challenge or provide alternatives to ecological or gender concerns. I shall first briefly outline ecofeminist viewpoints and then provide a critique of it in terms of what they can possibly mean, given the contemporary Indian context.

Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies writing against capitalist patriarchy and ‘maldevelopment’, see it as a result of western scientific advancements. Against this backdrop, they argue that the relevance of rediscovered spirituality lies in

…the sacredness of life, according to which life on earth can be preserved only if people again begin to perceive all life forms as sacred and respect them as such. This quality is not located in an other-worldly deity, in a transcendence, but in everything that surround us, in our immanence (emphasis mine) (Maria mies and Vandana Shiva, 1993).

Shiva and Mies also raise the issue of relocating the sacred in the form of Shakti and prakriti, defined by holism, decentralism, plurality and interdependence (Gabriele Dietrich, 1999). They go on to explain how this kind of spirituality is not divorced from the material world for women. It is their regard for earth as mother, their respect and celebration of earth’s sacredness and their resistance to commodification, that has guaranteed the survival of the life-forms of earth. For Shiva and Mies, this stance erases the line between the political and the sacred. How their positions do not take note of some serious political considerations, will be discussed later.

Many western-based ecofeminists, some of them of Indian origin, turn towards eastern religions and pre-historic goodness of the west in their search for non-male, pantheist spiritualities. From Lynn White Jr. (Lynn White, 1974), whose seminal essay that traced the exploitation of nature to the Judeo-Christian tradition of the west, to the present day ecofeminists who look for alternative religious practices, there has been a constant diatribe against Judaism and Christianity and to a lesser extent against Islam. Carolyn merchant carries the argument further saying that it was the ‘divine’ permission from the holy which is to be held responsible not only for legitimizing and justifying exploitation of nature and women, but also for the momentum it provided to scientific revolutions (Carolyn Merchant, 1993). This goes well with Shiva’s ideal location of a pre-capital, pre-colonial, essentially Hindu India before the advent of modern science. Most western-based ecofeminists also move towards the same and unproblematically embrace Hinduism. Chandra Alexandre, elaborating on the western ecofeminists affiliation to neo-spirituality, points out how it can act as a counter-force:

Goddess spirituality of the west is one counter-force that acts on multiple levels to undermine manipulative patriarchal identity branding and control. It is a subversive tactic in part because it can and does, as many of us have experienced personally, transcend national, political and religio-cultural interests. With this, the goddess of the west, however envisioned, can join together, I believe, with a goddess-centered spirituality of the east.

Alexandre advocates sakta tantra which, according to her, reveres the immanence of the spirit, rises above duality, provides rituals and practices for dynamically balanced relationships. To her, Kali as a supreme goddess is a divine direction to break open abrahmanic faiths. Kali also becomes a symbol for feminine resurrection to a few feminists and ecofeminists who see a void in their goddessless spiritual/religious traditions. Hence the tendency to over-estimate the symbolic presence of goddesses. Also, the symbol does not lead to the separation of myth/belief from practice, which in India has an unbridgeable gap. This view overlooks how women were/are excluded from ritual practices that supposedly make men spiritual and the ‘chosen’ for salvation. It also overlooks the fact that both women and nature were/are considered in terms of property and as enticing bonds that one had to rise above to attain spirituality. These ecofeminist positions remain narrow in their approach because they fail to address the heterosexual family as the core unit of patriarchy and capital accumulation at the cost of ecology. In this context, one has to say that veneration of goddesses can also be dangerous since Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth is ardently worshipped; and as already said, deified goddesses and reality are two very separate entities that are evident in gender-wise and caste-wise distribution of wealth and property in India.

Conceding that one can see no evidence of goddess indicated political or social power for women, Rita Gross senses a ‘tremendous respect for the feminine side of humanity and experience’(Rita Gross, 1993). Prakruthi, according to the Hindu scriptures, and valorized by Vandana Shiva’s brand of ecofeminism, signifies the eternal female principle representing substance and nature. And, the source of the female energy, shakti, which when united with purusha, the male principle — completes the spiritual realm (Leigh Minturn, 1999). The entire universe is said to have been created out of their union. Sensual reality is thought to be maya, or illusion, the only true reality being the invisible spiritual realm. The problem with such discourses is that once ideas are sorted symbolically in the perceptive level, the resolution of it never occurs.

Moving to ecofeminist ways of practice, Vasudha Narayanan (Vasudha Narayanan, 2001) basing her analysis on Shiva’s concept of maldevelopment due to colonial-patriarchal-capitalist-science, argues that positive traits of Hinduism need to be harnessed by religious institutions and individuals to address ecological crisis and gender inequality — the connection between those two which she discerns as alien to hindu society. She cites examples from Satya Sai Baba’s clean drinking water drive, ISKCON’s collaboration with WWF, World Wild Life Fund for Nature, to clean river Yamuna and Brindavan, Tirupathi temple trust’s prasadam in the form of saplings as initiatives towards a harmonious society. These philanthropist and welfarist activities though obviously not carried out in the name of ecofeminism, but suggested in order to tap religious resources by some women of ecofeminist concerns towards a balanced society, fail to question the base of domination, whether ecological or patriarchal. Such ‘charity’ can only popularize the ‘generosity’ of rich upper caste gods and do nothing in terms of systemic changes in societal structures that are necessary.

Studies have pointed out that it is indeed women who are the worst victims of ecological deterioration. But, how concretely does spiritual ecology or ecofeminist spirituality address deterioration? It is obvious that the goddess symbol asserts a) the female power, b) the female body, c) the female will and d) women’s bonding and heritage (Carol Christ, 1996). Apart from these individualist, ideological and psychological effects, can goddess based spirituality evoke responses that can seriously pose a challenge to existing male religion and ecological exploitation if not to patriarchy and to androcentricism? As Nivedita Menon puts it, will this spiritual awareness translate into organized agitation? It is important to note that the Hindu right wing has been able to successfully tap the spirituality of Indian women without disturbing the family system (Nivedita Menon, 1999). Among women, spirituality has been politicized without even creating the smallest of ripples in hegemonic structures of Hindu family and society. And as Gabriele Dietrich points out, goddesses in India have been manipulated into housewives, domesticated consorts and into communalized versions of undomesticated, unspousified devis — projected by some extremists during the freedom struggle and resurrected today by communal organizations (Gabriele Dietrich, 1999). This spirituality therefore doesn’t possess a potential to overcome repressive social, economic and political structures that are the needs of the hour.

Ecofeminists usually turn to the eastern religions, specifically to brahmanical Hinduism in search of a goddess-centered spirituality. This valorizes selective Hindu values and essentialises ‘hindu’ as a homogenous category. Goddess worship and nature worship is traced to tantric and brahmanical rituals and a ‘glorious era’ for women and nature is located in the context of ancient vedic/brahmanical texts. The myth of the ‘glorious era’ though broken by many historians is still conveniently held sacred by many ecofeminists and right wing extremists. The result is the creation of an ‘allowed space’ for women and nature and a slight shift in focus or digression from actual concerns. The fact that less than one percent of Vedic text is about women and that there are hardly any women scholars of Sanskrit, a language and knowledge reserved for ‘pure’ men is often ignored. More importantly, these propositions do not highlight the lived experiences of women and their relation to nature. The history of women who fall outside the purview of ‘sacred’ texts never gets mentioned. It is all the more important to point this out since it is this ‘outsider woman’ who would have had a dynamic relation with nature. Since perceptions among Indians about the spiritual, goddess, god and the sacred have never been homogenous, the effort to find answers in a past by reconstructing it is an imaginative effort of people who are driven by new crises of our times. Also, shakti, the feminine principle based on upper caste Hindu terms, offers no respite to the religious diversity of India. Therefore, other than essentialising women and nature as homogenous categories, the life-force or female principle that connects women and nature is a problematic proposition because it doesn’t concern itself with the historic and social constructs of women and nature.

Bina Agarwal further problematises the nature-women-spiritual connection in such an ideological realm and recognizes the problem of essentialising third world and its women. She feels the need to critically question many such ideological constructs to which ecofeminism falls prey.

It is critical to examine the underlying basis of women’s relationship with non-human world at levels other than ideology, such as through the work women and men do and the gender division of property and power, and to address how the material realities in which women of different classes/castes/races are rooted might affect their response to environmental degradation (Bina Agarwal, 1999).

Acknowledging Vandana Shiva’s work on how capitialist colonialism has affected our ecological economics, Agarwal points out the fact that her work is not clear about ‘how and in which historical period the concept of feminine principle in practice affected gender relations or relations between people and nature’(Bina Agarwal, 1999). Even if one attributes the present evils of our society to capitalism, colonialism and western models of development, the unproblematic assumption that Hindu India was eco-women-centric and sustainable prior to all the above is highly questionable. The social and economic injustice prevalent in terms of caste hierarchies remains unaddressed — i.e. ecologically patriarchal society based on caste division of labour, is perfectly compatible on these lines of argument (Menon Nivedita, 1999). The fact that pre-colonial India’s sustainable economies were based on the caste division of labour that was blatantly exploitative is neglected. This is much needed since relations among men, women and ecology in India still defined in terms of hierarchies of caste and class. Hence the New Traditionalist’s move towards a pre-colonial India can only harm the interests of dalit and feminist movements.

Invoking Hindu spirituality today she also opens up the possibility of an appropriation by the Hindu Right. What Vasudha Narayan sees as positive initiatives can also be seen as co-option. I see it as further justifying hegemonic institutionalised powers. The angry goddess or the disillusioned mother earth of ecofeminists can be looked at as a passing phase provoked by irrational, emotional women. A feminist goddess though ideal, is too far an ideal and in all probabilities, will remain an ideal. The immediate concern is to consider the actual living relations of people struggling for survival, especially women, to that of the ecology they work with. The question of how these communities identify themselves with the ecology they interact with is very important. Do they visualize their relation with ecology as sacred? If so, is it sacred in terms of female principle? And, do they connect this principle to their sensual, sexual energies and the life-force of women and nature? This un-viable neo spirituality therefore is strongly disconnected from the people for whom ecofeminism makes its claims. This is precisely so because it is unable to make even minimal changes in their entrenched livelihoods.

A force that can easily appropriate spirituality in its fold is the globalised market. This is already prominent with both right wing forces and capital forces vying for profit through yoga, meditation, spiritual healing centers, natural/traditional health practices and much more. A globalised spirituality is the last thing we need at this juncture. Other than these problems, there exist certain paradoxes within ecofeminism as a discourse:

a) The celebration of non-duality/unity and the emphasis on interconnectedness and interdependence. Critique on deconstruction is prominent amongst essentialist-spiritual ecofeminists, who also call for an ‘interconnectedness of life’(Charlene Spretnak, 1997). How can sublimity/unity that calls for a spiritual salvation augur with interdependence?

b) Neo-spirituality at best can operate at individual levels, as a radical humanist effort to displace ideological bases. Since sustainable economy is all about community living, how does one fit these two together among people of diverse beliefs and traditions?

c) The goddess invoked is she a unified female power or power unified? Isn’t that centralisation as opposed to the emphasised decentralised life?

d) ‘Interconnectedness of life’ emphasises human relations with nature/ecology. How can one define interconnectedness among human beings in terms of caste/class/religious beliefs? The failure to address these is where Shiva basically flounders.

Considering these, questioning sacredness for me ceases to be a prioritised need in the material lives of women and men struggling for survival. As Bina Agarwal and Gabriele Dietrich argue, there is a need to relate ecological struggle and struggle against patriarchy/caste system in terms of material, productive economies. Instead of grappling with how religious space can be exploited to provide ecological spaces to larger communities, our resources need to be channeled towards a more secular-material, ecological space.

Agarwal, Bina. (1999) ‘The Gender and Environment Debate’ in Nivedita Menon ed. Gender and Politics in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Alexandre, Chandre. ‘Ecofeminism and Tantra: A Brief Look at Similarities and Possibilities’.

Christ, Carol. (1996) ‘Why Women Need the Goddess?’ in Carolyn Merchant ed. Key Concepts in Critical Theory : Ecology, Rawat Publications, Jaipur.

Dietrich, Gabriele. (1999) ‘Women, Ecology and Culture’, in Nivedita Menon ed. Gender and Politics in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Gross, Rita. (1993) as quoted in Leigh Minturn, Sita’s Daughters: Coming out of Purdah. The Rajput Women of Khalapur Revisited, Oxford University Press, New York.

Menon, Nivedita. (1999) Introduction in Nivedita Menon ed. Gender and Politics in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Merchant, Carolyn. (1993) The Death of Nature, Zed Books, London.

Mies, Maria and Vandana Shiva. (1993) Ecofeminism, Kali for Women, New Delhi.

Narayanan, Vasudha. ‘Water, Wood, and Wisdom : Ecological Perceptions from the Hindu Tradition’ in

Spretnak, Charlene. (1997) ‘Radical Non-duality in Ecofeminist Philosophy’ in Karen J.Warren ed. Ecofeminism: Women, Culture and Nature, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

White, Lynn. (1974) ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, in David and Eileen Spring eds. Ecology and Religion in History, Harper and Row, New York.

Presently teaching in the Dept. of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Is pursuing her doctoral study at the University of Hyderabad on ‘An Ecofeminist Critique of Indian Texts’.

Default image
Presently teaching in the Dept. of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Is pursuing her doctoral study at the University of Hyderabad on ‘An Ecofeminist Critique of Indian Texts’.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124