Seeing the Sacred Feminine in Spirituality at the Parliament of World Religions
There is a shift beginning to emerge in disparate corners of the world: the rise of the feminine archetype. We see it in politics, business, and pop culture. Like Katniss Everdeen, a modern-day Artemis in The Hunger Games, women are fighting to preserve the world from its warped trajectory. German Chancellor Angela Merkle makes the cover of TIME as “Person of the Year” for her compassionate embrace of Syrian refugees; teenage Malala Yousafzai wins the Nobel Peace Prize, advocating girls’ rights to education; Taiwan elects Tsai Ing-wen its first female president. Yet, there still is not a country on earth where women are economically and politically equal to men. I believe this is in part a spiritual crisis—not just a social one.
To take up this issue, ten thousand men and women convened in October 2015 at the Parliament of World Religions, which hosted the gathering’s first-ever Women’s Assembly. As a filmmaker who is exploring the role of women in a new planetary leadership movement, I packed my camera and joined them in Salt Lake City. I discovered men and women locking arms against a failing culture of unsustainable consumerism, which has left humanity numb, exhausted, and spiritually bereft. The thousands in attendance at the Women’s Assembly were passionate about reclaiming our connectedness to Mother Earth and to one another.
Providing tools for spiritual growth used to be the purview of religion. “Religio” means to “bind back,” to bring us to the core of who we are, and to help define our purpose as human beings. “The institutionalization of religion is a critical part of what went wrong,” says Phillis Currott, a Wiccan Priestess and Board member of The Parliament of World Religions. “Institutions become hierarchical, defensive, and greedy. They become the vessels of the worst aspects of our nature instead of the shepherds and protectors.” It is predominantly men who control religious institutions. And the Women’s Assembly declared gender balance within those structures, as an intrinsic conduit for restoring religious authenticity.
“The great deep spiritual teachings are immediate and present,” continues Currott, “all you have to do is breathe. They give an opportunity through practice for the veils to drop, the blindfold to come off and [for us] to see things as they actually are, which is sacred.”
Seeing the world as sacred is what we do when we practice yoga; we align with what Vedic tradition calls Dharma, the universal law of nature. If Dharmic law is violated, it can cause serious imbalances––examples of which we see today with increasing anxiety and stress in modern life as a whole.
The practice of yoga––which includes the balancing of masculine and feminine energies within us––has become a global phenomenon primarily dominated by women. While many practitioners focus on the physical benefits of asana, millions today are incorporating meditation as well as the other limbs of yoga including the ethical precepts into their practice.
According to the Kriya Yoga tradition, taught by Paramahansa Yogananda and other masters, raising the Shakti (feminine life force) in the human body as a means of uniting us with our highest selves is the purpose of yoga. “Yoga views Shakti as the primal active, creative force in the universe” explains Brother Chidananda, a yogi and senior monastic at Self Realization Fellowship. “It is also known as ‘Divine Mother’ or ‘Mother Nature,’ and is the cosmic force that descends through the chakras in the spine and guides the growth of the human embryo in gestation. When its creative work is completed and the baby is born, it rests in the lowest chakra, in a coiled passageway called the seat of the kundalini power.” It is from this place, the ancient Rishis tell us, that we access genius, or universal intelligence, which goes beyond the intellect and can help solve our most pressing life challenges.
The concept of reclaiming our “Shakti” resonated throughout the Women’s Assembly at the Parliament of World Religion . This sacred concept is called by many names throughout different faiths. “The dominant system has been about accumulation, annihilation, extermination and intolerance – a forced religion of our times,” exclaimed physicist and ecofeminist, Vandana Shiva. “As a scientist, I can tell you…we produce more food by caring for the earth. We produce more wealth by sharing and we create more peace through cooperation. Competition has been made into a religion and it simply must go.”
Vedic philosophy explains that spirit is neither female nor male. The Absolute is the perfect balance of both those energies. Brother Chidananda explains that the goal of spirituality is to increasingly identify one’s self with the soul, and thus be able to express a healthy and spiritualized balance. “This happens quickly and most dramatically,” he says, “with the awakening and ascent of the kundalini.”
I believe the time has come to usher in the sacred feminine to achieve this balance. And women are uniquely positioned to be the vanguards of this profound energetic shift. Former president Jimmy Carter spoke out against the world’s religions in his book A Call to Action, pointing out that “the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls.” President Carter makes the case that misinterpretation of religious texts and increasing violence and warfare are to blame for this. The resounding message at the Women’s Assembly was one of healing the heart of civilization, which can come about when we heal the heart of women.
At the gathering, I bore witness to a form of subtle activism. Dr. David Nicol describes this as spiritual work for collective transformation rather than personal development alone. I believe that this is a foundational piece in the shift we need to make on the planet collectively. “We no longer need one emissary like Gandhi,” said Maya Tiwari. “Each one of us is an emissary. We are all vessels for consciousness, and we are that peace which we seek.”
What seems clear is that our task in the 21st century is one of awakening to the fundamental reality that we are not separate from one another. Men and women must work in tandem as stewards on this planet to create a positive change. There was a clear sense at the Women’s Assembly that it is partnership that is being sought. The spirit we all seek is the yogic principle of the masculine and feminine in perfect balance.
“If we ever reach the time when women are standing on the various platforms in equal numbers, equal strength and with equal recognition as men, then I think we might see a more balanced society,” remarked Dr. Jane Goodall, primatologist and UN messenger of Peace, who gave a keynote speech at the Parliament. And perhaps Dr, Goodall summed it up best, “There is a Native American saying that the tribe is like an eagle and one wing is male and the other is female. And only when the two wings are equal will the tribe fly high and true. I left the Parliament with the image of that mythic bird burned in my mind’s eye and saw it take flight.
Paola Di Florio is an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and founder of Counterpoint Films, whose latest feature, AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, is about the Hindu swami Paramahansa Yogananda, who brought yoga and meditation to the west. She is developing a new project about the sacred feminine in the world today. thisiscounterpointfilms.com