Nkoyo Edoho-Eket

“The Source of Strength”: Shakti and Formations of the Feminine Through the Image of the Goddess-Woman


This talk will examine the ways in which Hindu Goddesses come to be identified with human women in non-devotional settings as a means of increasing women’s social and economic power in South Asia and abroad. Edoho-Eket pays particular attention to the modern reimagining of the conception of shakti, the cosmos- animating power of the universe associated with the divine feminine in Hindu thought. This feminist interpretation of shakti, in which the power of the Goddess and of human women are considered interchangeable, has had a far-reaching impact on the visual culture of South Asia, as seen in the rise of an ambiguous, semi-divine Goddess-woman figure.  Blurring the boundaries between sacred and secular, devotional and civic duties, this feminist appropriation of the Goddess attempts to mimic theological models of divine power in a distinctly worldly setting. From grassroots feminist posters to graphic novels, films, and contemporary visual art, the modern reimagining of the Goddess and shakti constitute a common visual vocabulary of women’s empowerment. Further, these visual expressions of the Goddess serve as a mechanism for expressing resistance to two pervasive narratives- both the paternalistic and misogynistic appropriation of religious symbols, as well as that of the passive “monolithic Third world woman.” Through aesthetic and rhetorical analyses of South Asian visual culture, this talk will explore the migration and formation of new visual practices oriented around this conception of shakti. It will further explore the trajectory of the Goddess from devotional figure to empowering icon for women in the popular imagination, arguing that the depictions of the Goddess-woman are themselves a “world-making” project that inform women’s relationship with the Goddess, as well as their own self-concept.

Nkoyo Edoho-Eket is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her current research interests include representations of the Goddess in contemporary popular culture. She is currently working on her dissertation which examines images of the Goddess in social justice movements in India and abroad. She is also a collaborator with the South Asia Feminist Activist Archive housed in the department of Gender and Women’s Studies at UW-Madison.