A Shutter Opens to Hindu Goddesses

One outcome of a developed love for India spanning over multiple decades was my writing imaginary dialogues between people of living faiths, for a Doctor of Ministry degree completed in 1997. Themes, settings, and speakers vary, but the strong goal of increased respect and understanding emerges. Particularly intrigued by Hindu complexity, I excerpt and adapt the following from a longer dialogue.

Two young women have greeted each other several times in the playground area of their apartment complex in Cleveland, Ohio. Each has a two- year-old needing to expend energy prior to naptime.

Nancy: Hello, I’m Nancy. I’ve seen you around here but never asked your name.
Kamala: Likewise. I’m Kamala and this is Gayatri.
Nancy: Hi, Gayatri. Would you and Nathan like to play together? Nathan, this is Gayatri who also enjoys the playground.
Kamala: Perhaps you two would like to build in the sand over there; it’s a bit moist and would pack well.
Nancy: We’ll be here on the swings. . . .Evidently, you live here in the Towers.
Kamala: Over there in Tower B.
Nancy: That’s where we are too, fifth floor.
Kamala: How old is Nathan?
Nancy: He just turned two.
Kamala: So, Gayatri is about a half-year older.
Nancy: I like the name Gayatri. Am I right to presume that you’re from India?

As conversation continues, Nancy mentions having been in Jabalpur, in central India, with a year-long Fulbright scholarship. They discover that each is currently an adjunct professor in one of the area universities, Kamala in Tamil literature and Nancy in anthropology. Each herself respectful toward religion, neither initially discloses her faith loyalty. But each knows. Picking up the conversation . . .

Kamala: I recommend that you read Shobita Punja’s explanation about Sita as daughter of the earth. You seem to know that Sita always puts Rama’s welfare first. She worships him as metaphor for devotion to God.
Nancy: I recall that in the Ramayana story, she’s banished, abducted, and recaptured, right?
Kamala: Yes, but much more. The childless king Janaka finds an infant girl while plowing. He eventually sets up a contest to decide who will marry his beautiful princess. Only Rama, eldest son of King Dasaratha, succeeds to lift and break the golden bow. When Dasaratha pledges with a second wife that her son will inherit the throne, Rama is exiled to the forest.
Nancy: And ever-loyal Sita goes with him.
Kamala: Then a demon woman, sister of ten-headed Ravana, king of Lanka, tries to seduce Rama. She is avenged for his resistance when Ravana, as sign of human greed and lust, forcefully kidnaps Sita. They fly in his chariot to Lanka.
Nancy: No wonder the story keeps TV audiences captive.
Kamala: Knowing the penalty for possessing a woman by force, Ravana offers to get rid of his other wives and give his wealth to Sita. Not impressed, she refuses the temptation and remains loyal to Rama despite Ravana’s abuse and threats.
Nancy: And how often some Indian women waver between enduring abuse from or remaining loyal to a husband.
Kamala: The same seems true for some American women.
Nancy: Too true. Excuse me for pointing only to India. Features of this epic live on ingrained.
Kamala: More imagery surfaces as Rama and his brother secure a monkey army to form a bridge to Lanka to battle Ravana, whom Rama proceeds to kill. Having retrieved Sita, Rama doubts whether she remained faithful to him while in another’s palace.
Nancy: Those who read or watch this story being acted then empathize with Sita’s agony of being rejected. Or, they expect her to preserve her husband’s honor or endorse Rama’s jealous renunciation of a woman.
Kamala: Or they simply absorb the story as story. Sita orders that a fire be lighted. She walks around it, calling on Agni the god of fire to intervene her plunge into the huge flame. Without hesitation, Agni clears her purity.
Nancy: Sounds like the forces of good prevail over evil.
Kamala: But on returning to Ayodhya, Rama yields as he imagines the people’s gossip. Moved by public censure, or ready to blame others rather than assume personal duty, he banishes his pregnant Sita to a forest. She bears twin sons who, at age fifteen, reunite with their father. Sita is invited to also return, on condition that she once again prove herself through an ordeal by fire.
Nancy: How many, on hearing this epic, wonder if Rama was faithful to Sita during their separations?
Kamala: Have no fear! Conditioning prevails. But this time Sita’s spirit resists. She draws the line, a line that some women comprehend. Endless suffering has its limits. While one writer believes that Sita shows Rama that he doesn’t deserve her virtue, Sara Mitter suggests that she sets her own terms to prove her virtue. “If I have never dwelt on any but Rama, may the Goddess [Earth] receive me!” (90)
Nancy: Through sacrificial patience, she rebels.
Kamala: And the earth, in which she was found, receives her again as bold testimony.
Nancy: Yet, the tradition of long-suffering women devoted to their husbands continues to be glorified. Doesn’t the ideal of utter loyalty persist, even as the struggle to survive pervades?
Kamala: Yes and no. For we comprehend Sita also as Shakti, as that energy that motivates women because of what she represents. Suffering can either increase or restrict a woman’s religious being.
Nancy: From a resource about Kali, I recall Shakti being described as “the energizing force of all divinity, of every being and everything.”
Kamala: Yet, most living faiths ignore it, in part because of a patriarchal mindset.
Nancy: Religion often presents a disjunction with social spheres.
Kamala: More popular or egalitarian religious options emerge then, when some followers get restless with the in-grown, elite, patriarchal base.
Nancy: You likely know of the Brahma Kumari—Daughters of Brahma—sect founded fifty years ago. Disturbed by the Hindu ideal that a woman should consider her husband a deity, the Brahma Kumari founder stressed celibacy. Women should “transform their homes into ‘temples.’”
Kamala: Doesn’t Christianity include a popular tradition about women?
Nancy: From what I know, its ancient Jewish heritage perhaps stemmed from a matriarchal epoch. Then, as a male God-concept served by male priests became prominent, women’s place within the cult diminished. At first, they weren’t required to attend special religious events. Then, due in part to their sacred blood, women came to be restricted from involvement.
Kamala: And I suppose that exceptions always existed.
Nancy: But dominant men with power minimize or present women characters from a male-oriented viewpoint.
Kamala: So, patterns also exist, between your religion and mine.
Nancy: Fear of women, and a need to justify social hierarchy read male privilege back into the Bible, setting the tone for centuries.
Kamala: But change is occurring?
Nancy: Too slowly or too rapidly, depending on a person’s stance.
Kamala: Religions often correspond—where protest begins; how tradition becomes entrenched; and which outlasts the other.
Nancy: Back to Sita’s example, have you read Savara and Thadani’s Reclaiming Female Energy? A friend of mine, Corinne Scott, reports their observation that in devi’s many forms, she hardly ever appears as passive, or obedient to father, husband or son.
Kamala: Fascinating, isn’t it? Women conditioned to practice dependence overlook chances to “reclaim female energy.” But, if driven by survival instinct, greater autonomy follows.
Nancy: How do you perceive the increase of religious fundamentalism on women, whether among Hindus or Christians?
Kamala: Vrinda Nabar identifies any form of fundamentalism as essentially hostile to women. Women become its first victims.
Nancy: We know that folk religions, being more woman-centered, threaten orthodoxy.
Kamala: Excuse me, but you’ve noticed too how well Nathan and Gayatri are playing.
Nancy: While their capering lasts, I’m delighted to learn more from you.
Kamala: I see that you were in India just long enough to whet your interest.
Nancy: Introduce a couple other basic stories from Hindu goddess mythology.
Kamala: Recall that powerful male deities developed alongside male gains of power.
Nancy: And Hinduism’s goddess-centered experience didn’t produce an egalitarian society. Writer David Kinsley reminds us that: “Female power, creativity, and authority in the theological sphere do not necessarily imply high female status in the social sphere.” (xvii)
Kamala: Although a powerful goddess predates the Vedic era, throughout Vedic history the idea of shakti was less developed than it is today. Mitter’s discussion of shakti—energy or the ability inherent in a cause to produce a necessary effect—is good. (74)
Nancy: Goddesses activate that strength?
Kamala: A god’s male, passive potential aspect combines with the dynamism of shakti. For example, god of destruction Shiva is energized through Durga or Kali’s shakti.
Nancy: Before those manifestations, explain the supreme goddess, the one in whom all others merge.
Kamala: You refer to Devi Mahatmya or Mahadevi. A new era took shape when the seven-hundred-verse Devi Mahatmyam was added to legends dated from 200-400 CE—called Markandeya Purana. With the author unknown, Devi Mahatmyam was edited between 400 and 600. A key focus is the cosmic conflict between divine powers and evil spirits. Orthodox Hinduism recognized and synthesized the Great Goddess. Known as supreme energy, she is both mother and spouse of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the three main reflections of the Ultimate.
Nancy: So, her portrayal through Parvati, Durga, and Kali together depicts total womanhood.
Kamala: While Parvati reflects beauty and the compliance of wifely devotion, Durga the fighter gets rid of evil demons. And ambiguous Kali might destroy through frantic action or save on other occasions.
Nancy: Also, while Durga might become activated force in Shiva, Kali could link with Shiva to symbolize the unity of opposites, I’ve heard.
Kamala: Those are important threads in our mythology.
Nancy: Review Mahadevi’s battle with the demon Mahishasura, a water buffalo bull.
Kamala: Okay. The Creator god had told Mahisha that his foremost desire of being immortal was impossible: “All birth must be followed by death.” (Punja, 93) But when the gods could not destroy the formidable demon king, they each gave up one of their qualities to the Great Goddess. In the form of Durga, with each of her many arms holding a ‘weapon’ and seated on a fierce lion, she set out to destroy the misguided Mahisha. Alone but through collective energy, Durga conquered each form that he presented.
Nancy: Each victory of the goddess vindicates the forces of darkness. The order of cosmos triumphs over discord, so to speak.
Kamala: After drinking a bowl of life force, she charged the final bull shape, spearing Shiva’s trident through its neck, to decapitate the demon. As an act of grace, she did not destroy the rest of the body. In that choice, she absorbed something of the demonic alongside her shakti. Releasing him from doing further evil, she redeemed the universe or restored order.
Nancy: Thereafter, the Devi accepts with love all worship or sacrifices, such as cattle or flowers or food given to Brahmans. But how do such stories intersect with ordinary people?
Kamala: Mitter states that in Hindu thought, opposites interact “within a unified divine essence.” (78) Females can either be devoted and chaste or destructive, for “the Absolute embraces all divisions and dualities.” (74)
Nancy: Clear or puzzling, tales are believed to live or operate within a person’s soul?
Kamala: Or, as Punja observes, the battlefield of the Mahisha myth is within each person’s mind. When inclined to be stupid, a devotee is invited to be mind-full and to call on energetic Durga. (101) Unconquerable wisdom waits to be aroused. Good qualities exist in each person. Singly, or having shared one’s burden with others, the worshiper confronts internal enemies of desire, anger, delusion, or pride. S/he engages Durga’s shakti through her varied weapons: “memory, steadfastness, intelligence, beauty, peace, mercy, forgiveness. . .” (129-30)
Nancy: A goddess like Durga is known by many names. Her energies certainly counter the stereotyped image of a dependent Hindu woman.
Kamala: Names expand her diversity rather than limit her being, whether as Uma, Sati, Kali, or Parvati.
Nancy: The focus of a goddess also shifts through time.
Kamala: Recall Sarasvati. She first appeared as a river in Vedic literature. After going underground for some time, she later became “personified as a goddess of wisdom, learning, the arts.” (Punja, 16)
Nancy: Highlight the ten-day festival called Durga Puja.
Kamala: Details vary about any myth within the country. The September-October festival, also known as Navaratri (“nine nights”), honors several goddesses and Rama. On the final day, called Dassehra, devotees celebrate the triumph of good over evil. Tall effigies of the demon Ravana might be burned in the north, while in Mysore a large procession of elephants and fireworks takes place near the royal palace. And in Bengal state, Durga’s defeat of Mahisha is re-presented in clay at scattered structures.
Nancy: I visited friends in Calcutta last year during Durga Puja. Both Sikhs and Christians explained the Hindu occasion to me. Scenes of the story appeared in about a thousand Pandals, hastily built but with elaborate towers and a painted facade. Citywide contests were held; crowd estimates of three to four million people ‘toured’ the displays and ‘shopped’ the temporary booths that offered food and wares.
Kamala: Snarled traffic teems with millions on foot who gawk at flicking lights as they stumble into rain-filled potholes, as I recall.
Nancy: Artists have free-reign during the festival, creating with any available materials from sugarcane to straw. On the final day, images were transported to the water’s edge to be immersed. Then the soul-stirring morning or evening devotional songs echo beyond the gala event.
Kamala: You describe it well. Do you also know of Laksmi—consort of Visnu whom she serves, and linked to wealth and wellbeing? Devotees strive to perfect their duty, or love. Symbolized by the elephant or lotus, Laksmi represents royal authority and fertility. The lighted clay lamps of the festival Divali honor her. Later versions of the myth link her to several male deities.
Nancy: And how do you, in a nutshell, explain Kali? I’ve read Lina Gupta’s idea that Kali may be a projection of hostile, male fear of the female.
Kamala: Gupta is a good source. She ponders whether Kali is the mythic Great Mother. Although a manifestation of Durga, Durga at times calls on Kali for help. Gupta believes that Kali embodies conflicts common to women’s struggle for social rights.
Nancy: So, women connect with Kali because she shows how to face and overcome limits.
Kamala: The dramatic features of how she is portrayed encourage devotees to confront who they are, to look squarely at their fears. She combines dripping blood with an invitation to “Come/Fear not.” She personifies sakti, what Gupta calls “the female principle of creation.” (26)
Nancy: Is Kali known as the consort of a male god?
Kamala: Compared to others, she is barren and rarely with Siva. More unattached, she mostly lives outdoors and haunts cremation sites. Her creative power will not be restricted.
Nancy: I struggle to comprehend the paradox of this goddess—both benevolent and malevolent, dominant and gentle.
Kamala: Consider the cremation ground that Kali haunts. It too bridges contrast. Known both as a place of erotic ritual and “where all desires are burnt away with the body” (Kripal), it suggests the important Hindu thought of being fully absorbed in God.
Nancy: Profound.
Kamala: Are you aware of goddess Sati’s lore, from which the unity of “Mother India” stems?
Nancy: Say more.
Kamala: Her father Daksha bypassed her husband (god Shiva) and her from a special sacrifice. When he invited and dispersed shares of the world to all other gods, great sages, and nymphs, Sati was most offended.
Nancy: Why were they ostracized?
Kamala: Daksha thought that Shiva was impure since he represents all species and sustains the good, bad, and indifferent. Devoid of noble lineage and having countered social conventions of exclusion, Shiva’s approach addressed all systems that segregate or fail to appreciate difference.
Nancy: Sati stands for equality and totality. And, since she refused to compromise truth, the pair retaliated and turned the sacrifice into a cremation ground in which Sati committed suicide.
Kamala: Versions will vary. One suggests that her father’s act of exclusion drove Sati to enter a yogic trance, the fire of which “consumed her body and reduced it to ashes.”
Nancy: And ash has distinct symbolism.
Kamala: Ash symbolizes “matter that has ceased to be, from which the spirit has been released to freedom.” (Punja, 175, 181)
Nancy: How did Shiva respond?
Kamala: Enraged by Sati’s death, Shiva then gathered an army to destroy Daksha and his sacrifice. With a measure of mercy, Shiva later restored the sacrifice. But in deep grief, he is believed to have wandered throughout India, dropping segments of Sati’s body. At those points, 51 or 108 of them, worship of the Great Goddess continues. Local village people bow to her image saying, “Oh, Mother.” (Eck, video, lecture # 8) Pilgrims linked by the network of her pithas receive her benediction as each sacred place reminds them to love.
Nancy: How do you bridge between the truth of Sati’s acceptance of diversity and the term sati that refers to the new widow who joins her recently-deceased husband on his funeral pyre?
Kamala: Punja suggests that ancient myths offer diverse meanings and interpretation. Sensitive people who address the injustice of discrimination might call on the goddess within to start afresh, “to rebuild the world from ash.” (196)
Nancy: But through time, suttee, the act of a wife immolating herself, came to reflect “an extreme form of women’s subjugation.” (Pandey, in Nyce, 45) It redefines freedom. It involves fear of a woman’s sexuality and denies her worth without a husband.
Kamala: It can either glorify the sati by identifying her as a goddess, as with Roop Kanwar in Deorala as recently as 1987, or it can activate justice-seeking groups to condemn the rite.
Nancy: Mention one other goddess before I need to leave.
Kamala: There’s Gouri, another consort of Shiva. Women and children celebrate her annual festival with cone-shaped creations of flowers. On the eighth day of the ceremonies, the artistic offerings are taken to a lake or temple pond. Before throwing them into the water, women form small groups, light oil lamps, burn incense, and sway gently while clapping and singing.
Nancy: That must be quite a sight.
Kamala: Even more, a sense of cleansing the spirit or baring the soul results. Women combine praise to the deity with wishes for long life for their husband. (Pentuker)
Nancy: Thanks for this reminder about multi-layers of meaning with Hindu goddesses. What I superficially observed gives me only part of the whole.
Kamala: I enjoyed the conversation. And our children did a good job of ignoring us!
Nancy: We’ll meet again. Stop by 520 anytime.

Resources Cited

Agrawala, Vasudeva S. The Glorification of the Great Goddess (Devi Mahatmayam), Varanasi: All-India Trust, 1963.

Eck, Diana L. “Myth, Image, and Pilgrimage,” Lecture # 8 of Video “Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh: The Religions of India,” Great World Religions: Beliefs, Practices, Histories, The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, 1994, 45 min.

Faria, Stella. “Feminine Images of God in Our Traditional Religions,” In God’s Image, June 1989, 7-17.

Gupta, Lina. “Kali, the Savior,” After Patriarchy Feminist Transformations of the World Religions, Paula M. Cooey, William R. Eakin, Jay B. McDaniel, eds., New York: Orbis, 1991, 15-38.

Kinsley, David. “Introduction,” “Durga, Warrior Goddess and Cosmic Queen,” “Laksmi, Goddess of Abundance and Luck,” “Sita, the Ideal Wife,” The Goddesses’ Mirror Visions of the Divine from East and West, New York: SUNY, 1989, ix-xix, 3-24, 53-70, 91-112.

Kripal, Jeffrey J. “Kali’s Tongue and Ramakrishna: ‘Biting the Tongue’ of the Tantric Tradition,” History of Religions, 34/2, Nov 1994, 152-89.

Mitter, Sara S. Dharma’s Daughters, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1991.

Nabar, Vrinda. Caste as Woman, New Delhi: Penguin Bks, 1995.

Nyce, Dorothy Yoder. “Women’s Experience of the Sacred: Hindu and Christian in India,” Learning Unit # 2, DMin Program, Western Theological Seminary, Spring 1995.

_____. Strength, Struggle and Solidarity: India’s Women, Goshen, IN: Pinch Penny Pr., 1989, 43-46.

Pentuker, Ramchander.“Saying It With Flowers,” Discover India, June 1988, 4-15.

Punja, Shobita. Daughters of the Ocean Discovering the Goddess Within, New Delhi: Viking, 1996.

Scott, M. Corinne. “Poor Slum Women’s Oppression and Sources of Strength: A Feminist Ethical Perspective,” MTh Thesis, Serampore College, April 1993.