Book Reviews

Goddess as Virgin and Great Mother

In 1982 John Hawley and Donna Wulff had jointly put together a valuable set of studies on the wives of gods in the Hindu pantheon. In The Divine Consort their intention had been to introduce Radha to the West, and a number of papers had concentrated on this unique figure of Indian mythology. A decade and a half later, the editors have brought out a companion volume* in which the focus has shifted to the goddess as sufficient unto herself, appearing paradoxically both as the archetypal Divine Mother and the Eternal Virgin, in her own right, independent of consort. Predictably, the cover shows a popular painting of Santoshi Mata, the astonishing instance of contemporary myth-making in India, in 1975 to be precise, and possibly the only instance in the world in which a movie created a religious myth that seized the popular imagination. The last instance of myth-making that the public had adopted so wholeheartedly was the worship of Satyanarayan a few centuries ago. There is, however, no paper on this 20thcentury-born goddess, despite her being so utterly a modern product, literally film-born and film-borne. Yet, this volume claims to focus on investigating the 'lived religion' of the goddess as distinct from the academic orientation of the earlier collection which concentrated on her as the syzygy of the male deity. Hence the editors find it appropriate to include reproductions of calendar and poster art instead of historical sculpture or painting.

The editors claim that, responding to the vigorous feminist influence in religious studies, they intend to provide a feminine approach to understanding the goddess [6 papers are by women scholars], which is considered particularly significant because all texts regarding the deity are male-authored. In that context, the absence of any reference to the only hymn to the Original Creatrix, Adi Shakti, composed by a female seer is surprising. This is the 125th hymn of 8 verses in the 10th book of the Rig Veda composed by Brahma-knowing Vak, daughter of rishi Ambhrin. Here Vak, experiencing Adi Shakti as her Self declaims, 'It is I who, creating the universe and all worlds, wholly pervade them like the wind. Though I transcend the heavens and this earth, yet by my glory have I manifested creation.' This sukta , set to soul-stirring music by Pankaj Mullick in the composition, 'Mahishasura-mardini', reveals how the supreme goddess resonates within Bengali households every year at the dawn of Mahalaya, something that visiting temples and surveying folk-cults of sati and devi-possession alone will not. That occidental scholars studying the 'lived experience of the goddess' did not take note of this annual radio broadcast continuing for 50 years speaks volumes regarding the depth of research undertaken.

The studies are divided into two distinct groups: 5 devoted to the goddess as the Supreme Being [Devi, Vindhyavasini, Kali, Shri and an intriguing study by Wulff of Radha as consort, but even more as conqueror, of Krishna] and 7 studying the goddess as mother and as possessor [Ganga, Saranyu, Sheranvali, Bhagavati, Sati, Bharat Mata and the Occidental Kali]. Going through the papers it would seem that in the decade-and-a-half since the last book research has not plumbed further depths, belying the claim of bringing together insights into how the goddess is a living experience among people today. The editors are even unaware of Sukumari Bhattacharji's important work in this very field: Legends of Devi , which came out in 1995 and Carmel Berkson's The Divine and the Demoniacthat was published the same year. Although the reprinting of 2 essays from the earlier book has been admitted, actually of the 12 essays as many as 5 are repeated with minor changes in the titles and slight modifications in the text. Cynthia Ann Humes' engrossing study of the worship of Vindhyavasini is the only new paper among the 5 in Part One. The papers on the Devi Mahatmya by Coburn, on Kali by Kinsley, on Shri by Narayanan and on Ganga by Eck are all repeated. Wulff merely appends to her earlier study of Radha in Rupa Gosvami's plays a section on Radha in Padavali Kirtan , describing the stages ofpurvaraga (infatuation), mana (pique), premavaicittya (confusion) and pravasa(estrangement) as part of her research into how the Vaishnava religion is lived today in West Bengal. Her single paragraph conclusion is that Radha remains the paradigm of ideal love as a metaphor widely repeated in popular love songs, although she is not literally imitated by Bengali women. Such a finding, evident to any Bengali, surely does not demand much in-depth research! And how valid is the claim of focusing on 'lived religion' if of 12 papers 5 are repeated from the 'textual orientation' of the earlier volume? Even many of the illustrations are carried over. Figures 9 (a 'contemporary lithograph') and 30 ('a postcard of Kali purchased in Calcutta in 1992') are identical, though used to illustrate different studies.

Hawley's prologue on the goddess in India is an excellent survey of how the terrifying forms of the destructive goddesses of local cults in the Vindhyas and Bengal are being replaced with the benevolent aspects of the Great Mother from 'higher' Sanskrit texts. On the other hand, the manner in which McDermott finds Kali being discovered by the Western woman stresses precisely those aspects of female force that are uncontrolled, violent and appear to be grounded in the women's mysteries of Babylonia and Greece. This western Kali is more akin to Ishtar-Astarte-Ashtaoreth of Babylonia-Assyria-Phoenicia, to Medea and the maenads of Greece, to the Tantric cults, to Caldwell's documentation of Bhagavati-possession in Kerala and Hiltebeitel's study of Draupadi as Vira-Shakti assuming aghora rupam , than to the transcendent aspects of Durga. It is surprising that McDermott fails to see the connection between this aspect of Kali and the Ugaritic goddess Anat who girds herself with the heads and hands of Baal's foes, wades through knee-deep blood and refreshes herself by washing in the blood of her victims.

Kinsley's study on Kali disappoints in not incorporating the transformation that the concept of the goddess underwent in the hands of Ramprasad and Sri Ramakrishna. Their's was not the bloody goddess impaling herself on the ithyphallic supine Shiva that is made so much of by Western scholars and is disputed by Indian savants. The recent availability of Ramprasad's songs in Lex Hixon's English translation should have prompted updating and amplification of Kinsley's work. Reference to Swami Sankarananda's The Rig Vedic Culture of Pre-historic Indus would have brought new clarity to the very concept of Kali which is so confused in McDermott's paper.

The studies of cults of possession in Kerala, where Bhagavati possesses men, and in Punjab, where Sheranvali descends upon select women, show the continuance of primitive concepts which we find recurring in a different fashion in contemporary instances of women lynched for demoniac possession. The studies fail to distinguish these different types and the differing social reactions to them. Figure 17 perpetrates a howler in stating that Sheranvali is 'the lion-riding goddess', when not only does the poster show her riding a tiger, but the cult itself does not associate the lion with her. The parallel worship in Bengal of tiger-riding Jagaddhatri and of Dakhin Rai/Bon-Bibi in the Sunderbans tiger-habitat ought to have been brought within the ambit of Erndl's study. Incidentally, the Middle Eastern virgin goddesses are also linked with tigers, never with the lion which does not feature in the Indus Valley culture either. That opens up a fresh area of research into implications of the tiger and lion vahanas of Devi's different aspects.

Lindsey Harlan interprets Sati Godavari's cult in Rajasthan as showing that women treasure the sati concept because it demolishes male prejudice against woman's ability to acquire transcendent power which shatters caste and gender barriers. The nurturing of this myth is precisely the root of the social evil. The insights this essay provides will be invaluable to gender activists in formulating intervention strategies to facilitate changing the suicidal cultural script that the myth supports: 'I achieve supernatural power over my oppressors only if I immolate myself.'

There is but a passing reference in the prologue to Alf Hiltebeitel's work with the Draupadi cult and fire-walking although this is prevalent not just in Tamil Nadu but has fanned out as far as Sri Lanka, Fiji and Singapore incorporating a multiplicity of mini-cults relating to village goddesses, possession and heroes. Draupadi is also identified with the Orissan mountain goddess Harachandi whose obvious links with Vindhyavasini have not struck Humes. Five-husbanded Draupadi as the immaculate virgin goddess and a multiform of Durga-Kali, who is invoked by a descendant to slay an ogre, ought to have been included, particularly as this is the only goddess whose cult includes Muslim figures like Muttal Ravuttan. One of the sisters of Ravuttan is said to escape to Kerala to become, or join, Bhagavati. But Caldwell's study on Bhagavati is unaware of this fascinating migratory link. Draupadi also has a unique anti-feminine slant that deserves investigation. She persuades the Kaurava widows to follow her in the fire-walk rite after the war. In the process while she, like Sita, proves her own chastity, the widows are all consumed. The male fire-walkers, however, absorb her virginal Shakti through the rite, considering themselves reborn as her sons. The prevalence of the 18-dayTerrukuttu drama cycle celebrating this goddess shows how profoundly it is a lived religion even today, far more so than Vindhyavasini who finds a place in the volume.

While the book studies little known local cults, there is no reference to the worship of the snake-goddess Manasa, which is not just a textual matter but a belief powerfully prevalent in Bengal. The vernacular Padmaa Puran documents the emergence of this new goddess and Chandi's annoyance. The intricately designed terracotta 'Manasa-ghat' itself should have drawn the attention of such researchers. Shashthi is, again, a sufficient-in-herself goddess, the sixth part of all creation, who is worshipped widely in eastern Indian homes by mothers. Her living presence is far more pervasive in daily life than Vindhyavasini's. Yet, she is not included in this book. What about Chandi as depicted so very differently inChandimangal spanning a vast area of the country, from Orissa to Gujarat and down to Sri Lanka, which Coburn seems to be unaware of and the brilliant interpretation of Devi Mahatmya in Shri Satyadev's trilogy, Sadhan Samar ? The intriguing Mhasoba cult of Maharashtra, where Mahisha is worshipped with his wife Jogubai (Durga), is not mentioned. Again, the way in which the story of the mother goddess slaying the buffalo-demon lives on graphically in Chhau folk dance and the Terrukuttu drama cycle finds no place in this otherwise excellent paper. Nor does Coburn refer to the tradition of the buffalo demon invading the inner precincts of the Madurai temple itself to be slain by Minakshi. Even Kannagi, who becomes a goddess and revives Kovalan in Silapaddikaram without any male help, is not studied. One expected a study of the worship of Kamakhya since it remains one of the most frequented shrines of the 'living goddess'. Coburn's paper would benefit considerably by reference to Indira S. Aiyar's thesis,Durga as Mahishasuramardini (1997) which brings together a vast amount of data from comparative mythology to throw further light on Durga. And can any study of the various manifestations of the Great Mother be complete without taking into account Sri Aurobindo's superb exposition of Maheshwari, Maha Saraswati, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Kali in The Mother ?

Humes' paper on Vindhyavasini as a lived experience unaccountably fails to incorporate her cult recorded as practised by Kiratas, Pulindas and Sabaras with human sacrifice in Mahabharata, Katha Sarit Sagara and Dasakumara Charita in ancient times and the decline of her influence since then. The Devi Purana , which is devoted to this mountain goddess, is not analysed satisfactorily. Her loud laughter, her fondness for flesh and strong drink, her dress, all point to origins which Hume ought to have investigated. The Devi Bhagavata Purana itself records that in one of her manifestations she is known as 'Bhramari'. As Bhramaras are a Nishada tribe according to the Padma Purana , it points to the tribal origins of this goddess and her subsequent sanskritization. There is also the Sumerian link with the virgin goddess Inanna who, having slain with a copper sword a foe the gods cannot overcome, establishes herself on the mountain Elish. Vindhyavasini has an identity as Ratri and as Ekanamsa, both mentioned in the Rig Veda , whose shrine is established by Krishna according to the Vishnu Parva ofHarivamsa. Through this she acquires an identity as Subhadra in the living worship of Jagannatha. The lived experience Humes documents is localised and bears no comparison to the tremendous sweep of humanity that makes regular pilgrimages to the shrine of Vaishno Devi that has not been studied here. The study on Sheranvali, 'She-of-the-tigers' is innocent of how she has featured repeatedly in the most powerful local medium of all: the Hindi film (even featuring star-of-the-century Amitabh Bacchan in 'Mard'), showing that it is not a tiny Punjab phenomenon as Erndl's paper conveys. Eck's 'academic' paper on Ganga does not include Shankaracharya's sublime hymn in praise ofdevi sureshvari bhagavati gange which enshrines the essence of what is so special about this river-goddess in the Indian mystique. And, of course, Gangotri is the source of the river, not Gomukh. Eck does not probe the psychological implications of the river-goddess as a mother (Ganga/Thetis) who consigns each of seven new-born sons to the river, as later Kunti does with Karna, similar to Kamsa killing Devaki's seven sons at birth and Putana killing new-born infants (intriguingly, Putana and Shakuni are some of the names by which Durga is called in the 'Aryastava' of Harivamsa ). In each case, the surviving son becomes the hero of the age (Devavrata / Achilles / Karna). The enigma of Ganga as vengeful mother cursing Arjuna to be slain by his son Babhruvahana for having killed her son Bhishma, yet callously abandoning teenaged Devavrata to Shantanu, remains unexplored.

This fascinating parallel between Ganga, Thetis and Kunti has escaped the eyes of so eminent a scholar as Wendy Doniger in her brilliant study of Saranyu that is one of the high points of this book. Strictly speaking, this ought not to have featured in this volume because Saranyu is not worshipped and, but for the Amar Chitra Katha retelling, is hardly known. Doniger's study, juxtaposed with Erndl's on Sheranvali and Caldwell's on Bhagavati in Part 2 of the volume, brings home to us the vast gulf separating high from low myth. The latter remind us of the wide-eyed foreigner's amazement at the rites of south-sea islanders and witch doctors, overwhelmed by the noise, smells, heat, dust and crowds. Their value lies in the insights they provide into the mainsprings of human action in these communities which, if studied by social activists and welfare administrators, can provide effective options for intervention for change. Doniger's work, on the other hand, is a richly rewarding read for an Indologist as she traverses uncharted territory, providing new links that inspire further research into Vedic myth rooted in our collective unconscious. For instance, she points out parallels that have not struck anyone so far: Saranyu abandons her children being unable to stand Vivasvan-Surya. In Mahabharata this is paralleled by Pritha who is raped by Surya and abandons the offspring, Karna, in Ashvanadi, "horse river' (a link to Saranyu who turns herself into a mare to escape Vivasvan), which, curiously, is never mentioned again. Kunti's foster-sons are born of the Ashvinikumaras, who are Saranyu-Surya's progeny. Vivasvan himself, as Martanda, the 'dead-egg', is abandoned by his mother Aditi, and shorn of his glory by his father-in-law Tvashtri. Similarly, Karna's sun-armour is sliced off at the instance of his stepfather Indra, while Saranyu's son Yama is crippled by his stepmother and healed by his father Vivasvan. Doniger could have enriched the paper further by investigating the intriguing fact that in Ramayana , which comes between Rig Vedic myth and Mahabharata , Surya's son Bali drives out his uterine brother Sugriva born of Indra (Indra and Surya are also brothers, Surya being the youngest) and finally Indra-Sugriva causes the death of Surya-Bali using Vishnu-Rama's missile, much as Indra slew Vritra using Vishnu's power. InMahabharata we have Indra-Arjuna killing his uterine brother Surya-Karna with the help of Vishnu-Krishna. The Rig Vedic elder-younger relationship between Indra and Surya has been reversed in the epic myth, and Indra's attack on his unborn brothers, the Maruts while still in Aditi's womb, has been metamorphosed into the killing of dead-egg Martanda in his human prototype Bali/Karna. The Rig Vedic alliance between Indra and Vishnu for killing Vritra is also carried over. That is why the Surya prototypes in the epics acquire asuric dimensions: Surya-Bali becomes Ravana's ally; Surya-Karna befriends Duryodhana. Thus both invite the enmity of Vishnu's avatara whose help is sought by Indra-Sugriva and Indra-Arjuna. Further, as the Maruts become Indra's most powerful allies, so are their prototypes in the epic world, Hanuman and Bhima, the chief support of Sugriva and Arjuna. Moreover, Hanuman, like the Maruts, is initially injured by Indra's thunderbolt, but cannot be slain by him, and bears him no grudge.

Doniger lends contemporaneity to her study by looking into the retelling of this myth in the children's comic-book series, Amar Chitra Katha. Indeed, this immensely popular series, now being televised, warrants a serious study to find out how high myth is being moulded today in the light of contemporary mores for children, just as Mahabharata has been significantly reinterpreted for modern media by the Muslim litterateur Rahi Masoom Reza for television, the Bengali actress Shaonli Mitra on stage and the English director Peter Brook on celluloid. Doniger's study more than compensates for the error so uncharacteristic of her in the essay on Shiva and Parvati in the earlier volume where she referred to Kunti being impregnated by five Vedic gods to produce the five Pandavas.

The last essay in this book on Bharat Mata concentrates on the Vishva Hindu Parishad's temple (more of a museum) in Haridwar, bringing out the politico-religious motivation in setting this up as a fund-raising ploy. Women, strangely enough, are not flocking here, unlike their overwhelming response to Santoshi Ma and Sheranvali. This shows the artificial nature of this deity manufactured by political forces and the virulent male chauvinism hidden behind the fa'ade of Bharat Mata. This study is extremely relevant and ought to be carefully perused by policy makers concerned with the well-being of the country. A comparison with the concept of Bhavani Mandir which Sri Aurobindo propagated so powerfully to propel the freedom movement and which has been articulated unfailingly by K.D. Sethna since the late 1940s in the cultural monthly 'Mother India', would have revealed the hollowness of the VHP formulation as well as its ominous dimensions.

The volume would have gained immensely if the editors had commissioned a research paper on the river goddess Reba-Narmada. Traditionally, in the Kali Yuga it is this river which is the substitute of Ganga as the source of all merit. Besides the 'Reba Khanda' of the Skanda Purana , a huge volume of data lies compiled in Shailendra Narayan Ghoshal's travelogue, Tapobhumi Narmada , recording the amazing variety and richness of India's pantheon enshrined along both banks of the Narmada as a deeply lived and felt religion today. Another consort-less goddess who ought to have been included is Manasa, whose astonishing emergence as a deity from Bengal (including Chandi's annoyance at this), is recorded in Padmaa Puran and Manasa-mangal . Further, in his prologue Hawley forecasts that in future more voices of Indian women will be heard in such collections. With established scholars in comparative mythology like Gauri Dharmapal and Sukumari Bhattacharji, Indira S. Aiyar already in the field, this 


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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