The 17th-century poet Jagannatha, in the court of Shah Jahan, was once ostracised by his Brahmin community for having a love affair with a Muslim woman. He then travelled to Kashi, the legend goes, and sat with his beloved atop the 52nd step of the Panchganga Ghat along the river Ganga. With each of the 52 hymns he composed for the Ganga, the river rose one step by another before its waters touched the feet of the couple, purified them and carried them away in its eternal embrace. As Diana L Eck, who has written several outstanding books on Indian myths, recounts this wonderful anecdote in her essay on the Ganga, she makes a wonderful observation about the benign nature of the river goddess: “In India, where virtually every manifestation of female divinity is tinged with ambiguity, it is noteworthy that this river, which possesses such tremendous potential for destruction, is acclaimed in such unambiguous terms.”
This essay is included in Devi: The Goddesses of India, a scholarly book that has some remarkable pieces on the idea of feminine divinity in India. Edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, the book, a reprint of an earlier edition, is a significant contribution to Hindu theology and cultural studies. Rich in textual references and anecdotes, it charts the evolution of goddesses in Hindu religion, their impact on culture and their overlapping currents through case studies of several prominent goddesses. From Vindhyavasini to Kali, Radha and Ganga, the essays go on to explore the concept of Bharat Mata and the consequent resurgence of Hindu nationalists. Indian goddesses are not merely an exercise in religious symbolism, they are metaphysical entities that carry an incredible range of complex myths and legends. They are consorts of gods, slayers of demons and several of them, as Sakti, are created out of the joint energies and potencies of various gods. Their forms change as they move from one tale to another. Among the finest essays of this book, Thomas B Coburn observes that Sakti does not hold a mere external relation with a god, she is “far more fundamental, more internal to his identity”.
It is thus apt that several scriptures, including the Devi Mahatmya, the foundational text of the Shakt sect, assert that the ultimate reality is feminine. And that’s a baffling aspect of Indian civilisation. An alleged patriarchal society that ostensibly imposes several restraints on women also bestows upon them immense honour in its religion and myths. In Intimate Relations, a book that explores Indian sexuality, Sudhir Kakar notes that sage Manu and his subsequent commentators “have perhaps been unjustly branded as misogynists”. Manu, the law-giver, who prescribed that a woman needs protection from her male relatives through her life, added soon after that “where women are honored, there the gods are pleased”.
The debate about the status of a woman in Indian society can go on, but it can safely be stated that she has always occupied the finest creative, philosophical and theological minds of this civilisation. The multiple forms of goddesses testify to this.
The trend continued well into the modern era. The Indian national movement began in the 19th century with women issue at the centre. Many prominent Indian novels of that era also had eponymous women characters. Not restricting itself to religious scriptures, Devi often delves into relatively unknown pages of popular culture to explore various legends. For her love towards Krishna, Radha is often considered as the ideal beloved, whereas Krishna is sometimes taken to be a man who deserted his lover. A 16th-century play presents a different facet of their bond. In this play, Krishna, who has by now left Vrindavan, watches a play based on his love with Radha. As he watches his past life being enacted on the stage, he becomes wistful and rushes to the stage to embrace his alter ago, the actor who is playing the Krishna of Vrindavan.
If these goddesses are associated with various gods, they also share an umbilical bond within their pantheon. Kali, who is often paired with Shiva, is also the “embodied fury” of Durga. When Durga loses her composure and grows furious, from her darkened brow springs Kali. In the Vamana Purana, Parvati is also called Kali. Read together, thus, these tales present an organic portrait of Hindu religion in which all differences at the surface eventually merge in a grand ocean of non-duality, or Advaita. And yet, the ultimate realisation does not come before a rich metaphysical quest that is embedded in the tales. Amid this is situated Bharat Mata, arguably the latest goddess to enter the pantheon. There are some scattered references in Sanskrit texts that consider the motherland as a goddess, but she was perhaps consecrated and placed on a higher pedestal during the national movement when Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay composed Vande Mataram.
The penultimate chapter of Devi traces the evolution of the idea that once draped India into the image of an ideal Hindu woman and has now taken an aggressive Hindu stance. Lise Mckean coins a wonderful term, “Matriots”, which refers to the dutiful and devoted children of Bharat Mata who are quick to construe even routine incidents as offence to her dignity. Mckean goes on to suggest that militant “matriotism” might be read as “an oedipal drama of the patriarchal nation-state”. With the drama over Bharat Mata now unfolding in the political sphere, Devi makes necessary reading for every Indian who wishes to unravel the myths about Hindu goddesses.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla