Shakti - Divine Feminine

Ma Shakti, the Divine Feminine vs Colonial Demon: An ongoing war...

Rishi Yajnavalkya and Gargi Vachaknavi, the Brahmavadini, debating in King Janaka’s court. Image:  BAPS

Rishi Yajnavalkya and Gargi Vachaknavi, the Brahmavadini, debating in King Janaka’s court.
Image: BAPS

Once the ancient Rajarshi (Philosopher King) Janaka conducted a Yagya (Yajna), at the end of which, all the scholars and philosophers who had assembled to attend the Yagya and exchange ideas, started a discussion on the nature of Brahman. Several great Rishis and Brahmajnanis like Aswala, Bhujyu, Usasta Pandita, Yajnavalkya, Kaholaka, Gargi, Uddhalaka and Sakalya were present in the court. Rishi Yajnavalkya defeated many great philosophers in argument. Then Gargi, the Brahmavadini, rose and challenged him. She confronted him with existential questions about the ontology of the universe. When she continued questioning disregarding the proper method of inquiry into the nature of the deity [1], Yajnavalkya warned her: "You are questioning about a deity that should not be reasoned about, but known only through its special means of approach, the scriptures. Therefore do not, O Gārgī, push your inquiry too far unless you wish to die." Upon hearing this, Gargi Vacaknavi fell silent. The third chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad further explains the eventful debate in the court of King Janaka. Gargi, a learned Brahmavadini, fell silent because she realised the greatness of Rishi Yajnavalkya, and from there on merely tried to learn from him about the Supreme Reality instead of trying to challenge him or examining his knowledge. On the other hand, Sakalya, who arrogantly kept questioning the nature of Brahma, despite Yajnavalkya’s warnings, encountered a tragic and bizarre death, when his head fell off.

Gargi was warned by Yajnavalkya about what shall happen, and being a wise woman, she took cognisance of the warning while Sakalya did not pay heed and ended up paying the price. However, the self-professed “subaltern” academia interprets this incident as an example of Brahminical patriarchy and try to portray the advice of Yajnavalkya to Gargi Vacaknavi as a threat. Mainstream historians and Indologists are reluctant to acknowledge that women sharing deep philosophical debates along with men in great conferences was common in Bharat. Instead, the academia portrays Gargi as an exception, a revolutionary who "embarrassed" Sage Yajnavalkya with daring questions. In order to paint a faux-gender conflict, they cleverly refrain from mentioning what happened to Sakalya. Independent India’s mainstream academia, especially “subaltern” studies, are proudly continuing the legacy of the colonial-era “historians” in misinterpreting and maligning the status of women in Hinduism, the worst victim of which has been the Goddess worship system, or the Shakta sampradaya, because it stands as the biggest obstacle in their artificial gender-conflict story. In this essay, we will show that the relentless misinterpretation campaign, started by the imperialist and colonialists, and continued by independent India’s “academia” can be directly held responsible for the Judeo-Christian morality that dominates our judicial system, which leads to verdicts like the recent HC verdict banning Mrigabali for Maa Tripurasundari, the Mother goddess of Tripura, in the North-Eastern region of India.


shakti as Kuladevi, a proud tradition across india

Shakti worship system, once prevailed across ancient Bharat , through centres of Shakti worship, known as Shaktipeethas. Shaktipeethas are the places where Sati Devi's body parts are believed to have fallen in Satya Yuga. As a result of Islamic invasions in the medieval times, colonial laws, reforms, and partition of India, free practice of Shakti worship has been weakened in many of these historical centers of Goddess worship in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tibet and Nepal. While several centres of Goddess worship physically fell before the brutality of Islamic marauders, the warrior spirit of various Hindu communities posed relentless resistance due to their ardent ritualistic worship of the Devi.

A warrior must not be afraid of death and bloodshed. He must carry the courage to tread into dangerous fights and persevere to win. Kula Devi is the real protectress of the clan members. She is understood as a mother with a wide variety of virtues by the worshippers. She is there for her family in all sorts of family and social problems. Her kula (family), in return, have staunch faith in her. These deities, it is believed, can become angry if they are not offered regular worship.

What the “subaltern” academia won’t tell you, is that most of these Goddess-worshipping warrior communities are today classified as Dalits or OBCs. Most Dalit communities even today, are strong followers of the kuladevi worship tradition. Sadly, violent invasions and forced exoduses broke the continuity of worship in several of these places.

Danteshwari Devi, is the kuladevi of entire Bastar region, in Chhatisgarh, which is home to some of the oldest tribal communities in India. Every year during Dusshera, thousands of tribals from surrounding villages and jungles gather here to pay homage to the goddess, when her idol was taken out of that ancient Danteshwari temple and then taken around the city in an elaborate procession, now a popular tourist attraction part of the 'Bastar Dussehra' festival [wiki]. The Dussehra procession, in fact, is not about Lord Rama and his victory over demon Ravana, but about the glory of Mother Danteshwari. [read more]


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Colonialists systematically demonized Goddess traditions

The real threat to the indigenous Goddess worship came from the skewed worldview of the Abrahamic religions concerning women.

Judeo-Christian theology declared women as inferior beings responsible for all of the world’s sin and dictated that woman should always remain subservient to man. Medieval Islamic doctrines considered women as naturally, morally and religiously defective. Such discrimination is mainly because of their faith in the only one God who explicitly said about women: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.": Timothy 2-12 . Since the Judeo-Christian God created man in his image and woman was created from the rib of Adam, these puritanical colonizers, found the very idea  the idea of Goddess worship, offensive and “barbaric”. This was not the case, only in India. Various pagan sects across the world that worshipped the all-encompassing Mother Goddess and had women clergy in their religious life, had to face brutal violence during their encounter with the Abrahamist religions. The Council of Elvira in ca. 305 CE imposed stringent bans on various activities by women aimed at control of their sexuality. Women were denied property rights in the West until the 20th century. Women were not allowed to pursue art and learning. Women, who weren't living in piety, as per the rigid puritanical morality, were branded as prostitutes. The infamous witchhunt of pagan priestesses in medieval Europe was inspired by the very same Abrahamic worldview.

Around the time Europeans came to India in the late 16th century, women were being burnt all over Europe for believing and practicing Goddess and Nature worship. As such, the Shakti worship and freedom of women in India was perceived as a shocking obscenity by them. 

Soon after, a law was passed in Goa prohibiting rituals and sacrifices during wedding ceremonies of Hindus. Hindus were forced to celebrate the wedding ceremony behind closed doors. (Flight of the Deities: Hindu Resistance in Portuguese Goa, PAUL AXELROD AND MICHELLE A. FUERCH, Ripon College, Wisconsin) [2] The Portuguese in Goa, the French colonials, and the British used the charges of blasphemies, impiety, sodomy, necromancy and witchcraft to persecute the adherents of Shakteya tantra and other traditional ritual worship practices. At first, the ill-educated western missionaries in their bigotry against indigenous religions, misinterpreted Tantra sadhana.

Shaktism practitioners were the worst-hit victims of such intellectual efforts to restructure the Hindu psyche into a monocultural-monotheistic caricature of itself. British colonialism, through its legal frameworks as well as its intelligentsia, targeted the indigenous forest tribes who resisted the colonial advances and religious conversion efforts in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of these warriors who fought for their self-respect were adherents of their clan's Goddess (KulaDevi). By branding over 200 communities as tribes with 'criminal tendencies' under the former Criminal Tribes Act (1871), the British aimed to "control and reclaim" communities "addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences". This inhuman and bigoted criminalization of tribes was supported by depiction in their arts and literature. The depiction of superstitious, savage criminal tribes who often indulged in human sacrifices for the Goddess has been a common feature of many literary works of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is also possible that such stereotypes by the orientalists inspired Steven Spielberg to make the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Following the violent resistance by Pazhassi Raja and the Kurichya, Nair warriors in Malabar, Veluthambi and Nair warriors in Travancore, the British enforced severe punitive measures against the Kalaripayattu practitioners in Kerala. Kalaripayattu is a martial tradition belonging to the Shakteya worship system. Persecution of the Kalaripayattu practitioners and regular raids in these families for weapons by the British Police was a severe blow to the martial art as well as the valour of the Goddess worshippers. The efforts to weaken the Goddess worshipping martial traditions hastened even further, after the uprising of 1857. All those that were branded as “martial races” by the colonials were Goddess worshipping communities.

The demonization continues in Independent India

A beautiful depiction of Ma Tripurasundari by  Pratyasha Nithin

A beautiful depiction of Ma Tripurasundari by Pratyasha Nithin

After a couple of centuries of colonial education, we see even an average Hindu in independent India parroting the same atrocity literature narrative, propagated by the Abrahamists. Modern Indian State too, uses colonial era morality to adjudicate Hindu tradition and practices. Hindus are no longer attuned to their beliefs, are getting boxed into straight-jacketed thinking that would even shame a modern Britisher, today. This is also the reason why we don't hear any word of protest from Hindu organisations to repeal the  Anti Superstition laws such as the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013. Aghora practices are an age-old tradition that as you can probably tell by the name of the law, have been caricatured and maligned as “superstition”, in continuance with the legacy of the British colonials. The recent High Court judgement on Ma Tripurasundari Shaktipeetha in Tripura, deeming Pashubali, the animal sacrifice ritual as not “essential practice” must be seen in the same light.

The Economist in its reportage about supposed 'witchcraft' in Assam wrote: "The arrival of Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants and the spread of Christianity among the tribes by American Baptist missionaries has not dispelled local superstitions: villagers still practice rituals aimed at warding off evil spirits."  This sentence itself is a naked display of bigotry with which Hindu practices are seen even today, by erstwhile colonials and their modern day descendants even in India. Two days ago, a prominent newspaper in Malayalam carried an article describing Aghoris as necromancers. 

JNU Tribal Student’s Forum has repeatedly protest against using Santhal name to malign Ma Durga, but the disinformation campaign continues.  Source:  Indiafacts

JNU Tribal Student’s Forum has repeatedly protest against using Santhal name to malign Ma Durga, but the disinformation campaign continues.
Source: Indiafacts

Goddess worship have also been regularly demonised in independent India’s academia and popular media. The abuse of Ma Durga as a prostitute and lionizing of demon Mahishasura [4] in the name of Santhal tribe, despite their various protests against this claim, as she is the primary deity of the tribe [5][6], the depiction of tribal warrior Unniyarcha as a lustful, disempowered woman [7] are all systemic efforts to deny Feminine Divinity and her warrior spirit. Adherents of the Shakta tradition, even today, are often portrayed as sexual predators and performers of “distasteful” rituals and a missionary zeal to “reform” the Divine Feminine out of them, is often seen in the intelligentsia. The Abrahmic-contempt inspired bigoted laws and stereotypes that were put in place by the British, proudly continue to find space in modern academia. The irony of demonization of these Goddess worshipping tribal rituals of India by “feminist studies”, “subaltern studies” and “indology” is surely overwhelming!

TantraShastra or Agama has always been very much an integral part of the essential Hindu scriptures, yet, the shaming process guided by victorian morality enabled rejection of the practical ritualistic methodologies of Shaktism as “occult” and “superstition” by the colonial subjects.

John Woodroffe, the leading Orientalist, who wrote under the pseudonym, Arthur Avalon, quipped in 1918: "Some English-speaking Bengalis of a past day, too ready to say, "Aye aye," to the judgments of foreign critics, on their religion as on everything else, and in a hurry to dissociate themselves from their country's "superstitions," were the source of the notion which has had such currency amongst Europeans that, "Tantra" necessarily meant drinking wine and so forth." [Shakti and Shâkta, by Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe) [1918]]. In modern independent India, the anglicized Indians have taken over the colonial intolerance to the diversity and inclusiveness promoted by the Hindu way of life. Several states in India passed anti-superstition law banning several Vamacara rituals practised by the worshippers of the Mother Goddess. Yes, it is a fact that the post-colonial Indian state carries colonial contempt for the Divine Feminine. 

the way forward…


The feminine vigor of the Hindu heritage has to be diminished so that the white man's burden to “civilize the savage polytheists and save their women from the brutality of the native men”, can be achieved by showing them the “light”. However, Hindu society has always been a lot more egalitarian and balanced than Abrahamic cultures. But the emancipation of the Hindus into the universalist program of the global monotheistic philosophies can only be possible if the Female Divinity is undermined. The sad part is how Hindus themselves parrot the victorian narrowmindedness and define the colonial interpretation of dharmic philosophy and traditions as Sanatana dharma.

Girl child being worshipped as Kaumari, on the 9th day of Navratri. Image Credits:  Ekabhumi Elik

Girl child being worshipped as Kaumari, on the 9th day of Navratri. Image Credits: Ekabhumi Elik

In Devi Mahatmyam, we read the story of Ma Amba, and how she, having emerged from the shaktis of all devatas, fights the demons. She creates a thousand swarupas but when demon Shumbha chastises her for fighting with the help of so many female warriors, she shows him that those are nothing but her forms as they all merge into her. Similarly, Devi Mahatmyam also states that Hindu women are embodiments of the devi [Ch 12, verse 10], so perhaps it is time that Hindu women realize their Shakti within, and fight this multi-headed demon of colonialism, for Amba, for Shakti, the Divine Feminine.

In this journey for the self-rediscovery of the Shakti — the feminine within every Hindu woman, Shaktitva insists on the application of the basic tenets of Sanatana Dharma in everyday stories of women.

Shaktitva aims to redefine the women's narrative in post-colonial society abiding by the principles of Dharma. Join us, in fighting the fight for the Divine Feminine against the colonizing forces that still permeate our society. The war, is far from over…

further reading: 

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Anjali George

Anjali George is an activist and a writer who is extremely passionate about the preservation of Indic way of life and indigenous cultures. She is one of the pioneers behind the ‘Ready To Wait’ movement, that was launched to ascertain the rights of the indigenous women in opposition to a politically motivated attack on the tradition of Sabarimala temple. She serves on the Board of Frankfurt City's Council of religions.


Gaurav for my Devi: Navratra Musings

A while ago, I had a conversation with an acquaintance of a different religion, who remarked “God cannot possibly be a woman”. I really wasn’t prepared for this, but something immediately started boiling inside me. I couldn’t find the appropriate words in that moment, so I retorted, “maybe in your religion, but not mine”. The anger of that moment, though, peaked long after that conversation was over. In a way, I was angry at myself. “If  I had had any sense I would have forced him to apologize for offending my religious beliefs”, my train of thought continued, “Why am I so naive?!”. It was in that moment that I decided to never let anyone degrade Devi in my presence. 

But this incident, in fact, led me to think deeper about my relationship with Sanatan Dharma, as well as my relationship with the feminine in both its spiritual and physical sense. I was actually baffled at that person’s comment, it is after all, a woman that brings you into this world, a mother is the child’s world! So if that isn’t divine, I honestly do not know what is. Even today, I struggle with to understand how is it that some people can only see divinity as male, as if it is only a man that is worthy of worship while  a woman is seen as something to be ashamed of. 

Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva seated on lotuses with their consorts, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Paravati respectively. ca 1770. Guler, India. Source:  Wikipedia

Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva seated on lotuses with their consorts, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Paravati respectively. ca 1770. Guler, India. Source: Wikipedia

Our shastras impart knowledge with a different outlook in relation to what my high school English teacher called “the woman question” - that is, the question of what to do with our women. From an early age, I was taught that Venkateswara is nothing without Lakshmi, as depicted in the story of the Tirumala Venkateswara Swamy. The depiction of our Gods highlight the complementarity of the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine. The three Gods, also known as the Trimurti which comprise of Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh (Shiva) represent creation, sustenance and destruction whereas the Goddesses, Saraswati, Laxmi and Parvati knowledge, prosperity and motherly benevolence. Furthermore, they are paired so beautifully together, that it leads to a natural appreciation of the importance of the feminine. After all, there is no creation of value if it is not done with wisdom; one cannot sustain themselves if they do not prosper; and destruction could end creation without the guiding light of a mother’s compassion. Even as we pray to  Vishnu and Shiva, we remember the Divine Feminine of Shri and Shakti with them. 

This led me to question why it is that in today’s world of political correctness, someone would dare make a statement of that sort about my religion, and my way of life. This made me wonder whether I was voca enough about my own beliefs, which inspired me to analyze the way Hindus react and interact with the world around them. A very important aspect of a people’s identity is whether they are a proud people.

This pride, or gaurav, comes from an inherent knowledge of one’s identity, and one’s history, the struggles one’s people have faced and the tribulations they have overcome.

This gaurav neither appears nor disappears overnight. It is either accumulated through years of activism or stamped out through years of subjugation to the “white man’s burden” mindset. For too long, Hindus have allowed the fairest of the world to teach them their own barbaric ways, and have then been taught practices that were (re)discovered and have existed for as long as the vedas and the rishis have.

As worshippers of Devi Saraswati, it is shameful that all of our knowledge has been pilfered from our people and is being fed back to us in a white-washed, clean package.

Turmeric Latte is now sold at Starbucks in US and Europe. Image Source:  Starbucks

Turmeric Latte is now sold at Starbucks in US and Europe. Image Source: Starbucks

The clearest example being the rise of turmeric or haldi-based beverages being popularized in the suburban American market. Why must it always be America or Europe who reinstall our faith in our own traditional knowledge? Why is it that the only way for indigenous faiths to get credit for our knowledge, is only through prolonged, intense, ugly fighting? I mean, this is a problem we’ve had since ancient times! Our modern day numerical system should be called the Hindu Number System, but it is commonly known as Arabic Number System. Why? Why must the Hindu adjective be dropped? Some claim that this is a result of the credit going to those who propagate the knowledge or the product and not those who create it. So then, by the same logic, we should be thanking Office Depot, not China, for the invention of paper, and Kroger, not farmers, for the produce that we eat everyday? This notion is as absurd as it sounds, but we Hindus, are now used to absurd arguments being peddled out to us, just so we can be robbed of our knowledge, while the world can continue ignoring the word “Hindu” from the name of our numerical system.

However, if you furthered this argument in any setting, you would immediately be stamped with some political label which will be compared to fascism. Why is it that we Hindus are not allowed to be proponents of our own knowledge? But more importantly, why don’t most Hindus push back? Are we really that scared of showing Maa Saraswati’s genius to the world? Are we afraid of being laughed at? Scores of scientists and linguists and philosophers were ridiculed for decades before proven correct by later generations. What are we Hindus waiting for? We must learn once again, to have gaurav for all of the toils our ancestors went through to seek the kind of knowledge we take for granted.

It is a disgrace to Devi Saraswati to let others take credit for and preach ideas and practices that our great culture has granted to us.

Moreover, it is disrespectful to ourselves to allow western consumerism to steal our ancient wisdom for profits. As a society, we cannot give into the modern white man’s burden anymore. Our ancestors had so much wisdom, and we are on the brink of losing it all. Kali yuga, to me, not only means a growth of evil, but the demise of knowledge and the growth of ignorance.

This Navratri, I would urge you all to please educate yourselves and your children about the wonders of our culture and the complexity with which we choose to explain our multidimensional world.

Our religion and worldview is not reductionist, like most religions, but an advocate of different thoughts, spiritual practices and most importantly, an accumulation of knowledge accrued over millennia.

It is high time we held ourselves accountable, if not for our own sakes, for our Devis - for they represent all that is sacred in the world and if we can’t respect them by respecting ourselves and our great heritage, our lives won’t amount to anything.

I refuse to be the last Hindu generation, and I refuse to let Maa Saraswati down by forgetting everything she has taught us. 

There are so many modern - day incarnations of shakti keeping the flame of Hinduism alive, that it is becoming hard to count, and that, to me, is the most garvakaran there is. Today, there are authors who write the tales of young and old Hindus, about their adventures, loves and thoughts. We are slowly learning to embrace our culture again, through the age old way - stories. Stories have the power to impart knowledge without a lecture, and they become a crutch in times of need. Our Hindu authors of today are reminding Hindu women of the shakti they possess within themselves through the stories of Draupadi, Aru Shah (a fictitious character who goes on adventures with the Hindu gods and goddesses at her side), Sita and many more.

A grandmother with granddaughter, India.  Image Credits :  Nithi Anand, Flickr

A grandmother with granddaughter, India.
Image Credits : Nithi Anand, Flickr

However, the biggest upholders of our ancient knowledge are the elderly within each family. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have grown up hearing the tales of the Pancatantra, the Ramayana, Mahabharata and many other puranas from grandparents on both sides. Grandparents carry so much wisdom within them, and you generally do not realize it until it is too late to thank them for imparting their knowledge so generously. My Ammamma (my mother’s mother) knew about the secret of the book “The Secret”, before even the author did, I’m sure. When I was younger, my Ammamma taught me that all I should do, if I am ever in need of help, is ask. She taught me that “yaa devi sarva bhuteshu” can be my call to the universe. When I was younger, I used to think that practicing Sanathan Dharma makes one’s life perfect, but I have since understood that practicing Sanathan Dharma gives one the strength to succeed in an imperfect world. My Ammamma taught me that asking for help shows that you have strength. I never understood the importance of this sloka until I came to college, away from my family, and away from my mother. In times of stress, I call out to my Devi and ask for strength. Let us all repeat to ourselves today:

yaa devi sarva bhuteshu, shakti rupena samsthithaa

namastasyai, namastasyai , namastasyai namo namah


(Hey Devi you pervade all creation, in all living and unliving things, in all aspects of creation, in the form of Shakti. I bow to thee, I bow to thee, I bow to thee, mother!)

This one sloka has helped me understand that the Devi is my Divine  Mother, and she will take care of me even when I am far away from the  Devi incarnate, my own mother. This Navratri, I want to take the time to appreciate all of the shaktis and devis in my own life, as well as the Mahadevi herself, in all her glory. 



From my family to yours, Navratri Subhakankshalu!


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Krishna Sarvani Desabhotla

Krishna Sarvani “Vani” Desabhotla is a sophomore Honors Biomedical Engineering student at the University of Houston. She is from The Woodlands, TX, and she loves to frequently visit home to catch up with her family and eat lovely home-cooked Indian food. Hinduism, to her, means having gratitude for everything in the universe and doing good. She hopes to live in a world in which the practice of bringing back ancient Hindu wisdom becomes commonplace.







माँ शक्ति

अन्धकार की चादर में मुँह छुपाये तीव्र गति से भागती रात्रि, उसके पीछे स्वर्णिम रश्मियों से सजी नववधु की भाँति आहिस्ता क़दमों से प्रवेश करती भोर, पक्षियों का कलरव और दूर कहीं सुनाई पड़ती घण्टा ध्वनि व शंखनाद के साथ "जय अम्बे गौरी, मइया जय श्यामा गौरी....." की आरती की स्वर लहरी ...... ऐसे होता था मेरे बचपन का सवेरा ।

उत्तर प्रदेश की राजधानी के 'चौक' का वो स्थान जहाँ मेरा जन्म हुआ। वहीँ घर के निकट माँ काली का प्रसिद्ध भव्य मन्दिर था। आँख खुलते ही प्रतिदिन 'शक्ति' की विविध उपासना के स्वर कानों से सहज ही टकराते और मुंदीं आँखों में भी शक्ति स्वरूपा माँ की तस्वीर साकार हो जाती। तब मन सोचता कि कोई है जो सर्वशक्तिमान है, जो थामे है हम सबकी डोर। इधर घर में भी प्रातः अन्य कार्यों से पूर्व नज़र आता घर का वह कोना जहाँ एक प्रज्ज्वलित दीपशिखा के सम्मुख दिखाई देती भीगी अलकों और मुंदी पलकों के साथ नतमस्तक मेरी माँ। तब मन में फिर ये प्रश्न उठता कि कौन है वो जिसके समक्ष करबद्ध खड़ी है मेरी जन्मदात्री?

नवरात्री के पर्व पर सजा हुआ निशि श्रीवास्तव के घर का मंदिर

नवरात्री के पर्व पर सजा हुआ निशि श्रीवास्तव के घर का मंदिर

फिर धीरे- धीरे अपनी माँ के सानिध्य में देवी पूजा और प्रत्येक शाम मन्दिर आने-जाने के साथ ही जैसे 'शक्ति' की वो दिव्य मूर्ति हृदय में स्वयं ही प्रतिष्ठित होती चली गई। इस प्रकार बाल्यावस्था से ही उस 'शक्ति स्वरूपा देवी' के प्रति आस्था, विश्वाश और श्रद्धा ने उनके प्रति एक अनुराग सा बना दिया। फलस्वरूप अपनी माँ द्वारा किये जाने वाले सभी धार्मिक अनुष्ठानों में मेरी प्रमुख भूमिका रहने लगी। लेकिन जैसे-जैसे नवदुर्गा पर्व का आगमन निकट आता मन में एक अलग ही हलचल, उत्साह, ऊर्जा का जन्म होने लगता और मन उस अलौकिक शक्ति स्वरूपा माँ की आराधना से रोमांचित हो उठता। नवरात्रि में सजे माँ के दरबार व अदभुत पाण्डाल बालपन में आकर्षण का केंद्र होते तो माँ का फूलों से श्रंगार करना कहीं अंदर तक आह्लादित कर देता। जितना समय देवी माँ की आराधना, उपासना में लगता मन उतना ही अधिक उनके निकट होता जाता और माँ के शक्ति पुंज मेरी आत्मा में गहरे समाते चले जाते।

वस्तुतः शक्ति की उपासना का ये पर्व आदि शक्ति के नौ रूपों की पूजा का पर्व है, जिसे 'नवदुर्गा' कहते हैं।

"दुर्गा का आशय ही जीवन से दुखों का नाश करने वाली होता है।"

सूक्ष्म मानव मन और वह शक्ति जो समस्त ब्रम्हाण्ड में निरंतर व्याप्त है, इस प्रार्थना, उपासना द्वारा उस 'शक्ति' को जगाने का नाम ही 'नवरात्रि' है। वो शक्ति जो सबकी पालनकर्ता है, जो कोमल और पालक होकर भी समय आने पर माँ काली के रूप में दुष्टों और कष्टों की संहारकर्ता बन जाती है।

नवरात्रि का ये पर्व आश्विन (शरद) और चैत्र (वसंत) मास के प्रारम्भ में मनाया जाता है। अगर ध्यान दें तो इस वक्त प्रकृति भी नवीनीकरण की प्रक्रिया में होती है। नवरात्रि में भी उपासना, प्रार्थना, मौन और उपवास के द्वारा मन अपनी वास्तविकता से साक्षात्कार करता है तथा अंतरात्मा की नकारात्मकता का संहार करता है। शक्ति के आह्वान से जहाँ मन की अशुद्धियों का विनाश होता है वहीं उपवास की क्रिया शरीर को शुद्धता प्रदान करती है जिससे 'सात्विक ऊर्जा' की वृद्धि होती है।

प्रकृति के साथ चेतना के उत्सव नवरात्रि में शक्ति के तीन रूप दुर्गा, लक्ष्मी, सरस्वती की आराधना की जाती है। शक्ति के ये सभी रूप नकारात्मकता से रक्षा के लिये एक 'कवच' का काम करते हैं। देवी के इन रुपों के स्मरण मात्र से ही मन 'आत्मकेंद्रित', निर्भय और शान्त होता है। इन नौ दिनों में जब हम देवी दुर्गा के विभिन्न स्वरूपों की उपासना करते हैं तो वे गुण हमारी चेतना में समाहित होते चले जाते हैं।

दुर्गा पूजा यद्यपि देश भर में मनाया जाता है फिर भी इस पर्व का आकर्षक रूप और परम्परा की खूबसूरती पश्चिम बंगाल में अधिक देखने को मिलती है। ये नौ दिन पवित्रता, सत्यता, भव्यता और तेजस्व की अलौकिक आभा लिये होते हैं। शक्ति का ये पर्व बताता है कि झूठ कितना भी बड़ा और पाप कितना भी शक्तिशाली क्यों न हो आखिर में जीत सच्चाई और धर्म की ही होती है। इस प्रकार शारदीय नवरात्र अधर्म पर धर्म और असत्य पर सत्य की जीत का प्रतीक है।

नवरात्रि के पर्व पर स्थापित “कलश” और बोई गई जौं।  चित्र श्रेय: नेहा श्रीवास्तव

नवरात्रि के पर्व पर स्थापित “कलश” और बोई गई जौं।
चित्र श्रेय: नेहा श्रीवास्तव

उत्तर भारत में शक्ति के नौ स्वरूपों की पूजा का प्रारम्भ कलश स्थापना के साथ करते हैं जिसे 'घट स्थापना' भी कहते हैं। इस कलश पर नौ दिन तक जलने वाली एक अखण्ड जोत प्रज्ज्वलित की जाती है। ये घट स्थापना वस्तुतः शक्ति की देवी का आह्वान है।

नवरात्र में कलश स्थापना के साथ जौं बोने की परम्परा भी सनातन धर्म में सदियों से चली आ रही है। धर्म ग्रन्थों में जौं को ब्रह्म स्वरूप माना गया है। पूजा में इसका सम्मान करने का अर्थ अन्न का सम्मान करना ही है। नवदुर्गा में माँ उनके घर पधारे इसके लिये श्रद्धालु घर के मुख्य द्वार के दोनों ओर कुमकुम या रोली से स्वास्तिक व रंगोली भी बनाते हैं। लाल रंग को शास्त्रों में शक्ति का प्रतीक माना गया है। इस प्रकार नवरात्रि नौ शक्तियों के मिलन का पर्व है।

मेरे लिये नवरात्रि इसलिये भी महत्वपूर्ण हो जाती है क्योंकि माँ का शक्ति रूप मेरे मन के भीतर अदम्य ऊर्जा का संचार करता है जिसमें एक 'विशेष बल' होता है। इस तरह शक्ति की उपासना शारीरिक, शैक्षिक और बौद्धिक बल प्रदान करती है। उन नौ दिनों में मन माता के जिस स्वरूप की पूजा करता है उस गुण का प्रवेश मन में सहज ही समाहित हो जाता है और आत्मा सकारात्मक ऊर्जा से भर उठती है। मेरी दृष्टि से नवरात्रि शारीरिक, मानसिक शुद्वि का पर्व है।

इस तरह बचपन से अब तक इस उपासना के कारण 'शक्ति स्वरूपा माँ' से सहज ही एक आत्मीय सम्बन्ध स्थापित हो गया। जैसे कोई बालक अपनी माँ के गुणों को अपने आचार-विचार व व्यवहार में उतार लेता है वैसे ही समय के साथ अनजाने ही निडरता, स्नेह, क्षमा, दया, मानवता और संकटों से लड़ने का साहस सहज ही 'शक्ति' की कृपा स्वरूप मेरे स्वभाव का हिस्सा बनता चला गया। जहाँ एक ओर माँ के सम्मुख प्रज्ज्वलित दिव्य ज्योति मन के भीतर अन्धकार रूपी तमाम बुरे भावों का विनाश करती वहीँ माँ का तेजस्वी रूप शत्रुओं के सामने अडिग खड़े रहने का साहस देता, तो माँ का लक्ष्मी और सरस्वती रूप आत्मा में बौद्धिकता व सात्विकता का संचार करते।

संक्षेप में बस इतना ही कि 'शक्ति' से अपनी आत्मा का जो अदभुत रिश्ता नवरात्रि में स्थापित हो जाता है वह शक्ति की वो अनुभूति है जो लहू से लेकर अन्तरात्मा तक की नकारात्मकता का संहार कर सकारात्मक ऊर्जा को प्रवाहित कर जीवन की दिशा का नवोन्मेष करती है।



ऐसी है मेरी शक्ति स्वरूपा माँ और उसका नवदुर्गा पर्व।

जय माँ,जय शक्ति।


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Nishi Srivastava

Nishi is an academician, a writer, a Hindi scholar and a poet. As a poet, she draws inspiration from life and the experiences around her.

When we wake up to our Shakti, We are unstoppable

In every century, every era, it has always been up to the individual to realize her or his own Shakti and do what it takes to get what one wants.

Is there really a battle between genders? Are women being suppressed by men? Do women have no free will? Growing up as a Hindu female in India, I have realized that the narrative of the battle between genders has often been a false one. When issues are looked at holistically, there are so many layers that the gender narrative fades away in the Hindu context.

 

Take the narrative that women in India do not have the right to make their own decisions regarding their lives. When one digs deeper, one finds that in every century, every era, it has always been up to the individual to realize her or his own shakti and do what it takes to get what one wants. The society makes norms based on its realities – during the Vedic period, women were debating over complex philosophical tenets, composing shlokas, performing yajnas either solo or with their husbands; and there were no strictures on them to conceal their bodies. The principles of dressing in unstitched clothes called antariya (lower garment) and uttariya (upper garment) were the same for men and women.

 

The Jauhar of Rajput women at Chittorgarh as shown in Akbarnama, V&A Museum, Public Domain.

The Jauhar of Rajput women at Chittorgarh as shown in Akbarnama, V&A Museum, Public Domain.

In later periods, due to violent invasions, restrictions were put on women’s freedoms in order to protect them from rapes, kidnappings and conversions. From the 10th century onwards, when Muslim invaders began to control different parts of India it became common for Indian prisoners of war, especially women to be enslaved and sold in slave markets. Practices such as Jauhar-Shaka became common, where women jumped into fire rather than allow themselves to be raped and sold by barbarians. The society was in turmoil. Women were the easiest targets to inflict humiliation on entire communities. The natural tendency in such situations is for male members in families to cast a protective net around the females. Women’s clothing became more conservative. 

 

When we look at the incidents of men suppressing or abusing women in modern India, these are often examples of “might is right” or bullying which are used by self-aggrandizing and non-spiritual people to display their power and control over others. Even though a gender slant is given to such incidents, they are actually power orgies. Take the case of dowry. Though it is projected as symbolic of the lower status of women in India, the truth lies somewhere else. A voluntary practice of gifting presents by a bride’s parents to the bridegroom’s family with absolutely no compulsion and in the spirit of binding two families was turned into an ugly exercise of power by unscrupulous elements of society. In recent times, with a draconian anti-dowry law in place in India, many women are using the law to blackmail and extort money from their husbands in false dowry cases. Perceiving this as a gender problem is a western construct. So also is the case with rape, domestic violence and subjugation of women. The Indic framework would analyse all these as a problem of poor understanding of Purusharthas; especially of Artha, Kama and Dharma as laid out in our ancient texts. Thus, the only way out of the depravity is to bring back an appreciation of the Purusharthas which is embedded in Vedic learning.

 

Male and female have always been seen as entities complementing each other in the Indic context, whether at the societal level or at the conceptual level. Women are bearers and nurturers of the next generation – providing for them and protecting them is the Dharma of men and in fact, the entire society or administrative apparatus. But, taking care of material needs is not enough. The Indic worldview gives responsibility to both men and women to preserve and transmit Vedic knowledge; this is why the educational ecosystem was so well developed in ancient India.

 

Indic wisdom recognizes that equality for the sake of equality is meaningless. Inter-dependence and complementarity of genders by understanding each other’s roles is the only way to move forward. For example, I do not claim to be equal to my husband, nor does he claim to be equal to me. He shoulders the main responsibility of financing my family’s needs while I manage everything else. He tries to support me in every pursuit of mine, I try to support his. This mutual effort did not develop by signing on a piece of paper; or by going through the traditional rituals of a wedding. It evolved with time – over arguments, fights and reconciliations – over thunderstorms followed by calm mornings. It evolved with a progressive understanding that once a couple gets joined in matriomy, the purusharthas have to be achieved jointly as one unit. And of course, nothing ever got achieved without a sankalpa.

 

Ardhanareeshwara from Lingaraj Temple, Bhubhaneshwar. Source:  Flickr

Ardhanareeshwara from Lingaraj Temple, Bhubhaneshwar. Source: Flickr

Beyond sexual organs and reproductive functions, at the conceptual level, there is Purusha or Consciousness which is neither male nor female – it is just pure consciousness; still and deep. Then there is Prakriti or Shakti which is female; and she is characterized by creative energy, dynamism and ever-changing qualities. It is Shakti or Divine Mother or Mother Nature who actually creates this whole duality between male and female. In other words the male and female entities as we see them actually spring from feminine energy! As we go deeper into ourselves, the male-female dichotomy vanishes.

 

In the plane of human existence, there is no inherent conflict in the roles of men and women if both understand their responsibilities, goals and synergies. There is even room for doing things differently. Thus, we see in our Itihasa that even though women have the responsibility of giving birth and nurturing the next generation, there is an understanding that not all women are mentally wired to follow the path. Examples abound of women in ancient India who wished to pursue higher learning and therefore did not marry. Today, there are many husbands who are pursuing their passions while their wives are bringing home the bread and butter.

 

However, it is obvious that privileges are rarely given on a platter. Women have often needed to fight for what they wanted; they have needed to sharpen their arguments or find the right partners or allies or even just run away to achieve their goals. The same principles apply to men too; after all weaker men get dominated by stronger men and women unless they find their shakti. When we wake up to our Shakti and true potential, we are all unstoppable; there is no gender-divide in the Hindu context. No external empowerment is needed for a woman because she is herself the embodiment of Shakti. This is in contrast with Abrahamic theologies in which women are subservient and therefore need empowerment in the modern context. 

A still from the Hindi movie, Damini

A still from the Hindi movie, Damini

There is a powerful scene in the Hindi movie “Damini” that has stayed with me all these years. Damini, the protagonist had been pursuing litigation against powerful people for their misdeeds and they had succeeded in getting her thrown into a mental asylum. She was subjected to severe mental torture and had lost her mental balance. She sat babbling inanities in the midst of dozens of people with extreme psychiatric problems and then relapsed into silence. It seemed as if she had lost the battle. Her oppressors had broken her. Suddenly, there was a piercing sound of a conch and beating drums outside. The crazed look on Damini’s face began to turn into resolve.  She glanced out of the window grills to see a passing procession holding up a large moorti of Durga. As Damini focused her gaze on the Durga moorti, all feelings of weakness vanished. She remembered the dance of Mahishasura Mardini. She knew exactly what she had to do.


About The Author

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Sahana Singh

Sahana Singh is an engineer, author, and commentator who specializes in water/sanitation issues and Indic history. Sahana is an avid traveler who likes to connect the dots across societies, civilizations and disciplines. She is Director, Indian History Awareness and Research (IHAR), a think tank headquartered in Houston and has recently joined the board of Ishwar Sewa Foundation dedicated to the cause of rehabilitating Hindu refugees. She can be reached at sahana.singh@gmail.com.

Radha, the Enigmatic Gopi: Soul mate of the Ultimate Soul

Radha is the soul mate of Krishna rather than his lover or wife, which of course their earthly life represented symbolically. Hence, Radha’s role as soul (atma) is more important to understand her central role as feminine divine rather than her life as a simple human on the earth. Even though Radha is born in Barsana and played with Krishna as a child, her life as the special Gopi representing the individual soul (atma) is important to understand her central position in Bhakti tradition. Radha is the symbolic representation of the soul and the personification of the ultimate blissful union through her relationship to Krishna, the purnavatara (complete/total incarnation) of Vishnu. 

Shri Krishna painting Shri Radha’s feet at San Diego Museum of Art. Source:  Flickr

Shri Krishna painting Shri Radha’s feet at San Diego Museum of Art. Source: Flickr

Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita (qualified non-dualism/monism), Vallabha’s Suddhadvaita (pure non-dualism/monism) captures the special relationship of individual soul (atma) with universal soul (brahma), which is symbolically represented through the relationship of Radha and Krishna. Caitanya’s Achintya Bhedabheda (inexplicable identity-difference and indifference), and Nimbarka’s Svabhavaka Bhedabheda (natural identity-difference and indifference) captures this relationship even closely. These two doctrines are also referred to as dvaitadvaita (dual and non-dual), because they explain Krishna as both absolute transcendent as well as dual and distinct together with Radha. Although bhedabheda is utilized as a central philosophy of Krishna devotional schools, it had its origins in the Vedic notion that that difference and unity (non-difference) can co-exist in relation with each other, which finds explicit exposition contained in the Taittiriya Upanisad 3.1.1. As stated in this verse unity is in difference and non-difference, according to which all beings crave unity with brahma, the universal soul, while also consisting of difference, as beings. It explains that although individuals may appear separate and different from the source (the brahma), they still maintain the essence of the source, situated within each individual as the individual’s soul (atma), and hence constantly desire union with the brahma.

Textual and Theological Traditions: Radha, the Gopi to the Atma

Radha appears as an anonymous Gopi, the favorite of Krishna, in texts such as the Bhagavatapuranaand the Cilappadikaram. While the Rasalila section of the Bhagavatapurana spans 5 chapters of the 10th book, it does not mention Radha explicitly, but mentioning the Gopis only as a generic term, while including descriptions of a special Gopi as the favorite of Krishna. She figures as the prominent and favorite Gopi of Krishna during his autumnal rasalila, the round dance in Braj. Numerous forests (groves and arbors) are mentioned in the Harivamsa, the Bhagavatapurana, and the Gargasamhita as favorite places of Krishna to play with his friends the Gopas and also to sport with Radha and the Gopis. Twelve forests are mentioned as settings for Radha and Krishna’s love play, and also the rasa dance, as well as other events in the life of Krishna. Sringaravata is identified as the particular tree associated with the secret randezvous that Krishna went with his favorite Gopi, later identified as Radha. The Bhagavatapurana does not even mention Radha by name, calling her a ‘special Gopi’ of Krishna, while Radha is the central character of the Gitagovinda, noted as an epitome of love. The subject of the Gitagovinda poetry is the Rasalila of Radha and Krishna. However, the separation (viraha) and union, two modes of love found expression in fantasy-laden world. The world of Vraja is transformed in the poems of the Gitagovinda into a heavenly blissful place, where only happiness is found, and thoughts of Krishna pervade. In including Radha as the full-fledged partner of Krishna, the Gitagovinda diverges from the original, although it deals in a similar way with the concept of Rasalila as described in the Bhagavatapurana, which also includes the ‘separation-union’ anxiety of lovers represented by Krishna and the Gopis

Giri Govardhan by Mihir Chand. San Diego Museum of Art. Source:  Flickr

Giri Govardhan by Mihir Chand. San Diego Museum of Art. Source: Flickr

Radha also appears alongside Krishna in early sculptures depicting the events of Krishna’s life, such as Danlila (300 C.E. From Suratgarh, Rajasthan), several depictions of Govardhandharana (lifting Mount Govardhana) from across India, dated from 400 C.E. onwards. Although Radha’s symbolic nature as the soul mate of the ultimate soul is known and enunciated in the classical texts of India, her efflorescence comes after 600 C.E. as she acquires centrality among the spiritual conscious of popular devotional traditions of India. Radha acquired utmost significance as the feminine counterpart of Krishna in the devotional texts, as evidenced by the composition of Andal’s Tiruppavai and Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda.  Radha’s representation as the soul mate of Krishna is visualized in several miniature paintings dating from 1200 C.E. onwards depicting her as the partner of Krishna. 

Radha is idolized by Andal, the female saint-poet (alvar) of the Southern India, as the ideal Gopi in the Tiruppavai, in which she also invoked the Gopis of Vraja who performed a vow to Goddess Katyayani, so they might obtain Krishna as their husband. In the Tiruppavai, Andal imagines herself as that special Gopi of Krishna, who remains anonymous, praying to Krishna, so she may obtain him as her husband. In a further development of the legend, Andal is even identified as the reincarnation of the favorite Gopi of Krishna in Vijayanagara emperor Srikrishnadevaraya’s compositiong based on the life of Andal, the Amuktamalyada.

Radha’s position as that of equaling Krishna is typical of Vaishnava bhakti traditions from 1000 C.E onwards. Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda epitomizes the sringara of Radha and Krishna and brings it forward as one of the major concepts associated with Krishna. 

Bhakti Tradition: The Yugal (atma and paramatma)

Krishna’s constant engagement with the Gopas and Gopis is an illustration of the sakhyabhava (mood of friendship), which is one of the important modes for connecting with the god, in bhakti tradition of worship.  In the Bhagavatapurana, even though there were numerous Gopi maidens that desired the company of Krishna, only one Gopi Radha acquired the special position of being Krishna’s favorite cowherd maiden. The Gopis, as described in the Rasalila, connect with Krishna and surrender to him completely. Self-surrender of the Gopis is indicated by two incidents narrated in the Bhagavatapurana, that of Krishna stealing the Gopis’clothes, and that of engaging in the Rasalila dance with the Gopis during the autumnal nights in Brindavan. Rasalila tradition acquires special place in the practice of devotional traditions.

However, Radha’s centrality in devotional traditions can be attributed to the Haritray (the three Haris: Hit Harivams, Hariram Vyas, and Svami Haridas), also known as the rasikatrai (the three connoisseurs of Radha-Krishna). All three of them openly proclaim their loyalty to Radha, referred to as Svamini in their poems. While Hariram Vyas signed off his poems with the signature stamp (chap) of Vyas’ Lady (Vyas ki Svamini), Hit Harivams, and Svami Haridas founded the Radhavallabha and Haridasi traditions, which accord a special place to Radha in their devotional practices. Other Vaishnava sampradayas such as Vallabha, Caitanya, and Haridasi traditions also affirm her superior position as the soul mate of Krishna.

Hariram Vyas’s Ras Pancadhyayi is a poetical composition based on the five chapters of Rasalila from the Bhagavatapurana. Hit Harivams’s texts also include the Sriradhasudhanidhi and the Sphutavani. The Sriradhasudhanidhi contains 270 verses describing Radha’s supremacy within Hinduism, lauding her as “the secret of the Upanishads”. Theologically, Radhavallabha tradition places Radha at the center with its yugal (dual) tradition of worshipping Radha and Krishna as dual aspects of one deity rather than worshipping Radha and Krishna, as two separate divinities. The concept of do deh ek pran (two bodies one soul) is illustrative of the Radhavallabha tradition. Radha is the primary center of worship as a way to reach Krishna through bhakti. For Haridas, the central bhava to reach Krishna is Madhuryabhava (love) of Krishna and Radha, so Radha and Krishna are worshipped in a joint form (yugalsvarupa) in recognition of their pastimes in Braj (nityavihara). 

Rasikapriya, Created: early 19th century.  San Diego Museum of Art.  Flickr

Rasikapriya, Created: early 19th century.
San Diego Museum of Art. Flickr

Radha’s rise to such a central position is also accompanied by theological developments within Vaishnava devotional traditions. Caitanya, founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism (also known as Caitanya Vaishnavism), is considered an incarnation of Radha and Krishna together. Rupa Gosvami noted that Radha represents the highest rasa, the mahabhava. Hence, according to the Caitanya Vaishnavism, she is the hladinisakti of Krishna, revered even by Krishna.  This theory is taken a step further in the Vaishnava Sahajiyatradition of Bengal, which applies Radha-Krishna concept to tantric practice. According to Vallabha tradition she is the svamini of Krishna, who is worthy of devotion. As noted above, the Haridasi and Radhavallabha sampradayas consider Radha as supreme, even above Krishna. The Gitagovinda represent the divine love of Radha and Krishna, although Radha’s actual relationship to Krishna is ambiguous, while Baru Candidasa’s Srikrishnakirtana represents Radha as another person’s wife, thus making her ‘parakiya’ and her love for Krishna as one beyond human bonds.

The later puranas reflect these theological developments within the devotional traditions, and describe her as the special partner of Krishna. According to the Brahmavaivartaprana (1500 C.E.) Radha is depicted as eternally sporting with Krishna in Goloka, the divine world of Krishna. The Devibhagavatapurana and the Padmapurana describe her cosmological role as prakriti and sakti. Radha’s birth place, Barsana, is a major pilgrimage center, and the festival of Holi is celebrated by the devotees while imagining Radha among their midst there in Barsana every year. 

Although the male and female divinities are frequently noted as purusha (male unchanging force) and prakriti (Female changing and pulsating energy) contributing together to sustain the creation, the relationship of Radha and Krishna is described uniquely in Hindu classical tradition. Even though Krishna understood as purusha and Radha is understood as energy sakti their relationship is beyond creation, represented in the form of the union of the atma and paramatma.


about the author

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Dr. Lavanya Vemsani

Lavanya Vemsani, award winning scholar and professor of History specializing in Indian History and Religions, is Professor of History in the department of Social Sciences at Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio. She holds two doctorates in the subjects of Religious Studies (McMaster University) and History (University of Hyderabad). She was awarded South Asia Council of the Canadian Asian Studies Association's (SACA/CASA) Best Thesis Honorable Mention prize for her Ph.D. thesis at McMaster University.

Her research and teaching interests are varied, and multifold. She researches and publishes on subjects of ancient history and religions as well as current history of India. Her books include Modern Hinduism in Text and Context; Krishna in History, Thought, and Culture: Encyclopedia of the Hindu Lord of Many Names; Hindu and Jain Mythology of Balarama. She is the Editor-in-Chief of American Journal of Indic Studies; Managing Editor of International Journal of Indic Studies and Editorial and Review Board Member of Air Force Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs as well as Canadian Journal of History. She is current Vice-President and President-Elect of Ohio Academy of History (2018-2020).

Sri Suktam: The "Gangotri" of Hindu feminine principle

हिरण्यवर्णां हरिणीं सुवर्णरजतस्रजाम् । चन्द्रां हिरण्मयीं लक्ष्मीं जातवेदो म आवह ॥१॥

तां म आवह जातवेदो लक्ष्मीमनपगामिनीम् । यस्यां हिरण्यं विन्देयं गामश्वं पुरुषानहम् ॥२॥

It is that time of the year again, when we adore Devi in all her manifestations; from the benevolent to the terrible; she cleanses the world of evil and fills it with her blessings.

It is an appropriate time to reflect on ‘stri’, on ‘shakti’; the divine as well as the human feminine. Through a consideration of the divine we can also understand the conception of the feminine principle in Hindu philosophy and theology.

This has numerous aspects and is the study of many lifetimes. Over thousands of years there have been many, many attempts by rishis and devotees alike to capture the immanence and transcendence of Devi. 

So, why start with  the Sri Suktam?

This is, arguably, the first literary manifestation of Indic thinking around the feminine principle. The composition of 16 shlokas appears in the khilanis of the Baskala Shakha of the Rigveda. There are also 11 supplementary shlokas (which are not strictly part of the Sri Suktam).  It can be inferred that this is a source for many of the future compositions, thinking and philosophy around the feminine in later times as the Shakta tradition manifested and established itself. 

Let us take a look at the Sukta itself of which the first two shlokas are placed at the beginning of this article.

A beautiful rendition of Sri Suktam by Pandit Jasraj and Kumari Shweta Pandit.
Source: Youtube

The cadences of this suktam are mesmerising, listening to it makes the image of Devi rise up before one; effulgent, glowing, the golden one. Green and moist like the earth mother, hot and blazing like the sun, harbinger of happiness, giver of all that mortals can wish for. Riches, prosperity, sons and grandsons, cows, horses, elephants, servants, long lives; there is nothing in the three worlds which is not in the power of Devi.

As Bhudevi, she is the kaarana or cause of the fertility of the earth and creation, vanaspati in all of its forms.

All that is auspicious, “Laxmi”, can be received with the blessings of Sri; she will come and reside with the supplicant banishing “Alaxmi” forever. The Alaxmis of body and mind, hunger and thirst, wretchedness and degeneration can be banished forever.

She herself is praised as the one who manifests as Agni, Vayu, Surya, Vasu, Indra, Brihaspati, Varun and the Ashwins. In other words she is Brahman, Kshetraj, the divine principle of creation.

The purpose here is not a description or translation of the shlokas. I would invite the readers to listen to the chanting and understand the literal meaning, of which a synopsis has been given above, for themselves.

What understanding can we gain from the Sri Suktam on the subject of Stri and Shakti in Indic/Hindu thought?

The first overwhelming impression is of immanent merciless power and transcendent beauty. The metaphors and words used are those relating to both war, conflict and victory as well as purveyors of domestic riches and prosperity. She wields the danda of power and is the also the dispenser of justice in the three worlds.  Success in trade and commerce is hers to gift. Bliss or aanand is hers to give.

Devi herself has a blazing yet soft lustre and radiance, a lotus herself and living in one with all the resultant symbolism in Indic thought; purity, beauty, fertility, life, growth, spirituality; the universe in a flower.

The four purusharthas of Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha can be attained with the grace of Sri. Like the Bhagwad Geeta after it the Suktam acts as a shield against krodh, lobh, matsarya; anger, greed, jealousy, bad intentions and helps mortal beings attain equilibrium in their lives on earth.

A detailed study of the shlokas brings out the fact that there are references in them to all aspects of life; food, dress, war, grihasti, desires, fears, enjoyment, they can be understood as a blueprint for a life of earthly aanand.

This, as noted above, is from one of the earliest portions of the Rigveda. Consequently, when we read many of the Puranas of later times or examine the worship of different devis and devatas they can be referenced back to these shlokas. I will give a few examples here.

The most important of course is the Goddess Laxmi who is worshipped not only in India by Hindus but in many other countries in the Indic sphere of influence especially in South East Asia, China and Japan, in different forms and names, of course. 

Painting of Shri Laxmi in San Diego Museum, accredited to the Court of Thanjavur. Source:  San Diego Museum Collection, Flickr

Painting of Shri Laxmi in San Diego Museum, accredited to the Court of Thanjavur.
Source: San Diego Museum Collection, Flickr

An instance of a Purana reference is the story of the birth of Shri Laxmi’s son, Kardama, which can be read in the Bhagwat Purana. Also, the shlokas of this suktam have influenced the stutis in other Puranas such as the Vishnu Purana. Another interesting example is the mention of Manibhadra , the treasurer of Lord Kubera who was in later, post Vedic times, the God of merchants and traders who sailed across the seas. 

As a historian and student of the iconography of vigrahas and moortis, I find it most significant that the basic elements of the Shri Laxmi’s representation, standing on a lotus, surrounded by lotuses and with elephants pouring libations of water  on her with their trunks are described exactly like this in the Shri Suktam. The earliest archaeological remains of Devi temples of the 2nd century BCE exhibit the same iconography to say nothing of the paintings of Raja Ravi Verma. The continuity is astounding and humbling. We are the inheritors of a millennia of thought and conception of the feminine principle.

In conclusion, what thoughts does this brief introduction to the Sri Suktam leave us with?

Shri is the cause of creation, the three worlds are her manifestation and she is the giver of boons to her children, the mortals on this earth. 

The Shakta tradition definitely has its seeds in this very sukta. The Devi Mahatamya, Devi Upanishad and all the other deeply female centred traditions focused in Eastern India in particular can be traced ideologically speaking, to this Suktam.

And what of the earthly realm so that we may connect this to our own experiences?

Creation is seen in terms of the earth mother, the female body is the manifestation of the divine.

Not for nothing is Bharat, or ancient Jambudweepa seen as connected by different parts of the body of Sati. This is not a Shiva centred metaphor for Prithvi but a female centric one.

The ideas emerging from the Shri Suktam where Stri is not only the worshipper but the worshipped; not only the seeker of boons but also the granter; where stri is the parabrahma behind creation provides a fruitful entry  to the exploration of femininity in Indic culture.

It is not the end but the beginning of the journey.


about the Author

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Sumedha Verma Ojha

Sumedha Verma Ojha is an author, columnist and speaker. She was born in Patna and educated in Delhi, graduating in Economics (Lady Sriram College) and post-graduating in Sociology (Delhi School of Economics). After 2 decades in the Indian Revenue Service, she switched careers to research and write a book set in the Mauryan period based on the Arthashastraof Chanakya. Urnabhih then expanded into a book series on the Mauryan Empire and its successors.

Sumedha now works in the area of translating and explaining the epics and bringing ancient Sanskrit/Prakrit literature to the world as also in the area of a gendered analysis of ancient India. Through her talks across the world she tries to bring the influence, beauty and soft power of Ancient India alive again. She lives with her husband near Geneva and has two children both studying in the US.

Besides Urnabhih, published by Roli Books in 2014, Sumedha Verma Ojha authored The Mewar Ramayana (Awarded by the Federation of Indian Publishers), published in 2016 by the same publisher. Her forthcoming books include Urnabhih Book 2 and The ‘Modern’ Women of Ancient India (2017). Urnabhih is all set to be released as a TV series soon.

Fierce Is Beautiful

The most important force we have to unleash in Hindu society is our women, as Hinduism has never seen women as weak.

That Goddess became very angry with her enemies and her face became as black as Indian ink. From her broad forehead, bent by her curved eyebrows, emerged Kali, armed with sword and a rope. She was holding a very peculiar sword, wearing a garland of human skulls, dressed in the hide of a tiger, with no flesh in her body, with very terrible looks, with a broad face, who looked very fearsome moving her tongue, with sunken red eyes, filling all the directions with roars from her throat.  That goddess went straight and fast, warning the great asuras, and started eating the enemies of devas whom were part of the army. 

She caught hold of huge elephants along with the trainer with his long spear and the hero riding on it and crushed them and put in her mouth. Similarly she started chewing the charioteer along with horses terribly with her teeth. She killed one Asura catching hold of his hair, another catching his throat, another by kicking with her leg and another by pressing his chest. She caught hold of the arrows as well as weapons sent against her by those asuras (Chanda and Munda) and broke them to pieces by her teeth. 

She beat the entire Asura army consisting of big and strong-bodied asuras. She ate some of them and severely others. Some of the asuras were punished by sword, some by Gadgayudha (sword with curved end) and some by her teeth and all of them were destroyed. – Description of Manifestation of Ma Kali from Devi Mahatamyam (adapted from here)

The twin strengths of Hinduism through millennia have been its sublime philosophy and its multiplicity of worship—the worship of multiple deities through multiple paths and methods of worship. The Hindu pantheon is vast, stretching up to 33 crores of devas. The benefits of polytheism (not an exact descriptor for Hindu worship, but close enough for this purpose) are manifold. Multiplicity of worship in the Hindu tradition recognizes that individuals are different and allows them to worship those devas that are most suitable for their spiritual evolution in accordance with their personality and psychological needs. Worship is customized for the individual and is not a one-size-fits-all imposition.

The Hindu way promotes diversity and inclusiveness; heterogeneity of worship promotes heterogeneity of mind and philosophy. It teaches us to see beauty and divinity in all forms, even those that may not readily appear beautiful or divine to us. It teaches us unity through diversity. It also helps us reach balance, by cultivating various good qualities through worship of different forms. All of the powers and forces in the cosmos become accessible to us when we worship them. Unfortunately, the breadth and depth of the Hindu pantheon is under attack. There is a concerted effort to sanitize the Hindu pantheon, to reduce its size and diversity, to prize the saumya (gentle) over the ugra (fierce), to falsely equate spirituality with sattva only.

There is too strong a desire to Westernize, to conform to a monotheistic worldview, driven by our own inferiority complex.

There is a visceral discomfort with the idea of being idol worshippers and polytheists, perhaps out of a fear of being seen as heathen and kafir in Western eyes. There is thus a compulsion to pretend that we are monotheist, and in so claiming, a lot of confusion and misconceptions about Hinduism are created. We are not worshippers of one true God in the Abrahamic sense; to pretend otherwise is to distort our tradition.

In the process, we are destroying that which makes us unique, strong and resilient, that which makes ours the longest continuously surviving religious tradition in the history of the world, the greatest and last of the truly pagan traditions to survive. One of the latest trends in this direction is the makeover of our devas, to make them more peaceful and politically correct. Recently, in Bengal, there has been a push to create more ‘peaceful’ Durga vigrahas for the annual Durga Puja, replacing her traditional weapons with flowers and jewels. Connected to such moves is the selective outrage over bali or animal sacrifice that takes place on some days in some places of Hindu worship—in very limited numbers.


An assortment of environmental activists, secularists and would-be Hindu reformists, who dare not call out for bans on slaughter during Eid, who vociferously promote the basic human right of people in India to eat beef, who see non-vegetarianism as ultra-progressive, but who, in the peculiar double standard that applies to Hindus, are morally outraged if Hindus simply follow their ancestral ways of worship and offer bali. Apparently, it is okay to senselessly slaughter animals for our sensory gratification—for hunting and eating—but haram to do it for sacred purposes. This unwarranted interference in the private religious affairs of Hindus has resulted in the disruption of the ways of worship in many Hindu temples.

This movement to make over Hinduism undermines that which makes Hinduism beautiful, which distinguishes it from other religions, like Jainism and Buddhism. It is an injustice to the oldest living religion in the world to confine it to what we find politically correct and palatable today from a Western perspective. The fierce, the bloodthirsty, the weapon-brandishing, the bloodcurdling forms of our devas are a core part of the Hindu pantheon. The paths of the Tantras and the Natha sampradayas are a vital part of Hinduism and must not be whitewashed away.

Animal sacrifice is as important a part of Hindu worship as Satyanaryana puja.

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The onset of Navaratri is an auspicious time to remind ourselves of the hallowed place of ugra devatas (fierce/tough deities) and their modes of worship in our sacred traditions. While most devatas have both saumya (gentle) and ugra (fierce) rupas, it is especially in the representation of the various forms of Devi that some of the most prominent ugra forms are found. Navaratri celebrates the worship of the Nava Durga (nine forms of Ma Durga), some of which are exceptionally fierce. For example, the seventh form of Ma Durga, worshipped on the seventh day of Navaratri, is Kaal Ratri. She is dark with dishevelled hair and an expression of utter fearlessness. Her necklace flashes with lightning, and her breath emanates terrible flames.




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Similarly, among the Dasha Maha Vidya (the 10 Devis of Wisdom), there is Chinnamasta, the self-decapitated Devi who holds her own severed head in one hand and a scimitar in the other. Three streams of blood spurt out of her bleeding neck and are drunk by her own head as well as her two female attendants. She stands on a copulating couple. She is depicted naked with disheveled hair.

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Then there is Dhumavati, depicted as an old widow who is always hungry and thirsty. She is prone to starting quarrels. She is depicted as old and ugly, thin and emaciated, with a pale complexion. She wears no jewellery but only dirty, old clothes. Her hands tremble, and she rides a horseless chariot.


The iconography of each of these devis is extraordinarily intricate and rich with many layers of meaning. Each and every detail carries meaning and power. These forms have not been created wily nily; they are revealed through the Agamas, Puranas and Tantras with very specific visualizations, iconography and procedures for worship. Changing the iconography of these Devis to suit our aesthetics or whims is especially dangerous—it detracts from the underlying divinity of the nama and rupa and also is a violation of the traditions we have inherited by which we are to worship them. 

This is especially dangerous when it comes to worship of the ugra forms, because it is held that the consequences of mistakes in worship of these fierce deities are especially dire. It is therefore even more important that our shastras and traditions of worship not be tampered with, as one must not play lightly with the devas, especially the ugra devatas. To imagine one can remove the weapons from Devi’s hand and replace it with something of one’s fancy, be it a flower or a flag or a gemstone, is to corrupt and violate the Hindu tradition of worship. It breaks the continuity of tradition from our ancestors thousands of years ago, as passed down generation to generation, linking us to our ancient rishis and forefathers who first had revelation of these divine forms. It turns what is sacred into mere art. It turns vigrahas into mere statutes.



It denigrates our devas into dolls we dress up per our fancy. We must respect our time-hallowed traditions, the injunctions of the shastras as to the specifications of worship, the methods and procedures laid down by our sampradayas and acharyas. That is what gives our worshiped images their power, sanctity and auspiciousness. It is not for everyone to worship the ugra devatas. It depends on adhikara, personal inclination, one’s samskaras and inner qualities. But as Hindus, we must have respect and honour for all aspects and paths within our tradition.


We must not shy away from the fierce, from what appears shocking or ugly or even frightening. We must learn to see the beauty beyond the superficial appearance. It is a mistake to equate spirituality only with sattva. As Sri Krishna instructs Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita,



“Traigunyavishayaa vedaa nistraigunyo bhavaarjuna,”

(The Vedas deal with the three attributes (of Nature) (tamas, rajas, sattva); be thou above these three attributes, O Arjuna!) (Bhagavad Gita, 2:45). 


In other words, one should not become too attached to the quality of sattva—all the three modes of nature are all to be transcended. This is especially important in the situation in which we find ourselves today. What Sri Aurobindo once so eloquently and passionately proclaimed in 1907 still holds true today:


What India needs especially at this moment is the aggressive virtues, the spirit of soaring idealism, bold creation, fearless resistance, courageous attack; of the passive tamasic spirit of inertia we have already too much.

We find ourselves today mired in inertia and passivity, in ignorance and apathy. In such a state, it is not possible to transition to sattva directly. One must go from tamas to rajas to sattva. What is needed now is the passion and energetic activity of rajas, to rouse us from our collective deep tamas. Upasana awakens in the upasaka the vrttis (vibrations, waves) and lakshanas (qualities) meditated upon in the object of upasana.

In other words, we manifest that which we worship. In the current state of affairs for Hindus today, worship of that which is fierce and rajasic will help awaken the qualities in the collective consciousness that are needed for Hindu society today. We need assertiveness, bravery, valour, the strength of conviction, confidence and, as Swami Vivekananda so eloquently said-

vigour in the blood, strength in the nerves, iron muscles and nerves of steel.


For this, we need deities who inspire us to stand our ground and fight when needed, to promote within us the noble values that will make us Kshatriyas who will defend and propagate Dharma. Right now, Hindus are mired in shame and self-hate. Just see what is happening in front of our eyes today. What was an unfortunate incident in Dadri has become a convenient whip with which to beat up Hindus for the crime of being Hindu. Now Hindus are fascists for honoring the cow.


Now Hindus are fundamentalists for wanting to ban cow slaughter. It is okay when secularists protest against dog or horse or polar bear killing–that is lovable and enlightened but we Hindus are primitive barbarians when we seek to protect the cow. We tolerate others’ religious observances without complaint, but we dare not light a cracker on Deepavali or follow the ancient rites of bali that are part of our sacred tradition. The rest of the world is shedding the disease of Western modernism–they are looking to the East for answers, to their own native and pagan traditions for meaning. And we are throwing away the greatest spiritual and civilizational heritage the world has ever seen.


The other day, I saw a fairly recent South Indian film where the hero was dressed in traditional clothes, and in a song, the heroine crooned about how much better he would look in modem dress. Is this what we have come to, to prize jeans and t-shirts over the traditional sari and dhoti, to see beef-eating as secular and progressive, to feel shame at the beauty and power of our ways of worship, to esteem ourselves based on how well we mimic the norms and customs of alien lands? There is nothing more pathetic than self-hate.


In this scenario, where Hindus are mired in this spiral of shame and self-hate, where tamas reigns supreme, too much focus on sattva without an appropriate dose of rajas ends up being nothing more than escapism. The stillness and serenity of sattva is all too easy to confuse with the lazy inertia of tamas. This is where remembrance and honor of the rajasic deities is so important to provide the right balance, to awaken us from the slumber of tamas. This operates both on the collective and individual consciousness.


The darker, deeper aspects of our nature are not to be shunned or suppressed. These recesses of our personalities are storehouses of immense amounts of energy that can be conducive and important to our spiritual and psychological development when appropriately channeled. That which is represented by the ugrata devas and their worship can be instrumental in balancing our personalities and psyches. The most important force we have to unleash in Hindu society is our women. It is a lie to say that our women need to be ‘empowered’. Only the weak need to be empowered. How can our women ever be considered to be weak? Hinduism has never seen women as weak or meek and these ugrata forms of Devi remind us of this truth, that women are the very embodiment of Shakti, that which is the greatest force in all the worlds, that power that is behind all energies, all activities in the cosmos, without which Shiva is but a corpse, without which there is no life, no creation, no leela.

How can we empower that which is power itself? Woman is not to be adored for her beauty alone, for her feminine charms. She is to be revered in all forms, from the most sublimely beautiful to the frightening, from the young girl child to the old crone, from the bloodthirsty to the motherly, from the gentle to the fierce. That is what Hinduism teaches us; Hinduism is itself the best form of feminism. There is something so beautiful and captivating about worshiping Ma in her fierce rupa that can only be understood and felt through experience. Most of the time, I am a Vaishnava, but in every Bengali runs the blood of Ma Durga, and during Navaratri, only Devi exists for me. When we worship Ma Durga during these nine days and nights, it is no dry ritual, no symbolic offering.

Source:  Flickr

Source: Flickr

When we bow before Her, when the conch sounds, when the drums beat, when the ululating reaches its fevered pitch, when we look upon Her golden countenance, the radiance emanating from Her every pore, the sword and all Her weapons poised to vanquish all of our enemies, external and within; when we worship Ma Kali, with Her hair unbound and loose, Her tongue hanging out, the garland of skulls hanging from Her neck, Her foot resting on the chest of the supine Shiva, the blue-black of Her complexion shining brighter than a million moons—there is awe, there may even be a frisson of fear, but most of all, beyond the weapons, beyond the fierce expression, beyond the warrior pose, beyond the fearsome aspects of their visages, is that softness in the eyes, that small smile, that tenderness beyond the fierceness, that fierce compassion of which only Ma is capable, She who slays with a smile.


With this, the beginning of Navaratri, may we remember that fierce is beautiful, that the ugra forms of our devatas are as important a part of our tradition as the saumya forms, that we must never shy away from the ferocious and warrior-like aspects of our deities and our traditions, that we must never compromise on or apologize for the paths and methods of worship that have been entrusted to us by our forefathers, that constitute a core part of our sacred heritage, that our pantheon is not to be compromised or corrupted, that ours is a tradition of multiplicity of worship as much as it is one of unity of philosophy.


About The Author

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Aditi Banerjee

Aditi Banerjee is a thinker, scholar, writer and a practitioner.Aditi Banerjee is a practicing attorney from New York, United States.

She is co-author and editor of Invading The Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America.Her other published works include Hindu-Americans: An emerging identity in an increasingly hyphenated world - which is included in The Columbia documentary history of religion in America since 1945. Her latest book, “The Curse of Gandhari” was published in 2019.


This article was first published in Swarajya. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

Durga Puja: A walk through the memory lanes

The Indian flower called “ Harsingar ” or “ Shiuli ” Image Credit:  Wikipedia

The Indian flower called “Harsingar” or “Shiuli
Image Credit: Wikipedia

That smell of Harsingar, or “Shiuli” as we call it in Bengali, tells me, Ma is coming home. Standing in my balcony I can smell her arrival around me, and my mind takes a leap back to my memories of a half-Bengali child growing up in Uttar Pradesh. Durga Puja was just as exciting and as much awaited by me, like any Bengali kid from Bengal and if you talk to any Bengali kid, from any part of this world, memories of Durga Puja shall always have a very special place from his/her childhood. May be that’s why they say, “You can take a Bengali out of Bengal, but you can never take Bengal out of a Bengali”

My first childhood memory of Durga Puja, is of dhaak, dhunuchi and display of Indian martial arts by Swami Jis of Bharat Sewa Ashram, which made every Ashtami something to wait for. I remember Ma, dressing us up quickly and reaching the venue as early as 3pm so that we get to sit in the front row of the durry (a woven mat made of thick cotton threads), even though the performances wouldn’t start until 8pm. Baba’s duty was to keep standing outside the crowds perimeter, because we kids would keep getting hungry and ma couldn’t afford to lose that spot she struggled so hard for us to sit.

Bengalis worship Shakti, and though Navratri is a nine day festival, for us it starts from shashti, sixth day, and ends with Vijaya Dashmi, tenth and last day. While in Uttar Pradesh, nine different forms of Shakti is worshipped for nine days, one designated day for each, we Bengalis worship Ma Durga throughout the festival. According to Bengali tradition, it’s the home coming of Ma with her four kids, Ganesha, Kartik, Laxmi and Saraswati. Parvati the daughter of Himalaya, comes down to earth once every year, like a daughter visiting her Maayka (mother’s house). And this is the reason why Durga Puja for Bengalis, is a festival of new clothes and lots of food, specially sweets.

Mahalaya which is ten days before Durga Puja, marks the beginning of Devi Paksha. This is the day when Ma Durga begins her journey from Kailash, where she lives with her husband. This is also the day when it’s believed that our ancestors leave their abode and come down to take offerings from their descendants. I remember going to the shores of Ganga, with Baba, where he would do “Tarpan”. It is also believed that our ancestors stay with us for a fortnight and that period is called “Mahalaya Paksha”.

For every Bengali, Mahalaya holds a very special place and it starts with Chandi Path when dawn breaks. I remember Ma, waking us up and we sleepy kids would somehow make through All India Radio’s Chandi Path broadcast. Today, even when there is TV and internet, nothing can truly substitute AIR’s Chandi Path by Late Shri Birendra Kishore Bhadra.

Mahashashti is the day when we welcome Ma Durga into this mortal world, with all the rituals, celebrations, dhaak and dhunuchi, like every Bengali household does, when their own daughter visits her parents place, after marriage. Her face is covered, till the Kalaparambho puja is done, which marks the beginning of puja. It’s a Pratishtha, a vow to conduct the puja, abiding by all its rituals. Followed by Bodhan, awakening of Gods, and Adhivas, invoking Devi in the bilva, also known as bel, plant. Last is Aamantran (invitation), requesting Ma Durga to accept our puja and offerings.

The tradition Dhununchi dance of Bengal on the beats of “Dhaak” drum   Image Credits: Drikpanchang

The tradition Dhununchi dance of Bengal on the beats of “Dhaak” drum

Image Credits: Drikpanchang

Mahashaptami, is when you actually start feeling the hustle and bustle of Durga Puja. A very important part of this day is bringing “Kola Bou” (banana plant), Ganesha’s wife. We wake up early in the morning and give her a bath, wrap new saree and place her next to Ganesha. Another very important ritual of Saptami is Navapatrika. The nine forms of Devi are invoked in nine plants and given a bath before sunrise. This is followed by Mahasnan. We keep a mirror in front of Durga’s idol and her reflection in the mirror is given a bath. After all of this is Pran Prathishta, awakening the spirit of Devi. Ma Durga is worshipped with sixteen special puja items. Every evening after Sandhya Aarti, Dhunuchi naach is a must. For Bengalis Durga Puja is about Ma Durga and also about dhaak, dhunuchi and food for Bengalis are born “foodies”.

Maha Ashtami, most important day of all the puja days, starts with Kumari Puja. I still remember when I was blessed to be the Kumari for two consecutive years. Girls between 7 and 9 years of age are dressed up and worshipped as Devi. In earlier days, we had a buffalo sacrifice as well, which marked the vanquishment of buffalo demon, Mahisasura. Today, this practice has been modified and instead ash-gourd is sacrificed.

In many ways, Maha Ashtami is one of the most important day of the entire Durga Puja. Everyday we have pushpanjali, but Maha Ashtami’s pushpanjali is most sacred of all. We usually keep our best dress for Ashtami evening and during morning, women prefer wearing something in white and red. The most important part of entire Durga Puja is “Sandhi Puja”. 24 minutes before Ashtami ends and 24 minutes before Navami begins, that period is called the “Sandhi Khan”, as this is the time when Devi Durga slayed the demon brothers Chanda-Munda. Therefore, the Devi is worshipped in her Chamunda roop. There’s a rush to light the 108 diyas and whoever gets a chance, feels blessed because the Goddess chooses the devotees herself. Here I have to add an interesting story that we have often heard in our childhood, specially those from Kashi, like myself. All through the nine days, Devi fought many demons till she finally slays Mahisasura. It’s said that when Devi was meditating in her cave at Vindhyachal (about 300km from Varanasi), she threw her sword and killed Shumbha-Nishumbha. Her sword struck the ground and from there a river emerged, which is called “Assi”, which also gives its name to Varanasi, the place between Varuna and Assi rivers.

By Maha Navami, the heart is already heavy. It’s almost time for Ma to go back to her home in Mount Kailash. It’s also the ninth and the last day of battle between Durga and Mahisasura. It starts with “Shodhasopachar Puja”, shodash means sixteen and upachar means service. This puja includes sixteen steps and Ma is worshipped as Mahishasurmardini. At the end of the puja, there’s a special homa, after which everyone puts a tilak of Homa ash. For some reason, we used to be excited about that tilak even as children who did not know its significance. That vibhuti (ash) mark on our forehead was worn with pride!

Sindoor Khela Image Credits:  ProKerala

Sindoor Khela
Image Credits: ProKerala

Vijaya Dashami, when we bid adieu to Ma with teary eyes and a promise to welcome her again next year with the same love and devotion. Since she visits us as the daughter, we do “boron” (aarti), apply aalta (red coloring on her feet)-sindoor to her and feed her sweets, just like how we would do when a married girl is leaving her parents home. We quietly whisper in her ears, “next year come soon”. The connection with Ma Durga is so intense, for us Bengalis, that this is the moment when most people quietly wipe tears off of their eyes. I do it too. Then begins the famous “Sindoor khela” , which has become such an important part of the cultural identity of Bengal. Women apply sindoor to each other and offer sweets. This part of Durga Puja was always very fascinating to me and I would always make my mother take me for sindoor khela.

Lastly, “thakur bhashan” or the immersion of idol, which forms a very important part of my Durga Puja memories all my life. The actual visarjan happens in a vessel of water with a mirror, kept in front of Ma, and everyone has a darshan of Ma in that mirror. It’s called darpan visarjan, which has to happen on a specific time, while the main moorti then can be taken in a procession for the visarjan. During my formative years, Varanasi was still a small city and we would walk all the way from our Durga Puja club to Ganga ghat. The cacophony of dhaak, dhunuchi naach and “Bolo Durga Ma ki Jai”, was enough to keep our spirits high for that long walk. Going with the procession for Visarjan is perhaps the one thing I miss the most every year...


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The Nine Nights of Shakti: A celebration by Shaktitva

Today, is the auspicious occasion of the first day of Sharada Navaratri. Navaratri, which means nine (nava-) nights (ratri), are dedicated nights for the worship of the Divine Mother and her 9 forms as understood thus:

प्रथमं शैलपुत्री च द्वितीयं ब्रह्मचारिणी। तृतीयं चन्द्रघंटेति कूष्माण्डेति चतुर्थकम् ।।

पंचमं स्क्न्दमातेति षष्ठं कात्यायनीति च। सप्तमं कालरात्रीति महागौरीति चाष्टमम् ।।

नवमं सिद्धिदात्री च नवदुर्गाः प्रकीर्तिताः। उक्तान्येतानि नामानि ब्रह्मणैव महात्मना।।

(First is Shailputri and second is Brahmacharini. Third is Chandraghanta and Kushmanda is fourth. Fifth is Skandamata and sixth is Katyayani. Seventh is Kalratri and Mahagauri is eighth. Ninth is Siddhidhatri and this is how Navadurga appear. All of these names have been given by the all-knowing all-encompassing Brahmana.)

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As one meditates on each of these forms, and delves into their stories, tries to ascertain their defining features and characteristics, one becomes more and more awed in terms of the sheer diversity which represents the vastness of the Divine Mother. From the stoic daughter, to the loving doting mother, from the dedicated dharmika wife to the serene ascetic, from the mother that creates the universe with her divine smile, to the fierce warrior that could send shivers down the spines of danavas, these forms capture all possible manifestations of the feminine. They defy every preconceived notion of “masculine-feminine” binaries and show us that the world, and every emotion whether sadness or joy, every state whether darkness and light, every form of existence whether benevolent or fierce, are nothing but her manifestations. For SHE is Prakriti. SHE is Shakti.

This Navratri, we at Shaktitva Foundation want to celebrate this aspect of Shakti, with you. Like all children, her creations, which includes the entire universe and within it, us humans, carry the traits of our mother, and thus, we too possess the same variety and diversity in our thoughts and actions. We interact with her all encompassing Maya from birth to death and perhaps even after, and become different people, with a wide variety of thoughts, point of views, methods of worship. As Hindus, we feel blessed to have been shown a way to celebrate and understand the Mother, however, puny our understanding maybe.

So today, we take the opportunity to show the world, a small glimpse of the wide diversity in thoughts of Hindu women, to break the rigid definitions of what constitutes “feminist” thoughts, by celebrating true femininity, through our special series of “Nine Essays by Nine Shaktis for Navaratri”.

In this series, we will present 9 different essays, one each night of Navaratri from a Hindu woman on her experiences with Shakti. These women, together provide a sneak-peak in the diversity of not only feminist thought but Hindu thought as well. They all come from diverse backgrounds. You’ll hear voices of mothers and daughters, of North Indian and South India, of those born in Bengal to those born in United States. These women are professors, researchers, civil servants, lawyers, students, engineers, authors and entrepreneurs. These women have experienced Maya in their own unique ways and in this series, they will all write about Shakti, her myriad forms, what she means to them and the myriads forms of devotion towards her. We couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate the mother than this. So let’s join in.


Experiencing Shakti

शिव: शक्त्या यो यदि भवति श: प्रभवितुं, न चेदेवं देवो न शलु कुशल: स्पन्दितुमपि ।
अतस्त्वामाराधयां हरिहर विरिञ्चादिभिरपि, प्रणन्तुं स्तोतुं वा कथमकृत पुण्य: प्रभवति ।।

When Shiva is enjoined with Shakti, he is empowered to create. If Shiva is not thus, he is indeed unable to even move. Hence, how can one who has not performed meritorious deeds, capable of saluting or praising you, who is worshipped even by Hari, Hara, Virinchi and others?


These beautiful words from Shri Adishankara’s iconic creation, Soundarya Lahiri, perhaps best describe my dilemma in writing about the Divine Mother. How does one even begin describing her beauty, her power, her divinity, her strength, her ferocity? Capturing her all-encompassing essence in the puny form of words, is such an arduous task that it overwhelms all senses, not to mention the question that Adi Shankara poses in these lines: which of us are truly even capable of doing so? Have we even earned the right to describe Her greatness, using our expressions emerging from of our insufficient intellect and our flawed senses? But strive I must, today, to share in a few words, however, incomplete, my experience of the Divine Mother, for such is her will.

It was a spring morning when Surya Devta had come out in his full glory, which meant tiny droplets of sweat had started to appear on our foreheads, but Vaayu Devta was just as determined to meet the challenge. As soon as we entered, the gust of wind blowing over the calm, still waters of the temple tank, sent us into a serene calmness that can only be experienced. The stone flooring was still cold but I could hardly notice anything as we walked through, looking at the intricate carvings on the walls of the temple, rising all the way up to the the Shikharams. From the blinding reflections of the overhead sun from the golden shikharams, we stepped into the quiet, calm and dark doorways of the main temple. The line wasn’t too long and the air was soothing.

The Shikharam of the Kanchi Kamakshi Amman Temple

The Shikharam of the Kanchi Kamakshi Amman Temple

As we reached the front of the mandapam, my aunt-in-law told the priest, “These two just got married, we are here to offer our prayers to the devi. It will be our laxmi’s first visit to the devi”. The priest nodded in understanding and asked us to come around from the side, to the backside of the mandapam. We followed his directions.

Usually, this is the part where I explain the thoughts in my head. But there weren’t any. I was almost walking in a daze, quietly. Anyone who knows me, will tell you that, me walking quietly with friends and family is a rare occurrence. But only I can tell you that what was astonishingly rare, or rather impossible, was the absence of thoughts in my head. Typically, my mind is like a mini-ranbhumi (field of war), thoughts keep coming and going, colliding with each other, fighting for dominance, slaying each other even and walking with pride until another yoddha (warrior) thought rises and slays the premature winner. Now that I think about it, there is nothing mini about it. Hundreds of thoughts run amock all the time. I can’t tell if this is normal or not in the context of the world, but this is my default normal state, and yet, here I was… with no thoughts in my head, walking in this temple.

We reached behind the mandapam, where we started settling up, gathering our things. Husband dearest was told to take off his shirt for darshana, while I got busy tying my unruly hair into a braid. Mother-in-law saw me fidgeting, so she quietly walked over to me, took charge and within a few seconds, I had a perfect braid, with jasmine flowers that had emerged out of nowhere from her purse, tucked into my braid with a hairpin. I had just begun wondering what other magical things lived in her tiny purse, while I noticed that aunty had laid out the offerings to the Goddess in one plate and the 5 items to be donated to suhasinis neatly in one plate: glass bangles, haldi-kumkum, fruit, cloth piece, and mudra (money). I think the speed with which everyone sorted everything out qualifies us for the title of the most-organized-family-ever. Or maybe I am a lot more used to chaos than normal. The thoughts had obviously returned.

As we stepped into the periphery of the mandapam where the priest was standing at the doorway, there it was. Sudden overwhelming calm, again. And then my gaze fell on to the source of that calm, the small moorthi with an all-empowering presence of the Mother, Shri Kanchi Kamakshi Amman. Priest told me to sit down and look into the eyes of the mother, his instructions were clear, “ don’t look at her feet, look into her eyes! This is a shaktipeetha and the method of worshipping had to be strictly followed.” He must’ve repeated the instructions to look into her eyes, at least 5 times, but as soon as I did, it became almost impossible to look into them OR to look away. Something strange was happening that I cannot describe. Those eyes, had so much power emanating from them that I don’t even know when tears started to emerge from mine. I still haven’t fully understood what happened or how to describe it, but there I was… a new bride with my mehndi still in its deepest shade, sitting in front of the mother, crying. No thoughts were driving these tears, no sadness, no happiness, all these emotions seem so trivial in front of what I was experiencing. So I just stood there while the priest made the offerings we had brought. When he returned and he looked at my state, he smiled and nodded as if he understood exactly what was going on. I was too dazed to ask. Then he told me to extend my hand and take the handful of kumkum he had brought. I was to walk around to the right side of the mandapam, where Shakti had manifested herself from the rock. I was to rub the kumkum on her form, top to bottom. This was a Shaktipeetham since Mata Sati’s naabhi had fallen here. As I went near her, the same calmness mixed with overwhelming indescribable emotion took hold of me again and with a trembling hand, I rubbed the kumkum on Her. I saw the naabhi. I marvelled at it. I stood there staring, when mother-in-law nudged me to pray and ask for blessings. I tried, but no thoughts would form in my mind. I couldn’t think of anything I could ask her, or anything I needed or wanted in that moment. So I just folded my hands, closed my eyes and bowed.

Picture Copyright: Neha Srivastava

Picture Copyright: Neha Srivastava

Other people were gathering up in that area for their turn, so we left after taking aarati and providing dakshina to the very deft archaka who was proficient in 5 languages, at least 3 of which he had to switch between when talking to our multi-cultural north-south family. Hindi for me, Kannada for my aunty and Tamizh for my husband. He knew English too and so did all of us, but in our very brief interaction, it was mutually established, without uttering a word, that English would be least preferred.

As we stepped out, mother-in-law and aunty, began to gather 5 suhasinis (married Dharmika women) for us to give our gifts and receive their blessings for the new bride, me. That is the beauty of Dharma all perhaps, that despite the fact that I came from as far up north as they are from the south, despite the fact that our family is a combination of not 2 but 3 states, we knew exactly what needed to be done. For each of the suhasinis, I handed the gifts we had brought, and even though I didn’t speak their language, I understood their blessings as I touched their feet. Some couldn’t have been older than me and some were even younger than I was, but there was no hesitation between us. We knew our roles and our places.

Dharma is a language of its own, I think, allowing us to communicate through simple gestures and our eyes without the need for language, or words.

That temple visit to Shri Kanchi Kamakshi Amman Temple in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu was one of the many experiences I’ve been blessed to have throughout my life.

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Shaktitva, in part was born from the desire to share these experiences of the Divine Mother with her children, sons and daughters alike, so that she, the Mahamaya, herself can guide us, as we struggle to navigate these treacherous waters of her Mayavi world. Life, as we know it, society as we know it and all its inherent struggles, the demons we face and the battles we fight, are all her will and her creation. The answers of our deepest and shallowest questions, our struggles to understand our role in this world as well as our Dharma in day-to-day life, perhaps lie in trying to understand Her, the Shakti, the ever-flowing, the dynamic, the pure, undistilled emotion, chaotic and imprecise Prakriti and her interplay with Shiva, the Purusha, the immovable, calm, composed and serene Yogi. If we succeed in understanding how these two exist in perfect synergy, together, then perhaps, we would be that much closer to understanding our own roles, our choices, our dreams and our desires better and our own interactions better, which will enable us to set ourselves on the path of Dharma.

Seeking guidance from the Mother, is the only way I have ever known how to live and today, I pray to her, that she guides all of us in traversing our way through the treacherous times of the present age.

***

आवाहन न जानामि, न जानामि विसर्जनाम्। पूजां चैव न जानामि, क्षम्यतां परमेश्वरि।।

मन्त्रहीनं क्रियाहीनं भक्तिहीनं सुरेश्वरि। यत्पूजितं मया देवि परिपूर्णं तदस्तु मे।।

(I do not know how to welcome you (aavahan), neither do I know how to properly send you home (visarja). I do not know how to do your Puja even, please forgive me Parameshwari. I am without mantra, without kriya and without bhakti, Sureshwari! Yet I worship you to the best of my ability, O Devi, with full devotion. )

Jai Bhavani 🙏🏼


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Neha Srivastava

Neha is an activist and a bi-lingual writer who writes on socio-political issues by passion and an engineer by profession. Her articles have been published in various print and web platform. With Dharma as her guiding light and Shaktitva as the vehicle, she seeks to forge a space for the voices of Hindu women in the global conversations on women. She is the Founder and President of Shaktitva Foundation