Just Like That | Reimagining female power in Indian culture - Hindustan Times

Just Like That | Reimagining female power in Indian culture

Mar 03, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Indian women are emerging as powerful forces, wielding influence in elections and society, challenging traditional norms

For centuries, women in India have been subject to male domination and exploitation. The situation is somewhat changing now, with legal protection, more educated women, and concomitant financial independence. There are a host of role models of women achievers, who have received not only national but international recognition. Women's power is also recognised as much more important in elections, because women are no longer mute accessories to the political choice of the male members of a family, and have a mind of their own in casting their vote.

The Ganga is Ganga Ma (mother). Temples exclusively devoted to the Devi dot the entire religious landscape of India. (PTI) PREMIUM
The Ganga is Ganga Ma (mother). Temples exclusively devoted to the Devi dot the entire religious landscape of India. (PTI)

However, it would be far from the truth to say that in practice there is complete gender equality in India. This is in stark contrast to the role given to the female principle in Indian philosophy, and even religious practice. Evidence indicates that a mother-goddess cult was widely prevalent as far back as the Harappan civilisation. The early Vedic deities were also often feminine, for instance, Agni. Later, each member of the supreme Hindu trinity had his equally important consort—Brahma and Sarasvati, Vishnu and Lakshmi, and Shiva and Parvati. In addition, Ram is incomplete without Sita, and Krishna is forever associated with Radha.

Feminine divinity is ascribed to an entire range of things. The earth itself is a goddess, Bhudevi. The Ganga is Ganga Ma (mother). Temples exclusively devoted to the Devi dot the entire religious landscape of India. Vaishno Devi in Jammu gets record crowds. Festivals fully devoted to the Devi enjoy exceptional popularity, such as Durga Puja, especially in Bengal. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, in their book, Devi: Goddesses of India, write that Devi is one of the guiding forces of Indian civilisation. In the whole world, a more complete rhapsody of the divine feminine would be hard to conceive.

In Hindu philosophy, Devi stands for the incredible creativity of Maya, that elusive energy that both creates the illusion of the sensory world and provides the path of redemption from it. In the Sankhya philosophy—one of the six systems of Hindu philosophy—the entire world comes into being because of the combination of the male principle, Purusha, and the female, Prakriti. Devi is seen as the Shakti or Energy that pervades all living things, animate or inanimate. If Shiva is chitta, the personification of the nirguna, attribute-less all-pervasive consciousness of Brahman, Parvati is chittarupini, the power inherent in that consciousness. Parvati is naught without Shiva, but equally, Shiva is powerless without the shakti of Parvati.

Not surprisingly, each of the four mathas or ashrams established by Adi Shankaracharya in the eighth century CE—Sringeri, Dwarka, Puri and Joshimath—are also known as Shakti Peeths or the abode of the power of the Devi. In Tantric vidya, the Sri Chakra, which represents the deity in a geometrical design and is considered the highest form of compressed energy, the triangles with the apex upward represent Shiva, and the triangles with the apex downwards represent Shakti.

Devi is presented in as varied a range of forms as any male god. Her names are many—Durga, Amba, Gauri, Bhavani, Kali and so on. Sarasvati is the goddess of knowledge, music, art, speech, wisdom and learning. Lakshmi is the goddess of good fortune, prosperity, wealth, fertility, and all things luxurious. Parvati is the Shakti of Shiva.

Perhaps the dramatic form of the Devi is Kali, another form of Parvati. Unlike the demure Parvati, she is depicted as dancing wildly, black in colour, her tongue sticking out, her eyes red with intoxication, and her hair dishevelled. Around her neck is a garland of human skulls, and in her many hands a scimitar, a severed head and a kapala (skullcap) for collecting the blood of the severed head. Her abode is the cremation ground.

Kali is incomprehensible to those who wish to see divinity in predictable forms. But she is perfectly natural to those who see her representing one form of the kaleidoscope of the divine, the unvanquished and fiery Mahakali—destroyer of evil, the goddess of Time, and the symbol of invincible might. Of significance is the fact that Kali dances wildly on the prone body of Shiva. In the presence of her passion and power, Shiva is happily rendered like a shava or corpse. The Devi is then supreme. Indeed, the important 6th century CE text, the Devi Mahatmya (glorification of the goddess), equates her with the sole ultimate reality, superseding the male gods.

A millennium later, in Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, Sita hails Girija (another name for Parvati), in these words: Nahin tava aadi madhya avasana, amita prabhau Bedu nahin jaana, bhava, bhava, bibhava parabhava karini, biswas bihomani svabhasa biharini (You, O Goddess, have no beginning, middle or end, and are hence eternal; your infinite glory is a mystery even to the Vedas; you create, maintain and destroy the universe; you enchant the cosmos, and sport independently.)

Women should never forget the power that is latent within them. And, men should read these invocations to understand that female power is meant to be respected, not suppressed. Then alone will we have the desired gender parity in both our country and the world.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal

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