Once, the ancient Rajarshi (Philosopher King) Janaka conducted a Yaga (Yajna), at the end of which, the scholars and philosophers that had assembled to attend the Yaga exchanged ideas had a discussion on the nature of Brahman. Several great Rishis and Brahmajnanis such as Aswala, Bhujyu, Usasta Pandita, Yajnavalkya, Kaholaka, Gargi, Uddalaka and Shakalya were present in the court. Rishi Yajnavalkya defeated many great philosophers. Then rose Gargi, the Brahmavadini, who challenged him. She confronted him with existential questions about the ontology of the universe. When she went on questioning disregarding the proper method of inquiry into the nature of the deity, 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.” Then Gargi Vacaknavi went silent. The third chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad further describes this eventful debate in the court of King Janaka. Realising the greatness of Rishi Yajnavalkya, Gargi had asked the questions merely to know from Yajnavalkya about the Supreme Reality and not to vanquish him or to examine his knowledge. On the other hand, Shakalya, who arrogantly kept questioning the nature of Brahman, encountered a tragic death with his head falling off.
Gargi was warned by Yajnavalkya about what shall happen, and she wisely took cognizance of the warning, whereas Shakalya got no warning, and he died. Often, the subaltern academia interprets this incident as an example of Brahminical patriarchy and tries to portray the advice of Yajnavalkya to Gargi Vacaknavi as a threat. Mainstream history texts are reluctant to acknowledge that women could share deep philosophical debates along with men in great conferences. Instead, the academia portrays Gargi as a revolutionary who embarrassed Sage Yajnavalkya with daring questions. They cleverly restrain from mentioning what happened to Shakalya. Modern academia, especially subaltern studies, are deftly continuing the legacy of the colonial writings in misinterpreting the women in Hinduism, especially the system of goddess worship, by building a narrative of atrocity and conflict. Their relentless campaign of misinterpretation has culminated in the recent court verdict that banned Mrigabali for Maa Tripurasundari, the Mother goddess of Tripura, in the north-eastern region of India.
Shakti worship system once prevailed across ancient Bharata and is continued through 52 centres of Shakti worship known as Shaktipeethas. Shaktipeethas are the places where the body parts of Sati Devi fell during the Satya Yuga. As a result of Islamic invasions in the medieval times, colonial laws, reforms, and the partition of India, the free practice of Shakti worship has been weakened in many of these historical places 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 prevailed to pose a relentless resistance due to their ardent ritualistic worship of the Devi. A warrior must be unafraid 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 by the worshippers as a mother with an abundance of virtues. She is there for the family members in all sorts of family and social problems. The members have staunch faith in her. The deities, people say, can become angry if they are not offered regular worship. Invasions and exoduses broke the continuity of worship in several places.
The real threat to goddess worship has been the skewed worldview of the Abrahamic religions concerning women. Judeo-Christian society treated women as inferior. Islamic doctrines thought of women as naturally, morally and religiously defective. Such discrimination is mainly because of their faith in the only one God who explicitly said about humanity: “they shall be to me for sons, and I shall be to them for a Father”. Since God created man in his image and woman was created from the rib of Adam, they could not fathom the idea of goddess worship. Various pagan sects that worshipped the all-encompassing mother goddess and had women holy personalities 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 were not living in piety as a catholic saint were branded as prostitutes. The infamous witch-hunt in medieval Europe was inspired by this Catholic worldview. Women were burning all over Europe while the Europeans came to India in the late 16th century. The shakti worship and freedom of women in India was a shocking obscenity for them.
A law was passed in Goa prohibiting rituals and sacrifices during wedding ceremonies of Hindus. They were asked to celebrate the wedding ceremony behind closed doors. The Portuguese in Goa, the French colonials, the British as well as the modern Indian State 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 misinterpreted Tantra sadhana. In a couple of centuries, we see the average Hindu parroting the atrocity narrative propagated by the Abrahamists. Hindus are losing heterogeneity of mind and are narrowing themselves into straight-jacketed thinking.
The Economist in its reportage about ‘witchcraft’ in Assam wrote: “The arrival of Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants and the spread of Christianity among the tribes by American Baptist missionaries have not dispelled local superstitions: villagers still practice rituals aimed at warding off evil spirits.” Shaktism practitioners are often the victims of such intellectual efforts to restructure the Hindu psyche into a monocultural polishing. The British colonialism, through its legal frameworks as well as intelligentsia, targeted the indigenous forest tribes that 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 (Kula Devi). 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.” The depiction of superstitious, savage criminal tribes that often indulge in bloody sacrifices for the Goddess has been a common feature of many literary works of the 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps such stereotypes by the Orientalists may have 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, the Nair warriors in Malabar, and the 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 after the uprising of 1857. All those who have been branded as martial races by the colonials are Goddess worshipping communities. Goddess worshippers have also been regularly demonised in academia and popular media. They are often portrayed as sexual predators and performers of distasteful rituals.
A few months ago, a prominent newspaper in Malayalam carried an article describing Aghoris as necromancers. Tantra-Shastra or Agama has always been very much an integral part of the essential Hindu scriptures. The shaming process guided by Victorian morality enabled the rejection of the practical ritualistic methodologies of Shaktism as being occult and superstitions by the colonial subjects. Arthur Avlon 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.” The constitutional morality that inspired the Sabarimala judgement and the latest judgement on Maa Tripurasundari’s rituals, is also inspired by the zeal of the colonials that associated the female divinity and her worshippers as barbaric and obscene savages. The anglicised Indians took over the colonial inability to tolerate the diversity and inclusiveness promoted by the Hindu way of life. Several states in India passed anti-superstition law banning several Vamachara 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.
Another victim of the colonial antagonism for female-centric sacred traditions was the Devadasi community which enjoyed a respectable position in the society as artists. Devadasis worshipped the deity through dance and music while the priests performed ritualistic worship. They were freed from the duty of indulging in the daily chores of being a wife, mother, or daughter to be able to dedicate their time fully for the nurturing of dance and music. However, the Abrahamists could perceive the system of devadasis only with a sexual connotation. Several orientalist writings equated Devadasis with the Tawaifs (courtesans of Islamic rulers) and branded them as temple prostitutes. Such deliberate assault on the dignity of these erudite women pushed them into the sidelines of society. Still, many famous musicians and dancers of modern India hail from Devadasi lineage. Indeed, talent passes through the genes. Christianisation of the psyche of an average Hindu carries forward the myths created by the atrocity narrative.
The discrepancy in the approach of the mainstream intelligentsia in understanding the sublime philosophy of the Hindu worldview is due to their inability to move on from simple straight-jacketed thinking. Orientalism fancied recasting the West’s violent conquests as consensual interactions. The Orientalist scholars (missionaries) regarded Christianity as the template of the fulfillment of the highest expression of Truth. Often the Orientalists were branding the male worshippers of the Goddess, female practitioners occupying the sacred space, and the warrior spirit invoked by worshipping shakti as obscene and savage. But the Subaltern studies went far ahead and painted goddess Durga herself a prostitute. They say, goddess Durga was a prostitute who enticed Mahishasura, a tribal leader, after nine days of sexual appeasement, and then killed him. Although Santhal community members themselves deny this narrative and allege that this abuse of the Mother Goddess is the revenge of the missionaries who could not erase the devotion for mother Goddess in the descendants of Brojo Murmu and Durga Murmu. Further, a wide array of intelligentsia guided by the overt salaciousness of the leftist perspective continues the Victorian contempt for the natives in their study of the complex Hindu theories.
The American academia linked with the Christian missionary apparatus systematically deconstructs every woman icon of the Hindu civilisation, including the mother Goddess. The anti-Hindu polemics by Sarah Caldwell, Wendy Doniger, etc. are filled with faulty translations and deliberate misinterpretations with no regard for the traditional methods of interpretation. The feminine vigour of the Hindu heritage has to be diminished so that the white man’s burden to civilise the savage polytheists and save their women from the brutality of the native men can be achieved by showing them the light. Hindu society has been much more egalitarian and balanced than other ancient cultures. But, the emancipation of Hindus into the universalist program of the global monotheistic can only be possible if the female legends are undermined. The sad part is how Hindus themselves parrot the Victorian narrow-mindedness and define the colonial interpretation of dharmic philosophy and traditions as Sanatana dharma. In the journey for 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, abiding by the principles of Dharma, in a post-colonial society.
Madhavananda, Swami. 1950, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (with the commentary of Sankaracarya), Chapter iii https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/the-brihadaranyaka-upanishad/d/doc118360.html
Axelrod, P. and Fuerach, M. A. Flight of the Deities: Hindu Resistance in Portuguese Goa. Ripon College, Wisconsin
Woodroffe, John. 1918, Shakti and Shâkta, forgotten books, London
Witchcraft in AssamToil and trouble, The Economist, 2 Apr 2012 https://www.economist.com/banyan/2012/04/02/toil-and-trouble
Sridhar, Vinayak. Devadasi a fallen idol, Pragyata, 02 Dec 2015 http://www.pragyata.com/mag/devadasi-the-fallen-idol-41
Santhal Durga Puja symbolises revolt against British, 6 Oct 2010, Zee News https://zeenews.india.com/news/jharkhand/santhal-durga-puja-symbolises-revolt-against-british_659842.html
We are tribals and we worship goddess Durga, 8 Oct 2014, Indiafacts.org http://indiafacts.org/tribals-worship-goddess-durga/
Factsheet on JNU Mahishasura controversy, 18 Oct 2014, Indiafacts.org http://indiafacts.org/fact-sheet-jnu-mahishasura-day-controversy/
A version of this article was first published at Shaktitva.
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