Goddess Worship: The Hindu Goddess

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Academic interest in Hindu goddesses has burgeoned since the 1970s because of three coalescing factors: in the United States, funding for fieldwork in South Asia through postwar area studies programs; feminist scholarship, with its stress on women's experience and feminist perspectives; and the move from a reliance on texts and elite viewpoints to an emphasis on local, oral, village contexts where goddesses tend to thrive. With increasing numbers of publications, however, the best way to characterize Hindu goddesses, either as individuals or as a category, has become contested and complex. Accordingly, this essay has three aims: to cover representative Hindu goddesses; to indicate the types of scholarly methodologies currently employed to study them; and to describe major hermeneutical controversies in their interpretation.

For heuristic purposes, this survey organizes goddesses via a pacific (saumya )/fierce (raudra ) spectrum, or, as Wendy Doniger first labeled it, a juxtaposition between "breast" (gentle and nurturing) and "tooth" (ambiguous and potentially dangerous) goddesses (1980, pp. 9091). In general, breast goddesses are boon bestowing and provide mediation and access to their more powerful consorts. One example is Śrī or Lakmī, associated from the Vedic period with royalty and from the epic period with auspiciousness, fertility, wealth, and usually Lord Viu. Iconographically, she is portrayed either alone, seated on a lotus and surrounded by symbols of fecundity (coins, water, elephants, and the color red) or with Viu in a position of humble subservience. Theological reflections on Lakmī reach their apex in the medieval writings of South Indian Śrī Vaiavas, for whom she is Viu's inseparable breast-jewel, and she argues with her lord over devotees, independently granting them grace (prasāda ).

Other instances include Sarasvatī, the Vedic river goddess who by the epic period symbolized purity, learning, and the arts, and who, though putatively linked to Brahmā, helps devotees directly; Sītā, the wife of Rāma, the model of wifely perfection who, in Tulsidāsa's sixteenth-century Hindi version of the Rāmāyaa, the Rāmcaritmānas, acts as the devotee's intermediary to Rāma; and the various forms of Śiva's wife Satī, or Pārvatī, the one to draw her unpredictable husband from the sphere of moka to that of dharma through her beauty and sexuality. In the South Indian theological speculations of Śaiva Siddhānta, she is identified with Śiva's grace (aru), inherent in every human. In all cases, these mediator-goddesses are said to be svakiya, or married to their consorts, and even if they are soteriologically more significant than the male gods, the latter are more important ontologically.

"Tooth" goddesses are sometimes dangerous and must be viewed with caution. Famous examples are Durgā, or Ambikā/Caikā, the battle queen of the famed sixth-century Sanskrit "Devī-Māhātmya" section of the Mārkaeya Purāa, who slays demons on behalf of the gods and who offers her devotees either worldly enjoyment (bhukti ) or liberation (mukti); and Kālī, the emaciated demon-chopper who emerges from Durgā's wrath to have an autonomous career as an awesome mother goddess, rescuing her votaries from distress. Other instances of ambivalent goddesses include those whose provenance is local calamity or disease, such as Śītalā and Māriyamma, goddesses of smallpox and skin maladies. Like "tooth" goddesses in general, they represent both the release from suffering and the cause of that suffering; devotees of Śītalā in pox outbreaks claim that the mother's "mercy" (dayā ) is manifest on the bodies of those she favors. Each of these powerful, independent goddesses, though potentially allied with a male, either as consort (Śiva is the husband of both Durgā and Kālī) or as companion (Jvārāsura, the Fever Demon, is Śītalā's helper), are not intermediaries to their male partners; one prays to them directly, hoping that their compassionate sides will "intercede," so to speak, with their more dangerous aspects.

Midway between "breast" and "tooth" goddesses are those who are neither subservient nor independently powerful, neither peaceful nor fierce, but who claim an equal status with their male companions. Pārvatī in her form as the female sexual organ (yoni ), coupled with that of the male, Śiva linga, is a perfect example of such complementarity, as are Śiva and Pārvatī as two halves of the same being, Ardhanārīśvara, Śiva Half-woman. Rādhā, Ka's cowherd lover, is another illustration; although, like the "breast" goddesses mentioned above, she renders Ka accessible to Vaiava devotees, offering her grace and compassion to those who seek it (see Sūrdās's Sūrsāgar and the Brahmavaivarta Purāa ). In other texts Ka exalts her over himself and even serves as a model of devotion to her rather than the reverse (see Jayadeva's Gītagovinda and Rūpa Gosvāmin's Vidagdhmādhava ).

In a theological move similar to that of Ka in the Bhagavadgītā, who asserts that all gods are really just forms of himself, Hindu goddess worshipers also claim that all manifestations of the divine feminine, whether benign or ambivalent, are simply faces or aspects of the one Great Goddess, Mahādevī. This profession is attested textually from at least the time of the "Devī-Māhātmya," where one finds epithets praising one goddess in terms of another, stories in which goddesses emerge from each other, and philosophical declarations about female energy (śakti), primordial nature (prakti), delusive power (māyā), and the absolute ground of being (brahman ), each of which is said to characterize female deities. The concept of Mahādevī was an especially powerful tool for assimilating local, indigenous goddess cults into the normative, widespread Hindu pantheon, and the Purāas (fifth to eighteenth centuries) are textual repositories of lore concerning this process of consolidation. Recent anthropological studies underscore the same point: tribal and local deities in Orissa are slowly being identified with the pan-Indian Durgā; a local "girl" in Madurai has risen through identification with Śiva's consort Pārvatī to the status of his royal wife, now more beloved by devotees than her husband; and Vai, Muruka's Tamil wife, is a classic low-caste Cinderella whose origins have nearly been erased in her gradual upward mobility. The 108 Śākta "seats" (pīha s) of the Goddess, each a local shrine glorified by its incorporation into the legend about the fallen body parts of Śiva's wife Satī, are another illustration of regional deities being unified under the banner of a universal goddess.

One of the results of the proliferation of studies on Hindu goddesses has been both the expansion of knowledge about individual goddesses and the theoretical nuancing of scholarly approaches to goddesses in general. Alongside translations or descriptive works, therefore, are field studies promoting feminist, neo-Dukheimian, Freudian, or postcolonial interpretive lenses. These treat a variety of individual goddesses, such as Akāaparamēcuvari, Bhadrakāi, Draupadī, Māriyamma, and Mīnākī, from South India, and Manasā, Nandādevī, Śītalā, and Vaiodevī, from the north. As a group, such works challenge two influential hermeneutical frameworks proposed when the study of Hindu goddesses was still nascent in the 1960s and 1970s. The first rests on a dichotomy between the local or "little" and the universal or "great" traditions and claims that local goddess cults lack geographic spread, textual articulation, Brahman priests, sophisticated theology, vegetarian ethos, and a domesticated deity. As new field research shows, such juxtapositions may be too stark. Akāaparamēcuvari is a village goddess prominent in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh; her spread is wider than that of Mīnākī, who lives solely in one temple in Madurai, but the latter is a royal deity whose fame, and the wealth and Brahmanical prestige of her temple draw crowds from around the country. Bhadrakāi, a multiform of the north Indian Kālī, shares several important elements with her northern namesake, but her cult in Kerala has many unique features. The same is true of Manasā, the goddess of snakes, who is widely worshiped throughout India but in varying ritual and iconographic forms. Draupadī is reputed for her role in the Mahābhārata, but only in South India is there a cult centered on her. Nandādevī and Vaiodevī, both variants of Durgā, inspire complex local traditions in the central and western Himalayas, respectively. Finally, Śītalā and Māriyamma share a concern with skin diseases, but their iconography, personalities, and ritual prescriptions differ from region to region across India. Such scholarly studies imply twin processes at work: Sanskritization or Brahmanization, the identification of the local with the universally respected "higher" culture, and localization, whereby widely recognized goddesses adapt to bounded geographic contexts. Hence, the demarcation between "great" and "little" traditions is more porous than scholars once thought. A second influential opposition, according to which divine ferocity is associated with marital independence, has also been disputed; Kathleen Erndl, Lynn Foulston, and Stanley Kurtz all document sweet, married goddesses who accept blood sacrifice, possession, and fire walking, as well as independent goddesses who are benign and vegetarian.

Among other themes of interest to contemporary scholars of Hindu goddesses is the question of origins: from where do Hindu goddesses come? From the Indus Valley civilization, in the third millennium bce or earlier? The Vedic period, after the mid-second millennium bce? Autochthonous tribal culture? Although the issue is hotly debated, the scholarly consensus is that the Indus Valley peoples were probably goddess revering, as there are parallels between scenes depicted on some of their steatite seals and later Dravidian sacrificial goddess cults. Goddess worship is also important, as one sees even today, in many tribal societies. In spite of the natural theological desire to read goddesses back into the Vedic tradition, there is little evidence for this in the Vedic texts themselves, although it is likely that because they are authored by the Brahman elite, they do not represent the totality of Vedic religiosity.

An additional topic that galvanizes scholarly and popular audiences, East and West, is the relationship of Hindu goddesses to Hindu women. Does the worship of female deities imply anything about expectations for women's behavior? The evidence is mixed: many goddesses appear to act as approved models for Hindu women. Sītā, Sāvitrī, and Pārvatī embody the ideal in wifely virtue; Nandādevī's ritualized reluctance to leave her parents' home for Śiva's abode mirrors the feelings of out-married Garhwali women; and the Orissan Kālī's outstretched tongue is interpreted locally as a symbol of desired wifely shame on the part of the goddess when she realizes that she has stepped on her husband's prostrate body. In such cases the goddess's conduct acts to reinforce what many see as patriarchal values. Other goddesses, however, represent the opposite: no mother would want her daughter to have the fate of Rādhā, an adulteress played upon by the fickle Ka, or the character of the unruly Kālī, who dances naked, uncontrolled. Several scholars have investigated the specific effect that goddess worship has on women in particular locales. Most of them conclude that goddesses have not always been "good" for women: Bhadrakāi's cult in Kerala is nearly exclusively male and represents male fears of women; almost no women in Vindhyachal at the shrine to Vindhyavāsinī find any relationship between the śakti of the Goddess and ordinary women; and even the famed spiritual giant, Ānandamayī Mā, is perceived by her devotees as transcending gender entirely. However, such authors also concede that the potential for positive influence is present. As Kathleen Erndl notes, the goal for Hindu feminists on an ideological level is "to rescue śakti from its patriarchal prison," in which women, because of their power, need to be subdued (1993, p. 96). Western feminists and denizens of women's spirituality have long found Hindu goddesses inspirational sources of inner strength; until recently, however, Indian feminists have eschewed goddess symbolism as being a tool of patriarchal oppression.

Another site for the investigation of Hindu goddesses is the context of Hindu nationalism. With the rise of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party in the late 1980s, one sees a concomitant resurgence of interest in the cult of Bhārat Mātā, or Mother India, and the weapon-bearing eight-armed Aabhujā, a deity self-consciously constructed by the women's wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to provide women with an anti-Muslim rallying symbol. The politicized use of goddess imagery in the modern period goes back at least as far as the late nineteenth century, with Bankimcandra Chatterjee's famed hymn, "Hail to the Motherland," or "Bande Mātaram!" (1882), in which the land of India is equated with the pillaged goddess in need of her sons' heroic self-sacrifice. Most scholars, whether Indian or not, find the explicit equation of the nationalists' enemies with the goddess's victims to be extremely worrying.

Of course, goddesses are a malleable lot, and the nationalists are not the only ones to employ them for human ends. For example, Santoī Mā, Goddess of Contentment, found a mass following after the release of a Bollywood film celebrating her power in 1975, the AIDS-Āmmā was created by a health educator from Andhra Pradesh in 1999, and many ecologically minded activists are exploring goddess traditions for environmentally friendly stories, rituals, or associated philosophical concepts. Again, the data is conflicting; to take the case of the Ganges River, the same belief in the Gangā as goddess leads some Hindus to overlook pollution, since the Mother's purity is inviolable, whereas others attempt to cleanse her out of reverence.

A further topic is the intersection between Śāktism and Tantra, the antinomian ritual and philosophical system in which the normally forbidden is utilized as a means to the divine. From at least the tenth century, particularly in Bengal and Kashmir, Tantric speculation has involved goddesses: the ten mahāvidyā s (great goddesses of transformation), the seven mātkā s (mothers), and numerous yoginī s and ākinī (female ghouls or adepts) in addition to Kālī and other deities. As David Kinsley opines, because of the ambiguous, death-dealing nature of many Tantric goddesses, they push the devotee to new insight: if one can embrace, worship, even love such deities, then one wins the Tantric boon of freedom from fear (1975, p. 144). Investigations of Tantric goddesses cults aim to decipher the relationships between the Tantric elevation of goddesses and ideas of women (most scholars conclude that, ideology notwithstanding, Tantra is primarily male oriented); to understand the nexus between the patronage of Tantric goddess cults and the power ambitions of their sponsors (since the time of the late guptas in the sixth to seventh centuries, kings, whether real or titular, have utilized Tantric symbolism to bolster their own claims to prestige); to study the interaction between Hindus and the British during the colonial period (for instance, in reaction to the first partition of Bengal in 1905, many nationalists used Tantric images of bloodthirsty goddesses to exhort rebellion against the white colonialists); and to chart the British-influenced Hindu critique of Tantric deities, due to which many have lost their rough, sexualized, meat-eating demeanors.

Evidence of the health and vitality of Hindu goddesses is indicated by the number who have made their homes outside India. Whether the new residence is the Caribbean, Europe, Britain, or North America, mainstream devī s such as Lakmī, Sītā, Kālī, Durgā, Mīnākī, and Vaiodevī have adapted in novel ways to their host environments. Most Hindu communities attempt to replicate as faithfully as possible the worship settings of "back home"temples known for their claims to authenticity are the Kālī temple in Toronto and the Mīnākī temple in Houstonbut even so, accommodations are made in terms of festival timings, temple construction and zoning laws, and types of offerings. Devotees must also contend with the fact that non-Hindus in diaspora settings may have strange or even hostile attitudes toward their imported deities. How should a New York Hindu react to gift shop lunch boxes decorated with the face of Durgā, or to Western feminists' interpretations of Kālī as a symbol of women's rage against patriarchy? Such appropriations are balanced by what is perceived as more "genuine" attitudes towards Hindu theism, like the Western-organized and -financed Kālī Mandir in Laguna Beach, California, to which priests from Kolkata's Dakshineswar Kālī Temple are regularly brought for ritual accuracy. As scholars note and devotees experience, the Hindu Goddess, embodied in countless goddesses in Hindu contexts the world over, is complex, theologically flexible, and alive and well.

See Also

Bengali Religions; Durgā Hinduism; Ganges River; Hindi Religious Traditions; Hindu Tantric Literature; Indian Religions, article on Rural Traditions; Marathi Religions; Rādhā; Śaivism; Sarasvatī; Tamil Religions; Vaiavism.


A number of excellent volumes cover a range of Hindu goddesses: Vidya Dehejia, ed., Devī: The Great Goddess: Female Divinity in South Asian Art (Washington, D.C., 1999); John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds., The Divine Consort: Rādhā and the Goddesses of India (Berkeley, Calif., 1982) and Devī: Goddesses of India (Berkeley, Calif., 1996); David R. Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition (Berkeley, Calif., 1986); Axel Michaels, Corelia Vogelsanger, and Annette Wilke, eds., Wild Goddesses in India and Nepal, Studia Religiosa Helvetica, vol. 2 (Bern, 1996); and Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts (Chicago, 1980). The philosophical aspect of the goddesses cult is explored by Tracy Pintchman in The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition (Albany, N.Y., 1994) and Tracy Pintchman, ed., Seeking Mahādevī: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess (Albany, N.Y., 2001). For excellent studies and translations of seminal Śākta texts, see Thomas B. Coburn, Devī-māhātmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition (Delhi, 1984) and Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devī-māhātmya and a Study of its Interpretation (Albany, N.Y., 1991); and Cheever Mackenzie Brown, Devī Gītā: The Song of the Goddess: A Translation, Annotation, and Commentary (Albany, N.Y., 1998), God as Mother: A Feminine Theology in India: A Theological Study of the Brahmavaivarta Purāa (Hartford, Vt., 1974), and Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devī-Bhāgavata Purāa (Albany, N.Y., 1990).

Apart from essays surveying individual goddesses contained in the edited volumes listed above, monographs on the following figures are highly recommended: on Akāaparamēcuvari, Eveline Meyer, Akāaparamēcuvari: A Goddess of Tamilnadu, Her Myths and Cult (Stuttgart, Germany, 1986); on Draupadī, Alf Hiltebeitel, The Cult of Draupadī, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1988); on Kālī, Sarah Caldwell, Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence, and Worship of the Goddess Kālī (New Delhi, India, 1999), David R. Kinsley, The Sword and the Flute: Kālī and Ka, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, Calif., 1975), Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kālī's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1998), Rachel Fell McDermott, Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kāļi and Umā in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal (New York, 2001), and Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds., Encountering Kālī: In the Margins, At the Center, In the West (Berkeley, Calif., 2003); on Māriyamma, chapters in Paul Younger, Playing Host to Deity: Festival Religion in the South Indian Tradition (New York, 2002); on Mīnākī, C. J. Fuller, Servants of the Goddess: The Priests of a South Indian Temple (Cambridge, U.K., 1984) and William P. Harman, The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess (Bloomington, Ind., 1989); on Nandādevī, William S. Sax, Mountain Goddess: Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage (New York, 1991); on Santoī Mā, Stanley R. Kurtz, All the Mothers Are One: Hindu India and the Cultural Reshaping of Psychoanalysis (New York, 1992); and on Vaiodevī, Kathleen Erndl, Victory to the Mother: The Hindu Goddess of Northwest India in Myth, Ritual, and Symbol (New York, 1993). Richard L. Brubaker's dissertation from 1978 is still a very good introduction to the category of village goddesses: The Ambivalent Mistress: A Study of South Indian Village Goddesses and their Religious Meaning. For a modern discussion, see Lynn Foulston, At the Feet of the Goddess: The Divine Feminine in Local Hindu Religion (Brighton, U.K., 2002).

Explorations of the relationship between goddess worship and the status of women may be found in Lisa Lassell Hallstrom, Mother of Bliss: Ānandamayī Mā (18961982) (New York, 1999); and Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen Erndl, eds., Is the Goddess a Feminist? The Politics of South Asian Goddesses (New York, 2000). Suzanne Ironbiter's Devī (Stamford, Conn., 1987) is a good example of a Western woman reading a Hindu goddess-text in a personalized fashion; Shobita Punja's Daughters of the Ocean: Discovering the Goddess Within (New Delhi, 1996) is a Hindu woman's counterpart. For women, goddesses, and nationalism, see Paola Bacchetta, "All Our Goddesses Are Armed: Religion, Resistance, and Revenge in the Life of a Militant Hindu Nationalist Woman," Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 25, no. 4 (1993): 3851; and Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, ed., Women and Right-wing Movements: Indian Experiences (London, 1995). For Tantra in relation to Hindu goddesses, consult: Douglas Renfrew Brooks, Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Śrīvidyā Śākta Tantrism in South India (Albany, N.Y., 1992) and Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Śākta Tantrism (Chicago, 1990); David R. Kinsley, Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahāvidyās (Berkeley, Calif., 1997); Hugh B. Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (Berkeley, Calif., 2003); and David Gordon White, Kiss of the Yoginī: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts (Chicago, 2003). Finally, discussions of goddess traditions providing (or not) inspiration for ecological consciousness may be found in Madhu Khanna, "The Ritual Capsule of Durga Puja: An Ecological Perspective," in Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water, edited by Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, pp. 469498 (Cambridge, Mass., 2000); and Vijaya Rettakudi Nagarajan, "The Earth as Goddess Bhu Devi: Toward a Theory of 'Embedded Ecologies' in Folk Hinduism" (pp. 269296), and Kelly P. Alley, "Idioms of Degeneracy: Assessing Gangā's Purity and Pollution" (pp. 197330) in Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India, edited by Lance E. Nelson (Albany, N.Y., 1998).

Rachel Fell McDermott (2005)

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