Devi: The goddesses of India

Edited by John Stratton Hawley, Donna Marie Wulff

Publisher: Aleph

Number of pages: 352

Price: Rs 499

Chasing the devi of many things 

Paradox lies at the heart of devi worship. Not just because it is deeply ensconced within a strong patriarchal culture but also because of the way she is invoked. She is the goddess of prosperity, but also of disease and pestilence. She is the nurturing spirit and bloodthirsty avenger all rolled into one, to be worshipped and feared at the same time.Her form is ever changing and yet she is the universal mother; as anyone who has studied or spent time with her worshippers will know, trying to frame the goddess in India within a single archetype or spin a uniform narrative around her is a fool’s errand.

The bookisan anthology of essays on goddesses and their worshipand was first published in 1997. (This is a special South Asian reprint) A mix of academic research and field work, the collection of essaysreflects the deep scholarship of writers who have probably spent a lifetime studying the devi, her emergence and evolution. What sets it apart from similar works in the past is that the authors have not hesitated to weave in their personal experiences into their academic research. They have also not let the formal structure of the essay get the better of their storytelling skills; makes it all hugely readable while letting readers get a more nuanced understanding of the subject.

The goddess has been shaped by a variety of belief systems and rituals and the essays help us see that. They are also a revelation of how local and little traditions have contributed to the larger national narrative around the devi and her worship. In Seranvali: The mother who possesses Kathleen M Erndlexamines the phenomenon of possession. Her work is located in the north-west region of India where the devi is often referred to as Seranvali, the lion rider or a generic mata. Ms. Erndlpeels away the layers around the phenomenon and the beliefs that underlie itand shows just how inadequate the word ‘possession’ is in this case. It does very little to further our understanding of the complex relationship between the devi and her devotees. Ms Erndl found two terms commonly used to describe the experience; pavanrup (wind form) and khelna (playing). The goddess assumes the wind form to enter her devotees and then plays with them. Hence, no matter how conservatively attired a woman may be, if the goddess chooses to speak through her, her hair is bound to come loose and she will be tossed around, as if caught in a violent gust of wind.

The essays also drive home the point that thegoddess is not cast in stone. She is still evolving in public imagination, art, film and festival. John Stratton Hawley who has co-edited the anthology with Donna Marie Wulff writes about Santoshi Mata. Bollywood catapulted her to national fame through a movie called Jai Santoshi Ma (1975). Until then she was barely known and there was just one small temple dedicated to Santoshi Ma in Jodhpur. However what is even more interesting than the transformation of a local devi into a national mother of satisfaction is the metamorphosis of the goddess herself. Until the late sixties the temple goddess was known as Lal Sagarki Mata, named after the red coloured lake nearby. Significantly, Lal Sagarki Mata was a carnivore to whom goats and other animals were regularly sacrificed while Santoshi Ma was vegetarian and her devotees offered her gur and chana (jaggery and chick peas). 

Such transformations are not rare, nor are they specific to a particular location or community. All around us, goddesses are going through image makeovers and identity shifts with frequent regularity—in a temple in Mumbai, for instance, a goddess of pestilence is now worshipped as the goddess who slays evil.

The book adopts two classifications to arrange the goddesses under study; one is ‘goddesses as supreme and goddess as consort’ and the other, ‘goddesses who mother and possess’. Under the latter categorisation, the editors have an essay on Bharat Mata that traces the rise of the most recent goddess in the pantheon.

Her iconography is telling. In the temple dedicated to her in Hardwar, she is depicted as holding a milk urn in one hand and sheaves of grain in the other, which the temple literature describes thus: “signifying the white and green revolution that India needs for progress and prosperity”. Ironically while the country has been visualised as a goddess, the goddess is portrayed as an aspect of the male god Siva. The founder of the temple of Bharat Mata (VHP leader Swami SatyamitranandGiri) defines her thus in the temple guidebooks: the total aspect of her (Bharat Mata) is symbolised in Lord Shankara.

By bringing even the most recent additions to the pantheon under the ambit of its study, the book offers readers a glimpse into the way modern day devis are being moulded. It sets up the connections between the motifs and symbols, helping readers see the pathways that connect the past to the present.

American scholar Thomas B Coburn (The great goddess) who has focused on the study of the classic text Devi Mahatmya, says in the opening essay that the book is an attempt to contribute towards instituting a comprehensive history of devi worship.With 11 essays on 11 devis, the book does more than that. It helps readers sort through the chaotic jumble of practices and rituals that have come to be associated with devis across the country, it helps illuminate the differences and understand the similarities more clearly. And if nothing else, punches several holes into allrecent attempts to mould the devi in the image of a bland and undistinctive mother goddess.