I have never hidden my compulsive fascination with Hindu mythology, specifically with respect to the countless goddesses situated in the Hindu pantheon. This fixation of mine may very well seem like a side effect of my feminism, but it is not as simple as that. I do admit to feeling an out of place, illogical warmth in my gut at the existence of goddesses (and powerful ones at that) in my culture. However, I am not that distanced from reality to comprehend the fact that the status of the divine feminine is far removed from the status of the Indian woman, be it socially, religiously or otherwise. And that is one of the (many) reasons why I can’t help but insistently question and deconstruct the varying identities of the goddess figures in Hindu mythology.
Interestingly enough, while I will not deny the existence of dominant and often autonomous goddesses, there have been a few intercutting themes in their representation and the legends pertaining to their identities which I find quite unsettling.
Inevitably, I would have to start with Kali. If this elicits a collective gasp from certain folk, who refuse to stomach the possibility that the representation of Kali may not be as egalitarian or transcendental as one would expect, then allow me to extend a caveat lector. For now, I will only outline the core narratives, representing each of the influential, powerful and vastly popular goddesses I have in mind.
Kali’s iconography as we all know is synonymous with pure, unadulterated wrath. Almost all her representations and core stories involve her indulging in indiscriminate destruction, without any thought to her surroundings or victims. The basic, core narrative involving Kali follows a familiar theme: Kali goes on a wrathful rampage, the gods beseech Siva to intervene and Shiva basically lays prostrate in her path. Kali being wholly absorbed in her anger does not notice him lying in her path and fortuitously steps on him. Doing so, she automatically realizes her folly (stepping on her husband) and experiencing acute ignominy at her actions, bites her tongue to control herself and calms down.
Akilandeshwari is the goddess situated at Tiruvannaikka (an urban-ish town/village at the outskirts of Tiruchy), and she is said to be even more formidable than her consort Jambukeshwarar from the same temple. Of all the numerous legends surrounding the conception of the temple, one of the most celebrated narratives revolves around Akilandeshwari and Adi Sankara. It is said that when Sankara set foot in Tiruvannaikka, people entreated him to save them from the inescapable rage of the goddess. Sankara unsurprisingly controls Akilandeshwari’s ferocity by presenting her with a pair of tatankam or large earrings.
As Meenakshi does not really require a droll, catatonic introduction, I’ll save you the trouble and jump right into her core story. In her proto-narrative, before her expected transmutation into a coy bride, she was a fierce warrior and a valorous heir to the throne of Madurai. According to legend, the ruler Malayadwaja Pandyan and his queen Kanchanamala were childless, and therefore heirless. As heirless couples in Hindu mythology are wont to do, they inevitably slid into the tried and true modus operandi of performing elaborate yajnas, begging for an heir to the throne. During one such ceremony, a baby girl miraculously materialized out of nowhere and the royal couple instantaneously took this as a sign and brought her up as their own child and named her Tataatakai (or Taatakai). Tataatakai was not like other children however, she was markedly unusual as she had three breasts.
Extra mammary gland notwithstanding, Tataatakai grew up to be a skilled fighter and a valiant princess, whose excellence in combat was unsurpassed. As her power and strength as a warrior grew, she embarked on a Digvijaya or a tour of conquest and triumph across the subcontinent. When she arrived at the Himalayas however, she set her eyes on Shiva and underwent a curious transformation. Her third breast vanished and she felt herself feeling bashful, a sensation she had never known before. As Shiva held her gaze, the proud, courageous warrior who was unaware as to how to feel self conscious or disconcerted, averted her gaze and looked at her feet demurely for the first time. And the conversion of the peerless, independent warrior Tataatakai into the blushing bride Meenakshi was complete.
If the intercutting themes in all these narratives or core stories or proto legends aren’t glaringly palpable by now, allow me to point them out.
a) They always feature a ferocious, independent and an autocratic goddess at their core.
b) A goddess’s intensity, her rage and her dangerously ambiguous self will never be an ideal paragon for women to emulate. While these traits may be feared and/or respected, they are not considered to be the goddess’s final calling.
c) Extrapolating from the previous point, a goddess’s self-determination or freewill may be valued as a desirable characterestic. But if you look really closely, in actuality, those identities are distinctly impermanent.
d) Each core narrative features a treacherously subtle but common insidious theme: Control.
This theme of control rears its noxious head repeatedly in these proto-legends, but it's brilliance lies in the simple fact that it does not explicitly denounce the goddess for being autocratic or unfathomable. What it does is much much worse. It leads you on, using the above mentioned characteristics like the proverbial carrot; cloyingly patronizing the goddess figure in the process and ultimately setting the stage for putting her in her place.
After suffocating through a miasma of exuberant descriptions of the goddess figure’s transcendence, her sovereignty and so on, you eventually stumble upon the true crux of the narrative, wherein the goddess is made to realize her spousal duties by experiencing lajja (in the case of Kali), or bowing down to the power of a mortal man * (in the case of Adi Sankara and Akilandeshwari) or seamlessly transforming into the subdued, blushing bride from a fearless warrior (in the case of Meenakshi).
It is interesting albeit in a disheartening way, to witness the process of Sanskritization rear its crafty head over and over again; swallowing fierce, local, independent goddesses without any connection to a male authority through wedlock or otherwise, into its gaping maw by immediately proclaiming them as an aspect of Parvati (also by marrying them off to one form of Shiva or the other). This process, in one fell swoop achieves two different things, 1) It places Parvati, a spousal goddess, firmly at the top of the Shaivaite goddess pantheon and 2) It ingeniously allows the local goddesses to have their original attributes but perfidiously adds subversive elements of control and subjugation to their core narratives like the examples I have given above.
It would be dishonest of me to deny the fact that I feel bizarrely letdown by the relentless overlaying of traditional gender roles onto these narratives. Would it kill the patriarchal forces that be, to not paint over every autonomous goddess core-story with a stertorous legend saturated in the panacea of patriarchal womanhood a la the wife and the mother?
Actually, don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.
Post script: To be perfectly clear, this is not a dour, historical post discussing the semiotics of the narratives in the Devi Mahatmya or the Soundarya Lahiri or any of those texts. This is me, being my cantankerous, nitpicky self, basically thinking aloud about popular narratives associated with certain goddesses. This post does not point a blameful finger at wifehood or motherhood or any of those factions. That is all.
PPS: A big thank you to those of you who left comments or dropped me a line after reading my admittedly disquieting previous post. And to those of you who didn’t, may Ceiling Cat smite thee. Ah, the pleasures of being a termagant.
* Some people may argue that Adi Sankara was an avatar of Shiva. To those of you who do, please realize that in principle, he was mortal.