Through Body and Space: A Glimpse into Women Worshippers of Aadhi Parashakthi by Amy Levin


Once what happened was after people started believing someone around also started believing in this temple and one person kept a statue on their steps. Her Aunty she believed and she is very much interested in small things. So she started decorating it up. And what happened was the statue starting getting bleeding, like monthly monthly. And the dress which the statue wore during those periods was stained with red bleeding. So they asked Guruji about what is this and he said that the shakti has come into the statue. So if you keep this in the home it will turn into a temple so go and leave it outside. This was followed by entry of snakes, king cobras, so what they did was they went and left it in the sea, after which her grandmother had a dream that you have left me in the water but still I am with you. I am the temple opposite here,  put a lamp everyday at that place. So they started putting it out there, and now there is an earthen Kali which as come up in that place by nature.  –Interview with Premila, March 18, 2008

It was 7:30 pm on a hot Wednesday evening in Madurai, India.  Trying my hardest not to look like a clueless foreigner, I approached a few strangers asking the right direction to the “shakti temple.” I found my way to a square-shaped, modest temple. I shyly entered through the gate and slid out of my slippers while women in red saris greeted me into the mantram – an intimate, confusing, and colorful place. In every corner of the temple, bare-chested men and red-wrapped women were busy worshiping, offering, receiving, and chanting. Amidst the chaos, I was led to the right corner of the room to receive a blessing from Kali, a older widow who I later learned helped build the temple. As she placed kumkum on my forehead, consisting of red powder, turmeric, and sandalwood paste, I experienced what I can only articulate as a kind of euphoria – a feeling I would search for the next few weeks and only later begin to (but never fully) comprehend.

Religion can offer a number of different things; but for many people, it presents an offering to the body; a feeling. One of the reasons I began researching how women related to the Goddess Aadhi Parashakthi was because of one fact: women could enter the temple during menstruation. In the first Aadhi Parashakthi temple, built in the late 1970s in Malmaruvathar (near Chennai), worshipers were allowed to enter regardless of their caste, gender, religion, etc. I was aware, based on my own experience, that there were particular prohibitions for women entering in and participating in Hindu temples. However, I quickly learned that in the temple were I conducted my research that women were allowed in the temple during their period, permitted inside the Sanctum Sanctorum (place where the deity/idol resides) and allowed to perform pujas (devotional rituals). I wondered what the connection was between worshiping Aadhi Parashakthi and these egalitarian/feminist practices.  Indeed, I was living in Madurai, known as the “temple city,” where hundreds devotees of the Goddess Meenakshi would journey from thousands of miles away, and yet, Meenakshi’s female devotees were not allowed in the temple during their period.

 

I was lucky enough during my research to delve into a number of questions I had about the way women worshipers of Aadhi Parashakthi related to the Goddess, and how their devotions made them feel spiritually, emotionally, mentally. However, two elements I always came back to were, 1. How the temple offered women a particular physical/communal/spiritual space, and 2. The physical embodiment of the Goddess herself.  Regarding the former, the fact that women are allowed in the temple during menstruation not only allows them the freedom to worship whenever they please, but this freedom transcends the principle of purity/impurity embedded in Brahmanical Hinduism (and several other religious traditions) in which a menstruating woman is considered impure and therefore unfit to worship.  In fact, many of the women I interviewed felt very strongly about the temple as a  non-hierarchical space, claiming that its openness promoted unity and community in Aadhi Parashakthi’s followers. Performing this unity, women wear red saris and men wear red dhotis, because, according to one woman, “. . .red color is blood’s color, so to show unity whenever we pray to shakti we wear red.”

Regarding the physicality of the Goddess, although the idol of Aadhi Parashakti is only a manifestation of a greater cosmic Mother/energy/force, many of the women I interviewed spoke about the power and importance of her physicality. For one, she bled. In one of my interviews with a young woman who lived across the street from the temple, she pointed to a picture of the Goddess, saying,

“The statue gets periods. That is the statue. It is a very small statue and they’ve decorated it and whenever it gets periods the whole skirt will get the bleeding.”

To my (pleasant) surprise, I learned that because the Goddess bleeds, menstruating women are actually thought to be more powerful. This female divine power extended beyond menstruation as well – Aadhi Parashakthi is not only female, but she is divine Mother. Particularly in Tamil culture, the suffering and sacrifice that mothers undergo means that they accrue more power. In fact, many of the women used the language of “having” shakti, or power, by virtue of their motherhood.

As excited as I was to learn of a type of worship and devotion I had not known before, I know that my observations, conversations, and hours sitting and chanting amongst the RED were mere glimpses, situational and flawed, as is always the beauty of new knowledge. But what I remember more than my interviews is the feeling of cold sandalwood and warm paste on my forehead, or the sight and smell of milk, flowers, incense, turmeric, fire, and fruit, or an elderly woman holding my hand as we chanted “Om Shakti.” The Goddess (in me) had a place to dwell and she was allowed inside.

Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religious liberalism, gender and queer theory, and religion and the public sphere. She is an editorial assistant at The Revealer. 



Categories: Feminism, Gender and Power, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Hierarchy, Hinduism, Motherhood, Women and Community, Women Religious, Women's Spirituality, Women's Suffering

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8 replies

  1. I have just begun to teach about Hinduism at this stage in my career. I taught Buddhism starting with my first job in the 1970s. I have been delighted to learn as you have that women have created their own places in a Hinduism in the villages and in the home, in ways that often fly in the faces of the Brahamins, so beloved of patriarchal scholars! Blessed are the women, for they … speak their own truths.

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    • Thank you, Carol. And true about patriarchal scholars – even though the “shakti cult” is fairly new, I was shocked to find so little research/awareness about basically the only temple that allowed females to enter during their period. It really goes to show what types of knowledge production are preferred/sought out.

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      • Today is 8th August 2013 and it has taken me so long to read something on Adi Parasakthi. During all my daily pujas to Sri Kanchi Kamakshi, i have always narrated the mantras of Adi Parashakthi – unconsciously. I don`t know whether she is or her form. Until recently, i encounter a stranger at a temple and he spoke in a feminine voice & said to me that i know who she was but i that, i am scared of her and said to me to – “close your eyes & see my form”. I said, i can`t & she laughed and gave me a sweet – laddu and before leaving she said that she will fulfill my needs. We parted and never to meet.

        After that encounter, during my pujas i always have tears – at Sri Kanchi Kamaskhi form or thought of her. This made me to search and understand who she really is – whether she was form or formless.To satisfy my seek of knowledge, i have been reading a lot of materials. And finally, my search led to your article and instantly her form visualize in your article and made me connect to you.

        Please accept my apology, if came across as a jerk, but my intentions are sincere and genuine. Thank you Amy. God Be With You Always. Tiru

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  2. Amy, this is powerful indeed. It’s clear how as humans we need ways to connect with the Divine that also connect with who we are as bodied humans – particular and distinctly so. I’m curious, is this the tradition you regularly practice? Or was participating in this type of devotion a cross-religious experience for you? If so, I’m just wondering if that had a particular impact on how you experience this event – and whether it made it more powerful…

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    • Thanks for the comment, Xochitl, and for the very important question – no one has ever asked me that!This devotion was, as you say, a “cross-religious experience” for me. Traveling/living as a Jew in India made particular experiences that much more complicated for me in a way, especially because I was “studying religion.” I always carry my Jewish cultural heritage with me, but because I don’t identified with the old testament God, the physical embodiment of shakti really woke me up to the possibilities of relating to a female deity. When it comes to religious experience, I learned for myself that the sensual aspects of devotion/connection are imperative for me.

      On the other hand, seeing the old Jewish temples in Cochin struck a chord for me in on an extremely emotional level. It was less about a “religious/spiritual” experience per se, and more of a nostalgia and comfort to be in a (Jewish) space in a country where Jews are an extreme minority. So I think there’s room for a multiplicity of religious experiences – and the more open you are, the more possibilities arise!

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  3. Amy —

    Thank you for this post. It brought alive an empowering element in Hindu practice, something I want to learn more about. I find many strains of Hinduism fascinating, especially as a result of the Goddess myths within it. Does Aadhi Parashakti have any stories? And are there other Parashaktis?

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  4. Interesting that this particular tradition emerged in the 1970s! Coincidental to the rise of radical feminism worldwide at the time?
    And the creation of female sacred space in all its forms gives power… a great deal of power. I’ve often considered lesbian space sacred, and this divine and physical love of all lesbians united in large groups– a rarity anywhere in America, bringing with it a kind of fountain of youth quality about it. Thus, the purity of women is expressed in the very act of bleeding, something men love to do in war, but hate as a part of women.

    I think most women have yet to experience this, and why the sacred annoiting within the temple itself was so personally powerful to you
    Amy. It is this physical transcendence within women’s sacred space that gives me a kind of unlimited energy, and our search for this sacred ritually powerful space worldwide is available to all women who really really want to feel that kind of power and freedom.

    And interesting that the woman who founded that temple was named Kali!
    I love it!!!

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  5. shaktism doees not consider menstruation as defilement. In fact in certain tantric practices the presence of menstruating women are required. The red spot worn by shaktas celebrate the life giving power of the female. Some tantras(yogini tantras) even say that only a woman guru has the right to initiate into the tantric tradition. If she is in her ‘red time’ then it is all the more powerful. Incidentally, the first guru of the Sriramakrishna, the great seer of Dakshineshwar was a women tantric, Bhairavi Brahmani who followed left handed practices. The state of menses or widowhood, usually considered the most inauspicious conditions for women are not recognised by shakta tantrism which has a menstuating goddess-Matangi, 16 yr old who clothes is smeared with blood of her first period, and a widow goddess, Dhumavati- old and ugly, in a widow’s clothes, both of whom represent the highest states of realisation transcending all dualities of mundane existence. They are called Mahavidyas, symbols of knowledge and are two of the most important goddesses of the tradition. The Virashaiva tradition also does not recognize the concept of menstruation or widowhood or pollution due to giving birth as states of defilement for women.

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