From the Archives: What Would Durga Do? by Barbara Ardinger

Moderator’s note: This marvelous FAR site has been running for 10 years and has had more than 3,600 posts in that time. There are so many treasures that have been posted in this decade that they tend to get lost in the archives. We have created this column so that we can all revisit some of these gems. Today’s blogpost was originally posted August 2, 2015. You can visit it here to see the original comments.

It’s one of my favorite T-shirts. Every time I wear it, people who know who Durga is comment. So do some people who don’t know who the Hindu goddess is.

“What would Durga do?” is of course an echo of the question What would Jesus Do?

I’ve just done a bit of research and learned that this phrase may come from the Middle Ages, that it was famously used in a sermon in about 1891, and that it became very popular among evangelical Christians during the 1990s. What would Jesus do? I think he’d remind us to pay closer attention to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7), especially the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt.: 7:12). The Golden Rule is of course given in the other major religions, too. WWJD has also been turned into WWBD—“What would Buddha do?” I think the Buddha would tell us to live more mindfully.

Continue reading “From the Archives: What Would Durga Do? by Barbara Ardinger”

On Duty and Compassion Towards the Elderly by Vibha Shetiya

At the outset let me state that this post is mostly a collection of musings, rather than having a definite thesis statement.

I’m currently in India. I had to think hard before coming here for many reasons as you can guess. I finally decided to take the risk especially since there’s no telling how long this situation is going to last. After all, I’ve canceled twice and my parents aren’t getting any younger.

My father is 89, mum 79. When you visit on a yearly basis, that which eludes the daily eye becomes quite obvious in terms of reminding one of parents’ mortality. Wrinkles, aches, pains that develop over months and years seem shocking to the interim visitor, and in recent years, I’ve always left with the hope that I get to see them again.

Continue reading “On Duty and Compassion Towards the Elderly by Vibha Shetiya”

What’s Done Is Really Done by Barbara Ardinger

This is an encore performance of a satire I wrote in November 2019, when I thought Trump’s sociopathic behavior was at its height. Little did I know. Little did we know. Only a year later, following the 2020 election, we watched him lie and deny, spread conspiracy theories, and finally encourage his true believers to invade the Capital and “stop the steal.” It’s good to see that President Biden is a normal person who knows what presidential behavior and work really are. A small example: right after the inauguration, we watched him signing executive orders. Did he use a Sharpie? No. Biden used (and still uses) a normal pen to sign his name. And he doesn’t wave an illegible signature at the TV cameras.

Two brief notes: In his novel Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka does not say the protagonist is turned into a cockroach. He’s an ungeheures Ungeziefer, i.e., a “monstrous vermin.” But if you want to see Trump as a roach, that’s fine. Note also that Trump’s answers are spoken by Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Dogberry, Messina’s police constable, is probably the stupidest character Shakespeare created. And so, here’s the encore. Enjoy! (And let’s squash that bug!) Continue reading “What’s Done Is Really Done by Barbara Ardinger”

Where the Dance Is . . . On Cultivating a Daily Practice by Joyce Zonana

Although Goddess traditions invite us to embrace a world of immanence and change, rather than to seek to escape into transcendence—which some yoga teachings seem to point toward—I have come to believe that the “still point,” is, as Eliot writes, where “the dance is.” In other words, daily practice might grant us the capacity to always move through the world with grace and joy. The mind will be steady as it encounters and embraces the turning world. We will be whole.

jz-headshotWhen I was growing up, I was fascinated to see my father each day recite the morning blessings mandated for Jewish men. While the rest of the household bustled sleepily—my mother in the kitchen, my brother and I taking turns in the bathroom, my grandmother slowly getting dressed—my father, still in his pajamas, would stand in the center of our small living room, yarmulke on his head, tefillin wrapped around his arm and forehead, tallit draped over his shoulders. Using a tattered old siddur he had brought with him from Cairo, he would face the east and begin the ancient Hebrew prayers: “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe . . .”

I never knew then the content of what my father intoned, but I knew how committed he was to his practice: he prayed every morning without fail, from the day of his bar mitvah at the age of eleven (the rabbi in Cairo had decided to initiate him early because he had lost his father as a young child) until he a few years before his death at 84, when he became debilitated by Parkinson’s Disease. Ours was not a traditionally Orthodox Jewish family—we did not observe the Sabbath or keep kosher—but my father’s faithful performance grounded him and all the rest of us, bringing us us to what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”

Continue reading “Where the Dance Is . . . On Cultivating a Daily Practice by Joyce Zonana”

The Modern Problematic Nature of the Sabarimala Temple, Part 2 by Anjeanette LeBoeuf

AnjeanetteThe Sabarimala Temple has received an influx of global attention since last October. In my last FAR post, I researched the origin story of the Sabarimala Temple and its dedicated deity, Ayyappan. Ayyappan’s unusual parentage and chosen attributes and patronage made him adverse to all forms of sexual activity and more importantly, not very keen in having female devotees.

Ayyappan, also known as Dharmasastha, is devoted to protecting the dharma, living a yogic life, and more importantly, a celibate life. Ayyappan demands that all his followers when undertaking his pilgrimage, take a vow of celibacy for the duration. No form of sexual impurity must enter Ayyappan’s Sabarimala temple. This is where the problematic elements really start to come to head. Due to the restriction of sexual impurities, females from the age of 10-50 are denied access, as their very biological state of being female, makes them sexually impure. Their ability to menstruate makes them vessels of this apparent sexual impurity that the god Ayyappan does not want. Continue reading “The Modern Problematic Nature of the Sabarimala Temple, Part 2 by Anjeanette LeBoeuf”

Part One: The God Ayyappan and The Sabarimala Temple by Anjeanette LeBoeuf

AnjeanetteThe Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, India has been recently thrown into the news. It has made world news due to the two centuries long tradition of denying females from the age of 10-50 entrance into the Temple. As of September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing women entrance into the Temple. Needless to say, this ruling was met by both large numbers of supporters and protestors.  But what makes the Sabarimala Temple so controversial?

Continue reading “Part One: The God Ayyappan and The Sabarimala Temple by Anjeanette LeBoeuf”

Human Elements in Plants: Wisdom and Botanical Lore by Nazia Islam

My paternal side of the family comes from an extensive line of farmers. They were notable for growing eggplants, but they held all sorts of agricultural knowledge. My maternal side of the family has a hushed history of female kobiraj/ natural medicine practitioners. General folk knowledge was passed through mothers and mothers-in-law.

Much of this “folk knowledge” would peek into my life as I was growing up in New Jersey–especially through our garden. It didn’t matter where we lived, we would always grow something somewhere even if it was just germinating seeds for other people. My parents would go to great measures to bring back seeds of vegetables they could not find in the US–specifically gourds and beans– from Bangladesh whenever they visited.

Continue reading “Human Elements in Plants: Wisdom and Botanical Lore by Nazia Islam”

Spirit of Bali by Jassy Watson

Over the past year I have travelled to Bali on a number of occasions for both pleasure and work, and with each visit a little more of my heart and soul stays behind on this green tropical island paradise waiting for my next return. I was never really that keen to travel to Bali in the past; my pre-conceived ideas had been largely influenced by the negative media attention this “hot destination” often receives in Australia.  Whether it be a volcano erupting, scooter accident, terrorist attack. or young Australian party-goers getting up to mischief while on holiday, the shadow side of Bali tourism remains the focus for hype-hungry media – with consequences often detrimental to the tourism industry that the island has become so reliant on.

Yet for many years pilgrims from all over the world have been flocking to Bali to experience the spirit and culture. I was curious and decided it was finally time I went to see firsthand what all the hype was about. After seeking an inexpensive and close overseas getaway to recharge our parenting batteries, my husband and I decided to join the flock and fly to the island paradise. From the moment my feet hit the ground I was engulfed with the chaos & humidity that is Bali – and I was captivated. Continue reading “Spirit of Bali by Jassy Watson”

My Connection to Bengali Vaishnavism by Nazia Islam

Last summer I began a deep inquiry of Gaudiya/Bengali Vaishnava culture. That inquiry had its origins in a dream I had two years prior where Radha and Krishna appeared in the form of miniature clay figurines. Krishna went missing and Radha asked me to help find him like how she implores her sakhis/friends in much Vaishnava literature. Seeing deities in that manner, as I know in some aspects of Bengali culture, is a big deal. It usually signifies some spiritual connection to those deities. I wrote the dream down because of how vividly I saw it but brushed off as anything significant to me personally though the dream sparked my inquiry.

I had gotten some great information from an academic I met at the American Academy of Religion conference in 2015 who recommended I start with an ethnographic study, The Place of Devotion (Open source by UC Press), published that year by scholar Sukanya Sarbadhikary on the diversity of Bengali Vaishnavism. That was my start of my spiritual-academic journey of understanding Bengali Vaishnavism, but it has taken a while for me, through a lot of counseling, to get mentally and emotionally stable before I could start processing and analyzing all the information I’ve been collecting on this topic. I’m not going to divulge on the details about this in depth, but I can say it is connected to the politics of religious purity found across South Asian Muslim and Hindu communities which is exacerbated by non-Muslims and Hindus who can’t comprehend, for lack of a better word, folk religion or religious syncretism apart from the framework of dual religious identity through intermarriages and the term “multiple religious belonging.” But even those terms are not readily ascribed to non-white bodies.

Continue reading “My Connection to Bengali Vaishnavism by Nazia Islam”

Earth Liturgies for Healing and Hope by Lache S.

In the times of our environmental crisis, I long for rituals, literature, music that can help me navigate the challenge of figuring out how to help, that can inspire me, keep this reality in my mind. I would love to write earth-based poetry myself, but I’m not nearly as connected or intimate or hopeful within my soul as such a task might require.

I think Carol Christ’s Goddess Pilgrimage would be lovely for re-connecting with the earth. I would love to read a post or comments on just how ecology and earth-based awareness factor into this project. I have the pilgrimage on my list to go to some day when I can.

Another possibility is Starhawk’s permaculture retreats. She and other teachers regularly hold “Earth Activist Training” which teach about permaculture as a way to save the earth and mitigate violence. If any of you have taken part, let’s discuss! 

In the meantime, as a student of Sanskrit, luckily, I have been assigned to choose a chant that I would like to memorize, and so I have chosen the first two verses of the Ganga Stotram. A stotra (Sanskrit for ‘hymn of praise’) is a poetic conversation with or about the divine with guidelines for life embedded within. This particular stotra, 14 verses in length, honors the mother, the goddess of the waters, in the form of the Ganges River in India. It originates from the glaciers in the Himalayan mountains. About 1/4 of the country of India is made up of the river basin and 40% of the country’s population resides in this area as well. It is prominently featured in the sacred literature of Hinduism, such as the Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata and, as the strota mentions, the Vedas. This is the chant in transliteration with the English below. Continue reading “Earth Liturgies for Healing and Hope by Lache S.”

A Mother’s Gifts by Dawn Morais Webster

Dawn Morais Webster, the Pope off to his summer palace, Castel Gandolfo. He tells the world he will now become just a “humble pilgrim.”Parvati is a gentle mother goddess. But as Kali, she also wields enormous power. The daughter of Himavan, the king of the Himalayas, consort of Lord Shiva, and mother of Ganesha, the Elephant-Headed Lord, Parvati is the embodiment of all the energy in the universe.  Her seat is on a lion or a tiger.  In the words of a hymn to this goddess, she is “the auspiciousness of all that is auspicious.”

Lakshmi, the consort of Sri Maha Vishnu is often depicted as a very beautiful woman, seated on a full-bloomed lotus, holding lotus buds in two of her hands, a pot of gold in the third. She is flanked by elephants, reflecting her royal status. Lakshmi, as the Goddess of Prosperity, is brilliant in red silk, gold and precious stones. She also offers peace and a sense of balance.

Mother’s Day provided good reason to remember these Hindu deities. They lent their names to the two cows who were milked daily to feed me in the first six months of my life in my grandparents’ home by the sea in Thiruvananthapuram—or Trivandrum, Kerala. I wrote those foreign place names for decades in application letters and immigration forms but it was more than five decades before I first returned to the place where I was born. Continue reading “A Mother’s Gifts by Dawn Morais Webster”

Leadership in the Kali Yuga by Lache S.


green pathSince the U.S. has elected a reality TV show billionaire to represent our nation, we should be no longer be able to shy away from the ignorance, violence, and frivolity that is within us. Happiness and peace in humanity seem to be in short supply. How many of us experience continuing bliss, or do we only fantasize and find brief reprieves in our suffering? Even the more extreme privileged among us most likely share the same emotional landscape.

In Indian cosmology, Hinduism specifically, there are four stages (yugas) of humanity that occur in a cycle. They represent the ascending and declining spiritual, psychological, and physical well-being of humanity. The Satya Yuga is first (descending) and last (ascending) era, where people are without strife, disease, or fear. Satya means “truth.” Life increasingly deteriorates through out the Treta Yuga to the Dvapara Yuga to the Kali Yuga.

Continue reading “Leadership in the Kali Yuga by Lache S.”

Honoring the Earth in our Rituals of Well-Being by Lache S.

plantsMuch of our lives lack the rich culture of ritual that I think would help us repair the relationships we have with our own bodies and with the earth. The Rg Veda is one of the oldest collection of hymns from India. In them, I find a playful and introspective expression of desires and fears that, at first, did not seem to me to hold much wisdom for a modern contemplative. But lately, I have been noticing how the speakers communicate to or about the earth, and how their lives seem centered around trying to take a part in creation. Mostly, these hymns are stories and supplications for rain, cows, victory in battle, and a long life. But there is a deep understanding of the power and divinity in the universe that is the very earth-based wisdom that our humanity-in- crisis needs. If the Qur’an is God calling for humanity to be grateful, the Rg Veda is a model of a humanity that could be nothing else.

I love one incantation, for instance, found in the tenth mandala, that seems to be from a compounding physician, praying to the healing herbs that might make her client well again. I imagine her alone, in a greenhouse pharmacy, on a damp late afternoon, fingering stems and leaves before crushing them with her mortar and pestle to make a bespoke tincture that holds a cure. She knows the plants intimately, and works as if she is on holy ground: Continue reading “Honoring the Earth in our Rituals of Well-Being by Lache S.”

The Chandravati Ramayana: A Story of Two Women by Vibha Shetiya

vibpicAlthough “the” Ramayana is a fluid narrative, scholarship has traditionally recognized the Sanskrit Valmiki Ramayana as the most authoritative of Ramayanas. But recent studies have brought to light the hundreds of regional stories of Rama and Sita which are more popular with the masses. These would include Krittibasa’s Ramayana in Bengal, Kamban’s Tamil Iramavataram in South India, notably in the state of Tamil Nadu, Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas among the Hindi-speaking belt of northern India, and so on. But even here, a pattern seems to emerge; all the above-mentioned authors are male. Within this scenario, a rather unique text stands out, and that is Chandravati’s sixteenth century Bengali Ramayana, for its author was a woman. Even more fascinating is the double-toned nature of the narrative – through Chandravati’s own voice and through the voice of its tragic heroine, Sita.

Chandravati (ca.1550-1600) was born in a village in eastern Bengal, today in Bangladesh. It is impossible to ignore the tragedy of her own life which perhaps played a role in her re-fashioning a well-loved epic; her Ramayana is built on a recurring theme that defines women’s lives – the theme of sorrow. Born the daughter of a poor fisherman, legend has it that on the eve of her wedding, her fiancé ditched her for another woman. A devastated Chandravati vows to never marry, instead becoming a devotee of Shiva, and at the urging of her father, takes to re-writing the Ramayana. But rather than simply recount the traditional tale, Chandravati, through the Ramayanathat symbol of Hindu patriarchy – turns the story into one lamenting the pitiful lives of women by centering it on Sita. That it is a story by a woman and for women is evident in the fact that Chandravati addresses her narrative with the vocative, “Suno Sakhijana!” or “Listen, my girlfriends!” rather than to members of the court as was the traditional salutation for stories involving mythological characters. Continue reading “The Chandravati Ramayana: A Story of Two Women by Vibha Shetiya”

Sex, Death and the Gods (Part II) by Vibha Shetiya

IMG_20160112_101035This continues my reflections on the Devidasis in Part 1.

The overall picture that emerged from the documentary “Sex, Death and the Gods” was that, in its current form, there were many layers to the Devadasi system. For one, the most heartbreaking of all, there were the helpless, underage girls protesting such an existence, pleading that they would rather be in school, instead of being trapped in what was essentially a form of sexual slavery. But then we also see the older Devadasis, women who had been dedicated as children themselves.

Within this latter bracket, there were two groups.Those that viewed the practice as evil, and those that saw it as empowering – they earned their own income and they didn’t have a man or mother-in-law to lord over them; in short, they were in-charge of their own households. To them, married life was akin to a life of servitude, sex was something they enjoyed, and they may have shared a more or less equal relationship with the men who were their customers, men who enjoyed their company and preferred being with a Devadasi rather than with spouses they never chose or couldn’t get along with. In the words of one Devadasi – “I am the boss.” Continue reading “Sex, Death and the Gods (Part II) by Vibha Shetiya”

Sex, Death and the Gods (Part I) by Vibha Shetiya

Vibha I recently re-watched a BBC documentary my students and I had discussed in class last Fall. “Sex, Death and the Gods,” directed by Beeban Kidron, takes a close and rather intimate look at the Devadasi system as currently practiced in Karnataka, a state in southern India. In its ancient form, young girls were dedicated to temples, and their duties included dancing and singing to the deities, a form of worship in itself. Delivering on its provocative title – one that describes how prostitution and sexually-transmitted diseases such as AIDS intersect with the realm of the divine – the film sheds light on how a practice once sanctioned by religion came to offend public sensibilities because of changing mores regarding sexuality, ultimately leading to its being outlawed in twentieth century India.

Despite the ban and denials by government officials, however, the practice continues to exist in some villages and towns, albeit watered-down from its historical form. In the first part of this post, I present the background of the system; in the second, I discuss how “Sex, Death and the Gods” problematizes the concept of women’s agency, a thorny matter especially when issues of morality enter the picture, as it almost always does with “problematic” professions that involve an exchange of money for sex. Continue reading “Sex, Death and the Gods (Part I) by Vibha Shetiya”

Naked and Unafraid: Mahasveta Devi (1926-2016) by Vibha Shetiya

Photo credit: The New York Times

Mahasveta Devi died last month at the age of 90 in Kolkata, India. A widely acclaimed Bengali writer, she identified as an activist first, clearly evident in her meticulously researched “fiction.” Most of her stories champion the cause of those living on the margins of society, particularly the Adivasis or original inhabitants of India; poor, unemployed and itinerant, they traditionally subsisted off the land, and continue to struggle against exploitative upper caste landowners.

I cannot claim to be an expert on Devi or her activism, but there is a story I read a few years ago, which never fails to haunt me, whether because of the rawness with which she describes the harsh reality faced by tribal people or because of what can be seen as the violent but ultimate triumph of its female protagonist, I cannot tell. Perhaps because of both, or because of more complex emotions which are hard to capture as they manifest in goose-bumps and a deep pain in the inner recesses of the chest when reading it for the seventh or eighth or twentieth time. Continue reading “Naked and Unafraid: Mahasveta Devi (1926-2016) by Vibha Shetiya”

The Self is Not the Territory by Vibha Shetiya

VibhaAs a teenager, I grew up wondering where exactly I belonged. Aside from the confusion resulting from straddling two entirely different, perhaps even opposing, cultures, my main concern seemed to center on which country was I from – India or Zambia? Or was I inherently British because of an education and upbringing enveloped by things English – values, books, magazines, not to mention people? Was I American because I grew up on TV shows like Charlie’s Angles, Wonder Woman, Six Million Dollar Man and Dallas that played a major role in fashioning my idea of the world around me? Perhaps I was Zambian because I had been living in that part of the world since the age of one. Or maybe I was from India because that was after all the land of my birth, to where I returned as an utterly confused and disjointed teenager who believed she now had to be “Indian” even though I could not relate so much as an iota to my immediate surroundings.

Looking back, I realize I felt the need to identify my sense of self with nationality. Ultimately, I reasoned, I had to be Indian due to many factors. For one, I looked Indian; I was brown-skinned with black hair and dark brown eyes. I now lived in India amid Indian people, Indian values (oh, so confusing), Indian music and Indian TV shows. And I was “born” a Hindu. So there I was – an Indian Hindu and so had jolly well behave like one. Of course none of this came with a manual on what exactly being Indian or Hindu meant. And so I looked to people around me, people I loved and whose approval my teenage mind so craved, and decided being Indian meant being who they wanted me to be. After all, how many times had I heard the phrase – “You’re in India now, so be Indian.”  And then as an adult, I came to America accompanied by even more potential for confusion; at times I felt the need to cling to my “Indianness,” at other times, I wanted to jettison it for fear of being denied entry into the great melting pot. Continue reading “The Self is Not the Territory by Vibha Shetiya”

Fair and (Therefore) Lovely by Vibha Shetiya

VibahAccording to the Great Indian Cultural Lexicon, being light-skinned or “fair” translates to being “lovely.” A look at commercials that promise a make-over, courtesy of Fair and Lovely skin lightening cream will attest to this. [1] The definition, of course, applies to women, for that is where a woman’s identity begins and ends – within the realm of physical appearances. When the product first came out some three decades or so ago, it was mostly about being able to draw the attention of a (very often ordinary-looking) guy; the fairness/ beauty rule does not apply to men.[2] These days, things have “progressed”; the attention has shifted from the need to getting hitched to finding success in the workplace, as these messages scream out:

The last one is especially cringe-worthy. The lengthy commercial, meant to be a public service message of sorts, targets women in villages and smaller towns, and goes into great detail about issues of women’s empowerment, about how they ought to think of a career now that they are done with college rather than go the usual marriage route. One of the young ladies, Manju, aspires to be a Collector, a high-ranking government official, a post usually limited to males. She works hard, and she also gets Fair and Lovely to work hard, as she happily lets us know. She eventually achieves her dream, all thanks to Fair and Lovely, of course. You decide what the audience is to get from this. Continue reading “Fair and (Therefore) Lovely by Vibha Shetiya”

I Am Queen by Vibha Shetiya

VibahI started this post just after getting back from an India trip, always very challenging because of memories that haunt me not only through their high negative recall value, but also in that I often find myself reverting to the diffident, fearful person I used to be while living there. In fact, palpitation is the first to greet me at Bombay airport even now after nearly seventeen years of being an expat. But with every trip, I also find myself evolving as a person, as a woman. And of course, it is always fun to meet up with family and old friends, all of whom I hold very dear. But the highlight of this trip was Queen.

Queen is a Bollywood movie unlike any other I’ve seen. As mentioned in a previous post, B-wood cinema if you can call it that, is made mostly of predictable, formulaic themes centering on impossible flights of fancy, not-so-subtle patriarchy, and gendered stereotypes. The good news is that in recent years, film makers have been trying to push boundaries in their own small ways, no doubt a laudable attempt in an industry where success still depends on mass consumption; box office success over critical acclaim. Queen, however, stands out in its portrayal of the protagonist Rani Mehra, a middle class young lady from Delhi (“rani” is “queen” in Hindi). Even more remarkable is that it portrays Rani’s female friends – “scantily” dressed women and prostitutes – without judgment, as human beings who are far from detrimental to Rani or the plot. Continue reading “I Am Queen by Vibha Shetiya”

Wifehood Redefined: The Twentieth Century Sita by Vibha Shetiya

VibahIn 2003, I picked up a collection of essays on little known Ramayanas. Buried within was a poem by Pathabhi Rama Reddy. Pathabhi, a rebel of Telugu literature, defied not just conventional rules of grammar but also those of popular thinking, best exemplified by his poem, “Sita,” the subject of this post.[1]

Rama’s harsh treatment of Sita in the Ramayana epic when he first doubts her purity, compelling her to undergo a trial-by-fire, and then banishing her despite the fact that she had proved her loyalty to him, has attracted criticism from all quarters – how could the “perfect man” behave so callously towards his own wife who had been Ravana’s helpless victim? The fluidity of the story has ensured a visibility for Sita, no doubt. Continue reading “Wifehood Redefined: The Twentieth Century Sita by Vibha Shetiya”

Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 2) by Vibha Shetiya

VibahContinued from Part 1.

After leaving her home and her children in order to take refuge with her guru, in no time, Rukmabai won over hearts. Her guru, Siddharood Swami “with his divine sight” discerned that Rukmabai was no ordinary being. In fact, just before his death, upon realizing that his principle disciple had attained moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth), he left to her his mission of guiding others to salvation, directing his followers to now address her as Mother Kalawati.

And so it came to be that at the tender age of twenty-one, Rukmabai had a large following herself, and as an intense devotee of Krishna, she almost became synonymous with the god. As many like to point out, she had already internalized the attitude of non-attachment, whether towards individuals, possessions or food or drink; she was already enlightened.

Her disciples were both male and female, although she dedicated herself to the well-being of women. But while directing minds towards god, Kalawati Aai – a high class and high caste woman – also dedicated herself to uplifting the poor and backward Bohari community of Belgaum, Karnataka. It is said that the men used to wile away their time drinking and gambling leaving the womenfolk to run the household. Because of Kalawati Aai’s intervention, some order was brought to their lives; the men stopped drinking, which in turn put an end to the physical abuse they had heaped upon their wives, as well as the neglect their children had faced, who earlier had no choice but to turn to vagrancy. Stability in the homes through prayer and piety – in other words channeling their minds away from vice and towards god – in turn saw not just an economic change but also a change in the lives of these women and children, for the better.

But – and this is interesting – her message to women was not one of directing energy towards god in search of inner peace or salvation, but towards the family, of being a virtuous wife and mother. In fact, she urged women to put aside “just one hour a day of your life to the service of god”; the rest of the time should be aimed towards serving the family. And her advice to women unhappy on account of their domestic life would always be to look deep within themselves to remedy the situation, rather than to blame their husbands. Moreover, at no point should a woman ever neglect her duties towards family on account of her own well-being for that would be tantamount to selfishness. I find this most interesting because she herself broke norms in order to serve a personal calling. Continue reading “Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 2) by Vibha Shetiya”

Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 1) by Vibha Shetiya

VibahI recently assigned my students an article by Kathleen Erndl – “Is Shakti Empowering for Women? Reflections on Feminism and the Hindu Goddess.”[1] I’m sure, like Erndl, many have been fascinated by this question, especially within the Indian context. Does the presence of an abundance of goddesses necessarily translate to social empowerment for women? The answer is indeed complicated in that one cannot reify all goddess worshippers under one static rubric.

Having said that, however, I would like to posit that generally speaking, it would be fair to say Indian culture is a patriarchal one, and that the presence of a goddess tradition does not translate to independence for women. Firstly, the kind of goddesses worshipped by both men and women, are not necessarily the assertive, independent kind. They are often those such as Lakshmi and Saraswati who are maternal and nurturing, and important in their own right. All too often, however, these virtuous traits have been used to disempower women, to keep them in their “socially assigned places.”

There is evidence from early Hindu literature that the above goddesses may initially have been independent forces, but they soon came to be tamed as consorts of male gods; Lakshmi as Vishnu’s wife, and Saraswati as Brahma’s. Second, fierce and independent goddesses such as Kali and Durga may have a large following, but it is only in certain cases such as in Tantric theology specific to the goddess Shakti, identified with Kali, that ritual practices may do away with gender roles, that both male and female members have equal access to Kali. But the important question would be – outside of the ritual context, how do practitioners of Tantra regard women? In other words, do women have equal social – and not merely equal ritual – status? I am not an expert in Tantric discourse, but judging by various commentaries, I have reason to believe that this does not necessarily translate to gender equality in the social setting.

My quest here, however, is to provide an example of what a community with a strong, female leader may look like. I thought of this example because I have been intrigued with and fascinated by my own family experience regarding the cult of Kalawati Aai or Mother Kalawati (I do not use the term “cult” derogatorily as “a group with a powerful and controlling leader” but in the classical sense of “practices centering on an object of reverence”). My aim is to provide a picture of often conflicting ideals within the Hindu setting, to shed light on how this can play out on the ground. My information on Kalawati Aai – considered a saint by her devotees – comes from hearsay and hagiographical accounts for I never met her; she died almost forty years ago.[2]

Continue reading “Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 1) by Vibha Shetiya”

Sita Sings the Blues. Literally. by Vibha Shetiya

VibaOne of the most exciting times of the semester occurs when we watch “Sita Sings the Blues” in class. This film by Nina Paley – one she has made available to the public by withholding copyright – is a wonderful addition to what has come to be known as the Ramayana tradition. Unlike a few decades ago when scholarship focused on only pan-Indian literary Ramayanas, scholars today are beginning to acknowledge that most people get to know of Rama and Sita through folk and oral tales, women’s songs and local and regional tellings.

But the thing about “Sita Sings the Blues” that struck me most was how, in 81 short minutes Paley masterfully reflects the complexity of the tradition; the Ramayana in its various forms has been questioned, adapted, revered and challenged by commentators and devotees alike in the two millennia it has traveled across space and time, from north India to Bali to New York. But what scholarship has elaborated over three decades and endless research, Paley has managed to show in less than two hours.

The Ramayana as my last post explained acts as a blue print for daily living for millions of Hindus worldwide. There are various problematic episodes in the epic, one of the most controversial being Rama’s unceremonious treatment of his own wife, the ever loyal and faithful Sita. Paley like so many others who have joined the debate over Sita’s treatment – one that began in antiquity – gives Sita a voice of her own when she ingeniously has the tragic heroine of the Ramayana singing to Annette Hanshaw’s songs; Hanshaw was an American jazz singer whose success soared in the 1920s and 30s. Throughout the film, her melancholic voice reminds us of the universality of the story, one of a woman scorned by the man she loved. Paley herself could feel Sita’s pain, for amid the various layers of the film, is woven her own experience of love and betrayal. But Paley is present throughout the story in another way – the animation, design and editing is entirely hers. Continue reading “Sita Sings the Blues. Literally. by Vibha Shetiya”

And Then There Was Sita by Vibha Shetiya

VibaWe have been hearing a lot about Kali and Durga lately, manifestations of the great goddess (“Kali Ma,” by Jassy Watson, July 3; “What Would Durga Do?” by Barbara Ardinger, August 2). Nancy Vedder-Shults’ three-part series on Kali (August-October, 2014) too helped shed light on an often misunderstood deity. Both Kali and Durga personify the power or shakti within women, a force that can be empowering and terrifying at once. Kali represents uncontrolled female energy, whereas Durga is portrayed as one in control of her abundant power. These images, especially the one of Kali are double-edged; they can prove problematic for women insofar as – from the male perspective – they confirm the fact that women possess an alarming energy, especially a sexual one, which in turn justifies the need for men to subdue them.

Sita's abduction by Ravana. Artist: Raja Ravi Verma
Sita’s abduction by Ravana. Artist: Raja Ravi Verma

Within this context, I would like to talk about Sita, who, one could argue, is the antithesis of the two. Sita is the gentle wife of Lord Rama, hero of the Ramayana, a two-thousand year old Sanskrit epic. In the Ramayana, Rama, the crown-prince of Ayodhya, is exiled to the forest for fourteen years. His loyal and faithful wife, the princess and goddess Sita, insists on accompanying him to the wilderness. There, the demon king, Ravana kidnaps her leading to a battle between Rama and Ravana. Almost a year and thousands of casualties later, Rama succeeds in slaying Ravana and reclaiming Sita.

But alas, Rama rejects his wife in the presence of the hundreds of onlookers, eagerly awaiting the reunion of the couple, on the grounds that her chastity was suspect; after all, says Rama, surely Ravana couldn’t have resisted her ravishing beauty? If she is to be worthy of Rama, Sita has to undergo a trial by fire to prove that she had indeed remained chaste throughout her captivity. Although she passes with flying colors, Rama eventually gives in to gossip and banishes her to the wilderness a few years later – while she is pregnant with his twins – where she is left to die (she, however, does not). Continue reading “And Then There Was Sita by Vibha Shetiya”

What Would Durga Do? by Barbara Ardinger

durga1_4inIt’s one of my favorite T-shirts. Every time I wear it, people who know who Durga is comment. So do some people who don’t know who the Hindu goddess is.


“What would Durga do?” is of course an echo of the question What would Jesus Do?

I’ve just done a bit of research and learned that this phrase may come from the Middle Ages, that it was famously used in a sermon in about 1891, and that it became very popular among evangelical Christians during the 1990s. What would Jesus do? I think he’d remind us to pay closer attention to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7), especially the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt.: 7:12). The Golden Rule is of course given in the other major religions, too. WWJD has also been turned into WWBD—“What would Buddha do?” I think the Buddha would tell us to live more mindfully.

But who, you may be asking, is Durga? Why does she have all those arms? Why is she carrying all those weapons? Why is she riding on a tiger? I’ll answer with reference to Patricia Monaghan’s New Book of Goddesses and Heroines (Llewellyn, 1997). While all the Hindu goddesses are ultimately one goddess with the collective name Devi (“goddess”), Monaghan writes, the goddess appears in different forms. “One of the fiercest of Devi’s forms is Durga … [who is] also the eldest.” She appeared during the “primordial war between gods and antigods” and is the “first manifestation of goddess energy” (p. 106). Continue reading “What Would Durga Do? by Barbara Ardinger”

Kali Ma (Part 3 of 3) by Nancy Vedder-Shults

nancymug_3In contrast to the linearity of our time concept in the West, Indians view life as infinite and cyclical.  Although Hindus, like ancient Greeks, believe in four ages of humanity (the so-called yugas), these occur not just once, but repeat cyclically every several million years.  Similarly, the creator god Brahma is said to have a daily cycle which has recurring effects on the existence of the world.  When Brahma awakes the world is created anew, and when he falls asleep it dissolves once again into the primal waters of eternity.  Fortunately for us, Brahma’s day lasts 4,320,000,000 human years.

Holland Cotter, in reflecting on Eastern art, once brought these temporal differences into sharp focus when he contrasted two of the major icons of East and West  — Christ on the cross and the dancing Shiva.  He said, “The Christ figure embodies the Judeo-Christian concept of divine history as a straight, purposeful line from the Fall of Man (sic.) to redemption, but with a tragic human story of self-sacrifice, loss and atonement at its heart.  The dancing Shiva is, by contrast, a dynamic, joyous cyclical image: a poised, uplifted foot and hands form a circle echoing the nimbus of flames surrounding the figure.  The image represents a culture which…views both humans and gods as participants in a cosmic game that periodically grinds to a catastrophic halt only to begin again.”[i]

Like Shiva, Kali has been depicted surrounded by a halo of flames.  But unlike Shiva, her portrait is far from a joyous image.  In one example, a 17th or 18th century North Indian sculpture, Kali is personified as a voracious, old hag squatting on a victim whose entrails she eats.  Slicing open the belly of the anonymous corpse, Kali scoops out its intestines with her bony fingers and gobbles them with her protruding teeth.  The anonymity of the victim brings home to the viewer the fact that ultimately we are all Kali’s prey.  And the flames burning around her head reemphasize this point, for as the aureole of the Dancing Shiva, they are the fires of the final conflagration at the end of each world period.  But in this image we realize that such flames flicker constantly, since time erodes all that has ever existed and Kali swallows all she has ever birthed.[ii] Continue reading “Kali Ma (Part 3 of 3) by Nancy Vedder-Shults”

Ramakrishna Devotion to Kali-Ma (Part 2 of 3) by Nancy Vedder-Shults

nancymug_3Ramakrishna was one of the major poets who popularized Kali’s worship in Bengal, the northeasternmost province of India. Born in the early part of the 19th century, he was a Hindu saint in a tradition known as bhakti, where devotees lovingly surrender their hearts, minds and spirits to their chosen deity in a practice which leads to ecstatic union with the divine. Such devotion is easier for us in the West to imagine when the beloved is the playful Krishna with his sublime flute-playing and sacred lovemaking. But in Ramakrishna’s case, the object of his devotion was the fierce Kali, the wild and uncontrollable aspects of the sacred, to whom he devoted himself as a child would to its mother.

Kali with baby
Kali as the mother of Shiva

In his best-known evocation of the Goddess, Ramakrishna observes her as a graceful young woman sinuously emerging from the waters of the Ganges. As her belly breaks forth from the waves, we realize that she is late in pregnancy, coming to dry land to deliver her child. When she reaches the shore, she gives birth to a beautiful baby whom she fondles affectionately and lifts to her breast, where the child suckles until it is content. Holding her baby once more in her arms, the woman becomes the Kali we are more familiar with, a frightening old hag, gaunt with age and hunger. In her ferocious aspect, Kali then lifts the infant to her mouth, crushes it between her teeth and swallows the baby whole. Without a backward glance, she returns to the waters from which she emerged, disappearing again from view. Continue reading “Ramakrishna Devotion to Kali-Ma (Part 2 of 3) by Nancy Vedder-Shults”

Kali Ma, The Dark Creator and Destroyer by Nancy Vedder-Shults

nancymug_3In contrast to our dualistic thinking here in the West — thinking that separates light from dark, life from death, and chaos from order –there are a number of Eastern philosophies and religions that have retained a more holistic approach to reality. One religion that has done a good job of preserving the awesomeness of its deities by representing them through the full spectrum of life, death and rebirth is the Hindu culture in India. Remarkably, most of the major Hindu gods and goddesses represent divinity as forms of “coincidence of opposites.” In other words, the great deities like Shiva, Vishnu and Devi (the Goddess), simultaneously encompass life and death, good and evil, darkness and light, creation and destruction. For Westerners who live in a society which easily polarizes such distinctions, looking at the living mythology of one of these divine figures might offer us some ideas of how we can create a more unified mythology for ourselves.

It is no surprise to me that in India people acknowledge death as an inevitable part of life, just as they see darkness as half the daily round. When I visited India 35 years ago, I found it to be an overwhelming experience. The streets were filled to overflowing with people, oxcarts, cars with horns blaring, trucks inching along between the pedestrians, camel carts, bicycles and more people, food stalls, markets with vegetables and spices I had never seen before and people on top of people. As a Westerner I found all this lively interaction disconcerting, especially since it was very difficult to find a time and place to be alone. Life — even human life — was abundant to the point of excess. Continue reading “Kali Ma, The Dark Creator and Destroyer by Nancy Vedder-Shults”

Painting Saraswati By Angela Yarber

Saraswati reminds me that the divisions between fields are our construction; that academics can be creative, art can be holy, and preaching can engage the mind. 

I was precariously perched atop a file cabinet tacking a giant cloth to the wall when another staff member entered my office.  “What’s that?” she asked, puzzled, and pointing to the massive cloth now covering my wall.  “Saraswati,” I responded, hopping off the file cabinet, “the Hindu goddess of arts, creativity, and learning.”  She raised her eyebrows.  “Our previous Baptist preacher didn’t have any Hindu goddesses hanging on the wall,” she said with a wry smile.  “I guess I’m not your average Baptist preacher,” I chuckled.

For years I have been searching for Saraswati, claiming her as my patron saint, the one who guides my path as I navigate three seemingly disparate callings: artist, scholar, and preacher.  In Saraswati, these three callings merge.  Naturally, I hang a giant image of her on my office wall and wear a pendant bearing her likeness around my neck.  She reminds me that the divisions between fields are our construction; that academics can be creative, art can be holy, and preaching can engage the mind.  These three seemingly disparate callings do not have to be mutually exclusive.  Saraswati certainly wouldn’t see them this way. Continue reading “Painting Saraswati By Angela Yarber”

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