RELIGION: RNS] — The Hindu festival celebrates Durga, the goddess of Hinduism, in all her forms.
Some communities celebrate it as Navratri which is a Sanskrit term loosely translated to “nine nights.” Durga Puja is when Durga is believed to travel to devotees from her heavenly abode. The South Asian diaspora in the United States will celebrate both Durga Puja and Navratri. Durga Puja begins on October 7th and Durga Puja starts on Oct. 8. 11.
Navratri celebrates Durga’s nine forms. She transforms from her benevolent mother into Mother Kali, her fiercer side. According to legends Durga gives birth to Kali (She Who is Death) in order to defeat demonic forces. Durga is also known as Mahishasura Mardini, the one who defeated Mahishasura, an unconquerable demonic demon.
Kali is shown holding a blood-splattered blade in one hand, and the head of an undead in the other. A string of human heads is tied around her neck, and she wears a girdle made of human hands. Her reddish-purple tongue protrudes from the tip of her mouth and her eyes are bright. Her one foot resting on Shiva’s thigh, her consort, and the other on his chest, she has enchanted scholars and created many legends.
In Western depictions and wider feminist discourses, this Kali image is used to promote empowerment and wild sexuality. I find many of her Western portrayals difficult to recognize if you take her out of her philosophical, cultural and religious contexts.
In Rachel McDermott’s essay “Kali’s New Frontiers,” scholar Rachel McDermott explains how Kali is now viewed in Western culture as a tantric goddess. Many of her rituals are devoted to sex. McDermott describes how Kali is depicted on the web as a “Playboy centerfold.” In the early to mid 1990s, Tantra magazine used to publish a regular column of questions and answers on sex directed to Kali called “Dear Tantric Goddess.”
McDermott also explained that
Kali was used in many New Age rituals, which portray her as “a patron for sexual fulfillment.” McDermott discovered a number of Kali worshipping groups during her research, including Witches Web of Days and Temple of Kali. These groups also perform exotic rituals that include animal sacrifices. One such ritual asks initiates to leap into an inky cauldron to experience the promise of rebirth.
Photo by Sonika Agarwal/Unsplash/Creative Commons
There are many more rituals that relate to Kali. One blog offers advice on a yoga asana where one “takes a goddess squat” and lets out “several primal roars from the belly” to “invoke the energy of the Goddess.” Another suggests that Kali “can help you get in touch with your sexuality and ask for what you want from your partner because she doesn’t try to hide or conform. She is free to express herself .”
Handbags, clothing, souvenirs and even boxer shorts and panties can all be found with an image or symbol of Kali on them.
Kali is portrayed as wild, violent, sexual, and destructive in all these rituals. It is a reminder of what Edward Said described in his 1978 book “Orientalism,” as the West’s consistent representation of the East as exotic and inferior. Hugh B., a scholar in the field, also wrote that this representation is rooted in British attitudes towards sexuality and gender. Urban, writes that this representation goes back to the broader “colonial morality” and “British attitudes towards sexuality and gender” in the 19th century, when Indian women were commonly imagined to be “excessively sexual, dark and seductive … ,” which, as he argues, is reflected in the “aggressively sexual image of Kali.”
Scholar Frederique Abffel Marglin writes also about how Western conceptions of female sexuality have been heavily influenced by Western cultural meanings. “All too often, familiar meanings have been projected onto cultural facts that are less familiar.” The Hindu world is complex,” she writes. McDermott, scholar, asks in her essay whether Kali, in the hands her new interpreters, would be “unrecognizable to her culture from which she sprang .”
At my altar, Kali is Parvati. This was the form she took to fulfill her vows of love for Shiva. Sati is another avatar. She self-immolates when her father humiliates her. Durga is her name, and she fights against the evil forces in the world. She is also the mother who creates Ganesha from her own body.
An Indian artisan stands among clay statues of Durga as they are being readied for the Durga Puja festival inside a workshop in Gauhati, India, on Sept. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Growing up, Kali was a personal god of my mother. My mother kept her image in an alcove of her kitchen, where she had placed sweets and offerings of vermillion over the years.
During Navratri, the alcove would be alive because my mother had incorporated Hinduism into her Jain tradition. As per religious tradition, she would invite the young girls in the area to worship and serve food, just like a goddess embodiment. It was empowering for me to see my mother choose her own goddess, defying tradition.
Today Durga in all her forms accompanies my life’s journey through its joys & travails just as she did my mother. As I gaze upon her, I am also reminded of the many stories, folklore, and legends that have been a part of my life. There is probably a reason that in India, where she is revered, the goddess is not celebrated in her individual parts but as a whole. It is nine days of celebration, recognising her many forms.
My Navratri celebrations are very simple, and sometimes without fasting or rituals. It is similar to my mother’s Navratri celebrations. I find it reminds me of Durga and Kali both in the world around me and, as Indian philosophy states, within me. I am loved by all her manifestations. That is what is liberating.
(Kalpana Jain is a senior editor for religion and ethics at The Conversation. These views do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Religion News Service. )
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