Reflections: Witnessing The Goddesses in Yankee Land
I realise the value of things we have taken for granted, the Navaratri festivities, the diversity of the Goddesses and village festivals of the Goddess. Once they existed all across the planet, and today they flourish only in India.
I stand before Her in the dimly lit room. There is instinct recognition. She is Ushus – the Vedic Goddess of Dawn. She comes riding the crescent moon. Famous Kannada writer and Vedic scholar Vinayaka Krishna Gokak (1909-1992) speaks of Her thus:
She reveals the luminous Godhead or the Causal Idea in man’s activities by throwing off veil after veil. She occupies the thought and word of the seer as a power of knowledge. She illuminates the pure mentality through the realising word and enters into the mental and bodily consciousness with the Truth. Her dawns are but the descent upon mortal nature of that immortal Truth, Surya Savitri. They are the constant openings of the divine light on the human being. She is Chandraratha for the crescent moon is the boat she sails in. She pours ananda, Soma, the wine of Beatitude, into the human system.
Only She is not Ushus here. At the de Young Museum, San Francisco, She is titled as the 'Female cult hook'. She has been taken from the homes of Sepik people, destroyed during the Second World War. On Her shoulders are two parakeet-like birds. Standing on the crescent moon with birds on Her shoulders, She is very much a Goddess I know.
I don’t know what the people who worshipped Her called Her. But I am sure the Kaningara-language-speaking Sepik people too can intuitively accept and identify with their Goddesses, those of my own tradition, and they surely did not call Her ‘Female cult hook’.
When Christianity tried to appropriate the Goddess through the Marian cult, they made the theological downgrading of the Goddess from Her being the Creatrix and Matrix of all existence to an interceding saint to the Father-God. Goddess reduced to Mary standing on the crescent is a pre-Christian Pagan imagery they could not destroy.
Even as the patriarchal religion tries to pit the obedience of Mary as a model for women against the rebellious questioning nature of Eve, deep down somewhere Mary should be making the institutional authorities nervous, and more so Mary Magdalene.
A week later, I am at New York. People flock to see the Statue of Liberty. She is only a ‘statue’, not a Goddess. She cannot be called Goddess. She can never be a She with the capital ‘S’. I walk away into another building which attracts not much visitors – the Native American Museum.
Inside I see Goddess figurines obsessively named ‘Female cult objects’ or ‘Female figurines’. Except where it becomes absolutely necessary, everywhere else they avoid using the term Goddess.
I stand before an exhibit classified 'Female figurines'. They are dated as 3,500 BCE, come from the native cultures of Ecuador and are the 'oldest known pottery in the Western hemisphere' and 'the oldest figurative objects in Americas as well'. Carefully avoiding the word Goddess or even ‘sacred’, the adjoining explanation says that the ‘figurines’ “suggest an association with agricultural rituals and calling for rain”.
The description continues, “Many are female, perhaps representing fertility, production or agricultural development.” But no Goddess.
I recall the passage from Rebirth of the Goddess by Dr Carol P Christ, Yale University scholar and an authority on the Goddess traditions in the West. She points to such biases against the Goddess tradition, which is very much part of the supposedly secular Western academia.
...it is hard for scholars to shake the mindset that has encouraged all of us to think of Goddesses in relation to terms such as idolatry, fertility fetish, nature religion, orgiastic cult, blood thirsty and ritual prostitution. These terms and others like them are used to depict Goddess religion in scholarly volumes. All of these prejudices can be countered.
Scholars’ inability to understand the Goddesses is reinforced by a deep and unquestioned assumption that divinity represents rationality, order and transcendence, as opposed to the alleged irrationality and chaos of the finite changeable world of nature and body. ... Scholars have been unable to see naked female images as Goddesses because they have been taught to view the body and sexuality, especially female sexuality, as being lower than the rationality that is associated with divinity and “man’s” “higher” nature. Naked female images must therefore be “fertility fetishes” or “sexual objects” or if they are called Goddesses, they must be understood to reflect a “lower” and more physical stage in the “evolution” of religious consciousness.
Here is a proof for what Dr Christ has written. No wonder Hindus have such a tough time making the California textbook society understand their point of view.
I move along to the next panel. It simply says ‘Pachamama “mother earth and light of the sun”’. I make a mental note of the small case in ‘mother earth’. It can never be ‘Mother Earth’. And the words ‘light of the sun’. Is it not the light of the sun that makes the Earth the Mother?
Six years ago, Stephen Ferry reported for the magazine Geo (March, 2010) the problems the Native American community Guranis faced. For centuries they had been made bonded labourers in their own land by European colonisers who also alienated them from their spiritual traditions. Ferry observes:
Pachamama, Mother Earth, is the deity whose help the Guranis most need as they begin their new lives. But hardly any of them are familiar with traditional rituals any longer.
I cannot but remember our own Pachai Amman. She is one of the most popular village Goddesses of South India. If South American Pachamama is associated with ‘light of the sun’, Pachai Amman came to the earth to lift it from darkness and create harmony. The great non-dualist seer Sri Ramana Maharishi used to stay in Her temple in Thiruvannamalai.
Pachai Amman is associated with seven Goddesses and seven seers. Interestingly, the exhibit I see near me is Chicomecoatl – also called seven snakes. The accompanying description reads ‘maize goddess: female spirit of corn and sustenance, the most revered deity among the farmers of Central Mexico’. As they have to call Her a Goddess, they call her a ‘maize goddess’.
There is Matlazinca, another Goddess dubbed as a ‘fertility goddess’, and by Her side is a shell used as a trumpet, which is also pigmented.
Then, I look at a richly carved receptacle-like base. The description knocks the breath out of me.
This sculpture is carved in the shape of Quetzalcoatl, animal aspect of the creation god. The bas-relief on the bottom depicts a female zoomorphic Tlaltecuhtli (lord/lady of the earth).
The divine female as the base and above it stands the male principle? Almost a Siva Linga? I read on.
In colonial times, the head of the Quetzalcoatl was cut off and its body drilled to create a base for a Christian cross. The disfigurement represents – from a Colonial Spanish point of view – the destruction of idolatry and the dawning of a new Christian age.
Only in colonial times? You do it even now, I mutter to myself. The disfigurement of our Gods and Goddesses happens to this day. The place of Spanish Conquistadors has been taken up by academics like Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock and Michael Witzel of universities in the United States, and the disfigurement continues.
Then I see it. What is it doing here? Surely that should have come from a temple in Calcutta. The characteristic curved scimitar with an eye that Kali holds adorns a panel. Only it is not from India; it is a ceremonial sword used in rituals by Chiloe islanders in Chile. The curved scimitar, shaped like a bird’s head with an elevated eye, symbolises a hawk, the description says. I wonder, what would the Shaman from Chiloe island say if he or she sees the same type of scimitar in the hands of Kali.
At Harvard University’s anthropological museum, there is a section on Kuna people. My knowledge of them comes from comic books, where they were the villainous savages trying to stop the works of brave American explorers and surveyors who wanted to build the Panama Canal. The good ones in them collaborated with the whites and got civilised as well as Christianised so that they all lived happily ever after. The real history is entirely different.
They suffered hardships and were exploited. The panels speak of how the miners feigned friendship but lied and tricked the natives, who lost their land and resources and whose culture and spiritual traditions became endangered, and with it their entire body of knowledge. Even here the panels mostly avoid the term ‘spiritual’. As if these people never had any religious or spiritual tradition of their own.
And then there is the case of mola. Kuna women evolved this art form of weaving and painting cloth from the original body painting they had. In the sacred space of the Kuna people, the making of molas by women is coupled with the sacred chanting of Kuna men. The ability to make a good mola, informs the panel, comes from kurgin – which is 'intelligence, natural aptitude, ability or talent'. In short, a Hindu can identify kurgin with swabhava. The mola is the medium through which kurgin manifests itself. And who distributes kurgin among human beings? It is the great mythological matriarchal divine named Mu.
The way indigenous culture has evolved and adapted, as in the case of mola, shows that the Kuna people were neither closed nor xenophobic as my comic book misinformed me back home. Had the Euro-American interacted with them without their vested commercial interests and supremacist perceptions, the interaction could have benefitted the humanity far more.
What strikes one is the pervasive presence of the divine feminine throughout the native communities of United States and South America. There are also communities where She is relegated to secondary status. Yet, She is very much there. She has many names and many traditions and many powers, but the divine feminine is one of the strong common strands. There is no need to romanticise Her. She can be practically and positively invoked – for creating sustainable agricultural communities among the Native American communities or to fight for their land rights. She can become a powerful emotive icon. Already, Pachamama is becoming such a divinity around which many South American native communities rally around.
Now I am in India. I realise the value of things we have taken for granted, the Navaratri festivities, the diversity of the Goddesses and village festivals of the Goddess. Once they existed all across the planet, and today they flourish only in India. Those communities that have lost their Goddesses, they suffer, and today they are fighting a bitter battle to recover Her. I think it is time for the Indian diaspora to network with these communities to serve Her, She who is Mother India here.
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