Magazine

The Divine Feminine: The Legacy Of India’s Devi Worship

Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple in Madurai
Snapshot
  • From tribal communities to sophisticated urbanites, Indians have always sought the grace and blessings of our goddesses.

News and writings in international publications about Hindu gods and temples are always amusing to read. The Western gaze provides a great deal of entertainment with its ignorant observations about our tradition and culture. Aren’t we all tired of reading about the Western tourist’s visit to the “pagodas of the elephant god” or “monkey god” and other such stale meaningless similes? Travel guides to India are full of such writings.

When the National Geographic TV channel bombarded viewers with an ad campaign for a documentary on Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupati, it went viral. The expectations were high because it was Nat Geo, after all. When the documentary was finally aired, it turned out to be a total joke. Not only was it reeking of a pedestrian colonial hangover but also filled with information culled out from Wikipedia and other such unreliable and ignorant sources. Recently, Nat Geo magazine carried a report on the Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple in Madurai. The writer, obviously someone who hasn’t travelled enough or never visited South India, wrote a laughable report. There was a lot of anger on social media about the falling standards of a brand like Nat Geo.

In the beginning of the article, the writer says: “Dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi — the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Parvati, this temple is one of the few religious monuments in India devoted to a female deity. Known as the fish-eyed goddess because of her perfectly shaped eyes, Meenakshi represents fertility and love.” Really?! Do they even know what they are publishing? First of all, the temple is not a “religious monument”. It is a sacred space, thriving with regular worship for hundreds of years. And it is certainly not “one of the few”. Does the writer think there are more temples dedicated to female deities in Russia or the United Arab Emirates?

In India, the tradition of Devi worship goes back thousands of years. Our mythologies are rich with episodes of goddess worship. For evidence, we can always go back to holy epics like the Devi Mahatmyam from the Markandeya Puranam and the Devi Bhagavatam. The Shakta tradition of worship that goes back several millennia is a rich reference guide to the history of worshipping the divine feminine. Among the numerous mythologies, the story of Daksha yagnam is well known and I don’t have to go over it. This episode gave rise to numerous sacred spaces known as shakti peethams, where goddess worship has continued for thousands of years.

The goddess is worshipped in mantra, yantra and tantra. Mantra or the spoken word is used for chanting her name. From the ubiquitous Lalitha Sahasranamam to many other sacred texts, they have been handed down generation after generation as oral traditions; these mantras are filled with beeja aksharams and have great positive effects on practitioners. One of the most powerful mantras is the sacred Gayatri Mantra. Children are initiated into it at a young age through a ceremony and stick to it all their life. In these and other popular mantras, we celebrate the goddess as the embodiment of everything good in our lives. From our basic needs like knowledge and prosperity to spiritual needs like wisdom and liberation, we worship the Devi as the bestower of these boons.

Yaa devi sarva bhooteshu matru roopena samsthitha

Yaa devi sarva bhooteshu vidya roopena samsthitha

Yaa devi sarva bhooteshu shakti roopena samsthitha

Yaa devi sarva bhooteshu gyana roopena samsthitha

Yaa devi sarva bhooteshu dhana roopena samsthitha

Yaa devi sarva bhooteshu mukti roopena samsthitha

Namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namah…

This is a common prayer anyone can chant to invoke the blessings of the

goddess.

A yantra is an instrument or a tool. Made up of complicated geometric patterns and diagrams pregnant with significance and meaning, the yantra is usually worshipped or consecrated for auspiciousness. In the tradition of goddess worship, the sri yantra, also known as sri chakra, is very popular. To a layman, it might look like a pile of triangles within a circle within a square. But if you go deeper into the study of these yantras, they are full of powerful philosophies and meanings.

They are ascribed with all kinds of properties. They are utilised for every occasion, from bringing in auspicious energies to warding off the evil eye. They are considered embodiments of the goddess’ energies and are consecrated in temples. Those initiated into the practice of worshipping these yantras enshrine them in altars in their homes.

Tantra is the third form dealing with the science of energies. In India, we believe that the world is made up of cosmic waves. The philosophy of prakriti and purusha is based on the equilibrium of feminine and masculine energies. It is this balance that keeps the world going. Shiva is prayed to as Ardhanaareeshwara in one of his many incarnations. That is a combination of both these energies in equilibrium. We translate this to every human being. Every man has a bit of feminine grace in him and every woman has a bit of male aggression in her. Tantra is the worship and celebration of the power of these energies. In no other part of the world is the feminine divine worshipped in all these three forms.

If you want to get into history, you can go and see the scores of temples built by rulers across the country as their offerings to the goddess. In fact, there are more temples dedicated to goddess worship than anything else across India. From rural tribal communities and cultures, to more sophisticated urbanised groups, the citizens of this land have always sought grace and blessings from feminine energies.

If you look at other ancient civilisations, feminine worship existed, but it was suppressed by organised religions that were born later. In India, we never believed in putting women in veils. This concept came from cultures that treated women solely as objects of sexual pleasure. In India, our ancient temple sculptures are a witness to the legacy of feminine worship.

I have often been asked about the evident nudity present in ancient temples. While Western eyes look at it as a matter of shame and mockery, we Indians had a very different understanding of it. Nude sculptures were viewed with a perspective of worshipping beauty rather than feeling ashamed about the body. For it was in India that the first treatises on lovemaking were written. The concept of being ashamed of one’s body came from the West. For the body is considered the ultimate tool of practising one’s sadhana according to one’s dharma.

Shareera maadhyam khalu dharma sadhanam”, say our scriptures, emphasising the importance of the physical as a means to attain the spiritual.

While on one hand these sculptures celebrated the artistic legacy of that era, on the other hand, they were also strong statements about the nature of Indian society that was organised in temple-run economies. Long before Western feminism entered the Indian psyche, we already had the culture of equality of genders. Since the West denounced everything Indian as oriental and exotic, early Indian academics got carried away with that flow of thought. If you look into the ancient science of Indian spiritual thought, we had it right a long time ago. We were proud of our culture of revering the feminine. So much so that at one point, Sanatana Dharma consisted of many sects based on different philosophies and worshipping rituals. These practices continue to this day.

Across the country, these sects have spread and consistently worshipped the goddess in every form. The Shakta worship sect is exclusively privileged to worship the divine feminine.

The Shaiva and Vaishnava sects consider their worship to be incomplete if they do not acknowledge the divinity of the female counterparts to the various incarnations of Shiva and Vishnu. In which other country or culture does this phenomenon occur?

We have just celebrated the festival of Dusshera. A whole 10 days of worshipping various incarnations of female deities! She is celebrated as Meenakshi in Madurai, Kamakshi in Kanchipuram, Mookambika in Kollur, Annapurna and Vishalakshi in Kashi, Gyana Saraswati in Basara, Nainadevi in Nainital, Karpagambal in Mylapore, Kamakhya in Guwahati, Bhagawati in Chengannur, Vimala Devi in Puri, Kanakadurga in Vijayawada, Chamundi in Mysore, Ambabai in Kohlapur, Sharada in Sringeri, Durga in Kolkata, Vaishno Devi in Jammu, and in hundreds of temples across the length and breadth of this country.

She is worshipped in Vedic, tantric, esoteric, amorphous and in every other form. She is prakriti, the better half of the cosmic purusha. She is worshipped as Mother Nature. She is worshipped in music and dance. She is worshipped in literature and poetry. She is worshipped in sculpture and painting.

Nat Geo, its editors and writers must try to find out which other country continues to keep this glorious tradition of celebrating the feminine energy alive anywhere in the world.

Another quick one. The sect of yogini worship is ancient in India. In several ageless sites in Odisha, Bihar and elsewhere, you can find ruins of chausat yogini temples. The goddess is worshipped in 64 different tantric incarnations. Yes, not one or two, a whole 64! Did you know that the Indian Parliament building was inspired in its architecture designs from these temples? Well, that is a story for another time.

Last but not the least, the same Nat Geo article says: “Many consider the Meenakshi Temple as significant to South India as the Taj Mahal is to North India.” Really?! The ignorant writer must know that almost no one with a brain would make this stupid comparison. For all its architectural splendour, the Taj Mahal has a bloody history. Stories of how Shahjahan had all the masons’ hands chopped off after they created this piece of work are not untrue. Moreover, it is a grave with bodies buried inside it. Not remotely close to the sanctity that the holy shrine of Madurai has. Nat Geo is better off covering animals and bird life. They need not bother with reports or documentaries about Hindu gods. Most of the time they do a shoddy job of it.

In any case, Indian readers must stop taking anything and everything that appears in the foreign press as the last word on the subject.

A lot of media from outside India is funded by propagandist ideologies to consistently talk down Indian culture, history, literature and more. Our literature is mocked, our gods and temples are mocked, our mythologies are mocked and in a process of brainwashing, everyone peacefully practising their own culture, rituals and customs are made to feel like primitive tribes. And the Western view is assumed to be progressive and legitimate. Embracing their view is embracing modernity.

Modernisation does not have to be Westernisation. Over a period of time, these bigoted and biased Western views become news and news becomes facts and these distorted facts become history. Over the generations, we have had several such histories coming to us. Digging further into them reveals the amount of damage done to our rich past. History is never a linear narrative. It only takes you that much of effort to ignore what the Western press says and pursue your curiosity. The treasure trove that India was in its culture continues to be mind-boggling, millenia after many texts were written.

How did our ancestors achieve all that? With so much technology and development today, we haven’t been able to achieve a fourth of what they did. If we want to continue this rich legacy, one of the first steps would be to discount what the West has to say about us, especially when it comes to our history and cultural practices.

While Nat Geo has made a fool of itself, it is time for us to value our own indigenous local sources.

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