Tag Archives: religion

The Venus Flytrap: When The Goddess Menstruates

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While so many are galvanizing resources for flood-wrecked Kerala, Kodagu and other parts of South India, a leisurely lot have been spending time and energy spreading the information that the natural disaster (even if not, technically speaking, a national disaster) has been because of the wrath of God. Specifically, that the Supreme Court case on permitting women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple in the Western Ghats of Kerala has invited the deluge.

For some reason, this often gets conflated into “menstruating women”, as though the Supreme Court has specifically opened the temple to women who are literally having their periods. It’s worth remembering that the exclusion of women was brought into law by the Kerala High Court only in 1991. Prior to that, women generally did not participate due to tradition, enforced by conditioning but not by law.

Does Ayyappan forbid the presence of fertile women? That isn’t for me to decide. But the misnomer “menstruating women” calls to mind exactly that image, and myths around the same. We could begin with Parvati of Chengannur in Alappuzha district, one of the worst hit in these floods. Originally built in 300 AD, the clothes of the goddess here are checked every morning for blood stains. When they are found, the idol is shifted to private quarters for the duration of her period, during which the temple also remains closed. Menstrual seclusion is a part of this temple’s ethos, as it is in most (but not all, though of this I will not speak indiscreetly). Can ritual observation be read as honouring the feminine body, or only as disdain?

Cultures around the world have traditionally regarded menstrual blood as either polluting, or possessing a power that can be used for any means and therefore best avoided, an idea so nuanced that it unfortunately creates taboos. The elaborate and beautiful, though equally violent, Mayan myth of the lunar goddess Po is one example: discovered by her father to have taken a lover, Po is killed, her menstrual blood stored in thirteen jars that contain both evil and healing. The last one contains her essence, and she is reborn.

Myths of unequivocal celebration are rare, like the one about the Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag, who created humankind through loam and her own menses. Surely, in the rich folklores of the world, far more tales have been created: whispered in menstrual huts, at the thresholds of forbidden kitchens, in factories where women without union benefits pack unaffordable hygiene products for other women. There are no experiences that don’t find themselves woven into stories.

Which brings us finally to the most legendary of them all: the temple in Guwahati where Kamakhya is worshipped in the form of a stone yoni that is kept perennially moistened by a natural spring. Each year, she is said to menstruate during the Ambubachi Mela, coinciding with the June monsoon. Is this celebration? Of the feminine principle, certainly. But I’ve still not heard even one menstruation story that’s simply about normalization. “And then the goddess paused for a while, and drank some tea, and pondered the merits of banana fibre pads over moon cups…”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 23rd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Forgotten Wives

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The sudden thunderstorm that had broken over Srikalahasti the previous afternoon didn’t come back with us. Driving down a highway still bemirrored with mirages, I contemplated it with pleasure: a storm with neither aftermath nor announcement, one too stubborn to be tamed or tempted home. Nothing in the landscape showed how it had come and gone. The heatwave slipped me into a nap, waking to the sound of directions being asked for. At a point just before where the Arani river flows from Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu – but how would you know except if you looked on a map, proving again how borders are arbitrary? – the village of Surutapalli stakes its place. An intoxicated Shiva had fallen asleep here, having tasted some of the halahala arrested in his throat. People come to see him in slumber, but stranger still to me was the alcove in which Dakshinamurthy sat. South-facing and tree-canopied here as elsewhere, except with one unusual element: on his left thigh, his wife.

I asked the priest for her name, and it was Gowri. Supplicants approach the couple from the west, and both their faces tilt toward the same. She without complete mythology, known only as consort. How marvellous sometimes to learn, how much more marvellous at other times to imagine.

As I dive deeper into a book I’m writing about mermaids (specifically, about the lost and little-known) I find that I have unexpected company from another book finished long ago, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Hanuman, that god who has a bit of the trickster in him, which somehow makes his loyalty even deeper. He is usually understood as celibate, but in South East Asian renditions of the epic, his partner is Suvannamaccha, whose name means “golden fish”. Each morning as they attempted to build the bridge to Lanka, the vanara army found their work had been destroyed, the rocks returned to the sea. One night, they discovered the mermaids dismantling it. Their leader was the lovely Suvannamaccha, whose father was Ravana. She and Hanuman must part almost as quickly as they fell in love, but their child is yet another hybrid: fish-tailed, simian-faced.

Then there are Ganesha’s three wives: Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi. Here, we like to think of him as the child, Pillaiyar. But even when depicted as a spouse in North India, he’s shown with only two of his own. But which two?

The worlds of both gods and men are full of forgotten wives.

As I put the finishing touches to this column, the almost-full moon is mottled by clouds. There is the odd coruscation of lightning. Rain is coming after all, but in its own time – who knows if it heeded my invitation or only its own whims? And I remember another forgotten consort: the Rig-Vedic agricultural goddess Sita’s husband Parjanya, lord of rain. Before Rama, there was rain. I think of an adorable stone tablet in that temple in Surutapalli, of the footprints of the exiled queen Sita’s children, water collecting mysteriously in the indentations of baby toes.

May all that needs quenching in us – our thirsts, our desires, our curiosities – be quenched.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 11th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: “Girl Power” Meets The Goddess

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A few months ago, at a foreign event promoting a book of writing by Indian women, an audience member posed a question about what they saw as the paradox of the mistreatment of women vs. how “everyone in India worships goddesses”. The question perturbed me, most immediately of all because each of us onstage was of a different faith background (the inquirer’s assumption only addressed mine). So I said as much – that the misconception that all Indians are Hindus is dangerous to begin with.

But the question was also disturbing because its reductiveness was familiar: we hear those statements in India too. Navaratri is an interesting time to ponder this. On the one hand we witness faith as lived expression, and on the other hand, for example, there’s the way brands “modernise” goddesses on social media. (Well, considering it’s Navaratri, perhaps there should be a few more arms and hands in this, but let’s get to those later.) Many attempts to contemporise fail to capture something vital: that the power of the Goddess is ancient, not modern. She exists, as all who actually know her know, beyond linear time.

So what does some cute graphic putting her in a pantsuit and a smart caption about how badass she is really do? Does it blur the distance between pedestal and mortal circumstance, or reinforce it using superficial symbols? There’s subversive and then there’s simplistic. The girl power-meets-goddess figure rhetoric is just as empty as any other get-clicks-quick scheme.

All major religions today need feminist reform movements. Hinduism’s faces a trick door: unlike other major religions, it already has principal feminine icons. The challenge then is not to excavate the buried feminine, as it is in Christianity for example, but to raise questions about the patriarchal co-opting of the same.

“We worship goddesses and beat our wives” is the most tired, most falsely equivalent condemnation there is, and ties in far too closely with another problematic proclamation: “Don’t treat her badly because she embodies the goddess”. Does she? What if she doesn’t want to? What if she’s neither interested in being your sister nor your idol? And if the average abuser doesn’t connect the abstract feminine with the actual woman, is it fair to expect that his philosophy be so literal? Have we actually considered what his philosophy may teach, instead of merely aggrandising its symbols?

It’s not goddess imagery that needs revamping, but our relationship with religion. For many people, the more their ethical compass develops, the more they will veer away from religion altogether. For those who find themselves still drawn to spirituality, a more deeply interconnected matrix is needed: one that brings together creativity, sexuality, the intellect, politics, ritual practice and the intangible.

This means interrogating what the highly subjective endeavour of “worship” means, studying scriptures, reinventing liturgies (like wedding chants, for example), challenging taboos and more. And for Indian feminists of most faith persuasions, the effort collapses completely if the end of caste is not also a leading principle. It has to be holistic. All in all, feminist spirituality is pretty demanding – but believers already know that the love of God always is.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 6th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Old Gods And New Ones

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I’m often asked how I reconcile my irreverent delight in multiple mythologies with my, well, devotion. How can I say that Rama is a terrible husband, but still murmur a couplet from the Vishnu Sahasranamam to soothe my weary nerves? How can I light candles in churches, wishfully say “Inshallah” and also chant in Sanskrit? The answer is that I see story, history and spirit as distinct threads. Braided together, they make an ethos, one way to absorb and encounter. To be a human reaching for the divine is to have the humility to know that only by holding those threads as distinct in the mind can the braid then be experienced in polyphonic fullness, through the heart.

We have the capacity to accommodate variations, unpredictability and what might appear to be inconsistencies. In forests, I rustle with the thought of the Rig-Vedic Aranyani; pining, I reach for the Inuit Sedna: when I sense the feline mystique, I remember the Egyptian lioness Sekhmet. If a story soothes my heart, is it not a prayer too?

New deities are constantly being made, just as old ones are being retired (have you read American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s unputdownable novel about what happened to the figures of European folk religions, gradually forgotten by migrants to North America?). It’s fascinating how, on a national stage, the latest expression of patriotism is to pledge allegiance to one such new deity, an artistic creation of late 19th century Bengal.

So Bharat Mata’s official temple, which contains not an idol but a map of India, is one kind of religious expansion. There are of course shrines to film stars and politicians, replete with garlands and aartis. There are also those which emerge from organic impulses, rooted in faith and incident, such as two dog temples in Karnataka built in 2008 and 2009, respectively – in Channapatna, the canine is worshipped as an animal familiar of the village goddess; in Ranebennur is a temple to a pet that’s said to have miraculous posthumous powers.  The Bullet Banna temple in Rajasthan, which sprang up in 1988, has an interesting origin: a rider was killed one night, and no matter how many times the police took his bike to the station, it kept mysteriously reappearing at the site of the accident. The idol in the shrine is the bike itself.

In the 1970s, a Hindi film called Jai Santoshi Ma popularised a new myth about a daughter of Ganesha. Until the film’s popularity had women all over the country undertaking new fasting rituals, the spot of what became the “ancient” Santoshi Ma temple in Jodhpur had been a shrine to the folk deity Lal Sagar ki Mata. Presiding deities are replaced, subsumed, emerge elsewhere, become obsolete, turn into cult figures. This happens both naturally and through imposition.

Spiritual practice is not monolithic – as lived belief, it is constantly enriched and complicated by many sources. It is porous, subjective, disorganised. When we streamline it, let be strictly defined, and – most importantly – limit the rights of others to pursue it in their personal ways, we lose more than just entwined stories and manifold possibilities. We lose spirit itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Handful Of Syncretism

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In June of 2008, when Barack Obama was still a presidential hopeful, TIME Magazine published a photograph in which, palm over palm, the candidate held a mélange of metal trinkets. The magazine called them his “lucky charms”, and they included an open bangle that had belonged to a US soldier in Iraq, an icon of the Madonna and child, and a tiny statuette of Hanuman.

            As his two-term tenure as President of the United States comes to end, Obama emptied out his pockets again for a special interview on Youtube. As was widely reported in the Indian press, the monkey god figurine is one he still carries everywhere. I remembered this from 2008; that had been the year that Hanuman had become a vivid presence in my own life, and indeed was the emissary through whom I befriended my muse of many years, Sita. But the tone of the recent coverage bothered me.

            These are the talismans that Obama chose to display during that video interview: a gift of rosary beads from Pope Francis, with a pendant of Christ on the cross; a shiny poker chip that a burly biker gave him while he was on the campaign trail prior to his first election; an Ethiopian Coptic cross, origin mysterious; a Buddha statuette, a monk’s present; and, of course, the Hanuman, given to him by ‘a woman’.

            Taken together, these amulets are a handful of syncretism. Gifts given to a leader as totems perhaps of blessing and protection but more importantly, of responsibility. He carries them on his person the way auto-drivers paste Ganesha-Jesus-mosque stickers on their front windows or on their handlebar cabins. One trinket on its own would only be a personal fetish, but a collection amounts to much more, symbolically and otherwise. And in the current national climate, there’s something just a little saddening about the media focus on that Hanuman statuette. The Buddha too, lest we forget, is just as Indian in origin. Those rosary beads are a part of the worship of millions of citizens. And what, since we’re jousting, could be more secular than a poker chip, representative of the gamble each of us takes on life, every single day?

            Obama may or may not attach spiritual significance to the talismans he carries – and it is his prerogative to discuss this or not. But what he certainly shares openly is that each of these objects was given to him by a specific person – a pope, a monk, an undescribed woman – and reaching for them reminds him of his commitment to people. How successful he has been at this commitment and whether he has acted on it meaningfully in his time in power is a matter of argument. But the least there is to learn here is that one must believe one can do more than try. And when we seek to touch the divine, by any name we call it, let us not overlook that among its marvellous, and certainly, imitable qualities is the one known (not without basis) as ‘humanity’.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Devotion, Desire, Darkness

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There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.

 

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An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: The Goddess And The Nation: Mapping Mother India by Sumathi Ramaswamy

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The idea of nationhood (or, say, the idea of empire) is predated by a long, animistic history of the idea of the earth itself as a fertile, maternal source. The emblematic figures (Britannia, Mother Russia, Marianne among them), almost always associated with revolutionary or consolidating eras, that have been taken to represent these motherlands are in many ways developments from that fundamental impulse, even without religious connotations. In The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, Sumathi Ramaswamy turns her attention to Bharat Mata. The book contains 150 fascinating images of and relating to this modern “goddess” – a pre-Independent Indian invention of significant historical interest.

Ramaswamy’s accompanying text, however, suffers from a number of failings, both in proposition and delivery. Overly verbose and almost tediously academic, the writing could have benefited a great deal from a sense of irreverence. Ramaswamy deeply dislikes the icon who is the subject of her work, mostly on account of Bharat Mata’s Hindu-hegemonic associations. To have expressed this dislike with more pluck and spark instead of thinly veiled contempt would have made for far more engaging reading.

It helps to begin by considering a brief history of the image: it originated in Bengal several decades before Independence, and the first of its most notable appearances was in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore (circa 1904) of an unadorned, sadhu-like woman. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s hymn Vande Mataram (“I worship the mother”) was brought into the nationalist movement by Rabindranath Tagore in 1896 (the writer otherwise opposed the concept of nation as woman/mother, as in his novel The Home and The World). The hymn became associated, at least per Ramaswamy’s narrative, with an increasingly militant, Durga-like representation of Bharat Mata. During the five decades or so of its greatest popularity, the new demigoddess could be seen draped in the tricolor, suckling the children of her nation, riding a lion, handing weapons to her favourite sons and so on – all while sitting on, standing in front of, or literally embodying the map of India.

The author makes one noteworthy contribution to the field of visual arts theory: the rather poetic term “barefoot cartography”, referring to “a set of demotic practices and techniques whose primary creative influence and aesthetic milieu is the art of the bazaar”, with the bazaar being taken to mean the kitsch style seen on calendars, hoardings, film posters and the like. The term is lovely, but its use in this book is largely condescending.

Ramaswamy approaches the artists and activists associated with these images through a strangely skewed prism. Decontextualized, everybody from the nameless painters of mass-produced prints to Amrita Sher-Gil, Subramania Bharati and Sister Nivedita are tarred with the suggestion (if not accusation) of being in support of sectarian Hindu nationalism. The book is rife with bizarre logic: for example, that Sister Nivedita loved and wished to distribute Abanindranath Tagore’s benign painting while also being a devotee of Kali is “inconsistent”, as though spiritual leanings and aesthetic ones are always aligned (and how colonialist/Orientalist is the idea of a bloodthirsty, one-dimensional Kali anyway?). That Amrita Sher-Gil, who was once moved to declare that “India belongs only to me”, painted her Mother India as a dark-skinned beggar “seems sacrilegious” to the author, because it is unlike the recognizable luminous, light-skinned deity-figure who more popularly bore that name. Sacrilegious to whom? The purveyors of the Bharat Mata image, who essentially fashioned a new object of veneration, may have expressed themselves in traditional idioms but didn’t see ingenuity as blasphemy.

Consider also two examples of how non-divine women in propagandist paintings are read. In the first, in reference to a photo of women during a street march in the 1930s, there is this line: “women have a special claim on (a sari-clad) Mother India by virtue of being (sari-clad) females themselves”. In the second, after some discussion about how the female soldiers of the Rani of Jhansi regiment wore standard uniforms and not saris, she writes that “the barefoot cartographer[‘s] own vision of love-service-sacrifice could seemingly only accommodate the male body as the armed defender or map and mother”. What did women wear if not saris at the time, and why reduce them to their sartoriality? And how does realistically portraying the Ranis as they were dressed reflect an andro-normative worldview; would it be preferred that they fight in saris, too? Such an incredible disregard for historical context is frustrating and baffling.

Ramaswamy gives herself away in a series of adjectives midway through the book: “Bharat Mata’s offensive, divisive and embarrassing anthropomorphic form”. It is the last of the descriptors that is most revealing. Bharat Mata’s contemporary co-opting into the right-wing visual vocabulary is certainly problematic. But from a historical perspective, it is necessary to bear in mind that we are all bound by the orthodoxies, conventions and lexis of our times. She may be read as a Hindu nationalist emblem today, but through its heyday the symbol was, though naïve, mainly and merely nationalist – an allegiance that was less unpopular (in fact, downright subversive) in colonial times than it is today.

Multidenominational manifestations of the image, which could have benefited from deeper study, receive only cursory mentions: for instance a march in Rajahmundry in 1927 in which students sang Vande Mataram while carrying banners that said “Allahu Akbar”, or an image in Subramania Bharati’s Intiya magazine which also carried the Bharat Mata image as well as the Muslim phrase. And some omissions are evident: such as how, oddly, Ramaswamy completely misses the Christ-reference in a 1931 illustration of a crucified man within the outline of India.

The book’s most interesting chapter focuses on the first temple to the symbol, inaugurated in Benares in October 1936 by Mahatma Gandhi. Strikingly, the temple contained no idol: Bharat Mata was the cartographic India itself, a sprawling relief map in marble. Offerings such as flowers were not permitted. In many ways, this can be read as the most inclusive evolution of the symbol: non-religious, privileging the scientific, without demographic markers or restrictions. Yet here again, Ramaswamy chides the “refusal – in fact failure – to create a set of secular rituals”. What are secular rituals? Why should any rituals be created at all? The author suggests that their creation would have saved the monument from its relative obscurity, but it helps to remember that the symbol of Bharat Mata herself is a sort of anachronism from a time when such a symbol had, and to some extent fulfilled, its purposes. Aside from M.F. Husain (whose attraction to geopoliticizing the female form in a way that is possibly Hindu Ramaswamy seems vaguely uncomfortable with), there hasn’t been a contemporary visual artist in decades who has worked notably with the image.

The Goddess and The Nation is a passionless study about a subject that arose out of the passionate struggle of multitudes, then fell into disrepute. The book closes with a mention of the “delicious subversion” of the barefoot cartographers – something which the author otherwise refutes throughout it. Such contradictions are rife, but one in particular stands out – Ramaswamy writes that barefoot cartographers demurred from portraying the violent deaths of female martyrs for the nation, but when the assassination of Indira Gandhi is rendered violently, “the limits of patriotism’s barefoot cartographic imagination have been reached [because of] the risk of pointing to the death of the very mother and map for which many of its martyrs have given up their lives.” Barefoot cartography, by its nature, is diverse and constantly evolving. The only limits to such an imagination are those imposed by predisposition and condescension.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.