The Devi Paksha started today. The lunar phase of the feminine, according to Hindu mythology. This fortnight, we celebrate the Adi Shakti, the ultimate symbol of power in Hindu divinity, the feminine energy coursing through all of creation. I have wondered, often, how counter-intuitive it is that a nation so devoted to the idea of Durga, is riddled with misogyny and rampant crimes against women. I have searched for a premise to explain the sociological reasons that might have resulted in India’s struggle with women’s safety. So, that is my musing today, on the first day of Devi Paksha – about how the Durga mythology fails women in India
The Other Half: The Krishna Folklore
At a sublime, Vedic level, Vishnu is the maintainer of the universe. The entire universe resides in him as does he in all that exists. In his mortal Krishna avatar, He is the manifestation of Love itself. The world is swooning in His Prema and wants to dissolve in His being.
This (almost) cosmic teaching of the scriptures was simplified manifolds in Indian folklore. Krishna is depicted in the popular, rustic folk stories as a callous, flirtatious and flamboyant youth, casually harassing the village women. He indulges in stalking, teasing, groping and even raping women in some versions of these stories, and His behavior is romanticized as heroism. Over centuries, these folk stories seeped into the mortal hero avatar in Bollywood, legitimizing harassment as romance.
The Durga Conundrum
But, shouldn’t the reverence for the Feminine counter any impact that the rustic folk stories could have had on the Indian psyche? I have thought of this question often! And here’s my take. In my opinion, worshipping Durga in the avatar of the warrior is NOT the celebration of the Feminine at all. It is, in fact, our reverence for the masculine in the woman. We bow down to the woman who takes to arms and kills, not the woman who nurtures and preserves.
True, Shakti is representative of the feminine qualities as well – she is Mother, Protector, Nurturer. But, we revere her in the forms that best emulates our Masculine heroes – the forms that glorify belligerence and aggressiveness. In the less heroic avatars of the woman, Durga is forgotten largely. There are small, scattered communities around the country that worship Shakti as the Annapurna (Nurturer), Jagadhatri (Mother) or Parvati (Consort).
Even the anger of Durga arises from the stalking and harassment of the Asura King Mahishasura. Until the woman literally becomes the man and beheads the perpetrator, Durga remains like all other things feminine – inconsequential.
If you want to test the waters, try imagining your Durga as Mohini. Try representing her as the Goddess of love and sexuality that she also is, and see the devout erupt in anxiety.
The Problem with Deification
So, in a nutshell, the Hindu mythology cherry-picks a Shakti narrative that suits patriarchy. While the male God is above all sins (Nirgun), the Goddess has to constantly conform to an ideal to be worshipped. The deification of this ideal woman creates the space to classify those that are not ideal, therefore can be abused, not celebrated. Haven’t we all heard – “She deserved it because <insert non-ideal feminine behavior here>”!
But, women do not always have to fall off the pedestal to be abused. So while chastising the sinner has been a convenient theme in the oppression of women, it is not the exclusive reason for the poor state of women’s safety in the country. A ton of other factors, including poor sex education and regressive marital practices, contribute to the malice. But, the more I look at it, the more it feels like the mythology of Durga, the ideal Indian woman, fails and excludes the everyday woman, rather than empowering her or infusing reverence for her in the hearts of the devout.