There’s been a lot of discussions, media coverage and political controversy surrounding the ban of the documentary known as India’s Daughter. Indian feminists have raised a slew of issues with the film, some of which I fully empathize with. However, despite the ban, the film was tweeted over 40,000 times on Youtube – before it was taken down.
You know I tend not to get into political discussions much, but this relates to what I spent 5 years of my doing intensely focused on. Whilst I see so many sides to the debate and argument, as one who knows the context well – I see a few issues that are being completely missed. So, speak up, I must.
Bear in mind that these comments are not coming from someone who stands for values that objectify women, but rather a scholar of the Indian parliamentary system and the way it handles gendered issues….
(1) There is a real constitutional-legal argument which has led to the ban. The decision itself has been heavily politicized by way of interpretation. Here’s the rationale: The verdict has yet to be delivered by the Supreme Court, and so … taking the accused’s testimony in any form raises questions of validity. It has to do with the due procedure of the Indian legal system, and frankly — I understand why. There are those in the Supreme Court who do not agree and want the documentary to be legally released in the interests of the public – but the legal pickle remains. Moreover, the conditions of the interview required Tihar jail (where the accused was detained) to approve the use of the interview material. It was not approved. They wanted the accused’s interview to be deleted, and so the documentary was circulated in a breach of agreement.
(2) Nevertheless, a discussion has been raised in the Parliamentary Chambers (which, in some sense is India’s ‘national theatre’ or ‘national spectacle – focus of my doctorate) — so anyone who hasn’t heard of it in India, will! Rolling 24-7 media channels broadcast, and re-broadcast, and then broadcast some more … the sound-bytes and excerpts of Parliamentary speeches seen to be especially sensational. Discussion on the legality of banning/airing the documentary is no exception.
(3) Political leaders, from socially conservative parties, have begun speaking of how ‘consent’ can never be taken away from a woman, no matter what she’s wearing. Considering parliamentary discourse in 1996, on the subject of women and their political rights .. the statements issued by conservative members of parliament are … in comparison … extraordinary…. Back then (and this actually happened), MPs actually laughed during speeches that spoke of the plight of women who were raped. 2 lone MPs (out of the chamber that can hold over 500 +) walked out in protest. So for them to be speaking of ‘consent’ and how it cannot be taken away from a woman ‘no matter what she is wearing’ … is a tremendous indicator of how attitudes towards sexual violence have shifted.
That alone is enough grist for the rolling 24-7 media stations to run with. Whether these leaders believe what they’re saying is a different question, but it reflects changes in party attitudes and the perceptions of their electorate. …
In some ways, the ban has actually raised the visibility of the documentary, and, due to the way the media, political parties, parliamentarians create the news cycle in their own ritualistic dance … India’s Daughter will continue to dominate the headlines and public debate.
What is Deepavali? When is it? Why is it celebrated? I’ll start with the When, and Weave in the What, the Why and the Who. The origins of Deepavali/Diwali are steeped in Hindu mythology and have been generally read as ‘the triumph of Light over Darkness’ often in a bloody form (as per myth). I’ll be showing you some artwork depicting scenes of that as well. I honestly wanted to write you a much more cuddlier piece, but I decided to go for a more authentic approach.
There are two different ways to calculate when Deepavali/Diwali is celebrated. One calculation places it on Chaturdasi day, the day before the New Moon (Amavasai/Amasya). And another places it on the New Moon itself. Because of this difference in interpretation, there are two separate dates given for the celebration of this festival, in accordance with regional customs: Oct 22nd and Oct 23rd 2014. According to http://publicholidays.in/diwali-deepavali/, 10 states in India celebrate it on October 22nd, whereas 23 states celebrate it on October 23rd.
As an astrologer I can see how both traditions differ, and I can also see the symbolism with each choice. October 22nd is Naraka Chaturdashi – the day that a demon known as Narakasura/Narakasuran was defeated. This is the rationale given for the celebration of Deepavali in the South. In the North, Diwali is celebrated to honor the day that Lord Rama (an avatar of Lord Mahavishnu) rescued his wife Lady Sita from the (Sri) Lankan (i.e. Tamil) ruler, the ten headed King Ravanan/Ravana.
King Ravanan was a powerful, intelligent, and wise king – an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, an accomplished musician and composer of the Shiva Tandava Strotam. Whilst all this is in the original text of the Ramayana – it’s almost completely forgotten in the way the Ramayana is remembered and re-enacted in ritual performances today.
[A statue of King Ravana in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka]
There are complex and deeply rooted racial divides that get projected onto this narrative, which is probably why it’s not as popular in the South of India, but more so in the North of India. What the ancients intended, I cannot say for sure without further research, but sadly, it has been taken in a divisive way.
How do I see it? Well… Unfortunately, the North-South divide is part of racial memory, and people do hold on it. Not everyone, but it’s not inconsequential either. Holding onto the past will serve no one, and it will certainly not serve those who are cast as ‘demons’ who are then vanquished.
If you look at the depiction of Narakasuran (the other ‘defeated asura’) in the New Indian Express (an Indian newspaper) below, you’ll see him depicted with a body that that is (stereotypically seen as) Southern Indian, particularly Tamil (i.e. the pot belly, dark skin, abundance of curly body hair) in contrast to his mother Satyabhama (visibly of a different body type, skin colour, etc.). The same stereotyping is present even in temples – have a look at the ‘asuras’ which the Gods and Goddesses destroy and vanquish and you’ll see what I mean. Those more familiar with Tamil traditions will notice ancient Gods such as Muniswaran/Sangili Karupan sharing similar characteristics.
There are visible exceptions as when Goddess Kali is shown in Her Beautiful Blackness as is Lord Krishna whose name literally means ‘The Dark One’. More often than not, they are shown in different hues.
[Racially stereotyped depiction of Narakasuran about to be shot by his mother Satyabhama]
What do I think of all this? Well, whilst I am a proud Tamil, I do incorporate aspects of the Vaishnavite tradition I am comfortable with and have also made pilgrimages to sacred sites in that tradition. In retrospect, I went to a Perumal (Krishna) temple just earlier today and prayed in the Spirit of Deepavali. Personally, I see these racial projections as collective wounds that are in need of healing and transcending, instead of furthering and deepening the hurt – a theme which I believe is integral to the ‘Festival of Lights’.
Having said that, let’s turn back to Narakasuran and why (especially in the South) his ‘defeat’ is celebrated as part of Deepavali/Diwali celebrations.
Narakasuran is a complex figure in Hindu mythology. He is the asura (demon) son of Varaha (the Boar Avatar of Lord Vishnu) and Bhumadevi (Earth Goddess). In one narrative, he is shown to be a a powerful being who sought to conquer all and who kidnapped and mistreated women. (There are some parallels with his portrayal and that of King Ravanan of Lanka).
At times his death/defeat comes at the hands of Lord Krishna, and at others, by the hand of his outraged mother, Satyabhama (an avatar of the Earth Goddess). Either way, it’s a bloody, graphic death. Lord Krishna’s discus (chakram) slices him in two, or his mother shoots him in the heart with an arrow. In the present day, effigies are built of Narakasuran, which are then burnt during Deepavali – to ritually enact the triumph of ‘Good’ over ‘Evil’.
[Death by discus, cleaved in two]
[Death by discus, decapitation]
You might wonder why I’m showing you these images – but honestly – this event is what Deepavali celebrates. The Defeat of the Asura, be it Narakasuran or King Ravana.
Personally, the way asuras are depicted and written into Hindu mythology makes me question whether ‘demon’ (as is understood in the Western context) is a fair description of who they are and how they operate. Conquests and the abuse of power is just as present among the figures of deities in Hindu mythology. I prefer seeing ‘asura’ as code for ‘different’. Someone who was Othered on the basis of race, ethinicity, region, religion, or some other idea. But getting back to Narakasuran …
Other narratives associate Narakasuran with the Shaktha path, and in particular, the Sakthi Peeth known as Kamakyha (in Assam). Goddess Kamakyha represents the Yoni of Goddess Sakthi, and is sometimes interpreted as Goddess Kali herself. Her temple, in Assam venerates the Das Mahavidyas (Ten Mahavidyas) and is an important Tantric site. For three days, the river that runs near the temple turns red – it is a sacred site which venerates the Menstruation of the Goddess/The Earth. Navaratri and Manasa Devi (Serpent Goddess) worship is also conducted there. (Definitely on my Sacred Sites to Visit list).
In one myth, Narakasuran challenges Devi Kamakhya, seeking her hand. She, according to legend, sets him a task which is deemed impossible by the break of dawn – yet he nears its successful completion. Devi then chooses to grasp a cock (male chicken) in order for it crow [as its crowing indicates the coming of dawn], so that Narakasuran assumes that he has failed and abandons his nearly-completed feat. So, clearly a powerful being – and one whose reach in both cases transgresses some fundamental principle of Justice or Cosmic Order.
You can read this myth in many ways – and I choose to see it as an invitation to re-conceptualize the figure of Narakasuran. I suspect Tantra has a lot more to say about this figure and what he truly represents in our understanding of Self, Spirit and Spirituality.
Taking all this into account, Narakasuran no longer appears to comfortably sit in the ‘demon’/’evil’/bad’ category. The allegorical principle he represents appears to move beyond the straightforward idea of ‘victory of light over darkness’ as is usually attributed to Deepavali. It seems to be more about ‘knowing the balanced use of one’s power’ and the consequences of failing to do so.
This re-interpretation fits the astrological symbolism of the New Moon in Libra (in Indian [sidereal] astrology- those using the Western astrology would read it as Scorpio). Here, we are encouraged to set the seeds for a fairer, more just way of relating with others. We are called upon to seek Justice, Harmony, Grace and Fairness – and to understand the consequences of seeking to live in imbalanced ways.
Though I have always heard of Deepavali as ‘the festival of lights’ symbolized powerfully by the lone lamp gleaming in the darkness as a portrayal of Good vs. Evil – looking at it now, it seems to be about Balanced Coexistence. Light learns to accept and exist alongside its Absence, and in so doing, the Shadow is Accepted and Wholeness realized. It’s a process, and one we often forget the moment we pit one aspect of ourselves against another.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t defend yourselves if attacked, or seek justice – that’s a whole other thing.
But coming to Deepavali/Diwali – Why else have a festival about ‘Light’ at the time when the Moon is at its ‘Darkest’ if not to teach the principle of Balance and Equality of Light and Dark? On top of that – it’s a Solar Eclipse 🙂
Remember that the mythologies we venerate and assume to be true are thinly-veiled parables. And we each read those parables in different ways.
This is my interpretation of it – feel free to stick to what feels truest for you. Given my reading of this festival, the ‘slaying’ of Narakasuran or the Healing of the Shadow is represented by Naraka Chaturdashi (October 22nd). The point of Coexistence – Balance – Equality comes the day after, with the powerful Libra (Indian approach) / Scorpio (Western approach) Solar Eclipse (October 23rd/24th depending on time zone). I shall be celebrating on both days, and for a while afterwards, I expect 😀
The Eclipse is exact at 5:56 am, October 24 (GMT + 8). For reference, that’s 3.26 am Oct 24 for India (GMT + 5.5), 5:56 pm, October 23 in New York (GMT -4, EDT) and 7:56 am, October 24 IN Brisbane (GMT + 10).
This is a POWERFUL solar eclipse and one which makes a powerful aspect to Neptune Retrograde. More on that closer to the date.
Deepavali Greetings (Deepavali Nalvazhthukkal) to All
Navarathri meaning (nine nights) is a nine night-ten day festival dedicated to the various forms of Goddess Durga. Celebrated on a grand scale in parts of India and Nepal, Navarathri is one of the ritual highlights on the Hindu calendar. Devotees of the Mother typically fast, pray and house dolls of the Goddess in their homes. Large parades and festivals featuring beautiful larger-than-life sculptures of Her are paraded through the streets, flanked by throngs of devotees. It’s a beautiful, colourful and festive time!
There are several different Navarathri phases throughout the year, however, the (current) cycle held in the month of September/October is usually the biggest, grandest one of them all. Generally speaking, using the Vedic Calendar, the major Navaratri period begins the day after the New Moon in Virgo (Kanya ‘Virgin’ Raasi/Sign). (The Western calculation would view that as the New Moon in Libra just past). We call this the start of the month of Ashwin (in some Hindu calendars- there are various, and they don’t all align). The Tamils for instance, consider this the 9th day of the month of Protasi (Purataasi Maasam)
We’ve just begun celebrating Navarathri today (September 25th 2014), which will continue for nine nights and culminate on the 10th day (October 4th 2014)
On each day, a different aspect of the Goddess is venerated, each with Her own sacred symbolism, form and purpose. On the 10th day we celebrate Vijayadashami, also known as Dussehra (or Dasara) – on this day, all forms of the Goddess Unite as one. Twenty days from Vijayadashami, Hindus will celebrate Deepavali/Diwali. This corresponds with the night before the New Moon in Libra (Vedic Calendar) and falls on October 23rd, this year.
I interpret the energy of Virgo as the Rising Woman, the Self-Sufficient Priestess Nurturing Herself and Others. The celebration of Goddess during the Virgo New Moon is a powerful and logical association to make. As we (all) align ourselves to Her vibrations, through fasting, prayer and ritual we set powerful intentions for the next astrological cycle ahead – with the Full Moon in Pisces, six months from now (as per the Vedic calendar). Virgo is to Shakti as Pisces is to Shiva – in my understanding of the Two.
The celebration of Navarathri at this time paves the way to Deepavali/Diwali, the Festival of Lights (October 23rd 2014) – which I will write on, closer to the date.
Each day of Navaratri corresponds to a different aspect of The Goddess. There are multiple ways of conceptualizing these Nine Aspects, so there isn’t ‘One’ Narrative that defines the process. Also, the festival is celebrated differently across the various regions of India 🙂
My preferred interpretation of it is to break it down into three segments:
Days 1-3 are dedicated to the energies of Goddess Durga in her form of Mother/Warrior – Nurturer/Protector. (September 25-27 2014)
Days 4-6 are dedicated to the energies of Goddess Laxmi. She brings Grace, Abundance, Comfort, Harmony and Peace to the world in Material Form and in that sense shares many attributes with Goddess Venus. (September 28-30 2014)
Days 7-9 are dedicated to the energies of Goddess Saraswati. She brings Knowledge and Wisdom and is more associated with the Intellect and the Mind. (October 1-3 2014)
Day 10 is conceptualized in different ways (more details shared on October 4th!). It is said, that through the entire Navarathri period, the Goddess is engaged in battle with a fierce demon known as Mahishasura (the ‘Buffalo Demon’). On Vijayadachami – literally meaning victory (vijaya) on the tenth day of the lunar month (dachami), she combines her 9 forms, and energies, into One and gains the strength to defeat him. This is why Goddess Durga is also known as Mahishasuramardini. You can hear a wonderful rendition of the Mahishasura mardini Strotam here:
In this conceptualization, I interpret the duration of the 9 days to correspond to the natural progression of the human chakra system. We begin with issues of tribal connection and survival in the first three days (defending the self from enemies and nurturing one’s family/tribe). We move on towards a wider understanding of material concerns, and a desire for comfort, attachment and pleasure in its many forms. We finally learn the wisdom of detachment and explore the higher faculties of Mind.
— till we finally transcend that too — on the 10th day – Vijayadashami – The gifts of each chakra are combined, and the lessons of each integrated. We are finally able to overcome our perceived obstacles. This ‘victory’ is normally depicted as The Mother slaying the Buffalo Demon Mashisura, her eight arms poised at the climax of battle. Another narrative suggests that it was on this day that the gifts of the male gods combined to form the powerful goddess Durga – whom some accounts suggest as the Virgin.
(For those interested you might want to read my take on ‘Reclaiming the Virgin’ to get the fullest implications of using that term – and the astrological energy of Virgo associated with this 9 night, 10 day festival. http://wp.me/p4OUNS-5i )
Personally, I resonate more with this interpretation of how the Mother ‘defeats’ Mahishasura: that it is not through battle/death, but through her sheer Loving, Powerful Presence for nothing untoward can exist in such Purity. I listened to this interpretation some time ago and will share the link with you when I chance upon it again. It took a while for it to sink it, but when it did – I couldn’t look at the narrative in quite the same way.
Putting it all together, I view these 9 days of prayer as a Pathway to Transcendence, within Material Form. The Rise of Virgo (Goddess / Priest/ess / Divine Feminine) as She Comes into Her Own Power – which includes of course, the same aspect of energy in men.
As we embody the Mother’s Love in Material Form, connecting all parts of our Being …. We learn that her Lessons of Strength and Power come .. at the end of the Day, through the Highest, Deepest, vibration of Cosmic Love.
Yesterday, I was privileged to graduate as a PhD (again), at a special first-of-its kind ceremony organized by the British High Commission and British Council for local graduates. It was a powerful moment of closure for me, and whilst I was so incredibly happy to have both my parents in attendance and a glorious day — deep emotions were working through me.
My educational journey has been an unusual one to say the least. I was intellectually advanced as a young toddler – reading materials that were 6, sometimes 9 years ahead of my reading group. My older brother was the same. Amma (Mum) knew how to stimulate our brains and whet our appetites for knowledge. If the natural aptitude that I or my brother had was a seed, Amma’s nurturing was the fertile soil in which it could sprout, and Appa’s (Dad’s) confidence the sunshine it needed.
When I eventually began kindergarten and primary school, a lot of the glowing self-confidence and the natural aptitude for self-study I had was dimmed, but not entirely snuffed out. Issues of race plagued my early years, with teachers going out of their way to humiliate me for my aptitude ‘despite’ my dark skin and Tamil identity. The administration saw fit to deny me the yearly prizes children would receive (for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place) despite my having top marks. All on the grounds that other parents complained that ‘a Tamil girl could have never beaten my son/daughter [gradeswise]’.
My mother of course, challenged the ruling by fighting like a tigress on my behalf. She never used coarse language, or raised her voice – but challenged the treatment I received with eloquent words, with facts and undeniable, documented, evidence.
I recall one formative experience, where I was late from my tae-kwon-do class (organized as part of school curricula) and had no time to change back into my school uniform. The teacher decided she would lock me out, stop what the class was doing and get the entire class to laugh and jeer at me, staring through the window. One of the kids was a boy whom the teacher regularly allowed to bully and utterly traumatize me each day – with some kind of plastic blade. She knew about it, and let it happen. All this when I was in Grade 1, so I was 6-7 years old.
Each year was a battle, my mother had to fight like a tigress, with my dad’s support just so I would get fair treatment. My brother had been through a similar experience, but his was a state-run school, and so my parents (at that time) had little recourse to methods of protest.
It was a very challenging childhood. Intense bullying. Psychological scars, a complete devastation of my self-esteem and I could not even imagine myself as beautiful.
My grades eventually slipped, and the bullying was less. I wasn’t the best in classes anymore, and a part of my identity just went into hiding from all of that pressure. There were literally – no other choices that my family could have made at the time.
When I was 11, I finished primary school (Grade 6) and announced to my parents that I would no longer be attending. They knew what I could do, and supported my decision. I then started a very dedicated, purely focused phase in my life completely committed to my education. That journey took me across several different continents.
I never really took in it, or saw it as a special achievement – till yesterday.
For me, it was just an act of survival and self-preservation. I had to find a way to be myself. It wasn’t an ideological statement or the ego’s desire for grand gestures – it was literally the only way I could survive without being crushed entirely.
Summarizing a few years, I essentially completed 6 years of secondary school education with self-tutelage in less than a year. Attempting to study at other institutions brought back the race issue (it’s there if you’re at the top and are outspoken), and, caused severe conflicts with the university administration. My political consciousness was awakening, my voice was emerging and I was no longer going to be silent.
During this time, I had my IQ tested and it was found to be at the genius-level (top 2%) when I was 12 and, later, at 15. I independently sat for and completed my O Levels at 13, did my American SATs (1 & 2), TOEFL and ACT.
We didn’t have help. All I had was my family and the Blessings of the Divine. We had no special connections, no favours, no hand-ups. Nothing. Everything was a battle, everything was a struggle. But we did it.
At 16 (in 2003), after a few years of social work with my father and emerging in my own right as the youngest trainer in the country, I finally went overseas. My political awareness needed an environment where speech was truly free. I went to the USA on my first scholarship, unaccompanied. There, I began with Physics (which was my first love as a child) and switched to Political Science. This was through the gifted teachings of Professor Benson Onyeji at Manchester College (now Manchester University). He introduced me to the histories of colonialism, the language of repression, the political economy of dependency. And the Model UN
I then left for International University Bremen (now Jacobs University Bremen) in Germany. I finished 3 years of an already accelerated program in 2 years by taking double the courseload and having a very full, active, student life. It was this time, I actually began to notice that – I was actually beautiful. I had my first experiences of organizing campus-wide petitions and more structured approaches to engaging with campus administration. I discovered I could paint and dance and play. And that was wonderful.
At 19, I graduated with my Bachelor’s in International Politics and History (a President’s List Scholar) and received a merit-based scholarship and Research Assistantship with Prof. Markus Jachtenfuchs at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. I had to leave the program two months after it began primarily due to illness in the family. I spent some time in India and Malaysia, and when all had settled down enough – out of the blue – I got accepted to begin my PhD, despite not having a Master’s. It was very unusual at that time.
Professor Shirin M. Rai at the University of Warwick (UK) had a visionary idea – to study aspects of ceremony and ritual in Parliaments, through a gendered lens. Having spent time in India, I sent a letter of interest and she wanted to have me on board. I got that confirmation on September 14th, 2007. And so another leg of the journey began, this time funded by the Leverhulme Trust – the one of the largest providers of grants for research in the UK.
I was 20 and I remember seeing a magpie on the way from Manchester Airport. And a whole new chapter in my life began. Through that journey, I would be standing at the House of Lords, the Indian Parliament, the Romanian Parliament, speaking at various universities/conferences and evolving through to the next phase of my life.
I was seriously ill for a great part of my PhD, and I fought through it. I faced some of the hardest challenges in my life to-date, physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. And looking back at it all now – I wonder how I did it.
My PhD was passed with minor corrections – I remember the examiners being overjoyed – one them said, during the viva ‘thank you for writing this’. I did ask her about it later, and she said she meant it, she really felt I did good work. (I am my harshest critic … so hearing that meant a lot). In its final version, my thesis was 111,000 words and I could barely lift it. I remember submitting it, and it was about as heavy as a newborn. I had just turned 25.
Through the 5 years I spent in the UK, I learnt so much. I began to expand and blossom in so many ways through utterly debilitating circumstances. I made deep friendships and set sail for a new trajectory in my life.
When I had my actual graduation at the University of Warwick in 2013, race was an issue again. And that graduation felt as though I was in a battlefield, once more. Because the PhD gown was so markedly different from the other undergraduates’, I got started at sharply in a very unpleasant way – it wasn’t just one person, quite a few people did and those with me noticed it. I didn’t understand why … till one of the parents went out of her way to make it clear.
In the most condescending way possible, she wanted to know whether ‘I had problems with English’ and whether ‘I had borrowed the gown’ – she was unhappy her son didn’t have it. I didn’t get why she was asking me such strange questions at the time, but I managed to deflect it politely.
Friends I have mentioned this to were utterly scandalized by it, as was someone working within the University. I don’t think it’s a representative experience, but it did happen. And I am so grateful I did not have to go through that alone, but I cannot say that it was a pleasant experience.
My parents were sadly not able to be there, but my mentor was – and my supervisor also arrived just in time for me to emerge from the gowning – a very key rite of passage.
I didn’t have that feeling or sense of achievement. I felt weary. Weary that thousands of miles away, I was still the unwanted Tamil girl who couldn’t be allowed to be her best without someone trying to put her in her place. Not that I let them, but I had hoped I wouldn’t have to face it again, after so many years.
A year later, when I received an invitation for another graduation ceremony, to celebrate the achievements of local graduates who had their PhDs from the UK – I snapped up the opportunity instantly. My parents could of course, attend!
So yesterday, I had those big moments. The ones I yearned for. My dad was waiting for me with his camera as I stepped out of the gowning. My mum and dad were so proud. And it was a relaxed environment. People were celebrating one another, rather trying to put anyone down. I could hold my head up high. And any looks I got were of mutual recognition (of achievement) or happy admiration as part of a festive occasion.
But I wasn’t celebrating. I felt heavy with the weight of release … of a wound I’d held so close to me, deep within for 21 years.
The idea that my skin made me less worthy. That it meant I could never achieve anything. That I was ugly. That I was never going to be celebrated for who I was.
That wound finally healed yesterday.
I was waiting to get gowned again, and I realized the significance of this ceremony in my life, and the complete release that it was giving me, at long last. Taking it all in, I could barely stand. My legs felt weak, but I took a deep breath and kept going on.
My achievements – whilst I’m cognitively aware of them – are never ones that I really celebrated or took deep pride in. I was happy, but I never thought of them as big things.
Standing in a crowd of my peers, as the only dark-skinned woman in a saree, with that much coveted PhD plush hat and shimmering robe … I knew this was a lot more than being ‘just about me’.
It was an act of Representation. For my family, for the Tamil community in which I am a public figure, for every dark skinned child who has ever had their soul crushed through prejudice. I represent the undeniable statement – of YES, WE CAN.
I say we because I could not have done any of this alone. I worked like a machine through all those years – but this is not the achievement of just one person. But of many.
I couldn’t have done this without the upbringing I had, my parents’ emotional support, and also financially when scholarships did not cover it all. Not without the opportunities that people who had faith in me gave me. Opportunities to prove myself. To do something. Not without the Grace of the Divine and its Blessings. Not without friends whom I consider family.
And so, after a day of ceremony and an evening of celebration with my parents, as I lay in my bed, I finally released the emotions I’d been holding so close to my chest for 21 years. And I fell asleep crying, saying these words over and over again…
Whilst we embrace the cause of the Rising Feminine, it is important to note that the end-game is not one where you have two equally strong ‘teams’ polarized against one another. It is not to pit man against woman or God against Goddess.
It is ultimately, a Call for Balance.
I am a Priestess and I champion the cause of priestesses officiating over temples and rituals once more without fear, without prejudice, without discrimination – without the idea of filthiness associated with their bodies and their sex. That does not mean that I see women superior to men, or a Goddess superior to a God.
In me, I have a Goddess, and God. In me, I have the Divine. (I’m still in the process of remembering, and realizing it)
So do you. So do we all. So does every bit of creation, animate and inanimate.
In you, in me, in everything there is a God/Goddess/Formless Divine energy flowing through – so what use is there placing limitations on how it can or cannot be expressed?
I find it strange that those who claim their understanding of ‘God’ is ‘gender-neutral’ find it so threatening or uncomfortable when I or others use the term ‘Goddess’, or Priestess. (If it’s all really equal, then no conflict should arise… )
Ideally, there will come a day where both terms are so accepted and embraced by all, that no one will even bat an eyelid.
But that day is not here yet. We are, of course, all working towards it.
Yes, at the end of the day … It’s all Energy, and Dissolution anyway – but we have chosen to incarnate as Spirit-in-Flesh. And it seems sad when half of that Spirit is denied the expression or recognition of its intrinsic Divinity. The Feminine is repressed and challenged not only when she arises through the bodies of women, but also through men who choose alternative definitions of their masculinity-honoring-Femininity.
Till then, I remain focused upon a Spiritual Path that Honors the Formless Divine by ensuring that its Material Representations (Idols, Statues, Sacred Facilitators) are truly representative.
The paradox of recognizing the God/dess on an altar, and not in the flesh of a person is one I’ll address later.
She is the eldest of the Mahavidyas. Clad in smoke, she rides through the world a solitary figure, accompanied only by her trusty Crow. She is the Hindu Crone Deity, the devourer of Lord Shiva and the Mistress of the Reality Beyond the Veil.
In mainstream Shaktism, She is clad in poverty, despair, disappointment, anger and all those things we instinctively label as ‘negative’ and ‘bad’, she is the Mistress of Maya. Her gifts, her blessings, her golden teachings come through the form of mis-fortune (in the conventional sense of the term), but hidden in each trial, each experience is the kind of wisdom or knowledge you require to transcend your own limitations.
However, in some Tantric variants of her iconography, she is shown as a woman who enjoys meat, wine, sex – all those things which chaste women should simply not do or want (in the Hindu view of the world). Thus, I would say – She is not the Goddess of Poverty or Disappointment, nor is She Prosperity or Virtue.
She simply exists Beyond all those Classifications and Categories of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’. She is Exactly Whom She Wants to Be.
And perhaps, … that is why She is seen as Terrifying.
Typically, she is worshiped by those who have rejected a worldly life as the kind of knowledge she provides stands in stark relief to social niceties and expectations. A modern-day Dhumavati may appear as the single mother, the divorcee, the widow, the crone – a woman who has simply rejected her reliance upon a male energy as her salvation and is ‘doing it herself’.
She is the only Mahavidya (Wisdom Goddess) who appears without a male consort in some form. She is the Hermit, She is the Wandering-Sage, She is the Woman Unafraid to be Alone and Unprotected as She moves through the World.
Her greatest lesson is one of Absolute Detachment. Categories of pleasure, sorrow, joy, rage, disappointment, no longer exist for Her as she sees the lessons or seeds of new paths that lie within each waking moment. She exists beyond our understanding of Space and Time and represents the Void Itself. The Eternal. The Transcendental Form of Shakti that contains All Within Herself.
AUGUST 15, 1947: INDIA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY (Happy Birthday, India!)
Today, over a billion people will be celebrating their independence, and the declaration of their sovereignty as a free republic. It is India’s Independence Day, and she’s celebrating it for the 67th time.
There are so many reasons to celebrate this day, for Indians in India and those of Indian origin living abroad. But, by the same token, there are plenty of reasons to reflect upon what else the nation seeks to accomplish, before all its citizens can be truly declared as ‘free’. For too many are still ensnared by the yoke of poverty, communalism, the fear of violence or degradation, and so on.
August 15th marks the transfer of power from a territory claimed and administered by the British Raj. This ceremony took place at the Red Fort in New Delhi where – at the stroke of Midnight. A day prior, in India’s Constituent Assembly, its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his oft-quoted speech: ‘Tryst with Destiny’. Here’s a link:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzdVKGdZUpQ
But through the celebrations of freedom, one also has to remember that elsewhere, at the borders, the bloody wars of Partition raged on. It was not an easy birthing for the nation as it was born through a dual separation: (1) through the formality of British ceremony and legal codes and (2) through the forced cleavage of a land in the name of communal politics.
As we wave our flags and sing our anthems today, this shadow ought not be forgotten.
India’s political history is a long and multifaceted one, but this much can be said without controversy: Its independence was procured through the efforts of nation-wide struggle, that began with the nationalist movement. In its earliest form, it was a movement led by a ‘microscopic minority’ (to quote a former Viceroy of India) of Western-educated Indians – you could call them the liberal intelligentsia of their time. The movement acquired mass appeal and participation when Mahatma Gandhi entered the scene. Men and women rose in union as part of satyagraha (peaceful struggle), though there were contemporaries seeking to free India from its colonial oppressors through the use of violence as well.
The Constitution, legislative procedures and electoral arrangements of contemporary India bear witness to India’s colonial past. The Indian Parliament retains certain ritual performances and conducts ceremonies in ways strongly reminiscent of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, i.e. Westminster. It is little wonder as, considering that the body of individuals tasked with drafting the new Republic’s constitution were largely made up of lawyers well versed in the language of British law.
That being said, despite (or perhaps, through) India’s legal inheritance, the Indian political sphere lives, breathes, thrives in displays of colourful authenticity. The performance of politics, as seen in parliament and state assemblies, is becoming increasingly ‘vernacularized’ – that is to say, it reflects certain social customs, mores, norms, and expectations of performance in line with the people of the land itself.
As I argued in my PhD on the Indian Parliament, let us not judge India on the basis of expectations set in a time so heavily influenced by colonial frameworks and standards – and as I awoke to this morning (listening to a professor on TV) – let us not judge it in terms of the accomplishments made by other countries, but by and on its own terms and ideals.
For India -is, was, and always will be – the world’s largest experiment in democracy. That understanding of democracy is deepening, transforming and evolving as we speak – showing us ways that it has matured in 67 years of growth, and areas which it is in dire need of attention.
For all of its economic development, and (relative) political stability, India still lags behind in areas pertaining to sustainable economic development, social equality, gendered equality, violence against women, and other issues – as judged by the ideals of its own Constitution.
Whilst I was not born in India, I am of Southern Indian origin. I’ve lived there with my family and have also conducted research on its political institutions. It is an identity that I am proud to affiliate myself with, but with the recognition – that there are still challenges to tackle, ways to evolve and new milestones to reach.
So here’s to 67 years of growth and many more to come!
Image Montage: Own photo, Bairavee Balasubramaniam, 2010. All rights reserved.
and (the image of the lions & flag) By Mellisa Anthony Jones at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
No sir, I shall not grace you with a smile because you expect me to, Don’t you dare invite yourself to my table, this space isn’t for you, Why do you fret when I am unwilling to entertain you? Why do you look pained when I refuse to speak to you with my golden tongue? And no – I’m not bitter, broken, divorced, widowed – or as you might think – a crone, harridan, hag, witch, bitch, or shrew. Words that strike fear straight to you.
I AM She Who Chooses…
I am woman, I am Goddess, I am born of She, And that space of warmth, of love and desire, The Mother in my Heart the Child in my Womb, Maiden, Mother, Crone, Sister, Wife, Daughter, All I Am. All I Be.
Why oh why do men presume that women must welcome them so? You’re not my teacher, my lover, my friend, or my beau, They certainly don’t ask other men to do the same….. Perhaps they should… But if we don’t – unto womanhood that projected shame.
I find you strange, a strange creature of expectation, You see my neutrality, my level headed tone as aggression, My discernment as threat, my judgment as rudeness, Shaken to the bone like a rag doll in the wind you reel from my lack of engagement.
This is my middle ground, my threshold, I stand here with trident, with scythe, with tigress, with wisdom of Old, Indeed yes, the warm fire turns ice cold, When the predator seeks to claim what is not his own.
Believe me son for when I rage, And my anger boils and foams and curdles and rises, You’ll know.
For now, Just Go.
If you cross that line of mine, Seeking what is not yours to find, Out Come the Ice-Cold, Red-Hot Goddess-Whore-Witch-Shrews of Old, Run, son, run… lest I begin to Dance.
For you shall see the one you seek, The one you want, and yet Dread to Meet.
The She who Rises, The She who Chooses. The I AM hidden beneath
(What’s that? I thought you wanted me to smile? What’s that? Not the one with the fangs? Whooops! )
The above conversation (reproduced with permission) got me thinking about periods and what they can teach us. I find that my intuitive senses are heightened, and I have greater access to my own depths. I consider it a sacred time of month, and one which empowers me.
I didn’t always think of the period in this way. As an Indian woman, despite the radical self-definition my parents instilled in me, I still carried the burden of stigma associated with menstruation. And it was a time I associated with pain, rather than joy.
Where did it come from? My parents never shamed me about it. But TV and other cultural influences did. And it took a while to break out of that cycle and re-discover that sacred spiritual connection.
I am glad I met women who were bold enough to explore that ‘taboo’, and reclaim it for themselves – and they inspired me to do the same in my early 20s.
Eventually, as I listened more – the pain lessened. As I honored the impulses from my Womb, my Ovaries, my Sacral Chakra, my periods became more regular. And I began to enjoy them, and look forward to them.
My Womb began to Whisper in the Subtle yet Powerful language of Spirit.
What I’ve realized in reflection (from my own Indian cultural context) is this –
It becomes difficult to to consider the womb, and its monthly cycle of any value or spiritual significance when women are encouraged not to go to temples (or other sacred sites) when menstruating – as though the presence of sacred blood can anger the gods.
Mind you, this too in a culture that does not recognize the right of a woman to be a priestess in a temple – unless of course she is in her menopausal phase, or from a lower caste group serving her community.
In Nepal, for instance, women are simply not allowed to cook during their periods as their blood would then ‘pollute’ the food – despite no obvious contact between the two – in a land that paradoxically offers blood sacrifices of buffaloes and chickens to fierce female Goddesses.
So, If the womb and her cycles are seen as unclean, how can Woman see herself as the Vessel and Bearer of Spiritual Wisdom?
Which led me to ask …
When did the Divinity in Woman become separate from her Material Form?
When did we stop realizing the Goddess in ourselves, and instead, began to believe that spaces for creation existed only in temples, and not in ourselves?
I’m sure this isn’t just a ‘South Asian’ thing (nor is that the only way in which menstruation is seen in the region – the Shaktas and Tantrists have a different view) – but this refusal to see the Divine in the Human Womb, cuts across categories of identity such as: culture, region, religion, race, ethnicity, and so on.
As for me, I’m going to hold myself close at moontime, and listen to Her whispers, beckoning me from Within.