Why Do We Celebrate The Goddess But Are Violent To The Women She Represents?

During Navaratri, we revere various Goddess forms and celebrate her values that are intrinsically feminist, but do not flinch while being violent to the women she represents. Why this double standard?

Run a quick search for ‘Navaratri’ and the most common description of the festival will be about how it “celebrates the divine feminine”. Indeed, women goddesses are worshipped all around the country these 9 days – be it in the form of Durga-Lakshmi-Saraswathi or the Navadurgas or other Devi forms.

Whereas the treatment of Indian women in general, and especially during such festivals is quite the opposite.

Festivals are a time when women are severely burdened

When I talk of Navaratri, my childhood days flash in front of my eyes. Since I am from Chennai, my memories are of Golu times. My mother was a working woman, but she made sure every festival was celebrated memorably. Navaratri evenings were always exciting as I got dressed up, got to eat special food, and also met my friends and acquaintances.

While I am very thankful to her for the memories, I view them differently as a mother today.

Starting from arranging the golu, to menu planning and cooking, attending to numerous guests, dressing me up, to doing the actual Puja early every morning, I imagine she might have been very exhausted. Behind all my fond memories, this woman was working tirelessly to shoulder the additional work that came in with festivities apart from her regular duties. I am sure that most Indian households will have a similar story to share.

Letting our women get burnt out is not a celebration of the feminine

Even if the men of the house were ‘magnanimous’ enough to pitch in – that’s where their role started and ended, as support artists. It was the women of the household who painstakingly ensured that rituals of her husband’s lineage were followed year after year.

If we truly wanted to celebrate the feminine, would we let her slog alone in the kitchen much before sunrise, while the rest of the family was in deep slumber? Would we let her shoulder the mental burden of planning every single detail by herself? Would we expect her to serve everyone with a smile, after all this singular effort?

I believe not.

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Do we really care about celebrating the feminine then? And no, the toxic glorification of her ‘Shakti’ to manage everything with a smile, giving women the dubious tag of ‘superwoman’ doesn’t count as a celebration. It is simply a patriarchal narrative cleverly designed to continue exploiting the endless labor that women are systematically made to do with a smile.

The Mother Goddess before the Vedic era

Our caste and gender hierarchies have successfully subordinated women into roles of servitude. The saddest part of this is women willingly adhering to such narratives, reducing them to beings much lesser than men. The concept of the Mother Goddess in her earliest form, much before the advent of the Vedic era, is a far cry from what we consider ‘feminine’ today.

A recent study of cave paintings at Bhimbetka from 5000 BC has theorized that Goddess worship began after witnessing women in nurturing roles. Women during pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood have been depicted as the figure of a mother goddess in such paintings. It is not far-fetched to say that since a woman had ‘life-giving’ powers, she was the origin of the concept of worshipping a ‘higher power’- in this case, the Mother Goddess. There is also similar evidence from the Mesopotamian region that points to the reverence of the Mother Goddess.

This also does not mean that the role of women was reduced to motherhood and nurturing as it is today. When we look at how women were portrayed in the Mesolithic period in India – the paintings show women holding equal importance in the economy as men did. There is evidence to suggest that women participated in group hunting, while also taking care of the crucial task of gathering in hunter-gatherer tribes. It can be said that such tribal communities before the rise of Brahmanical patriarchy were some of the most egalitarian societies. Women and men were seen as separate, but equal.

Some Devi or Shakti forms and their attached feminist values

Let us look at some devi forms that are widely celebrated across our country today, along with some significant aspects or values attached to each form.

  1. Durga Ma – She is central to Navaratri celebrations like Durga Puja, symbolizing fearlessness.
  2. Mahalakshmi – The Goddess of Wealth, is worshipped during Navaratri and is believed to bring good fortune.
  3. Mahasaraswathi – The Goddess of Knowledge and Wisdom. Saraswathi Puja is performed across regions in India on the last day of Navaratri.
  4. Kaalratri Ma – She is one of the Navadurgas, with the name meaning Goddess of the Night. She is characterized by her fierce form and dark skin color.
  5. Kushmanda Ma – She is another Navadurga avatar, who is said to have created the entire universe from nothingness.
  6. Ardhanarishvara – This is a special composite male-female form of Shiva and Parvati. This form portrays a perfect balance of both genders, signifying equality.
  7. Kamakhya Devi – She is a Shakti form, popularly known as the bleeding or the menstruating Goddess.
  8. Parvati Devi – The story of her rigorous penance for Lord Shiva is well known. There is also the story behind how Parvati created Ganesha on her own. One can understand from these that she signifies decisiveness and power.

In stark contrast: the violence we unleash on real women

During the 9 days of Navaratri when all these divine forms are celebrated signifying various feminist principles, an Indian woman in real life is subjected to various forms of violence. We do not flinch as we continue to believe in practices that segregate her purely based on her gender. Her rights are violated, and she is consistently reduced to someone who exists to serve men.

  1. A woman with a mind or an opinion of her own is called impudent. She is not to answer back or raise her voice against any injustice, even if it shows her fearlessness.
  2. A woman is kept away from matters of money and is systematically kept financially dependent. She is also highly discriminated when it comes to matters of inheritance, as families believe only a male is entitled to owning property. Even as a working woman, she is again discriminated and paid lesser just because of her gender.
  3. A woman, starting from childhood is not seen worthy of being educated. In rural India, many parents continue to send their boys to school but pull their teenage girls out of school.
  4. A woman with dark skin is considered worthless. She is taunted constantly, considered unmarriageable, and people look down on her while looking up to pray to Kaalratri Ma.
  5. A woman in a patriarchal family is seen only as the bearer of her husband’s lineage. She has no place to claim in the creation – even as her womb grows his children inside, and her breasts nourish them outside. Her name vanishes without a trace as her children are given only their father’s surname.
  6. A woman starting from her fetal form is seen as inferior to a male. She is unwanted, aborted, and killed from her mother’s womb just for being female. If she manages to escape these clutches, she is groped, raped, and disposed of without a thought.
  7. A woman is made to feel dirty, impure, and untouchable when she menstruates. She must hide and cower in shame every month as she bleeds, and keep herself far away from any religious rituals.
  8. A woman is not allowed to make decisions, be it for herself or her family. She is seen as someone who must be controlled, protected, and owned by a man at all stages in her life. This extends to larger issues such as marital rape, and abortion rights, where she is denied the power of bodily autonomy.

This Navaratri, let us pledge to celebrate the feminine in every way possible. Let us not close our eyes to the violence she is subjected to, every day. Only when we truly celebrate a real woman for all that she is, can we claim to revere Shakti or feminine power.

Image source: stills from the films Antarmahal and Agnisakshi

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About the Author

Spatika Mozhi

Spatika Mozhi - The crystal clear language of my soul, untarnished by societal expectations. I am passionate about women's issues, and I sincerely try to expand my understanding of events beyond my current social standing. read more...

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