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Women's Month: The Feminist Advocacy of Rural India

“Join us. We’re going to the temple to hear the talk,” she said.

“What talk?” I asked, wondering what new custom I’d be introduced to next through my travels in India. 

 “Come and see. And then write about our ways, so people know how we live. People should know,” she said. 

The lady inviting me earned her living as a seamstress. She was a widow, having raised her son and daughter on a modest income, in a modest home ensconced in one of the alleyways of the township. I was curious to know what this ‘talk’ was about, so I agreed to tag along. The year was coming to an end and the whole town was bustling in preparation for the festival of Navaratri, 9 days of celebrations, worshipping Goddess Durga (also known as Kali). The final day, Dussehra, marked the ultimate victory of good over evil. I followed my companion through the crowds to a small temple. The mellow colours of an Indian sunset hit its rigid, granite walls with a softening blow, turning the  dull grey of stone to a gentle, rustic orange. 

The first thing I noticed on entering the sacred space, was the demarcation of the genders. It was something I was slowly getting used to, through my travel in India. All the men sat on one side and all the women on the other. Carpets were laid out on cool stone floors. Some sat on chairs, others on the floor, an invisible division of class I had grown to expect. My kind acquaintance pointed out my place in this arrangement of things and left me to join her friends on the floor. It was understood that I should not sit next to her. My place was on the chair. She never questioned why I could have one and she could not. And as this arrangement suited me very well, I never bothered to ask. This question has reared its head more often than not throughout my travel in India. I never bother to ask. 

From this comfortable vantage point, I was able to study my lively surroundings in great detail. A beautiful, garlanded Durga statue formed the focal point of the temple. Next to Her, sat a Swami. Before him, was a large book. And before that large book was the gathered congregation. The Swami was reading from it, gesticulating vehemently and emphatically as he did so, his voice blaring through the speakers and spilling out into the street. 

“She is powerful!” he exclaimed. “You must never insult the feminine! When Devi got angry, do you know what she did?” he asked. 

Without waiting for an answer to his obviously rhetorical questions, the Swami went into great detail on the power of the feminine. It was the Devi Purana he was reading, an ancient text that extolled on the virtues of the Goddess. He peppered his words with jokes and anecdotes, at times serious, at times cajoling, glaring at the men often, smiling at the women kindly as he continued his ‘talk’.  

To those of you who do not know this story of Durga, here it goes:

After years of penance and meditation, the shape-shifting demon-king, Mahishasura, was granted a wish by Brahma (the God of Creation).

“I want to be so invincible that no man nor beast can kill me on Earth, Hell or Heaven. May I not die at the hands of my foes, the Gods. May I not die at the hands of the great Trinity. If death has to approach me, may it approach me only through a woman. Woman is weak, woman is powerless. How can a woman kill me, the All-powerful? If you grant me this boon, I shall be as good as immortal,” said Mahishasura.

“So be it,” said Lord Brahma. And so it was.

Mad with power, the demon-king wreaked havoc in the heavens. No army of the Gods was strong enough to defeat him. Panic ensued. The Gods called an emergency meeting. They combined all their energies to create Durga, the ultimate Goddess. She was invincible. Undefeatable The penultimate personification of strength and Shakti. She was both the Creation and the Creator of the Gods. When Durga emerged, all the Gods bowed down to Her.

“You are the heaven, you are the earth, you are the eternal principle, you are the great eternal truth. We salute you! Mother, save us from the ravages of the evil demon. You are our only hope!”

Durga thundered through the armies of Mahishasura, single-handed, mounted on Her pet lion, a glorious beauty to behold. She was no man. She was no beast. She was woman. And what a woman!

“Know me to be the mother of the Gods. I am both their Creator as well as their Creation,” she said.

It is said that upon laying eyes on her, an electric ripple of fear shot through Mahishasura. He realized his mistake in overlooking the power of the feminine.

The Devi Purana gives a blow-by-blow account of exactly how Durga skewered the demon-king on Her trident, ripping him to shreds, with elegant ease. She proved once and for all, that when a bunch of men fail to handle a task, you must send in a woman to set things right. And you better believe she will!

The Swami went on and on. The colours of the dusk faded into darkness of the night. Some people left after a short while; others stayed through the entire talk. I understood only the gist of what he said, largely because of my own ignorance of the vernacular language and also because of his excellent grasp of it.  I did walk away from it feeling very powerful, with one point clearly drilled into my head: don’t mess with the feminine.

The Devi Purana is read every evening of the 9 days of Navaratri. After that experience, everywhere I looked, I saw the feminine being celebrated. My travel in India often leaves me in awe of the sheer diversity of the country. No temple is without a Goddess. No part of life is complete in India without worshipping the feminine principle. In every village I visited in that part of the country, when traveling in India, I found a local Devi to protect the residents. She was revered and worshipped every day, according to the customs of each particular village. These customs varied from place to place, often quite drastically, within just 10 or 20 km of distance. It occurs to me, that this is pervasive advocacy of the feminine principle. 

Yet, I’m left confounded by the paradox of it all. I hear of debates in far-away places on how ‘God could be a woman’. The thought would never enter an Indian’s head to debate the issue. Why couldn’t the Creator be a woman? Of course! The whole culture is based on the balance between the masculine and the feminine. I hear of struggles in far-away countries to elect a woman president. The thought would never enter an Indian’s head that a woman could not rule. Of course! Within a few decades of gaining independence, a woman was appointed as prime minister, the highest political office in the country. And then there are the matriarchal and matrilineal communities and tribes of India where women take the lead in many ways.

Even in the ancient Vijayanagara Empire, whose monuments today make up the World Heritage Site of Hampi, women played a key role. They were involved in trade, clerical work and even wrestling events . Entire regions were ruled by women, according an inscription from 1542 AD. 

Despite all this, I often feel, when I travel in India, that cruelty against women is normalized. It’s difficult to hear about the extreme brutality of rape cases. Then there is the drunken domestic violence of husbands who will punch their wives to a pulp in the evenings and join those same hands in prayer to the Devi in the morning. The trafficking of girls and women for the momentary pleasure of men. The sheer extent to which the culture sets women to be dependent on men is surprising: In some areas, widows are cast aside as spare parts of society, without a chance of remarrying or living a normal life, something I’ve found very different through my travels in India, from most other countries. Then there are the unforgivable acts of female infanticide and foeticide. I wonder if my widowed friend ever questioned why society forbade her a second chance. Of course, this is not so much the case in the up-and-coming urban India, but nevertheless, it is still common practice in rural areas.

And I wonder…where did we go wrong? What happened? How did we get here? And, more importantly, how do we get out of here?