Hinduism Today

Here we will reflect on modern life and Hinduism’s responses to it. If there is a dominant theme that characterizes Hinduism during this period is the matter of its relationship with the non-Hindu world. The modern era has brought great challenges to Hinduism through the advent of Islam and western culture. Both incursions into India have left profound and lasting effects on Hinduism. In many ways, 21st century Hindus continue to struggle with issues associated with Islam and westernization.

  • Hinduism and the Challenge of Islam: We in the West generally associate Islam with the Arab world. We often fail to remember that the majority of Muslims live in South Asia and eastwards. The most populous Islamic country is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Islam first came to India late in the 8th century C.E., with several military conquests by Muslim leaders from central Asia.

  • British Imperialism in India: In many ways, the British imperialism in India was far more significant than the presence of Muslims, although the British directly ruled India for only 90 years. The British brought with them western folk ways and culture. Many Indians sought to imitate them by speaking English, playing cricket and having afternoon tea. Yet the effects the British brought were deeper and more complicated than just this.

  • The Philosophy of Gandhi and Hinduism: I mentioned in another article that India was a western idea before it was an Indian idea. Christianity itself would lend to national Indians some of the ideas they would use to achieve independence. Gandhi was greatly impressed by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the writings of Leo Tolstoy. It may very well be that the British unwillingly implanted the very seeds of the independence movement within the soul of India.

  • Hinduism Today and Its Incursion in the Modern World: We’ve discussed the incursion of the West in Hindu life in India. Let’s turn to discuss the reciprocal reaction: the movement of Hindus and Hinduism into the West. The history of this movement is far briefer than the other. By the late 19th century, the main vehicle for the transport of Hinduism to the West was literary. Some of the most important Hindu scriptures had been translated into European languages in the 18th century and were available to intellectuals in the West.

Hinduism Today and Its Incursion into the Modern World

We’ve discussed the incursion of the West into Hindu life in India. Let’s turn to discuss the reciprocal reaction: the movement of Hindus and Hinduism into the West. The history of this movement is far briefer than the other. By the late 19th century, the main vehicle for the transport of Hinduism to the West was literary. Some of the most important Hindu scriptures had been translated into European languages in the 18th century and were available to intellectuals in the West.

Because western impressions were based principally on these translations from the Hindu scriptural traditions, many thinkers had a rather obscure understanding of Hinduism that neglected its more popular expressions. At the same time, westerners who actually visited India saw a different side of Hinduism: the many colorful festivals and images, the astrologers and fortune tellers, the caste system and the rituals. They were more often than not repelled by what they saw. To these western visitors, Hinduism wasn’t more than superstition, idolatry and cultural backwardness.

These impressions, based on translations of its philosophy on one end, and the observation of its popular practices on the other, contributed to an extremely ambivalent western view of Hinduism. Some who knew Hinduism through scripture regarded it as morally and spiritually superior to the western traditions. Many who knew it from popular practice regarded it as vastly inferior to western ways.

The First Missionary

It was in this context of western ambivalence that the first significant representative of Hinduism came to the West. Swami Vivekananda is sometimes known as the first Hindu missionary to the West. He appeared in Chicago in 1893, at the First World Parliament of Religions. Vivekananda’s address to this international gathering of delegates from the major religious traditions was extremely well received and widely celebrated. Vivekananda subsequently established centers for the study and practice of Advaita Vedanta, the monistic Hindu philosophy that he embraced.

Vivekananda was followed by numerous Hindu gurus to the West. Many of their names or the names of their orders are familiar to westerners today. We should mention the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The name Maharishi Yogi became well-known to many in the West as the guru of the Beatles in the 1960’s, and as the promoter of a spiritual practice called transcendental meditation.

The names of these modern teachers continue to evoke ambivalent feelings among many westerners. Many celebrate these teachers and their messages and many consider them dangerous. It is unclear at this point what will be the future of Hinduism beyond the Indian subcontinent. In India and the surrounding area Hinduism remains firmly established and its future seems secure, although how Hinduism would negotiate the challenges of westernization is not certain. Nor is it clear how the West would negotiate the challenges of Hinduism. Already western culture is beginning to accommodate Hindu immigrants as great number of temples and Hindu societies multiply throughout the United States and Europe.

It is evident that many westerners find much in Hinduism worth of adoption and admiration. Ultimately, what effects the advent of Hindus and Hinduism would have on the religious practices of the west remains to be seen.

The Philosophy of Gandhi and Hinduism

"Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress."
Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi was greatly impressed by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the writings of Leo Tolstoy. It may very well be that the British unwillingly implanted the very seeds of the independence movement within the soul of India.

Mahatma Gandhi was the most important figure in that movement, and his life may well illustrate the best of modern Hinduism. Gandhi was perhaps most fundamentally a devout Hindu. Although he was educated in England, Gandhi’s politics were based less on jurisprudence and more on religion. The title by which Gandhi was known in India an throughout the world emphasizes the spiritual foundation of his life. He was called Mahatma, the “great soul”, a title that is reserved for the most spiritually accomplished Hindus. Yet, Gandhi was not a Brahmin or a Kshatryia, he was of the Vaisha varna. He was also not a theologian or a systematic religious thinker. His political vision and practice, however, was rooted in his understanding of sacred scriptures from many of the world’s religions, specially Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita and Christianity’s New Testament.

This kind of openness to spiritual truth regardless of where it is found is characteristic of much of Hinduism. Indeed, Gandhi had an appreciation of all the major religious traditions. This is the reasons why he was opposed to the partition of India and Pakistan.

Gandhi called his philosophy Satyagraha, a term that meant grasping forth and holding on the truth. It might also mean “grasping forth and holding on to God”, because for Gandhi God is truth. Gandhi believed that truth is more important than political expedience. While others in the independence movement argued that India’s freedom from Britain should be gained through armed conflict or other means, Gandhi maintained that just ends could never be attained through evil means.

This conviction spurred the development of his philosophy and practice of non-violent resistance, a notion that also owed much to the Jains. In Gandhi’s childhood community, he frequently interacted with Jains and learned from them the practice of Ahimsa, the non-harming of living beings.

The result of these many influences in Gandhi’s life was a political vision of achieving justice by revealing the truth of oppression to the oppressor. Non-violent resistance endeavoured to demonstrate in a powerful and vivid way the oppressors’ own brutality.

In order to demonstrate the brutality of oppression, however, one must be willing to endure the wrath of the oppressive force without retaliation. For that, one needed great courage and the discipline of a yogi. In a sense, Gandhi opened a new avenue for the Karmamargra, the way of action, by making the political sphere an acceptable arena for the practice of religion.

In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a fellow Hindu who believed that he had conceded too much to the Muslims.

British Imperialism in India

In many ways, British imperialism in India was far more significant than the presence of Muslims, although the British directly ruled India for only 90 years. The British brought with them western folk ways and culture. Many Indians sought to imitate them by speaking English, playing cricket and having afternoon tea. Yet the effects the British brought were deeper and more complicated than just this.

British presence introduced into India western values and social dynamics. Britain’s initial and foremost interest in India was commercial. The East India Company was Britain’s first established involvement on the subcontinent. The British developed the cities of Calcutta, Mombay (which they called Bombay), and Chennai or Madras into large and industrialized trading centers. Industrialization and urbanization had uprooting effects on the traditions of Indian society. All restrictions imposed by caste and family could be more easily disregarded in urban areas.

Traditional practices and beliefs were placed in doubt and reevaluated. Industrial economies also raised expectations of material success. India had for thousand of years explicitly favored the transcendence over the material world. Wealth and pleasure were goods, but moksha, the bliss of ultimate release was the sumum bonum, the supreme good. Now, in view of the western focus on the material world, many Hindus begin to reassess this world’s significance.

Many Hindus began to consider that perhaps the way to happiness is not to transcend the world but to transform it. The British encouraged literacy. Learning to speak and read English was and still is regarded as an avenue to success. This, of course, is not a uniform trend. Still today, 30% of the Indian population is illiterate. The encouragement of literacy and English was sufficient, however, to generate interest among many in reading the western classics, including the Bible.

When one reads the literature of the western tradition it is easy to learn the values of the western world, such as the principle of the equality of all persons, which stands at odds with the assumptions of the caste system.

The Responses to the New Ideas: The Brahmo Samaj

The founding of two important Hindu movements in the 19th century can serve to illustrate different Hindu responses to westernization. The first is the Brahmo Samaj or the “society of believers in Brahmins”. The Brahmo Samaj was founded in 1828 by Rammohun Roy, an important modern Hindu reformer.

Rammohun Roy, who was born just about the time the American colonies were beginning their revolution from the British, was educated by Muslims and early on developed an intense dislike for the British occupation. As a young man, however, Roy began to work for the East Indian Company. He learned English and came to appreciate western ways. Eventually, Roy came to support British rule and to value western education. The movement he initiated, the Brahmo Samaj, reflected Roy’s critical appreciation of the West.

The Brahmo Samaj might be described as traditional Hinduism transformed by encountering Christianity. Roy studied the Bible and admired Jesus, but he could not accept the idea of Jesus’ divinity. He was troubled by the polytheism of popular Hinduism and denounced it. He also criticized the practice of Puja, the veneration of images. He called it “idol worship”. Roy preferred the Upanishads to all other Hindu scriptures and he contended that they taught a simple form of monotheism.

He adopted what I would call a liberal approach to scripture, because he argued that the Vedas should be authoritative only when it is shown to be reasonable. In this respect, Roy’s view parallels that of 19th century liberal Christians, who said similar things about the Bible. He even established weekly congregational worship services like the Christians.

Roy may be best remembered, though, for his efforts to improve the treatment of women in India, specially the widows. He was instrumental in the abolition of Sati, “widow burning”, in 1829.

The Arya Samaj

While the Brahmo Samaj had a liberal approach to Hinduism, the Arya Samaj, another religious movement that began in the 19th century, had a more fundamentalist outlook. I am aware that I’m using western labels, but perhaps this adjectives may help us grasp the situation. The terms liberal and fundamentalist categorize two responses to modernity itself.

The Arya Samaj was fundamentalist in its approach to the Hindu collection of scripture. It not only regarded the Vedas as the only authoritative sacred text, thus denying the sacredness of popular books like the Bagahvad Gita and the Puranas, it also maintained that the Vedas were source of all truth: scientific and spiritual. Such view is not unlike that of Christian fundamentalists who consider the Bible historically and scientifically accurate. Just as Christian fundamentalists consider the Bible open and available to anyone for interpretation, the Aryasamage said that the Vedas are available to all for study.

The Arya Samaj was founded by Swami Dayanand, in the late 19th century, about the time fundamentalism got started in the United States. Like the more liberal Rammohun Roy, Swami Dayanand disliked much of what he saw in popular Hindu practice of his day, specially Puja and pilgrimage. He viewed much of popular Hinduism as mere superstition. Dayanand even went to deny divinity of popular avataras, such as Rama and Krishna, and to reject the idea of jatis, the hereditary birth classes, simply because these words do not appear in the Vedas.

Like Rammohun Roy, Dayanand was an advocate of fairer treatment of women. He contended that women should be educated and widows should be allowed to remarry. He also held that Hinduism was superior to other religions and that all other religions attempt to approximate to it. Anyone familiar with 19th and 20th century Christian theology might recognize that some Christians argue the same point about the superiority of their faith.

The Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj are both responses to the disrupting effects of westernization. They simplified the complex ways Hinduism encountered western culture and values. The Brahmo Samaj demonstrated a critical openness to Christianity and the values of reason and human equality. The Arya Samaj, like all fundamentalisms, reacted with suspicion towards the agents that bring change and it sought to restore authority to a single text.

The effects of the British in India of course had political as well as religious ramifications. The western idea of nation-state sovereignty stimulated a national spirit that would eventually lead to the movement that established India as an independent nation.

Hinduism and the Challenge of Islam

We in the West generally associate Islam with the Arab world. We often fail to remember that the majority of Muslims live in South Asia and eastwards. The most populous Islamic country is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Islam first came to India late in the 8th century C.E., with several military conquests by Muslim leaders from central Asia. Islamic influence in India was not consolidated, however, until several centuries later, when Muslims Sultans established a capital at Delhi, now considered Old Delhi.

By the 15th century, Muslim Sultans ruled most of India, but their power was concentrated in the Northern regions. Today, Indian Muslims live throughout India, though mainly in the Northern region. The South is considered the most Hindu region of the country.

It is hard to imagine two religions that contrast as starkly as Hinduism and Islam. Hinduism embraces both polytheism and monotheism as we have discussed in detail. Islam, however, is singularly monotheistic. It has even criticized Judaism and Christianity for not being sufficiently monotheistic. Hindus venerate images of the divine. Muslims are iconoclastic. In Islam the greatest sin is idolatry. From the Muslim perspective, images are idols.

A Tense Coexistence

When Islam began to spread in medieval India, Hindu temples and temple images were often destroyed. Hindus have an ages-long practice of cow reverence to honor the life-giving and life-sustaining qualities of the cow. Muslims, however, have no reservations about eating beef. Today, much of the butchery in India is performed by Muslims.

Still, Muslims and Hindus did coexist in India for centuries. The relationship was frequently tense, although not always and everywhere so. Although Islam’s presence in India was openly antagonistic to Hinduism, Hinduism survived because it was so deeply rooted in the everyday routine of India. India’s other major religion at the time was Buddhism. Buddhism did not survive the coming of Islam, but Buddhism was in decline and had long passed the era of its dominance in India.

Eventually, Muslim rulers granted Hindus religious toleration similar to the sort granted to Christians and Jews in other Muslim countries. To Hindus, Muslims were merely another caste and Hinduism usually ignored the challenges Islam presented to its religious way of life. Of course, Muslim rulers ignored the challenges of Hinduism. They did not try to convert Hindus to Islam. As non-Muslims, Hindus were susceptible to a greater tax-rate. Later, however, Sufi orders began to proselytize Hindus in great numbers. The Sufis were successful in part because their version of Islam was much like the Bhakti religion that was well established among Hindus.

Sufi Islam thus began to appeal to lower castes who were attracted to its message of human equality. It also appealed to others who aspired to upward social mobility. Adopting the religion of one’s rulers has frequently helped people gain social power.

Certainly, there have been some bright moments in the Muslim-Hindu relationship. The rise of the Mogul emperor Akbhar the Great in the 16th century marked the beginning of a fine syncretistic culture. Akbhar was highly esteemed by Hindus as a tolerant ruler. Despite the tolerance of emperors like Akbhar, frictions between Hindus and Muslims increased. These tensions are the background noise in the history of modern India.

The Creation of Pakistan and Subsequent Conflicts

In 1947, centuries-long stresses came to an end when India was partitioned into India and Pakistan at the moment of its independence from Great Britain. Mahatma Gandhi strongly resisted the creation of Pakistan. But the President of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, argued that Muslims needed a separate State to be true to Islam, since Islam does not distinguish between religious and political law.

The partition of India, however, did not end Hindu-Muslim hostilities. Tensions between India and Pakistan are extremely high as they continue a long standing dispute over the region of Jammu and Kashmir. Within India itself, Hindu-Muslim frictions often erupt in violence.

Although the Hindu-Muslim tensions have been long and tragic, Muslims actually gave up the rule of India in the 18th century, when the British defeated them. This initiated the period of British colonialism in India. As the British established their Indian empire, they tended to favor the Hindus over the Muslims, and granted them greater administrative power.

Hindu Tantra

Closely connected with the worship of the Goddess is a large connection of writings known as the Tantras. They were composed in the medieval period. These texts are essentially technical manuals for how one may attain liberation and enlightenment through dedication to the Devi. The yogi practice of Tantrism or more simply Tantra is based on the techniques described in these writings.

Tantra practice has become relatively well-known in the West as a manner for improving one’s sexuality. There are even books offered in western countries that teach how to increase sexual pleasure by using Tantric methods. Whether or not these practices are authentic Tantra is debatable, but it is clear that the purpose of Hindu Tantra is not physical pleasure but spiritual bliss and enlightenment. Yet, certain varieties of Tantra seek to attain this happiness in unconventional ways, including sexual ritual.

When westerners think of Tantra they usually think of what is called left-handed Tantra. The so called right-handed Tantra is a worship practice that is not altogether unlike the worship of Vishnu or Shiva, although the Tantric form emphasises the repetition of a special mantra given to the initiate by a female guru.

Both varieties of Tantra are open to males and females of all castes and operate independent of Brahmanic authority. Tantra has had an specially strong influence on the development of the religion of Tibet. It is considered by its practitioners to be an advanced form of yoga. One must master other yogi practices before attempting Tantra, else it can prove dangerous.

Left-Handed Tantra

What many find scandalous of left-handed Tantra is what others find intriguing. That is its ritual use of certain things that are ordinarily forbidden to Hindus. These elements include the eating of meat, the drinking of wine and sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other. Tantra is not the casual practice of these activities, but their deliberate usage for the purpose of enlightenment.

Tantric rituals are practiced in a sacred space in the presence of a guru on a specific carefully determined day. In the first part of the ritual both male and female participants ritually bath, dress and apply cosmetics. They undergo ritual purification through meditation and mantra recitation. Male-female couples then form a circle around the guru and the guru’s partner. The female partner sits on the man’s left, which is the traditional position of the goddess relative to the god. This is the how the practice acquired the name left-handed Tantra.

Then they ritually consume the meat and the wine and eventually end with sexual union. Before each of these activities, mantras are pronounced to consecrate the elements, otherwise they would be highly polluting. Mantras are recited to sanctify the woman as the Goddess. Sexual union then is envisioned as a form of worship and devotion to her.

The Purpose of Tantra

Of the numerous accounts to explain the purposes for these practices, perhaps the most basic is that which argues for directing human desires towards liberation rather than repressing them. This philosophy argues that trying to deny certain desires only empowers them further. Rather than repress potentially harmful impulses, Tantra tries to harness them in service of salvation.

Ritual provides a controlled and highly structured context for indulging forbidden desires. In addition to ritualize sex, this practice serves to awaken a participant’s own awareness of the non-duality of the world. Duality, that is thinking in absolute terms of yes and no, black and white, good and evil; is precisely what keep us from realizing the identity of Brahman and Atman.

These activities are meant to break down the conventional duality we have constructed. To awaken this awareness by bodily as well as by intellectual means is a tremendous aid on the path to enlightenment.

Along these lines, the aspect of ritual sex is regarded as the reenactment of the cosmological union of shiva and shakti. Deva and Devi meet each other. Shiva without shakti is a curse. Shakti without shiva can be overwhelming. The male is unable to appropriate the active feminine powers. And the female can’t appropriate the passive masculine powers. Dualism is thus transcended.

A final theory explains how Tantric yoga arouses the latent energies in what is called the subtle body. This conception tells of a vast power source that resides near the base of the human spine. Hindus call this source the kundalini. Enlightenment can be attained by stimulating the dormant kundalini energy and allowing it to flow through the centers of the subtle body called chakras. Chakras are power centers in the shape of lotus flowers that lie along the spine, from its base to the top of the head. Releasing k allows energy to flow upward, causing the practitioners to realize oneness with ultimate reality.

Worship of the Goddess and Tantric yoga are two ways in which Hinduism really differs from the mainstream religious traditions of the West. Some westerners, however, are coming to regard these Hindu religious forms as embodying some things worth embracing. Some have argued that masculine gods of the western religions are to be balanced with a more consciously appropriated feminine element.

Others see value in viewing the body as a source of revelation and truth. Whether or not the western tradition would be ever find a place for the Goddess as Hinduism has remains to be determined.

The Independent Hindu Goddesses and the Creative Power

The most terrifying form of the Devi (Goddess) is called Kali. She is black and fond of blood. She wears a necklace of seven human heads. Theologically, Kali reveals that life is inherently painful. In a not too distant past, human sacrifices were offered to Kali in South India. These sacrifices were practiced up until the 19th century. In the late 18th and early 19th century, a group known as Thugs was known for committing crimes in the name of Kali. They often murdered innocent victims by strangulation as a sacrifice to their patron Kali. The Thugs were often respectable men who had regular jobs during the day, but served the goddess at night. Although the British banned the Thugs in the 19th century, their name lives on in the English language as a synonym for a brutal criminal.

Although human sacrifices in honor of Kali had by far disappeared, animals are regularly offered to her in Calcutta. Nonetheless, animals are only a substitute for humans. The Puranas say that the goddess is pleased for a while with the sacrifice of goats or buffaloes, but a human sacrifice pleases her for a thousand years. Even today there are sporadic reports of human sacrifices to honor the goddess.

The autonomous goddesses were often and still are associated with the outbreak of epidemics, specially smallpox, the disease that has ravaged India more than any other. Epidemics have frequently believed to be the result of the goddesses’ anger directed toward a particular village or district. There are innumerable local village goddesses and many of them are smallpox goddesses. When epidemics occur, Devi worship intensifies. Still today many Hindu villagers would refuse to take smallpox inoculations because they believe the goddess has a greater power to prevent the disease. To submit to human science would be to anger her.

The Unsatisfied Goddesses

The contrast between the independent goddesses and their married female counterparts is striking. It is a difference that has not gone unnoticed among scholars, specially those working in the area of women studies. A common explanation for this difference is as follows. The rage to which the Goddess is subject derives in essence from her childlessness. Without children she is seen as not having fulfilled the central role of the female. Hindus do not deem it appropriate for the goddesses and gods to have children, except in a few remarkable cases, since children would mean a loss of immortality.

The view implied here is a common one in the history of religion. Children are what humans have instead of immortality. Perhaps it is ironic then that Hindu women seek help from the Goddess to have children. Being childless and perhaps sexually frustrated, the Goddess’ emotional energies are triggered and usually directed towards those who might upset her in the slightest way. It is therefore in one’s best interest to cool the Goddess’ ardor with appropriate gifts and offers.

What might motivate a Hindu to choose such a deity to worship? The sufferings that one endures in this life are regarded as the chastisement of an ultimately loving mother, to whom one clings in all circumstances.

Shakti: The Female Creative Power

Being childless, the married goddesses are also subject to the propensity of rage. But their relationship to male gods keeps them cool, channeling their anger into nurture. Perhaps this Theology sounds blatantly steorotypical of a patriarchal society that believes that a woman is never fit for independence. Yet, there is also a relatively complex understanding of the divine nature that supports this view, one that is not wholly stereotypical. In this understanding, the female aspect of divinity is considered its creative and activating power. The word for this power is Shakti, and it is the root word in Shaktism, the religion in which the Goddess is worshipped as supreme. A devotee of the Goddess is called a Shakta.

Shakti is the active principle in Hinduism, not unlike what the Chinese call Yang. Yet the word Yang is associated with the masculine, Shakti is feminine. The masculine principle, or shiva (note the small “s”), is, by contrast, passive. In fact, the masculine principle is so passive as to be dead. “Shiva without Shakti is a curse”, as a proverb says. Male gods require goddesses to empower and enlighten them. This is why in the temple images the gods are usually accompanied by their consorts. The indispensable nature of the Shakti is suggested in a macabre image depicting Kali dancing on Shiva’s dead body. This idea is also suggested by the goddesses’ red forehead markings, as contrasted with the white forehead markings for the gods. Red is the color of power and energy. White is a cooling color often associated with death.

As the goddesses are essential for the functioning of the gods, at the same time goddesses require passive gods to give form to their dynamic power. Without form and restrain, the energy embodied in the Goddess can become dangerous. Thus we witness the fury of the independent goddesses. With too much restrain, though, the goddess may become too passive. It is for this reason that we find both the dependent and independent form of goddesses in Hinduism.

The Hindu Goddess

The worship of female deities has a long history in India and today it remains one of Hinduism’s prominent religious features. In the Indus Valley civilization numerous female figurines suggest that women were given a sacred status by virtue of their capacity to nurture new life. The Vedic pantheon as well contains several goddesses. It is true that during the Vedic period male gods were in the ascendancy, but in later classical and medieval Hinduism, the worship of the Goddess came into its own and regained a central place in popular religion. Today, Shaktism, the worship of the Goddess, is regarded as a major Hindu religion alongside Shaivism and Vaishnavism.

The Names of the Goddess

When speaking of the female divine in India it is common to refer to the Goddess in singular. This is because all the particular goddesses are form of Devi or Mahadevi, the great Goddess. In myth and in worship there are countless goddesses, which are often treated as distinct deities, particularly at the popular level. Just as different gods represent the one God, so the different goddesses manifest the one Devi. Ultimately, Devi and Deva symbolize the trans-personal Brahman.

Although the name Devi is commonly used, more frequently she is known to devotees with various words meaning “mother”. Interestingly, however, not but a few goddesses have children. And those who do have children acquire them by unusual means.

We can classify the many manifestations of the Devi into two broad categories. The first is the category of consorts: those goddesses who are the wives and companions of the great gods. The second group comprises the independent goddesses, those who are not associated with male divine figures by way of marriage. A goddesses’ relationship to a male god determines her basic character. Those who are divine consorts are seem as benevolent, gentle and life-giving. The independent unmarried goddesses are malevolent, terrifying and lustful.

The Gods and Their Consorts

Each of the great gods of Hinduism is married. Brahma, the creator, is married to Saraswati. Shiva is married is to Parvati. Vishnu is married to Lakshmi. We can also mention the consorts of Vishnu’s avataras. Rama is married to Sita. Krishna’s consort is Radha. In temples, the male gods rarely appear without their female counterparts. But the goddesses, even the married ones, may appear without their husbands in temple icons. For example, Lakshmi is not only Vishnu’s wife, she is also the goddess of good fortune and wealth. At the start of a new fiscal year, business persons commonly worship her and pray for prosperity.

The Devi Saraswati is almost always worshipped alone and never with her consort Brahma. Saraswati is the goddess of music and education. Brahma, despite his status as one of the three cosmic deities, has very little role in popular Hinduism. Temples devoted to him are extremely few. Saraswati, on the other hand, is very important. She is often venerated at school festivals and prayed to before tests.

Unlike Lakshmi and Saraswati, Parvati is usually not worshipped alone, but together with Shiva. In mythology, Shiva has many different wives, such as Durga and a host of others. They can all be viewed as forms of Parvati. Shiva’s wives were probably local village goddesses that were incorporated into Shaivite religion.

The consorts of Vishnu’s avataras are revered mainly for their relationship to their male counterparts. Sita, the wife of Rama, is considered the ideal wife because of her fidelity and obedience to her husband. Radha, Krishna’s consort, is the image of the devotee with a passionate love for god.

The Independent Goddesses

It seems quite clear that the independent goddesses are not considered divine exemplars of femininity. Of course it would be a mistake to say that the gods and goddesses are necessarily, by virtue of being divine, images of the ideal human life. The goddesses and gods are different from us no matter how much like us they may appear.

The goddesses who are independent and autonomous often appear as celestial deities, like Vishnu and Shiva. Many of the myths about the Devi depict her engaged in activity akin to that of the great male gods, such as protecting the cosmos from powerful demons. Sometimes she is portrayed as accomplishing difficult tasks that the male gods cannot.

The great Durga Puja, celebrated in Bengal, is a nine-day affair that memorializes the victory of the devi as Durga over a powerful buffalo demon. This is one of the most popular festivals in Hinduism. The celebration is based on a story that tells how the gods were too impotent to defeat an army of demons. Vishnu and Shiva themselves were unable to control the demon army and had to create the goddess to do so. Thus Durga was born from the combined anger of these two great gods.

Durga proceeds to defeat the demon leader after a long and vicious battle. After her triumph she promises to return whenever the demons grew too powerful.

One of the striking differences between the gods and goddesses is their realm of activity. In general, the gods are seen as celestial. Goddesses are terrestrial. Although the earth is the stage for many of the gods’ activities, the link between earth and goddess is much stronger. This connection is shown in many ways. For example, the earth itself is a goddess. She is named Budeive, literally “earth goddess”, or more loosely “mother nature”. Rivers are also goddesses, such as the Ganga. As rivers, goddesses nourish the world with their water. The entire land of India is a goddess, Barat Natta, or “mother India”.

It is important to mention one final manifestation of the Goddess. This is the embodiment of the Devi as actual human women. Such incarnations of the Goddess are not uncommon. For some, specially powerful woman, such as Indira Gandhi, might be regarded as the Goddess in flesh. Sometimes the incarnation is a less well-known woman who is believed to personify the qualities of the mother Goddess.

Continues at: The Independent Hindu Goddesses and the Creative Power

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