Category Archives: Other Goddesses

The Goddess Kamakhya

Kamakhya – The Mother Goddess

The Mother Goddess Kamakhya, sometimes referred to as the “five-fold goddess,” is a significant focus in Tantric worship (Nicholas 174).  The goddess has her history rooted in the myth of Sati, and as a result the Kamakhya temple is a frequent spot for worship and pilgrimage (Nicholas 174).   Kamakhya is often thought of as a powerful and dark goddess, a goddess of desire, and is thought to exist in the form of a yoni (female reproductive organ) at the Kamakhya temple in Assam (Urban 2001: 779-780).

Characteristics and Iconography of the Goddess

Kamakhya, as mentioned above, is believed to reside in a stone yoni (female reproductive organ) at her temple of worship, and is regarded as the goddess of desire (Urban 2001: 231). Kamakhya, like many Hindu deities is depicted with many heads, and multiple arms (Newell 246).  However, she is also said to exist in many forms (Mishra 40). Kamakhya is generally depicted as a younger female adorned in a red sari, and having six multi-colored heads and twelve arms. It is also common to see images of the Siva and a lion accompanying depictions of Kamakhya (see Fig. 60, Mishra 189)

Historical Background – The Myth of Sati

In order to fully understand Kamakhya’s role as a goddess it is important to understand her historical context. The myth of a Sati is a prevalent myth in Hinduism and describes the events following Siva and Sati’s marriage. King Daksa, under the urging of the gods, reluctantly gave his daughters’ hand in marriage to Siva, the destroyer god (Urban 2001: 787). Daksa later decided to hold a large ritual, in which he spitefully excluded Siva. Sati was offended by the rebuff of her husband and committed suicide at the ritual in retaliation, becoming a sacrifice herself (Urban 2001: 787). Siva became distraught upon finding out about his wife’s death. He went to the ritual, slew Daksa, and begins wandering the cosmos carrying Sati’s body on his shoulders (Urban, 2001, p. 787).  The god Visnu is disturbed by this image and sends a discus to slice her apart (Urban 2001: 787). Thus, as the distraught Siva wondered the earth, parts of his beloved’s body were dropped upon the earth (Urban 2001: 787). There is said to be 51 different spots where parts of Sati’s dismembered body fell, referred to as pithas, or sacred sites (Urban 2001: 788). It is Sati’s yoni that is said to have fallen at Assam, and it is a stone yoni, which represents the Tantric Mother Goddess Kamakhya (Urban 2001: 788). This pitha is where the Temple of Kamakhya came to be erected, and is the site of abundant worship for Kamakhya today (Urban 2001: 788).

The myth of Sati is likely the most common reference to Kamakhya. However, scholars speculate that she may have been a figure in the tribal religions of primordial Assam (Urban 2001: 789). The Kalika Purana even insinuates that Kamakhya was worshiped by the Kiritas, aboriginal people who lived in the Himalayas around 600 BCE (Urban 2011: 232). It has also been suggested that the word Kamakhya came from Ai Kamakhya a goddess worshiped by an Assamic ethnic community called the Bodos (Mishra 15). Regardless, Kamakhya is presently viewed as being empowered with sakti (goddess power), and this likely derives from her connection with Sati, who was reborn as the goddess Parvati. There are various versions of this classical myth in different texts.

Significant Textual References

There are several texts, which discuss the mythical origins of Kamakhya, each having slightly different details, which contribute to different practices in accordance with the preferred myth. The Kalika Purana and Yogini Tantra both offer versions of mythical origin (Mishra 144-146).

The Kalika Purana depicts Daksa as the son of Brahma. This version of the story portrays Daksa as a worshipper of the goddess, Devi. In answer to a boon (wish) Daksa was given a daughter who was a rebirth of Devi; this daughter was, of course, Sati (Mishra 144).   The rest of the myth was similar to the one, which is summarized in the section above.

The Yogini Tantra depicts a very different myth of origin for the goddess. This myth depicts a conceited Brahma, who aggravates Devi (Mishra 145). Devi creates Kesi, a male demon, whose purpose is to destroy Brahma.  Brahma concedes to give up his arrogance and seeks assistance from Lord Visnu. Visnu helps negotiate with Devi, who explains the reasoning behind her creation of Kesi. Following Brahma and Visnu’s prayer to Devi, Devi kills the demon in Kesipura, the site of the gods’ prayer (Mishra 145).  Kesipura subsequently becomes a site of worship as Devi said that the place contained the yonimandala (literally the essence of yoni; Devi’s in particular) (Mishra 144-146).  Devi then names the deity, which presides over the pitha, Devi Kamakhya (Mishra 146).

Depending on which origin myth one believes in, worship practice and treatment of the goddess may vary.

Worship Sites, Religious Practices, and Festivals Centered Around Kamakhya

The Kamakhya temple is located in the former province of Assam atop Nilachal hill in the city of Guwahati (Mishra 23). Many pilgrimages are made to this Sakta temple, and Kamakhya is thought to be pivotal in tantric worship and in the beliefs and practices of Assamese society. This pitha is even thought to be the site of Kamakhya’s yearly menstruation (Urban 2011: 231). The site itself actually consists of multiple complexes, including the central Kamakhya temple and two shrines devoted to the deities Laksmi and Sarasvati. The temple is considered an auspicious site, and offerings are often made to the mother goddess, in an effort to deter illness or disastrous events (Mishra 7). Blessings are given to Kamakhya on special occasions including marriage, and a child’s first solid feeding (Mishra 7).

Temple of Goddess Kamakhya (Kamarupa, Assam)

The goddess Kamakhya manifests in ten forms, referred to as the Mahavidyas (Dold 46). These ten expressions of the goddess are believed to dwell at the Kamakhya temple, and it is suggested that the Mahavidyas collectively exude the goddess’s protective and compassionate attitude towards her devotees (Dold 59). Thus, many practices relating to Kamakhya involve her manifestations. One of the practices relating to Kamakhya’s Mahavidyas is that of wearing a talisman, or kavaca (Dold 59). Kavaca’s are typically worn by a devotee when attempting to invoke a deity (generally a goddess, such as one of the Mahavidyas) in an appeal for their protection (Dold 59).  It is even suggested that the Kamakhya temple site is actually encircled by the goddesses, and because of this devotees are protected from harm during worship (Dold 60).

Countless rituals and celebrations occur at the Kamakhya Temple, and so for simplicity, only a few will be discussed. Daily worship at the temple consists of a priest offering praise to the goddess, followed by offering of food and potentially the sacrifice of a male goat. Purity norms are adhered to during daily worship (Mishra 59). Daily worship of a deity is called nitya puja, and presently the Tantric method is applied to Kamakhya’s nitya puja (Mishra 47). Religious songs (Nam) are often performed by the local women in Assam. This is done to encourage the beneficial presence of the deity (Dold 60).

Ambuvaci is a festival honoring the mother goddess during what is believed to be her annual period of menstruation (Mishra 51). Held sometime towards the end of June, Ambuvaci is considered a time of impurity. Subsequently the festival begins with the shrine being covered in red fabric, and when the temple is re-opened the adornments are removed and the shrine receives a purifying ceremonial bath (Mishra 52). Pilgrims often come for this festival, during which they sing songs of praise to the goddess, and engage in philosophical discussion and story telling (Mishra 53).

Spiritual Tantric practitioners frequently visit the temple. Kamakhya is viewed by these devotees as being an omnipresent goddess with the power to defeat universal forces of impurity (Urban 2001: 778-779). Dr. Hugh Urban, describes Assamese Tantra as being “center[ed] around the optimization and harnessing of power on all levels – cosmic, physical, social, and political” (2011: 780). Ironically Tantra, violates religious taboo, and through impure practices, such as manipulation of certain substances, sacrifice, and eroticism, a practitioner hopes to set free the sakti embodied in Kamakhya (Urban 2001: 780-781). It is said that this violation of social norm is a form of asserting one’s own superhuman power (Urban 2001: 793).  Submitting to one’s desire can be thought of also as a energizing and awakening act (Dobia 67). In Tantric practice, it seems that Kamakhya is depicted as dark and powerful and associated with desire, while other views tend to see Kamakhya being equally powerful, but associated with feminity and fertility.

Thus, Kamakhya is seen in diverse ways. It is represented in various forms, but her omnipresence and her central importance at Kamakhya temple seem universal to worshipers of this multi-faceted goddess.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Dobia, Brenda (2007) “Approaching the Hindu Goddess of Desire.” Feminist Theology, 16 no. 1: 61-78

Dold, Patricia (2011). Pilgrimage to Kamakhya Through Text and Lived Religion. In Rodrigues Hilary (Eds.), Studying Hinduism in Practice (46-61). New York, NY: Routledge.

Mishra, Nihar Ranjan (2004) Kamakhya: A Socio-cultural Study. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Newell, Margaret Zo (2011). “Picturing the Goddess: Bazaar Images and the Imagination of Modern Hindu Religious Identity.” PhD Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty the Graduate School of Vanderbilt University, 246.

Nicholas, Ralph (1976). Review of “Worship of the Goddess According to the Kalikapurana.” Journal of Asian Studies 36, no. 1: 172-174.

Urban, Hugh (2001) “The Path of Power: Impurity, Kingship, and Sacrifice in Assamese Tantra.” Journal of American Academy of Religion 69, no. 4: 777-816.

Urban, Hugh (2011) “The Womb of Tantra: Goddesses, Tribals, and Kings in Assam.” Journal of Hindu Studies 4, no. 3: 231-247.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Staircase of Kamakhya Temple (Legend)

Folk Medicine and Kamakhya

Ambuvaci

The Yogini Tantra

The Kalika Purana

Noteworthy Reading Related to the Topic

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dold, Patricia (2004) “The Mahavidyas at Kamarupa: Dynamics of Transformation in Hinduism.” Religious Studies and Theology 23, no. 1: 89-122.


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.shreemaa.org/drupal/ambuvaci_0

http://www.swaminarayan.nu/youth/puja.shtml

http://hinduism.about.com/od/temples/ss/tantratemples.htm

Article written by Majken Villiger (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Sati

The goddess Sati may be recognized by her relationship with the great god Siva as she is his first and second wife. Sati is more than this, however; she is known by many names and is worshiped as her reincarnation Parvati. Her whole being may in fact be summed up to lure Siva into marriage so that he may be incorporated into more of the world, such as to keep creation enlivened and to enter the householder role in order to release his stored energies in a positive fashion (Kinsley 1986:35).

The origins of Sati are unknown, she is not a Vedic goddess but there are references to the wife of Siva in some Vedic literature by the name of Ambika. This name, however, is later used to represent other goddesses. Another name used for Siva’s wife is Rudrani. It is not certain whether these goddesses are in fact Sati, and therefore, whether or not Sati’s origins are in Vedic literature. Later Sati goes by one of her modern and more common names, Uma Haimavati in the Kena-upanisad, although her role is not as Siva’s wife. Just as suddenly as she appears in this text she disappears, and though this may seem untrustworthy other texts reference this as proof of her origins in past Hindu tradition (Kinsley 1986:36).  One of the earliest references using the name Sati is in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata where she is described as living with Siva in the Himalayas (Rodrigues 298). In addition to the textual evidence, there is some archaeological evidence for her origins and history, including coins that have an image of a goddess that is linked with a Siva symbol (Kinsley 1986:37).

The main myth of Sati is also important in her history as it provides insight into her characteristics and life. She was the beautiful daughter of the god Daksa, considered the male Vedic creative deity. Sati desires the god Siva, the destroyer, and through her devotion and ascetic practices she finally attracts Siva’s attention and becomes his first wife. Her motives for wanting to be his wife are not clear, and in some texts it is Brahma who sets up their marriage as he wants Siva to feel sexual desire. In the Siva-purana, specifically the Rudra-samhita, Brahma says that if Siva does not involve himself in the created world then creation cannot continue. When Siva starts noticing Sati he develops kama (desire), which he has not felt before and the couple are married. After their union the couple retreat to the mountains for love-play (Kinsley 1986: 37-38). Siva and Sati are very much in love as told in the Kalika Purana, Siva painting Sati’s feet, gathering flowers to make her garlands and he becomes invisible to surprise her with embraces (McDaniel 40). The couple stay there for many years, but the marriage is not a happy occasion for everyone. Daksa does not approve of Siva due to his messy appearance and different habits. In order to disgrace Siva, Daksa plans a yajna, or sacrifice, but does not invite either Siva or Sati. Sati is very insulted by this and shows up at the event only to be snubbed again by her father (Rodrigues 298). This frustrates her even further and in her rage she commits suicide by closing the nine doors of her body and while sitting in an asana, or yoga position, sends her spirit out her tenth door, or the top of her head (McDaniel 40). When Siva hears of Sati’s death he becomes furious and creates terrible beings that kill Daksa, the divine hosts, and destroy the sacrifice. He then takes Sati’s body and travels the universe, grieving. This upsets the cosmic balance of the world and Visnu is called upon to end the turmoil. While Siva is traveling Visnu follows him and cuts off pieces of Sati’s body, which fall to earth and become holy places or pithas. When Siva realizes that Sati’s body is gone he returns to the mountains and continues his normal practices (Kinsley 1986: 38).

This myth contains many underlying themes in the Hindu tradition such as a wife’s loyalty, the cosmic balance and Siva’s role in the universe. Before Sati, Siva lived in the mountains to practice austerities and was disinterested in the world around him. Nonetheless, when he is married he engages himself in the world and develops a householder role. His awakening desire is important for the universe because with the release of his seed creation is enriched and enlivened (Kinsley 1986:38). There are also some tensions in this myth, between deities and even references to unease between religious and caste groups. For example in the early period of Hindu history the Saivites, at the time considered a non-Vedic unorthodox group, have disagreements with the orthodox Brahma worshipers, who follow the Vedic tradition. These groups are paralleled in the myth, Siva representing the Saivites with his ascetic practices and dissociation with Vedic sacrificial rituals, whereas the orthodox group is represented by Daksa, the son of Brahma. In the myth this conflict is mediated by Sati, as she brings Siva into the householder role. Although Siva demonstrates his power and his dislike of yajnas when he destroys Daksa’s ceremony, in the restoration myth he is incorporated into the orthodox tradition and returned to order when the yajna is reenacted (Rodrigues 299). Another theme in this myth is the connection between Sati and Siva, as their union may represent many things. For example, the traditional union between a deity of the earth and a deity of the sky is expressed by the relationship between Sati, who represents the sky and Siva who represents the Himalayas. Historically this union creates and sustains life as the marriage between Sati and Siva allows creation to continue (Kinsley 1986:40). In a simpler association Sati represents the yoni while Siva represents the linga, and in one version of the myth when Sati falls and creates pithas Siva follows and embeds himself in her yoni, keeping him on earth (Kinsley 1986:39).

Sati’s name and suicide may be paralleled with the act of sati or widow immolation, where a widow, showing undying loyalty to her husband, will burn herself alive on his funeral pyre (Rodrigues 563). This act was widely accepted in the medieval period and the word sati means “faithful wife”, so there is an association between the act and Sati’s suicide as a devoted wife. This correlation is obscure at best though, because the purpose of sati is for the wife to follow the dead husband, whereas in this myth Siva is not dead, and Sati’s death causes him great sadness and finishes their relationship rather than continuing it (Kinsley 1986:40-41).

After her death, Sati is reincarnated as Parvati, “she who dwells in the mountains” or “she who is of the mountain”. Parvati’s life is essentially the continuation of the life of Sati, and in some myths she agrees to be reborn with the goal of luring Siva into desire and marriage. In other myths she says that she is rewarding Mena, Parvati’s mother, with her birth, as Mena was very devoted to Sati. In other versions Sati and Parvati are both seen as embodiments of the great goddess Mahadevi to retain the balance between dharma and adharma (Kinsley 1986:42).

Parvati is the daughter of Himavat, the deity of the Himalayas and his wife Mena, and she is described as being very beautiful but dark-skinned being given the nickname Kali “the dark-one”. A sage comes to her home he looks at the markings on her body he predicts that she will marry a naked yogi, or Siva. Unlike Sati’s parents, Himavat and Mena are honored to have Siva as their son-in-law and the god Kama is sent to stir lust in Siva so that he will notice Parvati. This does not work as planned, as Siva is annoyed by Kama’s attempts and kills him with fire from his third eye. Parvati is not deterred by this and she begins austerities to create tapas. Tapas has many functions; in this case it is an extreme heat produced by praying that makes the gods uncomfortable so that they grant the ascetic wish, thus preventing the world and themselves from being burned. Through her persistence Siva finally notices Parvati and falls in love with her and they are soon married (Kinsley 1986:42-43). The couple then retreat to Mount Kailasa for love-play and they engage in love-making that shakes the cosmos. During their passion they are interrupted by the gods who are afraid of the quakes, and Siva accidentally spills his seed outside of Parvati which passes to the Ganges where it is incubated and becomes the child Karttikeya. Their child makes his way back to his parents where Parvati then welcomes him as her own son (Kinsley 1986:43).  Parvati also conceives her own son, Ganesa. As the tale goes, while Siva was away Parvati yearns for her own child and creates a boy out of her own body, who she then he asks to guard the entrance of her home to prevent anyone from entering and disturbing her. When Siva arrives home Ganesa blocks his path, angering Siva who cuts off the boy’s head. This greatly distresses Parvati and she orders Siva to bring Ganesa back to life. Siva complies and while looking for a new head for the boy encounters an elephant, whose head he takes and places on Ganesa’s body, reviving him in the process (Rodrigues 302). In this way Sati fulfills her role as a maiden, then as a wife and even later a mother.

Sati also has an alter ego that is named Kali. In the Vamana Purana it is written that Parvati receives this name as she is dark-skinned, but when Siva uses this name in teasing Parvati, she becomes irritated and performs austerities to become the “golden one”, or Gauri. Her dark sheath is left over however, and it transforms into Kausiki the ferocious battle queen who in turn creates the goddess Kali (Hawley and Wulff 79). In the Mahabhagavata-purana Siva forbids Sati to disrupt her father’s yajna and in doing so he makes her very angry. In her wrath she transforms into a fearful woman who is plainly unlike the graceful Sati. She loses her composure, her hair messy and her temperament fiery; she develops four arms and her wagging tongue lolls out of her mouth. She is also garbed in a garland of human heads and a half-moon crown. This terrifying form of Sati is known as Kali. Siva is so afraid by this he tries to flee but to prevent his escape Sati blocks his way with her ten different forms, the Mahavidyas or wisdom goddesses. Siva is so shocked and terrified by this that he finally allows Sati to go to the sacrifice (Kinsley 1997: 23-25).

Worship of Sati varies because when pieces of Sati’s body fall to earth they create pithas, or holy sites where it is believed the goddess shows her powers. Even in modern times these sites are visited by pilgrims and are worshiped. (McDaniel 3). The number of sati pithas varies between accounts, as little as four to as many as one hundred and ten sites are recorded (Kinsley 1986; 186). These pithas may be stones or statues, but some believe in a variation of the Sati myth where the earth was created from her dismembered body, and the separate pieces of her body each have different levels of power. The pieces with the most power are recognized as sacred stones called thakurs. A temple built where there is a stone may be revealed and then recognized as a sati pitha, and new sites have been preserved throughout history, even in the present day (McDaniel 31-32). The most documented and well known site is Kamarupa in Assam, and some of the newest sites from the ninteenth and twentieth centuries are Adyapitha and Tarapitha in West Bengal (Kinsley 1996;186)(McDaniel 33).

References and Related Readings:

Dallapiccola, Anne L. (1944) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: Thames and Hudson Press

Hawley, J.S., and D.M. Wulff. (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India.

Kinsley, David R. (1986) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David R.  (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press

McDaniel, June. (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary. (2006) Hinduism- The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books

Related Research Topics:

Sati

Mahadevi

Kali

Parvati

Sati pithas

Siva

Uma

Tara

Kamarupa

Related Websites:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakshayani

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uma_%28goddess%29

http://www.bhagavadgitausa.com/SIVA%27S%20FURY-DAKSHA.htm

http://www.vedarahasya.net/docs/Shakti.pdf

Article written by: Briana Smith (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.

Mariyamman


Mariyamman is a goddess that is primarily worshiped in Southern India among the Tamil speaking people. She used to be associated with the disease smallpox, but since its elimination she has become associated with other diseases. [For more information on smallpox and its effect on India see Egnor (1984)]. In Tamil Nadu folk etymology, Mariyamman’s name can be taken from maru ‘she with a changed body’ or ‘she in her many manifestations’ (Voorthuizen 254). Mari can also mean “rain” as well as “changed”, which are why she is also referred to as “the changed mother” or “the rain mother” (Egnor 31).  It is believed that she possess a power that is able to cure people even if they seem too ill, as well as to help people overcome other adversities that they may face. The majority of people that turn to her belong to the lower castes but she does assist all classes (Egnor 25). She also deals more with women and problems of fertility but she is also available to men when they need it. Many people continue to worship Mariyamman in order to stay on her good side so that she won’t turn against them and their loved ones. She has often even been described as “bloodthirsty” and is still to this day described as a “wild” goddess (Younger 493). Mariyamman shares many characteristics with Sitala, the north Indian smallpox goddess. [See Dasa (1995) for more on Sitala]. Mariyamman is on par with the other major deities in the area, in terms of her popularity, status, wealth and authority (Egnor 25).

Mariyamman was once thought to have inhabited villages or small towns in Tamil Nadu and to have lived among poor rural migrants in urban areas. At one point it was only low-caste priests that worshiped her, but since then her popularity has grown among the middle-class. To the villagers of Tamil Nadu, Mariyamman is their local deity who protects them against disease and misfortune. Statues of her stand guard at the borders of the villages and protect the people against unwelcome visitors (Voorthuizen 250). Sometimes Mariyamman can be represented as a black figure protected by a cobra; other times she has the head of a Brahman, but the body of an untouchable (Voorthuizen 250).

There are many stories that are tied to Mariyamman and how she is associated with smallpox. She can be both the cause and the cure of the disease. When she is the cause, it is believed to be an act of anger or revenge for improper worship. The disease can also be seen as demons that Mariyamman protects the village from (Voorthuizen 251). Some people believe that Mariyamman manifests herself in the symptoms of smallpox. It is believed that being infected with the disease means being possessed by the goddess. The pocks on the skin are said to be visible signs of her presence and are considered to be her eyes (Voorthuizen 251). The pocks can also be considered to be “pearls”, bestowed by Mariyamman, or “kisses” (Egnor 26).  It is thought that her looks can burn her worshipper’s skin and form deep pockmarks. In some stories Mariyamman herself suffers from smallpox, she walks among the villagers as an old women with a face covered with many pock-like sores (Voorthuizen 251). Some people also believe that Mariyamman is the disease itself and any attempt to remove that disease will only anger her and make it worse (Egnor 25).

Mariyamman has many temples in which worshippers can come to. The temple in Samayapuram has one of the largest incomes and attendances. It is already one of the wealthiest in Tamil Nadu. It even surpasses its ancient and famous neighbor, the Vaisnava temple in Srirangam (Waghorne 232). Temple officials even claim that Mariyamman is the third wealthiest temple deity in India. The complex consists of the main temple, which is dedicated to Mariyamman, and six other smaller temples that are dedicated to other deities. This complex is constantly under renovation in order to hold the large amount of worshippers that visit it daily (Younger 494). Most of the worshippers that come to Samayapuram come from the neighboring city of Tirucirapalli. Worshippers come to this temple to ask Mariyamman to help with problems of fertility, sickness, marital and job problems. The reason that people come from Tirucirapalli is because they “see her as a deity who, like themselves, did not enjoy the respect of learned Brahmanas or kings of old, and does not win the approval of missionaries or the support of westernized civil servants today” (Younger 501). Mariyamman is believed to have stood up to their disrespect and because of that “ they feel that she alone can understand their individual problems, can provide a sense of unity and identity by tying together the jumble of lower castes which make up their society, can give them a sense of continuity with the village roots they still carry with them, and through those roots can tie them to the larger order of the cosmos” (Younger 501).

Another popular temple devoted to Mariyamman is located in a city called Camiyaporam. This temple also attracts a large amount of worshippers. The temple used to conduct blood sacrifices but since the Brahmin’s took control of the temple, it is no longer allowed. The images that are strewn about the temples make Mariyamman look more like a high deity. She is depicted with a white face in a sitting position, holding a cup of blood, which symbolizes the skull, as well as a dagger (Voorthuizen 250). These objects are meant to symbolize her fierceness.

There are many different festivals that are held each year in honor of Mariyamman. The month of Adi, the dry period of July-August, is when the festivals meant to honor Mariyamman generally occur. [See Egnor (1984) for more on Adi]. One of them is a flower festival, held in Pudukkottai. During this festival men and women dress in bright yellow saris and walk for miles carrying pots while families give offerings on bamboo poles. Some even shave off all their hair, while others dance ecstatically and fling themselves around (Waghorne 232). These are just a few of the things you would see during the flower festival. In another Mariyamman festival, in Narttamalai, the managers of a motorcycle plant, along with other businesses, have transformed the old festival into something new. Floats now carry proper utsava murti (portable bronze images) of goddesses on lotus buds (Waghorne 232). These floats and the people who come to see them, crowd along the old road that leads to the ancient Mariyamman temple-complex. One of the biggest festivals in honor of Mariyamman is held in Samayapuram. Approximately one hundred thousand worshippers attend this annual festival (Younger 494). During the second week of April, the road leading up to the temple is packed with people camping on the side of the road (Younger 495). Huge offering boxes become stuffed so full so quickly that a temple official has to stand nearby with a rake, pushing the money and jewelry into the box (Younger 495). This festival starts about a mile or two away from the temple and the trek consists of a hurried walk or dance that the people perform. They continue up the road towards the temple while other worshippers stand on the side of the road and watch. The intensity of the dancing builds up gradually until the worshipers reach the temple (Younger 496). From there they make offerings and gradually move onto the main shrine to worship the goddess (Younger 496). Each person performs their own kind of worship that is different from the others. Some people put themselves through a special ordeal and have a sacred weapon inserted through their cheeks or tongue. [For more information on this practice see Younger (1980)].  Some go even farther and build an elaborate shrine structure around them and anchor it to their skin by thirty or forty wires (Younger 496). Others come suspended by wires from a great boom mounted on a bullock cart and swing far above the crowd (Younger 496). To have your child touched or carried by one of these people is an important blessing. One person usually plays the role of the leader by dancing ahead and leading the party up the road toward the temple. In behind that person comes drummers that set a constant beat, two other people hold the Vowkeeper. [For more on the Vowkeeper and his position see Younger (1980)]. Others follow carrying water that they constantly throw over the head of the Vowkeeper (Younger 496). The movements of the worshippers are always sporadic. Worshippers cluster around women who have gone into a trance and claim to be “possessed” by Mariyamman (Younger 497). Once at the temple these women stand inside and out, telling fortunes to people that are walking past. The point of the festival is to reaffirm village and caste roots, as well as to associate Mariyamman of past heritage with present problems of the city (Younger 504). While the festival is considered to be old, it is the new temple renovations and the “new” power of the goddess that the audience talks about (Younger 504).

Clearly it is hard to label Mariyamman as just a goddess of smallpox when she is associated with so many other things. Her popularity has grown over the past from lower class worshippers to higher class Brahmins. Mariyamman’s popularity, the amount of her devotees and the amount of wealth spent in her worship does not seem to be dependent on the prevalence or even the existence of the smallpox disease (Egnor 27). Although there has been an increase in her popularity there is still very little literature that is connected with her. It is very clear that she is and always will be an important aspect of the Tamil speaking people’s daily lives and that she helps to bring a sense of identity to all her worshippers (Younger 495).

Bibliography and Further Recommended Readings

Dasa, Krsnarama (1995) Encountering the smallpox goddess: the auspicious song of Sitala. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Egnor, Margaret (1984) “The changed mother or what the smallpox goddess did when there was no more smallpox.” Contributions to Asian Studies, Retrieved from ATLA Religion Database.

Ferrari, Fabrizio (2007) “‘Love me two times.’ From smallpox to AIDS: contagion and possession in the cult of Sitala.” Religions of South Asia, Retrieved from ATLA Religion Database

Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Voorthuizen, Anne van (2001) Mariyamman’s sakti: the miraculous power of a smallpox goddess. Boston: Brill

Waghorne, Joanne (2001) The gentrification of the goddess. Quebec: World Heritage Press.

Younger, Paul (1980) “A temple festival of Mariyamman.” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Worship

Samayapuram

Festivals

Rituals

Tamil

Smallpox

Renuka

Spirit Possession

Smallpox

Folk etymology

Maru

Class/caste system

Fertility

Sitala

Deity

Vaisnava temple

Tirucirapalli

Camiyaporam

Blood sacrifices

Brahmin

Pudukkottai

Utsava murti

Sacred weapons

Noteworthy Websites Related to Mariyamman

http://www.experiencefestival.com/mariyamman

http://www.themystica.com/mythical-folk/~articles/m/mariyamman.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mariyamman

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samayapuram_Mariamman_Temple

http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/woman_in_india/47978

Article Written by: Christina Mills (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sitala: The Goddess of Smallpox and Disease

Sitala is one of the many Hindu mother goddesses who are known for their benevolence and dangerousness. She is worshipped throughout the Indian subcontinent and is especially adored in the region of Bengal (Stewart 389). Sitala is commonly known as the goddess of smallpox and disease but may also be referred to as the Queen of Disease (Roga Raja), Lord of Pestilence (Vyadhi Pati), or Mother of Poxes (Basenta Raya) (Stewart 389). Her name means the “Cool One” which is thought to be derived from her mythical birth from the cooled ashes of the sacrificial fire (Stewart 390). The smallpox disease, which is now thought to be eradicated, was first identified with Sitala around the 16th century CE, although the smallpox disease was already present in India for hundreds of years prior to this (Rodrigues 329). Sitala is worshipped across different regions of India but mainly in West Bengal, Northern India and the state of Gujarat (Wadley 33). The three regions have different views about Sitala but all are linked by a few common ideas.  Sitala is always the “Cool One” and she is frequently represented by a golden pot, except in wealthy temples where she is depicted as a naked women with her hair disheveled, riding a donkey, and wielding a broom (Rodrigues 329).

Sitala is most well known in West Bengal where there are many temples and mangals, which are lengthy poems written in her honor. Throughout West Bengal she is associated with Jvarasur, the Fever Demon, and Raktabati, the one that possess the blood of servant women (Wadley 37). Sitala is worshipped during Phalgun which are the months of February to March. Krsnastami is seen by the Bengali almanac as the proper day of worship although only a few households hold pujas on this day due to the cost. Villages organize collective pujas according to the finances of the village, as well as the availability of performers that are needed to recite the mangals (Wadley 37). Sitala’s main association in Bengal is with the various forms of pox. The origin of worship of Sitala in this region was thought to come from a popular story about a kingdom that was infected with the smallpox disease. Sitala went in disguised as a beautiful woman to see the king and advised him to worship her. The people of the kingdom worshipped her and were relieved of the dreadful smallpox disease (Misra 135).

In Northern India Sitala, is associated with pox but she is also seen as the protector of children (Wadley 41). It is claimed that in a previous life Sitala was married to a Muslim emperor and was very faithful and devoted to the Hindu gods and goddesses, who was deified as Sitala in reward (Misra 135). She is worshipped during Caitra which is in the months of March and April or Baisakh the months of April and May because these months are in the hot season when the outbreak of the disease is the most prevalent. In North India Sitala is associated with stale or leftover food because she is thought to have been born of the cold ashes of the sacrificial fire. Festivals are held in her honor and are commonly termed basora which literally means “Leftover Food Worship” (Wadley 42). The people of this region prepare only cold foods on the day before the pujas and offer these to Sitala and eat only cold food themselves.

The third region, which worships Sitala is the state of Gujarat, where she is no longer associated with disease; instead she is seen as the giver of good fortune, husbands and sons (Wadley 42). The origin of the Sitala shrine in Gujarat is thought to be identified with Bariha Bapji or Babribahan of the Mahabharata (Misra 135). In this region she is not worshipped during the hot season but rather during the rainy season, Shravan, the months of July and August. In much of the literature from this area Sitala is often seen as being associated with Balia Kaka, the powerful uncle who was also worshipped when there was an outbreak of the smallpox disease (Wadley 42).

Although there are vast differences between these three regions and the ways in which they worship this goddess, there are a few similarities that link the regions together. All three of these regions believe that Sitala has seven sisters and may also have one brother who is not as well known. Sitala’s sisters are known as Masani, Basanti, Maha Mati, Polamde, Lamkaria, and Agwani and are all associated with one of the seven types of fevers that are prevalent in this regions.

Unlike many other goddesses, such as Parvati or Laksmi, who are usually linked with other male deities, Sitala does not have a consort (Rodrigues 280). Sitala is worshipped by all classes but she tends to get the most patronage from the poor. Although Sitala, as a mother goddess, is expected to nurture the people of India, she is usually worshipped to avoid her wrath. She is prone to anger and quick to offend any individual who disrupts the balance of hot and cold in their life or body (Wadley 45). It is believed that when this occurs she is provoked and will visit that individual leaving her mark of pox upon their body. The mark that she leaves on the body of infected individuals is often referred to as mayera daya or the grace of the mother (Stewart 390). Many faithful and devoted individuals have come to suffer from her wrath, which can be very hard to explain (Stewart 390). Some sources say that this attention is because these individuals attract her attention through the sacrifices, which causes her to want to visit these individuals in person (Stewart 390). It is said that the person who is infected with the smallpox disease becomes the abode of Sitala.

When an individual is affected by her disease many steps are taken to help that person recover, which often includes further worship to Sitala. An idol that represents Sitala is made out of the earth or cow dung and then is bathed by a holy man and the water is then given to the sick individual. Often the holy man will recite a Sitalastaka, a verse in Sanskrit which praises Sitala. When there is an individual in the house that is ill the other members of the household do not shave, there is to be no sexual intercourse, the women do not comb their hair and any women who is menstruating is not allowed to visit (Misra 136). It is thought that Sitala’s efficacy coordinated the inoculation of smallpox which produced lifelong immunity from the disease. In order for an individual to be treated at one of the many shrines of Sitala, they first had to hold a nam – rakha which is a naming of the disease ceremony. This ceremony involved taking raw sugar and placing it underneath a table where pitchers of water are placed and then a song is chanted to declare that the disease was in fact smallpox (Minsky 166). The inoculation procedure entailed scarifying an area of skin usually just above the wrist and rubbing in a paste that contained water and dried attenuated smallpox crusts (Minsky 167). Priests often would oversee the procedure if it took place at a Sitala shrine but some practiced inoculation themselves. The Priests that preside at these temples are seldom Brahmin. To ensure that the disease does not spread the individuals were placed in quarantine for twenty one days until the infectious period was over and the crusts began to fall off. The pox crusts were then collected and offered in thanks to Sitala (Minsky 167). Through these processes of inoculation the smallpox disease was seemingly eradicated.

Although the smallpox disease is thought to be eradicated the worship of Sitala still continues and this is seen as the reason why, in some regions, she has taken on different personalities that depict her as not only the goddess of disease but also the protector of children and giver of good fortune (Wadley 45). Another reason that Sitala is associated with so many different personalities is because of the changing modes of transmission of traditions and cultural practices among the Hindu religion (Wadley 34).

Bibliography

Minsky, Lauren (2009) “Pursuing Protection from Disease: The Making of Smallpox Prophylactic Practice in Colonial Punjab”. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol.83, No.1, pp. 164-190.

Misra, Bhabagrahi (1969) “Sitala: The Smallpox Goddess of India”. Asian Folklore Studies, vol.28, No. 2, pp. 133-142.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism The eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Stewart, Tony (1995) Encountering the Smallpox Goddess: The Auspicious Song of Sitala. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Wadley, Susan (1980) “Sitala: The Cool One”. Asian Folklore Studies, vol.39, No. 1, pp. 33-62.

Related Topics

Masan

Basanti

Maha

Mati

Polamde

Lamkaria

Agwani

Jvarasur

Raktabati

Mariamman

Kali

Puja

Blood Sacrifice

Devi

Laksmi

Parvati

Related Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shitala_Devi

http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/woman_in_india/47978

http://reli350.vassar.edu/trover/sitala.html

http://www.icsi.berkeley.edu/~snarayan/anthro-pap/subsection3_4_3.html

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses.htm

Article written by: Kaitlyn Erickson (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The 64 Yoginis

In the Hindu religion Yoginis are females credited with magical powers (Kinsley 287). The history surrounding the yoginis is scarce and can vary from source to source. Consensus is that the cult first appeared around the sixth to seventh century (Gadon 33). The cult did not begin to thrive however, until the ninth century and stayed fairly popular through to the twelfth century (Gadon 33). According to the scholar Vidya Dehejia, the roots of Yogini worship are outside the normal orthodox Brahmanical traditions. The Yogini traditions are tantric in nature and therefore have strong connections to rural and tribal traditions (Donaldson 617). The origin of the Yoginis appears to be in small, rural villages (Dehejia 1). They are local village goddesses, grama devatas, who look over the welfare of an individual village (Dehejia 1). Through Tantrism, these local deities were able to gain new forms and vitality as a group of goddesses who could impart magical powers to their worshippers (Dehejia 2). These powers included: anima (the ability to become very small), laghima (the power to levitate and to be able to leave your body at will), garima (the power to become very heavy), mahima (the power to become large in size), istiva (the power to control the body and mind of oneself and others), parakamya (the power to make others do your biding), vasitva (the power to control the five elements) and kamavasayitva (the power to be able to fulfill all your desires) (Dehejia 53). Village goddesses progressively transformed and merged into powerful numerical groupings (Dehejia 1-2).

Statue of a Yogini, one of a cluster of 64, who would be housed in circular, roofless temples, enabling them to fly in and out; 10th century, Sackler Gallery, Washington DC
Statue of a Yogini, one of a cluster of 64, who would be housed in circular, roofless temples, enabling them to fly in and out; 10th century, Sackler Gallery, Washington DC

The numerical groupings associated with the yoginis vary from text to text, but the most common grouping is sixty-four (Donaldson 620). There are very few references to yoginis being alone (Donaldson 633). The numbers eight, twelve, sixteen and sixty-four seem to elevate the yoginis to a higher status (Donaldson 633). The number eight is considered to be very auspicious and have great potency and within the Hindu religion (Dehejia 44). As the square of eight, sixty-four, has even more power and is considered to be extremely auspicious in Tantric literature (Donaldson 633). When the Yoginis are divided into groups of eight it is, usually, to associate each group with a separate deity (Donaldson 634). The groups usually take on the attributes of whichever deity they are connected with (Donaldson 634). Although the grouping of the yoginis into sixty-four is fairly uniform throughout the literature, their names, descriptions and characteristics are not (Donaldson 620).

The cult of the yoginis is often associated with a sense of fear and awe because the yoginis are sculpted with demonic expressions or other dark attributes (Gadon 33). When the yoginis are depicted in sculpture or described in text they often have the heads of various birds such as: parrots, hawks, peacocks, eagles, pigeons, and owls (Kinsley 197). They were also carved with characteristics from other animals (Donaldson 619). These include: the frog, elephant, jackal, goat, ox, cat, tiger, horse, and snake (Donaldson 619). Along with having the qualities of birds and other animals, the yoginis are repeatedly talked about as having severed heads in their hands or scattered around their feet (Gadon 33). In one story from the Padna Purana, the yoginis are called by Siva to consume heaps of flesh from a demon head that Siva has severed (Donaldson 622-623). This story talks of how they rejoiced after eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the demon, and describes them as having enormous bodies and sharp fangs (Donaldson 623). Yoginis are occasionally depicted with numerous arms, anywhere from four to eight (Donaldson 640).

There are four main traditions that are associated with the cult of the yoginis and how they developed from their tribal beginnings and became integrated into orthodox beliefs (Donaldson 618). All four of the traditions revolve around the idea that the yoginis were minor divinities to greater goddesses. The first tradition is the idea of the yoginis as aspects of the Devi or Great Goddess (Donaldson 618). The yoginis were said to be formed from different parts of the Devi, including: her voice, sweat, navel, forehead, cheeks, lips, ears, limbs, toe nails, womb, and her anger (Donaldson 618). The second tradition is the idea that the yoginis are attendant deities of the Great Goddess (Donaldson 618). This tradition is thought to have developed from earlier tradition of Siva and her gana attendants (Donaldson 619). The third tradition focuses on the yoginis as acolytes of the Great Goddess: the matrkas (Donaldson 618). This tradition describes the yoginis as being born of eight mothers and formed into eight groups (Donaldson 622). The fourth and final tradition centers on the thought of the yoginis as patrons of the goddess of the Kaulas (Donaldson 618). Through the scrutiny of numerous Tantric texts, the yogini cult became associated with a specific Tantric sect called the Kaulas (Donaldson 623).

Exploring the yogini temples has been the best way of gathering information about the cult, its practices, and their appearances. Each yogini temple reflects the unique traditions of the area that it is located in (Dehejia 94). This, therefore, leads to many different intepretations of the cult (Dehejia 94). There are certain aspects of the temples that are common. Most of the yogini temples are located in remote areas. For example, the temple of Ranipur-Jharial is located several miles away from the nearest town (Dehejia 103). The temple of Hirapur is extremly isolated, with the only way to access it being through one small dirt lane (Gadon 33). Another common feature among the temples is that they are usually formed in the shape of a circle. Both the Ranipur-Jaharial Temple and the Hiarapur Temple are formed in circles (Donaldson 666, 669).

While this information describes the consensus of Hindu scholars there are few definitive texts that contain concrete information about the cult or its goddesses (Donaldson 624). “Yogini namavalis (name-lists) stand in isolation, neither preceded nor followed by any explanatory verses on the worship or status of these deities.” (Dehejia 31). The Puranic and Tantric texts that do speak of the yogini cult, have made it clear that the reason these goddesses were worshipped was to gain an array of occult powers (Dehejia 53). Many Kaula texts refer to the fact that the followers of Kaula believe in the yoginis and will receive blessings from the yoginis in return for their worship (Donaldson 624). The texts also make reference to how those that do not follow the tradition of the yogini cult will be cursed (Donaldson 624). “Tantras that speak of yoginis, reiterate that this is a highly secret, hidden knowledge that was to be divulged only to initiates“(Dehejia 31).

Bibliography

Dehejia, Vidya (1986) Yogini, Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition. New Delhi: National Museum. Donaldson, Thomas E. (2002) Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd. Gadon, E. W. (2002). Probing the mysteries of the Hirapur Yoginis.  ReVision, 25, 1. p.33(9).

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Female: The Ten Mayavidyas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Related Websites

http://www.khandro.net/dakini_the64.htm

http://orissagov.nic.in/e-magazine/Orissareview/oct2004/englishPdf/originoftantricism.pdf

Related Words

Siva

Kaulas

Padma Purana

grama devatas

Written by Tracy van Paridon (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Sita

Sita is the principal female character in the Ramayana, an Indian epic said to have been composed by the sage Valmiki. Her name means “furrow”, a reference to her birth story where her father found her in a field after ploughing. Rama, the hero of the story, won the right to marry Sita when he succeeded in stringing and breaking Siva’s bow. Sita accompanied Rama back to his home and, when Rama was banished to the forest instead of being crowned king, decided to go with him because it was her Dharmic duty to stay with her husband. Rama tried to persuade her to stay at the palace but she persisted and he gave in. They lived in the forest until Sita was captured by a demon king named Ravana. Rama and his brother Laksmana set out to rescue her while Ravana tried to seduce Sita. Rama and Laksmana eventually rescued Sita, with the help of an army of monkeys, but Rama doubted Sita’s purity, having lived with the demon for over a year. Sita endured a trial by fire and proved herself untouched by any but Rama. They went home and Rama became king, but the people did not believe Sita was loyal to their King, so he banished her to the forest. Sita met the sage Valmiki and, while staying with him, gave birth to Rama’s twin sons. At the end of the epic, Sita once again proved her purity and, instead of returning to Rama, was taken into the earth.

Sita’s origins have been the subject of scholarly study. In one version of the Ramayana, Sita is the rebirth of a woman named Vedavati, who had thrown herself into a fire to escape Ravana’s lust and swore revenge (Doniger 22). Many versions of the Ramayana hold Sita as being an incarnation of a goddess or a holy maiden (Singaravelu 239). In other stories, Sita is Ravana’s daughter who was abandoned, put in an urn or a lead box and buried in a field or set afloat on the ocean. Some of the stories also present Sita as being the natural daughter of King Janaka or King Dasaratha (Singaravelu 240).

Sita’s purity has also been the concern of scholars and writers. In the fifteenth century Adhyatmaramayana, the Sita that begs for the deer and is kidnapped by Ravana is not the real girl at all, but a shadow Sita, created by Sita on Rama’s orders to keep her safe. It is this Sita that is kidnapped, rescued and eventually disappears into the fire, upon which time the real woman rejoins her husband (Doniger 23). In this version, Sita’s purity is unquestionable because the genuine Sita never spent any time in Ravana’s home. There are also texts where the shadow Sita survives and goes on to live her own life (Doniger 25).

Sita is supposed to be the ideal woman for the ideal man, the embodiment of right thought and right action. Because Rama is the ideal man, many readers feel that there is something wrong with his treatment of his faithful and loving wife. Sita is forced to prove her chastity not once, but twice in a trial of fire, and when she is taken into the forest, it is by Laksmana, without an explanation from Rama (Hess 2-3). “[M]any devotional Ramayanas from the twelfth century on eliminate the episode of Sita’s abandonment.” and many fans of the Ramayana have expressed discomfort with these episodes when talking to Hess (Hess 3-4).

The word “furrow” not only refers to the act of plowing the earth, but also to the female reproductive organ (Peltier 85). Sita is a fertility goddess, intimately connected with nature, and Sakti, “the energy that inspires the hero Rama to action” (Dimmitt 210-211). Throughout the Ramayana, the plants and animals echo Sita’s moods, and nature is thrown into chaos when she leaves Ayodhya with Rama and Laksmana and again when she is kidnapped (Dimmitt 214). The forest delights Sita, “she is the one who prays to and propitiates the river deities and the holy fig tree. Dwelling places are chosen to please her. The flowers and trees delight her” (Peltier 80).

Sita, though, thought to be a perfect embodiment of womanhood, is not as submissive as we might suspect. “Sita’s first clear act of will” is to insist on going into the forest with Rama. She “is defining for herself just what a devoted wife is, choosing what she sees as the substance rather than just the form of marriage. She is also insisting on her own needs and feelings, her desire to be with Rama” (Peltier 79-80). Sita also demands that Rama capture or kill the golden deer, the demon Marica in disguise, for her. Sita is not reacting as a woman seeing something pretty that she must have, but as an Artemis figure, a goddess of the forest that has dominion over all things in her realm, so the creatures are hers and she has a right to treat them as she pleases (Peltier 84). The golden deer possesses her. “She is a woman enchanted by an image of herself.” Throughout the Ramayana, Sita is described as “doe-eyed” and “golden-skinned” and the “golden deer is an image of her beauty and her forest wildness” (Peltier 84). When Marica, dying, calls out for help in Rama’s voice and Laksmana, convinced that Rama would never be in trouble, refuses to go help him, Sita again has to assert her will. She pleads with Laksmana, accuses him of “having designs on her” and finally threatens to kill herself if Laksmana does not go to Rama’s rescue (Sutherland 75). After being rescued from Ravana, Rama rebukes her and asks her how he can take her back now that she has spent time in another man’s house. “Sita weeps bitterly, then wipes her face and gives a spirited speech. It includes a passionate rebuke of his cruelty and a rational analysis of where moral responsibility lies in the case of violence against women. Not mincing words, she says, “Why do you talk to me like that, oh hero, like a common man talking to an ordinary woman? … You, lion among men, by giving way to wrath and passing premature judgment on a woman, have acted like a worthless man.”” (Hess 6). In the final chapter of the Ramayana, when Rama comes to take Sita back with him, realizing she had bore him two sons, instead of meekly submitting, she chooses her own fate. “After suffering countless insults and rejections, Sita finally takes revenge on Rama in the most aggressive manner she knows. In carrying out her characteristic and oft repeated threat of self-immolation, she brings to a culmination her passive-aggressive response to Rama” (Sutherland 78). She chooses to return to the earth, instead of remaining with a man who has twice abandoned her.

Works Cited

Dimmitt, Cornelia (1982) “Sita: Fertility Goddess and Sakti.” The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India. Berkeley: Berkeley Religious Studies Series: 210-223.

Doniger, Wendy (1997) “Sita and Helen, Ahalya and Alcmena: A Comparative Study.” History of Religions 37, no 1: 21-49.

Hess, Linda (1999) “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67, no.1 (March): 1-32.

Peltier, Mary Damon (1995) “Sita’s Story: In the Valmiki Ramayana.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 4 :77-103.

Singaravelu, S. (1982) “Sita’s Birth and Parentage in the Rama Story.” Asian Folklore Studies 41, no 2: 235-243.

Sutherland, Sally J. (1989) “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in the Sanskrit Epics.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 109, no. 1: 63-79.

Related Terms

Ramayana

Rama

Hanuman

Laksmana

Ravana

Related Resources

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sita – wikipedia article on Sita

http://www.sitayanam.com/ – Website dedicated to Sita

http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/ – online cartoon of the Ramayana focusing on Sita’s role.

http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_epics_and_stories/ramayana.htm – a short text version of the Ramayana with some illustrations.

The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, by Ramesh Menon- an accessible novelization of the Ramayana.

Written by Sara Kundrik (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Manasa: the Hindu Snake Goddess

Manasa is the Snake Goddess whose name derives from the Sanskrit root manas, meaning of the mind. Her names include Padmavati, in connection with the lotus leaf born goddess Laksmi and Visahari in vasahari vidya orthe science of poison removal”, as she is believed to be the curer of snake bites (William 15,16). The story of her existence begins when Siva slips away from his wife Durga to meditate by the banks of the Kalidaha pool. There, he is stimulated by the erotic setting, and thinking of his beautiful wife Durga, spills his semen. It runs down the stalk of a lotus leaf to the underworld and there Manasa is born from it. Vasuki, king of the nagas (serpents) grants her reign over all snakes. Thus she is the Nagesvari or Queen of the Snakes. Certain scholars suggest that the Nagas were not originally snakes, but in ancient Indian art are depicted as people with cobra hoods who were worshipped as gods and demigods by the ‘solar race’ peoples and in many instances some civilizations revered the serpent and the sun as closely connected. The Nagas were people who claimed descent from the Sun and used the hooded serpents (cobras) as their totem (Khumar Maity 15 and 25).

Snake worship or ophiolatry is an ancient cult among Indians and other races of the world. It is believed that the fear of the snake and the wonder of it brought about its worship all over the world to become a universally revered divinity (Khumar Maity 11). Serpent worship and its cult following in India may have been contributed to by the Proto Dravidians with the worship going as far back as the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley. However, even though historical evidence is lacking in its origins, snakes can still be seen on the proto-ithyphallic Siva seal (Khumar Maity 12, 13). Snake worship is closely tied with the god Siva and Manasa being the daughter of Siva is believed by most scholars to be the reason for her snake worship (Khumar Maity 24). It is also believed that snake worship went hand in hand with those civilizations that worshipped the sun. It is an ancient folklore belief that should anyone bring harm to a snake he/she will fall to leprosy and sterility (Khumar Maity 13). Snake worship and the Nagas are also referenced in Indian literature and religious books, such as the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Jatakas (Khumar Maity 14).

In the mythic account Manasa returns, ascending the lotus leaf from which she descended and presents herself in front of her father Siva, urging him to take her home with him to Mount Kailasa. Reluctantly, he agrees and hides her in a flower basket for he fears what his wife Durga will think. Before he can explain her existence, Durga finds her in the basket and mistaking her for one of her husband’s temptresses beats her and blinds her in the left eye. This is how she became known as ‘the one eyed goddess’ (William 42). Her left eye is known as her “evil eye” or bisadrsti. It is her poisonous eye from which she can kill with one glance as she releases all her malignant powers with it. Her right eye is her nectar eye or amrtanayan in which she can restore life to whomever she has killed with her left eye. It is believe in India that those people who are blind in one eye possess the evil eye and are seen as an ill-omens ( William 17). In classical Indian mythology as well as modern folklore the evil eye or ‘poison eye’ is a characteristic of most snakes. Manasa is equated with Kadru, the mother of the serpents, who is also one eyed (William 18).

Manasa appears in many forms. One is her true self which is envious, malicious and easily angered where she kills with no remorse and is compared to resemble the cenga fish, a snake-headed fish that is so revolting it is deemed unfit to eat. Her true form is compared to a one-eyed, fish-faced limping old hag (a witch) (William 21). Another form is the conventional, beautiful and voluptuous goddess with four arms and yellow tinted skin. Her body is decorated only with snakes, much like her father Siva. Her vahana (vehicle) is either the swan or the snake. The Sij plant; of the cactus family, is sacred to Manasa as it has abilities to cure poisons, but on most occasions is not used for worship (William 21, 22). She is usually depicted in two different forms of iconography, one being her four-arm depiction and the other, a two armed one. In her four armed image she is surrounded by a canopy of seven snake hoods and in her upper right and left hands she holds a snake and a pot, her lower hands are holding a rosary and a manuscript. Some other depictions of her four-armed image include one with one of her hands in the ‘granting a wish posture’ (varada mudra). Her two-arm depiction is of her seated on a lotus flower, under the canopy of seven snakes, a lotus bud in her right hand in the varada pose and a snake in her left hand (Khumar Maity 207-209). Her most common dhyana, which gives a description of her characteristic features and recited in Manasa worship is, “I adore the goddess, the mother of snakes, whose face is like the moon, who is graceful in appearance, the bountiful, who rides on a swan, the noble one, who wears a red garment, who always gives boons of all kinds, who has smiling face, who is adorned with gold, gems and various other beautiful jewels (obtained) from snakes, who is accompanied by eight snakes, who has prominent breasts, who is a yogini and who can take any form at will” (Khumar Maity 212). However, despite Manasa’s many forms it does not appear in the Sastra literature that any sort of image worship takes place, but more over worship in the form of earthen images does take place as well as placing a red colored stone under a sij tree (Khumar Maity 221 and 265).

Manasa is worshipped during the rainy season (June-August), as the rain and floods force the snakes out of their lairs and the chance of getting bit is significantly higher. During this time it is a communal celebration where some villagers will gather clay pots, garlands, conch-shells, iron bangles, red-bordered saris, incense and food offerings like mangos, melons, bananas and sweets. One or more male goats are also sacrificed. The goddess is represented, herself, by a sacred pot (Manasar-bari), filled with water. This represents her fertility and makes reference to the fertility of the snake. As it is believed the goddess also has inherent power over fertility she is worshipped by women who wish to become mothers (Khumar Maity 269). She is also, in some places known as a curer of diseases, the rain-giver as she is worshipped during the rainy season and since snakes are believed to be the guardians of treasure, Manasa is also seen as a wealth giver (Khumar Maity 273). Manasa is worshipped by all classes and in many different places which include near a sij tree of bush, in the home or in private shrines and in some villages, by the bank of a river (Khumar Maity 266).

Her puja (worship), by the Bauris caste, who are low class earthen workers, perform the ceremony during the rainy season outdoors on an earthen altar. Sticks of bamboo are placed in each corner of the altar and tied together with a cotton thread. The altar is marked with vermilion (red) as is the sacred pot where a mango twig is placed upon it. Among other offerings that are placed on the altar, such as milk, plantain, incense, sandal, lighted lamps, rice (Khumar Maity 269), a sij twig is also placed on the altar, wrapped in red cloth. Both the sij plant and the pot are independent symbols of Manasa (Khumar Maity 265). After the sacrifice of the goat, or goats in some cases, the performer of the ritual, (any of the villagers can perform the ceremony) places the blood of the goat in another pot and offers it to the goddess asking for protection and wellness. Many other personal sacrifices can be made at this time as well (William 23).

Other forms of worship on a higher class scale include a complex formal rite performed by Brahman priests who rely on manuals and utilize specific prayers, breathing techniques (pranayam) and hand movements (mudra) to be followed exactly when performing the worship. A priest consults manuscripts for each step of the puja: the lifting of a flower, the dabbing of a spot of vermilion on the image, the formalized mudras and mantras all done while Sanskrit formulae is recited in the background. The use of Sanskrit is the major difference between the high class Brahmin worship and that of the low class Bauris village worship (William 24). Another type is the household worship which takes place in Aug-Sept, known as acanthine or non-cooking. During this time it is forbidden to light the stove, and rice is cooked the day before and left out in uncovered pots. It is believed by the householders that the goddess will keep the food safe from contamination so it will be safe to eat the next day. The women of the household make earthen images of the goddess called alpana with the rice paste upon the oven and a sij plant is placed over the oven‘s burners. The cold rice is eaten along with cold vegetables after it has been put in cold water, this is called panta bhat (William 23, 24) and then tea is heated on a small fire and drank to end the day and ceremony.

The Jhanpan is a annually held festival where snake charmers gather in the streets and exhibit numerous tricks with their snakes. The charmers risk their lives as it is believed that they are inspired by the goddess, otherwise known as possession or bhar. The snake charmers carry their snakes in small wicker baskets called jhanpis and will often allow the snakes to bite their arms and curl around their neck as part of the spectacle (Khumar Maity 309).

Some scholars believe that the Manasa cult and worship are dying out and will disappear within a century, as enthusiasm for her worship is low and confined to the uneducated small villages as modern medicine removes Manasa’s utility from the more modern villages and worshippers (Khumar Maity 320-321).

REFERENCES

Khumar Maity, Pradyot (1966) Historical Studies in the Cult of the Goddess Manasa; A Socio- Cultural Study. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak.

Smith, William (1980) The One-Eyed Goddess; A Study of the Manasa Mangal. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Other Readings

Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Traditions by D. Kinsley

Indian Mother Goddess by N.N. Bhattacaryya

Manasa-Goddess of Snakes The University of Chicago Committee on Southern Asian Studies, Reprint series no. 13, 1961

Evolution of Hinduism in Medieval Bengali Liturature: Siva, Candi, Manasa by T.W. Clark

The Female Lingam: Interchangeable Symbols and Paradoxical associations of Hindu Gods and Goddesses by Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi

Related Research Topics

The Goddess

Nagas

Siva

Snake Worship

Written by Kelsey Jesperson (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.