Devi Goddesses of India looks at or the divine feminine as the west calls them or Shakti as we call them. It is a subject that intrigues the most. Especially in this age and time, people see a dichotomy between powerful goddesses and the not so powerful status of women the society. However, when you study Devi, she can be interpreted differently by the believers and non-believers.
I had earlier read the book the Life of Hinduism by one of the co-authors of the book Devi John Stratton Hawley. In that book, various facets of Hinduism were explored. In Devi, there is an anthology of essays where different aspects of the Devi explored – mostly the different forms of Devi. Though, the Kali seems a favorite with most authors featured in this anthology.
In the prologue, editor John talks about the three aspects of Devi – Maya, Prakriti, and Shakti. He talks about how Gods need Devi to confront Demons they cannot contain. The key text that the book refers to is Devi Mahatmaya. Different authors go back to Devi Mahatmaya for their essays.
In the first essay, the author explores The Identity of Devi with respect to Shiva, Skanda, and Agni. The myth of Demons Madhu and khatam appears again and again. This chapter was a bit boring to read. All I could get was the fact that author is trying to establish an identity of Devi wrt the males – be it Shiva, Vishnu or Skanda, and Ganesha. It comes across as author’s inability to see her as an independent power, she must be known as related to someone.
Vindhyavasini or the one who lives in Vindhya mountains what a Discovery for me. I always thought that Vindhyavasini lived in the Vindhya mountains. However, I discovered that Vindhyachal is somewhere between Prayag and Varanasi. I now want to do the popular Trikon Yatra covering 3 temples that form the Vindhya Kshetra. Which is elaborately explained by the authors with the help of a map. The author shares the experience of visiting Vindhyachal and the bad behavior of priest there. The touts follow you everywhere. But that’s hardly helpful when it comes to telling the history of the place.
I think most Indians do not visit pilgrimage places with an intention to know the history. They go for the darshan of the deity. They never ask the stories behind the temples. So the priest and the guides are not used to being asked the historical details of the temples. When the non-believers visit they look for documented proofs. The existence of temples and the faith, which is not readily available.
Similarly, the story of Saranyu was interesting. The story of Bhagwati in Kerala is interesting but again as seen by an outsider. The constant endeavor is to question why certain rituals are done by men and not by women like playing Kali. It is a good documentation of the ritual but I do not see an understanding of the ritual coming across. Sometimes I would like to see the attitude of acceptance and then the narrative would change.
In the chapter on Sri, it is interesting to read about the auspicious aspect of a Devi that as per the author ‘never punishes’. For the first time, I read about all the 8 Lakshmi that form Ashta-Lakshmi. I wish the author had elaborated more on this.
When I picked up this book on Devi Goddesses of India to read, it was Radha that I was most keen to read. There is not much about her in ancient literature though in Braj Bhumi she is the presiding deity. It seems all references to Radha go back to Goswami Parampara that began in Bengal but settled in and around Vrindavan. I have traveled to Barsana, Nand Gaon, Mathura, and Vrindavan but I am yet to get a grip on who Radha is. But what is interesting is that of all the forms of Devi, she is one where she is equal to her male counterpart. She is not more than him or less than him.
The chapter on Ganga by Diana Eck is lovely. She is one of the few non-Indian authors who come from a faithful perspective. I loved the way she brings out – why we think Ganga to be clean? She says – Just like certain parts of our body are supposed to be clean, certain parts of the earth are supposed to be holy – Ganga is that part of the earth.
The chapter on Godavari which I was expecting to be on River Godavari but is actually the story of a Sati named the Godavari. There is a multi-faceted analysis of the story or gender balance, of the position of women in homes and in villages. There is an inquiry into the Sat part – good for the rational readers.
Between this Devi Goddesses of India and Life of Hinduism, I would prefer the latter. Overall, I felt a very outward gaze which it is, but with a missing understanding of the belief system.
The language varies with each author. Some have an academic approach while others have a documentation approach. Some speak from their first-hand experience while others primarily look at texts like Devi Mahatamaya.
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