Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

Patriarchal Politics
and the (Dis)Empowerment of Hindu Goddesses:

Unveiling the Chandi Mangal and the Devi Mahatmya
of the Markandeya Purana[*]

Saumitra Chakravarty

  1. In this essay, I undertake the study of two Hindu Puranic texts viz. the Chandi Mangal and the Devi Mahatmya with the purpose of highlighting how patriarchy was responsible for the dis-empowering of female goddesses who once held sway in the religious practices and social lives of ethnic people. With the passage of time, the power of the goddess was usurped by male deities and the primacy of goddess worship in earlier non-Aryan societies became subordinate to powerful male deities to whom the goddess existed as a mere appendage. I will also attempt to demonstrate that the politics of gender was effected through the instrumentation of upper castes, and thereby indicate how class and patriarchy were interdependent on each other for purposes of exploitation. This infusion of the discourses of class and patriarchy in the Puranic narratives served the dual purpose of dominating the lower castes/class people on the one hand, and maintaining control over women on the other. Needless to say, over the successive centuries, the power and hold of patriarchal social structures, buttressed by the religious discourse, changed not only the positioning of female goddesses, but also of women in social and familial contexts. I will undertake a comparative study, as mentioned earlier, of Chandi Mangal and Devi Mahatmya to show the validity of the hypotheses I have outlined. The latter half of this study will be devoted to the contradictions and the paradoxes, inherent in the divine feminine, which patriarchy tends to reduce to rigidly defined binary oppositions.

    The mangal kavya as a literary genre in Bengal
  2. The Chandi Mangal of Mukundaram Chakraborty belongs to the Mangal Kavya tradition, a literary genre particular to Bengal between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most Mangal Kavyas are dedicated to female deities such as Chandi, Sheetala, Manasa, Shashti or Banshuli—deities originally worshipped among the tribals or the lower castes, where the influence of the Aryan pantheon of Hindu gods was late in permeating. The lowest castes on the fringes of the Hindu hierarchy exist in close proximity with the tribals on the outskirts of the villages, resulting in an exchange of rituals and customs between them. This literary tradition is typically a folk one, even today practiced among the rural women through the last vestiges of pre-Aryan rituals. It is celebrated through the chanting of rhymes, panchalis (a long drawn out record or narrative celebrating the glory of a deity) and vrata katha (rhymes and narratives chanted on the occasion of the performance of a vow). By the fifteenth century, all these practices had crystallised into the genre of the Mangal Kavya.
  3. The Mangal Kavya owes its name to the Ashtamangala songs sung by the rural women on Tuesdays
      (Mangalvara, associated with Mangalgraha or Mars) in eight palas throughout the day (diva-pala) and the night (nishi-pala) over a period of eight days. These songs are generally addressed to a female deity in her incarnation of Sarvamangala or Mangalmayee (mangala indicating her benevolent form) or in the case of Chandi, as Mangal Chandi (the slayer of the demon Mangalasura) and worshipped by rural women in times of distress with folk rituals (see Figure 1). In Jyotish Shastra, Mangala is one of the Ashtayoginis (eight female attendants of the goddess Durga, the others being Pingala, Dhanya, Bhramara, Bhadrika, Ulka, Siddhi, and Sankata).

    Figure 1. Chandi as Demon Destroyer. Source: Jim Robinson, Chandi pat, 'Patua painting,' in Clay Images of West Bengal, online:, site accessed 8 March 2009.

  4. The Mangal Kavyas gained their popularity among the rural masses as a result of the social, cultural and religious turmoil brought about by the Turkish invasion of Bengal in 1203 CE.[1] This Muslim influx changed in a fearful way the life of the common peasantry because of the cruelty, exploitation and taxation by the new rulers, of which the poet of the Chandi Mangal, Mukundaram Chakraborty was himself a victim. Among these social and cultural disruptions, with internecine rivalry between the local Turkish rulers and the Moghuls on the throne of Delhi, the Mangal Kavyas appeared as a plea for divine intervention for the common people. They were also intended to reinforce the flagging faith of the people in these rural deities through a religious narrative in which the goddess appears as an Abhaya Sakti, one who dispels fear and poverty among her votaries. Also due to this Muslim invasion, the stranglehold of the upper classes over religion, culture and literature was broken, leading to the proliferation of folk religion, rituals and oral traditions. The local gods and goddesses who had remained constricted within narrow boundaries now began to gain recognition among the upper classes as well. The myths and legends that had sprung up around these deities became the subject matter of these Kavyas. As earlier noted, many of these goddesses are of pre-Aryan origin, and even today are worshipped in wayside shrines.[2] They are needs-based and situation-oriented. Thus, Chandi was originally a hunter goddess worshipped by the pre-Aryan aborigines for protection against wild animals;[3] Manasa, a snake goddess in riverine Bengal; Sheetala, a goddess of pustular diseases; and Shashti, a goddess bestowing children at a time when child mortality rates were high (see Figure 2). However, with the passage of time and the amalgamation of folk and mainstream traditions, there was an attempt to absorb these powerful (in pre-Aryan rural societies) female deities into the androcentric Hindu pantheon as wife, daughter or consort of Siva, the center of Hindu cosmology. Richard M. Eaton notes that though Chandi's cultic literature is very ancient, it appeared in written form only in the late Sultanate period and hence the goddess of Mukundaram Chakraborty's work in the sixteenth century, appears well integrated into the Indo-Aryan pantheon with Brahminical values.[4] Moreover, it is important to note that though the upper classes were Saivites in worship, in times of distress caused by the imposition of foreign rule, where the religion of their ancestors was itself in danger, the masses turned instinctively to a Mother Goddess rather than to Siva. As Tagore has said in his essay Sahitya, during this period of political, social and cultural turmoil, the Bengali could no longer turn with conviction to Lord Bholanath (Siva), an ascetic. A more potent and efficacious force was needed by the rural masses at such a time, which could be provided only through the worship of Sakti, through the medium of the Mangal Kavya.[5] In a parallel narrative, the Annada Mangal of Bharat Chandra, speaking of the death-like inert consciousness that Shiva represents without Sakti, the poet says,

      Sakti-joge Siva sangya / Sakti-lope shava
      (Sakti represents the supreme energy. Siva creates, preserves and destroys through his Sakti).[6]

    Figure 2. Manasa Snake Goddess. Source: Jim Robinson, Manasa pat, 'Patua painting,' in Clay Images of West Bengal, online:, site accessed 8 March 2009.   Figure 3. Chandi as Forest Goddess shows the domesticated Chandi with her four children (the image traditionally worshipped during the autumnal festival of Durga Puja, which also combines the demon destroyer image). The green attire shows Chandi as a forest goddess on her lion mount as seen in the Kalketu story of the Chandi Mangal. Source: Jim Robinson, Chandi pat showing Durga, 'Patua painting,' in Clay Images of West Bengal, online:, site accessed 8 March 2009.

    Goddess worship in the context of contemporary andro-centric religions
  5. At the same time, this establishment of goddess worship brought it into conflict with two important cults in the contemporary society of Bengal, the practice of Saivism among the upper classes and the Chaitanya movement sweeping Bengal from the second decade of the sixteenth century. Heinrich Von Stietencron notes, 'Saktism—whose influence was first felt in the shadow of such already established religious movements as Saivism and Vaisnavism, that is through literary extensions or even interpolations of Sakta origin appearing in the texts of these latter movements—had in the meantime gained ground and could be articulated with greater independence.'[7] The beauty underlying Mukundaram's text is his handling of the encounter and his resolution of the dilemma he himself faced when as a staunch Vaisnavite, he was commanded by the Devi in a dream to eulogise her through his verses. It will be the purpose of this paper to show how the goddess theme is worked into the background of androcentric religious orders through the merging of the folk images of the goddess in the story line of the text with the Tantric and Puranic ones in the hymnic sections. I will also provide a comparison with the image of the goddess Chandi in the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana. While the Devi Mahatmya centers around three stories narrated by the sage Medhas to a defeated king and an exiled merchant, where the Devi's potency as a protective force is stressed, the theme of all the Mangal Kavyas is that of a goddess soliciting upper class worship through her chosen representative, usually a celestial being sent to earth by virtue of her curse to promote her cultic status. In the two stories that make up Mukundaram Chakraborty's celebrated text Chandi Mangal, that of Kalketu the hunter and of Dhanapati Saudagar the spice merchant, (both found in the Brahaddharma Purana), we see the infiltration of the goddess cult into an essentially patriarchal upper class society devoted to Siva worship. Kalketu's story is that of an aboriginal hunter who, along with his wife Phullara, ekes out a meager existence by selling animal products. He is later absorbed into mainstream culture and acquires wealth and status by the benedictions of the goddess Chandi whom he worships. Having been granted wealth, he is asked to clear up the very forest that makes up his natural habitat and set up a kingdom where he will rule as her representative and propagate her worship.
  6. The first half of the Chandi Mangal therefore shows the emergence of Chandi as an aboriginal forest goddess in the first story who comes to be at least partially accepted by the staunchly Saivite Dhanapati Saudagar at the end of the second story (see Figure 3). Her forest goddess status is reflected in her compassion for the animals Kalketu hunts and her establishment of hierarchical Dharmic law in the forest, thus emphasising her iconic status as the universally benevolent Sarvamangala. In the second story, she is elevated from an object of worship by rural women, as the poet tells us in his prologue:

      Striloker puja nite Devi koila moti
      (The goddess sought worship from the womenfolk)

    to recognition by the upper class merchant community and even by the King of Lanka.[8]
  7. If the Chandi Mangal traces the evolution of the goddess in her earthly status, the Devi Mahatmya, shows us the Mother Goddess Chandi arising out of a situational need of powerful male gods:

      Devanam Karyasiddhayarthabhavirbhavati.[9]

    to fight male demons who were increasingly strengthening their stranglehold over the three worlds, ironically by Siva's boon. The Devi Mahatmya traces the Tantric version of the Devi's crystallisation into a female form from a great light (tejas) emanating from the faces of the Divine Trinity (Brahma, Visnu, Maheshwara), in terrible anger. Moreover, each part of her body came out of the power of one or other of the gods or of relevant natural forces. Yet the text notes that the greatness and power of the thus-born Devi cannot be described even by the divine Trinity. She is armed with the collective strength and weapons of these gods and attended by their powers or saktis.[10] In one section of Mukundram's text she is referred to as Adidevi (the primeval female force) who does not pre-date Adideva (the primeval male force) and is attendant to his commands in the formulation of Creation, in denial of pre-Aryan goddess cults. The Saktas believe that Adidevi is prakrti/sakti, the all-powerful Female Principle, mother of the Universe and Creatrix of the gods. In Her highest form, She is Mahadevi, consort of Siva, who is also created by Her. Mukundaram Chakraborty however talks of Adideva (the Male Principle/Parampurusha) who created an exquisitely beautiful woman who is Adidevi Mahamaya. Upon a signal from the Lord, she set herself upon the task of Creation of the Universe, which involved the Creation of the Trinity of Brahma, Visnu, Siva. Siva subdivided Himself into an androgynous/ardhanariswara figure.[11] In the Mahabhagavata Purana, Sakti is initially Sati, wife of Siva, who becomes Kali to destroy Daksha's yagna. In her next birth, she is the austere Uma/ Girija/Parvati, who becomes the wife of Siva and his permanent associate in the form of Ardha-nariswara. In the Dwapara age, she incarnates as Krsna to fight demons to help the Pandavas.[12] Finally she identifies all these with Parasakti or Para Brahman. Mukundaram's Chandi Mangal, also traces her emergence in accordance with the Puranic myth surrounding the goddess in her manifestations of Sati (shown as King Daksha's daughter who lays down her life through her yogic powers when her husband Siva is insulted by her father at his yagna) and Parvati (variously interpreted as 'daughter of the mountain' in Chandi Mangal and 'mountain goddess' herself, as in the Devi Mahatmya).

    Goddess as woman: norms of patriarchy
  8. In accordance with the folk elements woven into the earlier Puranic sections of Mukundaram's text as opposed to goddess supremacy in the hymnic sections, the predicament of the beautiful, young Parvati leads to a de-mythification of the goddess to make her more comprehensible to the village audience who chanted the Mangal Kavyas. They could identify their own poverty, their debts, their simple wants and desires, their rural environment and landscape, their seasonal variations, food items and festivals, social practices like the kulin system, child marriages and even that of sati, with those surrounding the goddess in the text. The utter destitution of Parvati, her alienation from her paternal home, the daily alms her husband Siva is dependant on (being incapable of farming the land), his daunting appearance clothed in snakes, skulls, bones and smeared with ash, his garagantuan appetite for local seasonal delicacies, his rejection by her people, are all themes familiar to a rural audience. The story of Parvati, quoted at the beginning of the Kalketu story in the Chandi Mangal, also reflects the plight of upper and middle class women under the kulin system introduced by King Ballal Sen in the twelfth century in Bengal. Under this system, young girls were often forcibly married to middle-aged polygamous men or widowers to encourage endogamous marriages within the same kul or clan. Hence mother Menaka's lament over her young and beautiful daughter Parvati's marriage to Siva, the old, impoverished dweller of the burning ghat and her stormy relationship with his other wives, which is also reflected on a human level, in the second story of the text in the constant bickering between Khullana and Lahana, the two wives of Dhanapati Saudagar. While the elder Lahana bears the curse of childlessness and its consequent social stigma, the younger Khullana undergoes many trials and tribulations at the hands of the jealous and vengeful Lahana and is exposed to an ordeal by fire like Sita in the Ramayana. Lahana fights back with the Devi's aid, rears her son alone, converts him to goddess worship in defiance of Dhanapati's faith, a worship which the latter condemns as 'Daini Kala' or sorcery. In contrast, in the Kalketu story, Kalketu tells Phullara, his wife, that being a tribal woman, she is lucky to have escaped the evils of Hindu upper class polygamy and the exploitative relationships within the neo-natal home. Women, both human and divine are, thus, placed within the context of social norms of contemporary Bengal, in Mukundaram's text. A woman's complete dependence on her male protector and the fragility of her reputation and honour are seen in the Kalketu story in Phullara's chastisement of the goddess disguised as a young and beautiful girl roaming the forest freely and overstepping social peripheries:

      Swami banitar pati / Swami banitar gati
      Swami banitar bidhata
      (The husband is a woman's lord, master and only recourse in life).[13]

  9. In fact in accordance with the norms of contemporary society, the poet questions the warrior image of the goddess herself, which he says, is not befitting the caste status of a woman under the kulin system:

      Chhariya kul maryada
      (You have betrayed your caste status).[14]

  10. In the encounter with Siva's other wife Ganga, Chandi is told that while Ganga is a follower of non-violent Vaisnavism, Chandi has violated the codes of feminine honour by waging war and drinking wine.[15] In fact, throughout the course of the two stories, while Chandi does issue a challenge to the hierarchy of male gods in the establishment of her cultic status and in her threat perspectives surrounding the recalcitrant who are unilaterally committed to androcentric cults, the poet also shows her as a typical upper class Hindu wife, afraid of stepping too far beyond the prescribed peripheries of marital relationships. In the constant fusion of her human and divine images, she is on the one hand wilful, impetuous, fighting the Siva worshipper with every weapon in her armoury, on the other, afraid of arousing her husband Siva's wrath. Thus, on the one hand, the folk image of the goddess Chandi woven into the story of the text is that of a woman trying to establish herself in a patriarchal society and, at the same time wreaking fearful revenge upon those refusing worship. Being a true upper class male, Dhanapati Saudagar in the second story of the Chandi Mangal, refuses to worship a female deity. With the terrible anger of a woman scorned, the goddess Chandi drowns his ships, destroys his merchandise and has him imprisoned in Lanka. He remains inflexible:

      Jodi bandishale mor bahirai prani
      Mahesh Thakur bina anya nahi jani
      (Even if my life is lost in prison, I shall not recognize any deity other than Mahesh/Siva).[16]

  11. On the other hand, numerous epithets associating her with Siva are repeatedly used. It stresses those which show her as the consort of Siva/Sankar, Sivani, Sankari, Sankar-jaaya, as also those used in the Devi Mahatmya, like Sivaduti,[17] Sivaa,[18] thus showing the male appropriation of goddess cults by a patriarchal society. However, in the use of the epithet Katyayani for the Devi in both the texts and also in the sixth Navadurga,[19] she is envisaged as an eternal virgin who remains inviolate despite marital relationships. In fact, in the Puranic myth elaborated in the Chandi Mangal, both of Parvati's sons are born circumventing the female womb despite the overt sexual symbolism that Siva represents.
  12. Indeed, her forcible entry into a male Saivite bastion in both stories of the text issues a challenge to Siva, her own consort. Indirectly, the celestial battles waged by the Devi against the demons in the Devi Mahatmya are also interpreted in the Chandi Mangal as challenges to the power of Siva, for the demonic enemies of the gods she battles against, are themselves empowered by their austere meditation and appeasement of Siva as he tells Chandi:

      Je jan sevak mor / she jan vipaksha tor
      (My followers are your enemies).[20]

    Yet the elect, who will propagate her worship on earth, like Kalketu in the first story and Khullana in the second, are born by Siva's machinations at her behest.
  13. Whereas in the Manasa Mangal, Chand Saudagar, another Saivite, agrees to worship Manasa with his left hand (his right being reserved for Siva) to rejuvenate his dead sons, in the Chandi Mangal, Dhanapati Saudagar, is granted a vision of an androgynous Ardha-narishwara figure whom he can then worship without violating his principles.

      Dui Jane ek tanu Mahesh Parvati
      Na Janiya eto dukkha hoilo murhamoti
      (The two are of one body, Mahesh and Parvati, ignorance of this fact caused him much distress).[21]

    Thus the story line carries the endangered goddess worship to a point where she is granted equal space with androcentrism in the Hindu hierarchy.

    Fusion of Saktism and Vaisnavism in the Chandi Mangal
  14. Turning to the second aspect of androcentrism and its relation to goddess worship in the text, in composing the Chandi Mangal, Mukundaram Chakraborty could not escape the influence of the Chaitanya cult which had permeated even to the lower section of society of Bengal, during the Bhakti movement that was sweeping India.[22] In merging Sakti worship with Vaisnaivism, the text repeatedly refers to the Devi Chandi as 'Yashodanandini' (the daughter of Yashoda) and Yadavbhagini (the sister of Krsna). She is the rescuer of Krsna who allowed herself to be substituted for the infant Lord to face the murderous wrath of Kamsa. This is an image found in the Mahabhagavata Purana as earlier noted in this essay. She is Yoganidra Bhagavati, who took away the fear of Hari/Krsna.[23] The Devi Mahatmya says that during the period of Vaivasvata Manu, she was born of Yashoda's womb:

      Nandagopa grihe jaata Yashodagarbhasambhava.[24]

  15. Cynthia Ann Humes says that the Devi has been absorbed into the Krsna myth as Vindhyavasini, the virgin goddess who takes birth as Nanda and Yashoda's child, gets exchanged for the baby Krsna and later escapes to the mountains assuming an eight-armed form when about to be killed by Kamsa.[25] The Chandi Mangal states that in her many incarnations she is Visnusahayini[26] fighting demons at Visnu's behest and worshipped by Rama before his epic battle. Many stories are drawn by the poet of the Chandi Mangal from the Upa-Puranas, some of which talk of the close relationship of the Devi and Krsna, thus amalgamating the two cults. The Devi Mahatmya eulogises her as

      (The power of Visnu that exhibits endless valour).[27]

  16. The female versions of Visnu and his avatars, Vaisnavi, Varahi, Narasimhi, each complete with the relevant weapons and mount, accompany her into battle. In the Devi Mahatmya, the stress is never on the Devi as Siva-sakti or a consort of Siva, she is primarily a Visnu-sakti allied also to his incarnations through her many manifestations. As the Naraka episode of the Kalika Purana tells us, that part of the Sakti cult that was supported by Vaisnavism, constituted a simple worship with vegetarian offerings, free from Tantric practices. It was only at a later period in that aspect of Sakta worship influenced by Saivism that we have offerings of meat, wine and the introduction of the Bhairavi-cakra, Mudra, Yantras till it finally merged into Saivism.

    Paradoxical goddess images in the two texts
  17. Turning finally to the aspect of the centrality of goddess worship in the Tantric elements celebrated in the hymnic sections of Mukundaram's text, we observe the paradoxical nature of the image of the Devi which is central to the Devi Mahatmya. She is a fierce and fearful warrior in her Bhairavi image. In the latter text she is Kali, Kapalini, Karali, Chamunda, garlanded with skulls, naked and feasting on flesh, accompanied by her sixty-four Yoginis. These are images the goddess can assume at will as Matrkas in her battle with the demons in the Devi Mahatmya, though on the whole she conquers through her divine beauty as much as she does through her power. As Thomas B. Coburn notes she is Mahisasur mardini (demon slayer) as well as Mahasuri (great demoness) herself.[28] This paradox is the essence of Tantrism. She is Mahamaya, the great Illusion, too, illusion and maya being some of the weapons characteristic of the very demons she slays in battle. Like the demons, she adopts various shapes, can clone herself into the matrkas at will and re-absorb them into herself when challenged to single combat. The Chandi Mangal goes a step further, when the poet, describing her battle with the followers of the King of Lanka, a battle fought with the same intensity as the celestial war in the Devi Mahatmya, says

      Chandanaad Chandika ccharen chandarane
      (Chandika lets out a chandanaad in her battle with the demons).[29]

  18. While the word chandanaad means ferocious cry, it also means a cry like that of the demon Chanda whom she slays, thus emphasising the paradox of demonic and divine qualities within her. While the Devi Mahatmya shows her as an all powerful, destructive force in battle with the demons and their many clones, the Chandi Mangal ends her victorious battle with her human enemies with her acts of rejuvenation of the enemy soldiers she has destroyed. It shows us the totality and comprehensiveness of the Universal mother who absorbs within herself the good and the evil that the universe is composed of and also the pattern of destruction being followed by restoration. Thus she is sattwa, rajas and tamas in her Mahasaraswati, Mahalakshmi and Mahakali forms as both texts inform us. She contains within herself all the three gunas and is thus 'Trigunapi' while free of their attendant defects; she is therefore called 'Trigunahita'. As both texts show, the goddess Sakti is the fullest conception of Brahman; she is also the power of every god. She is

      Triguna Tribeeja Tara trailokya tarini.[30]

  19. (In Tantra, the three beejas represent the process of thought concentration in the hour of illumination of the devotee). True to the essence of Tantrism both texts show that while the Devi is violent and ferocious in her destroyer image, she is benevolent as the universal mother. The Devi Mahatmya notes that she is Durga, because she takes men across the difficult ocean of worldly existence without attachment. She is Durga also because she remains inaccessible in totality since she is Mahamaya or illusion personified, just as any reality is inaccessible in its completeness to the limited human understanding. This aspect of the goddess Chandi/Mahamaya is best demonstrated in the Kamalakamini image in which she appears to sceptic and votary alike in the Dhanapati story of the Chandi Mangal. It is an image of a virgin goddess (kanya) seated on a lotus and alternately swallowing and disgorging an elephant, demonstrating the impermanence of all created beings. This aspect of unlimited growth of the goddess, as pointed out by Thomas Cleary and Sartaz Aziz,[31] is one that chastens the follower. It anticipates the ultimate end of the world at the hands of its Creatrix. In Mukundaram's text, it chastises the unbelief of the sceptic and tests the belief of the faithful.
  20. As in the Devi Mahatmya hymns here, too, we note her image of fertility and fruitfulness. She is, thus, a synthesis of the destructive and the creative. In the Chandi Mangal, she is Sakambhari, Basumati, Sriphalashakhabashini. The Devi Mahatmya explains the Sakambhari image:

      O Gods, forever I will vegetate and nourish the earth with life-giving vegetation arising out of my own body till the rains fertilize the earth. I shall be famed on earth as Sakambhari-
      Sakambhareeti vikhyatim[32]

    Mukundaram's text however, began with the union between Adideva and Adidevi, the impregnation of pure inert consciousness, which is Purusha/Siva by a force that has variously been interpreted as Prakrti by the followers of Sankhya, Avidya by the Vedantins, Sakti by the Saivites, Visnumaya by the Vaisnavites, Mahamaya by the Saktas and Devi by the Pauranikas.[33] His text concludes with a glorious vision of an androgynous figure of Siva and Sakti in the form of Ardha-nariswara, which marks the blending of two apparently opposing forces, a vision which transcends denial and conflict between the cults and allows the co-existence of both. This text which is basically intended as a plea for the propagation of goddess worship in a predominantly male upper-class society worshipping male gods, ends with the joint benison of Durga and Panchanan/Siva bestowed upon all castes who listen to the chanting of the Chandi Mangal twice a day for eight days:

      Eyee geet jei jan koribe sravan
      Vipade rakkhibe Durga ar Panchanan.[34]

  21. And this blending, I would like to suggest, contains the sub-text of foregrounding the male principle in the form of Siva who, his androgynous character notwithstanding, is worshipped as a male god. Siva, who has the power to destroy through his third eye and tandava, the god who represents the possibility of perpetual bliss, and who is a god who grants boons is looked upon in the final analysis as a male. The Devi challenges his granting of boons to undeserving sources like demons and the validity of worship if its end result is the empowerment of evil. Her existence itself, therefore, is a threat to the potency of male power, both divine and demonic. Yet the text ends with a fusion into androcentrism. To the extent the religious discourse structures gender relations in society, the positioning of women in Indian society replicates this assimilation into the androcentric social fabric.


    [*] My grateful thanks to Jim Robinson for his kind permission in allowing me to use his images of Chandi and Manasa in this paper. His website Clay Images of West Bengal contains useful information and hyperlinks about the clay making and painting of images, many of which are used in festivals.

    [1] When Iftikaruddin Bakhtiar Khilji attacked Nawadwip, the capital of the Sen dynasty in Rarh (erstwhile Bengal) the aged King Lakshmansen fled for his life, leaving his kingdom unprotected. The last Hindu king was thus dethroned.

    [2] For instance, to celebrate Manasa's iconic form in Bengal's villages, there are Manasa Baris, small mud huts housing painted clay pots decorated with snake hoods and filled with water to indicate the womb, hence denoting an image of fertility. Sheetala is worshipped on a secluded ground in many places, marked off and smeared with vermillion. Pigs are sacrificed and their bones and offal buried. However, today there are regular festivals to worship these deities. See W. Crooke, An Introduction to the Popular Religion and Folk Lore of Northern India, Delhi: Asian Education Services, 1994, p. 81.

    [3] Some critics trace the origin of Chandi to 'Chaandi,' a Proto-Australoid hunter goddess worshipped in the Chota Nagpur area, whereas others attribute the origin and propagation of the goddess to the Devi Mahatmya. Asit Kumar Bandopadhyay, The Complete History of Bengali Literature, Calcutta: Modern Book Agency Pvt. Ltd., 1966, p. 67.

    [4] Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier (1204–1760), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

    [5] Gnanendranath Bhattacharya, The Influence of Tantra on Ancient and Medieval Bengali Literature, Pustak Bipani: Calcutta, 2004, p. 194.

    [6] Bhattacharya, The Influence of Tantra, p. 203.

    [7] Heinrich von Steitencron, Hindu Myth, Hindu History, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2005, p. 122.

      Saktism means the worship of Sakti (Sanskrit word meaning Power/Strength, normally in religion, in its female form). Followers of right-handed Saktism as a sect, worshipped Sakti as a Mother Goddess under such names as Kali/Durga through contemplation and humility. In Bengal we have the autumnal worship of Durga. Left-handed Saktism as a Tantric sect, denoted worship through elaborate rituals involving ritual eating of animal flesh, drinking of wine and orgies, often performed in cremation grounds with skulls etc.

      Saivism is the oldest of the four sects of Hinduism. Saivites/Saivas are the followers of Siva and revere Him as the Supreme Being. They believe that He is All, and in all, the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer of the Universe.

      Vaisnavism is the worship of Visnu and His associated avatars/incarnations, principally those of Rama/Krsna as the original and supreme God. Even though in the avatar forms, Vaisnavism is often militant for purposes of demon-destruction, in Bengal during the Bhakti period, there was the benevolent cult of Vaisnavism of Sri Chaitanya, who propagated a message of a classless, casteless society based on love.

      Tantra comes from a Sanskrit word meaning 'weave' denoting 'continuity'. Tantrism is a religious cult in which Sakti is the main deity which is worshipped and the Universe is regarded as the divine playground/leelabhumi of Sakti and Siva, her consort. Tantra deals with spiritual practices and ritual observances, as earlier noted, which aim at liberation from ignorance and the cycles of re-birth. Tantra is common to both Hinduism and Buddhism.

      Purana comes from a Sanskrit word meaning 'of ancient times' and refers to a group of Hindu religious texts, notably consisting of narratives pertaining to the history of the Universe from Creation to Destruction. They also deal with the genealogies of kings, heroes, sages and demi-gods and provide descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy and geography. They are usually written in the form of stories related by one person to another. The sage Vyasa is traditionally considered to be the one who compiled them.

    [8] Mukundaram Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal (Kavikangkan Chandi), Calcutta: Basumati Sahitya Mandir, 1963, p. 91.

    [9] Swami Jagadiswarananda (tr.), Devi Mahatmya, Sri Ramakrishna Mission: Chennai, 1953, p. 73, vs. 54.

    [10] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal p. 6.

    [11] Thomas Coburn notes that the Devi Mahatmya uses a derivative of the name of the male god to indicate the sakti/power of that god who helped the Devi in her battle against the demons, as opposed to the female consort of that god. Thus while Aindri is the sakti of Indra, Indrani/Saci is the consort. Similarly Vaisnavi, Kaumari, Brahmani are saktis of Visnu, Kumara, Brahma in battle with the demons usurping the divine kingdom. See Thomas B. Coburn, Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1984, p. 133.

    [12] Subodh Kapoor, A Short Introduction to Sakta Philosophy, New Delhi: Indigo Books, 2002, p. 57.

    [13] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 53.

    [14] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 209.

    [15] The drinking of wine shows the goddess in her Mahalakshmi/Rajasic form. 'Drunkenness' and 'madness' are also latent meanings of the root 'div' of the word 'Devi.' See Thomas Cleary and Sartaz Aziz, Twilight Goddess: Spiritual Feminism and Feminine Spirituality, Shambhala: Boston and London, 2000, p. 14.

    [16] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 165.

    [17] Sivaduti, according to Coburn is a sakti of the goddess herself as opposed to the Matrkas which include saktis of the gods. Sivaduti shows the subordination of even Siva to the goddess.

    [18] Sivaa in Sanskrit, has the dual meaning of 'auspicious' and 'fox/jackal,' indicating in the Chandi Mangal the form of the female fox in which the goddess led the way for Vasudev to rescue Krsna from the murderous Kamsa across the stormy Yamuna.

    [19] The Navadurgas are supposed to be the most sacred aspects of Durga. The nine forms in which Durga manifested herself are worshipped during the Navaratri, the nine days of the autumnal festival. These Navadurgas are Shailaputri, Brahmaputri, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kaalratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidatri. Coburn, Devi Mahatmya, p. 138.

    [20] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 24.

    [21] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 235.

    [22] The image of the Devi Chandi worshipped even today in the poet's own home in his ancestral village is a four armed female figure holding the traditional Visnu attributes of the sankha/conch, chakra/wheel, gada/mace, padma/lotus.

    [23] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 5.

    [24] Devi Mahatmya, p. 147, vs. 42.

    [25] Cynthia Ann Humes, 'Vindhyavasini,' in Devi: Goddesses of India, ed. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, Motilal Banarsidass: Delhi, 1996, pp.49–76, p. 51.

    [26] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 184.

    [27] Coburn, Devi Mahatmya, p. 136, vs. 5

    [28] Coburn, Devi Mahatmya, p. 125.

    [29] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 211.

    [30] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 201.

    [31] Cleary and Aziz, Twilight Goddess, p. 13.

    [32] Devi Mahatmya, p.148, vs. 49. Her Sakambhari image is also ratified in the nine plants, navapattrike which she is offered in her autumnal worship during which the complete Devi Mahatmya is traditionally recited. Moreover, the fourth Navadurga, earlier referred to, in this essay, is Kushmanda, which literally means an egg incubating in kusha grass, known for its heat. So Kushmanda is the goddess of fertility and fecundity.

    [33] Devi Mahatmya, p. 55 (footnote).

    [34] Chakroborty, Chandi Mangal, p. 243.

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