EXPLORING CULTURES & TRADITIONS : Understanding Hindu goddesses and their role in girl empowerment (includes book recommendations)

Author: Gauri Kshirsagar

O Bhagwati,

Only if Shiva is conjoined with You can He create

Without You, O Shakti, He cannot even move

O, Mother, Hari, Hara, and Brahma worship You.

-The first stanza of the ‘Soundarya Lahari’ by Adi Shankaracharya.

It was Navratri and Durga Pooja this week and as several Hindu men and women seek blessings of this goddess, I am taking this opportunity to share a few glimpses of my twins’ journey – throughout last year – of understanding the great Indian goddesses from a feminist perspective.

My daughters have always had a very keen interest in powerful women, be it fictional superheroes like ‘Wonder woman’ or ‘Captain Marvel’ or real life superheroes like Anne Frank, Frida Kahlo or the Mirabel sisters.  Their interest in the Hindu goddesses developed last year when they came across the story of goddess Durga and her various forms. The interest eventually grew into reading multiple books, pretend plays, visiting temples, watching documentaries, listening to different devotional songs and even doing a photo shoot at home.

The Hindu religion is one of the oldest living religions today; around five thousand years old. It revered animals and humans respectively and even more so, women. Goddesses are worshipped just as much as gods and they are endowed with some of the most prominent powers and energies. Arthur Basham, a well-known historian of India wrote: The theme of Shakti perhaps grew out of a conflict and eventual compromise between a powerful matriarchal culture that existed in India before the Aryan migrations (2500, B.C. [B.C.E.]) and the male-dominated society of the Aryans. Consider how progressive this really was given the time; a time when it was men that represented the powers of the universe.

But over a period of time woman have been associated with an idealised mythical mother or goddess. This mythical mother is kept on a pedestal, to which women are upheld by the culture, as well as the perfection they themselves strive to achieve. The whole existence of the Indian women depends on how pious they are. The common notion of this “ideal femininity” or in the lines of “Sati Savitri aurat” is that the Indian woman must have these three values that make her truly an ideal Indian woman in the eyes of society. Those values are modesty, marriageability and silence. The combination of these values makes an Indian woman socially respected and desirable.

It must require a phenomenal level of illiteracy and prejudice to cite ancient Indian tradition as a reason to discriminate against women. For, the incontrovertible truth is that Hinduism must be one of the very few religions in the world that — both in philosophy and mythology — accord a status of absolute equality to women. Even though I am an atheist, I had a Hindu upbringing where goddess worship was part of our daily routine. Hence going back to my Hindu roots was paramount, so that my daughters get the right idea what these amazing ladies originally represented, if my daughters ever decide to follow my religion or culture.

So in the process we read these amazing books: (Click on the title names for their amazon links)

1. Nava Durga: The Nine Forms of the Goddess by Nalini Ramachandran, gives a comprehensive account of the nine deities of the Navaratri. A must have, it is first on my list. With an engrossing style of writing and beautiful illustrations, the author touches topics on Durga Pujo in Bengal, Garba in Gujrat, Kanya Puja, various foods, rituals and celebrations in India. It shows all forms of the goddess stressing on both girl power and goddess as a mother and wife. With a beautiful introduction by Adi Shakti, all the nine forms of the goddess are represented separate individual pages with a summary at the end.

Nava Durga by Nalini Ramchandran
Nava Durga by Nalini Ramchandran
Nava Durga by Nalini Ramchandran

2. My Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses by Sheila Dhir. A bought this book when my twins were very young as an introduction to Hindu deities. This book contains concise information about 20 different gods and goddess. Each deity is described on an individual page with illustrations from the author herself. Good addition for your book collection.

‘My Book of Hindu God and Goddesses’ by Sheila Dhir

3. Scholastic Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses by Deepa Agarwal. Though the title is misleading, it contains 10 different stories from Hindu mythology. If you are searching for information on individual deities, this book is not for you. The book has large print with okay-ish illustrations.

Story List in ‘Hindi Godsand Godesses’ by Deepa Agarwal.

4. The Daughter from a Wishing Tree: Unusual Tales about Women in Mythology by Sudha Murthy. A must buy. This book got my daughters hooked on Sudha Murthy books. The book is engrossing so much so that my twins have re- read it multiple times. It is in a format of a junior novel with black and white illustrations, hence it more appropriate for age 7 years and above. This book discusses the different forms of Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Parvati and many other women who have been a part of our primitive stories.

5. Temple Tales: Secrets and Stories from India’s Sacred Places by Sudha Tilak. The author a journalist writes about temples from all over India which she found interesting, associating it with childhood visits which made her appreciate art forms and stories of devotion and human compassion. Since there is no actual reference given by the author, I am not sure about the authenticity of her stories still this book covers some very interesting stories around food, art, architecture, dance, music and folktales across Temples in India. It is a good read.

6. Saraswati’s Gift by Kavita Kane. I have always believed knowledge is power and real wealth. Goddess Saraswati in my opinion is not worshipped as much as Laxmi or Durga is, hence this book  is a refreshed look on the lesser known stories of Goddess Sarasvati.

The Tridevi (त्रिदेवी) is a concept in Hinduism conjoining the three consorts of the Trimurti (Great Trinity), that are personified by the forms of Hindu Goddesses: Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati or Durga. My twins thought it will be a good idea to dress up as the goddesses just the way they love to dress up as Disney princesses or Super heroes. These three goddesses – Saraswati, Laxmi and Durga- that, put together, represent the whole universe. It doesn’t matter if they’re real, mythological, literary metaphors or imaginary environmental patrons. They’re the original superheroes: strong ladies that don’t give a damn, fight demons and monsters (Asuras), and protect the planet. And all this by caring, listening to their bodies and following their instinct. The goddesses in Hindu mythology are hardly reticent, coy, shy and handicapped by the nature of their physiognomy

Saraswati

For example SARASWATI is the goddess of learning and arts. She is the cosmic intelligence, cosmic consciousness, and cosmic knowledge. A girl’s true power in today’s world lies in the education and degree she holds, the skills she possesses and the books she has read, with this she becomes self-reliant. Education opens new avenues for her, she is not tied to the shackles of the society, and she can know what is right or wrong for her own self growth. Knowledge is the first and supreme super power a girl can acquire.

Laxmi

LAXMI not only signifies mere material wealth like gold, money, etc. All kinds of prosperity, glory, magnificence, joy, exaltation, or greatness come under Lakshmi. Who said a girl cannot own property? Why should a girl be dependent on her father or husband financially? Financial freedom is the second super power a girl can possess.

Durga

DURGA– Durga means the the one in-charge of this material world, she is the feminine epitome of strength. She is depicted in variety of Vedic literature as a goddess having power, determination, and wisdom. Having opinions of her own, standing up for herself, being strong, having courage, making her own decisions, facing the world is what makes the third super power. I wish every girl is a brought up in the image of Goddess Durga.

Handmade ‘Tridevi dolls’ by Cravy Bits.

Even the symbols the goddess carry like the lotus, book, Veena, Trishul speaks volumes, hence I gifted these beautiful dolls of goddess with their symbols as accessories to the twins. These are handmade, made to order, crocheted beautiful pieces of art made by a dear friend Upasana Jhulka from Cravy Bits. It takes lot of patience, love and long hours to creat such fine pieces of beauty. She has been making artistic designer toys and accessories for the twins since they were very young. You can check out her work here: Cravy Bits by Upasana Jhulka

‘Navdurga’illustrations by Aishwarya Vohra
2022 Devinity Calender by Aishwarya Vohra.
2021 Devinity Calender by Aishwarya Vohra.

I would love to mention another creator, Aishwarya Vohra, an illustrator from Happy Wagon whose desk calenders of 2021 depicting the Navdurgas were an instant hit with the twins. Her illustrations are the cutest depictions of the 9 goddesses. We have even ordered the 2022 Devinity calendar with lots of freebies. You can check out her work here: Happy Wagon

Even if you’re not a believer, you can appreciate just how amazing these female deities are; they can hold their own in a universe that is unavoidably incomprehensible, they do so much good and wield so much power that you can only be in awe of them. The images and scriptures of the Hindu goddesses, have rallied women around the globe to project their voices and be heard for centuries. We’ve been celebrating the power, intelligence and sanctity of women for so long, it’s only natural and inherent to us. That’s not to say that culturally, things have changed these very ideas and notions, but women are strong enough today as they were centuries ago to demonstrate their extraordinary abilities.

By us women echoing their very nature, we can ensure that we teach or daughters to break those metaphorical glass ceilings and achieve anything and everything.


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