Tag Archives: Durga

Prakriti and Shakti: The Nature of Feminine Divinity in Hinduism

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

With over one billion followers worldwide, Hinduism, also known as the Sanatan Dharma, is the third-largest faith tradition globally. It is also the oldest tradition with an unbroken and recorded history of over 5,000 years. Hinduism is also the only significant faith tradition that recognizes and then manifests through various rituals and worship, the divine form of feminine. In Hindu cosmology, both feminine and masculine forms are accorded equal status. 

Womanhood is generally associated with the notions of fertility, benevolence, and bestower in most indigenous traditions. As symbolic of life and fecundity, motherhood is viewed and celebrated, both conceptually at an abstract level and manifest, in fertility rites throughout the indigenous ‘pagan’ cultures. Hinduism being one of them, is not different in this aspect. 

In the Hindu tradition, the notion of Divine is a complex interplay between purusha — the Self, the Spirit — and prakriti — Nature, the undifferentiated matter of the Universe. In addition, shakti (power) is recognized as the energizing principle of the Universe. It is feminine, and it represents both creation and divinity. It embodies the primordial Energy of the Universe – the ādi shakti.

In the Hindu scheme of things, the notion of purusha and prakriti represents the opposite creative tension that renders them inseparable. They end up being the mirror image of each other. On the other hand, brahmana is the ultimate Consciousness that transcends all qualities, categories, and limitations. 

Mata (mother) Sita, one of the main characters of the epic Ramayana by Valmiki, embodies prakriti. According to Lavanya Vemsani, a professor of Indian History and Religion at Shawnee State University, the symbolism of nature prakariti in Sita’s life events is “unmistakable.”  The spontaneous nature of Sita, Vemsani writes, “can be understood as the natural expression of prakriti (nature), symbolized by forest and female spontaneity in classical Indian literature, especially the Ramayana.” 

According to the legend, Sita was born out of the earth, not from a womb (ayonija). She is described as the daughter of bhūmi (the earth). In the Ramayana, when Raja Janak, Sita’s father, plowed his fields, she sprang up from behind the plow. This, according to Vemsani, “brings to mind the spontaneous sprouting of plant life from the earth in its most natural form, as in the wild… [and thus] the birth of Sita indicates… her closeness to the spontaneous life and her affinity to nature (prakriti).” 

Sita spent 14 years of her life in a forest as vanavāsa (forest exile). During this period, several events such as Sita being dragged off by Viradha, the proposal by Shurapanakha, and the “golden deer” — represent the unfulfilled desires of forest dwellers. Though these desires result in a loss for Sita, it is “in conformity with the nature of the forest where one can desire anything that is likable, spontaneously,” writes Vemsani. 

Sita’s end of life is as natural as her birth as she returns to the earth upon her death. 

On the other hand, shakti is seen as the abstract supreme creative power, the cosmic Mother, out of which all creations come about. It is a universal energy force. While the ultimate reality in the universe is considered and conceived as a powerful, creative, active, and transcendental female, it manifests itself in various forms: mother goddess, warrior goddess, etc. As Uma or Parvati, she is the gentle caring consort of Shiva. As Durga, she rides a tiger which represents the ego and arrogance that must be tamed. In shakti form, the feminine divinity is seen as the fierce savior and protector of the cosmos when in danger. 

Durga (Image from VedicFeed)
Durga (Image from VedicFeed)

Hindu epics are full of Devi (goddesses) stories of the protectors of the righteous and the destroyer of enemies. Kaikeyi and Satyabhama accompanied their husbands to the battlefield. Chandragupta Maurya (century 3rd BCE), the founder of one of the largest empires of the Indian subcontinent, had his bodyguard corps comprised exclusively of women. 

The underlying duality of the Hindu feminine divinity allows us to understand the role of women in Hindu society. This role is conceptualized through shastras (treatises), puranas (legends and lore), and itihasa (record of important events). Through examples of behavior, these texts establish explicit role models. However, a general rule of thumb in interpreting Hindu texts is to avoid exclusive reliance on foreign translations and academic works as they are often fraught with inaccuracies.  


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.


 

Navratri’s Significance as Hindus Across America Cast Votes

Navratri is a Hindu festival that is celebrated for nine nights and ten days during the Fall season. The lunar calendar determines the timing of the holiday. Navratri is celebrated a few times during the year, but the festival that occurs during the Fall is referred to as Sharad Navratri, which is the most important one. This year, the festivities started on October 17th.

Navratri is usually a time of fasting and reflection for Hindus and is celebrated differently depending on the region of India in which it is celebrated. When fasting during this festival, many Hindus eat a vegetarian diet and avoid alcohol. Hindus honor goddesses by providing offerings. In many parts of India, worshippers celebrate the goddess Durga on the 10th day of the festival. On this final day, we observe Dussehra, when Hindus acknowledge Durga’s triumphant victory of good over evil. 

This Navratri, I am looking ahead to this year’s presidential election. As an Indian-American, it is important for us to recognize candidates that have consistently defended our values and will understand the rich diversity that Indian-Americans and Americans from various backgrounds, bring to this country. Vice President Joe Biden has a distinguished track record as a public servant. As a Senator, he authored important legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act, and had the crucial role of serving as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden also exemplified an excellent track record as Vice President during the Obama Administration when he helped America through a crippling recession and successfully led the federal government’s response to the Ebola pandemic.

Biden is the right person to lead America during this uniquely difficult time in our nation’s history.  He has a plan to help millions of Americans obtain affordable healthcare. For our youth, he has a plan for people to obtain a quality education by investing in schools and making college more affordable. He is determined to help communities recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19 instead of just giving away taxpayer money to billionaires. Biden also has a vision for clean energy and environmental justice. Most importantly, his leadership is respected worldwide and I believe that as the next President of the United States, he will advance the security, prosperity, and values of this nation to build on our democracy and strengthen world alliances. 

This year at the voting booth, let’s show the world that just like in the festival of Navratri, “Goodwill always triumphs.” 


Meenu Khanna is a proud New Yorker and active volunteer in Democratic politics. She immigrated from India more than 30 years ago and after becoming a U.S. citizen, she cast her first vote for then-Senator Barack Obama during the 2007 Presidential Primaries.

The Changing Woman: Women’s History Month

International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month has been on my mind.  There are a lot of empowering stories that buzz about. We read, share, and celebrate these messages. While we applaud these “others”– we often miss the ones that are closest to us. Examples of enduring strength, love and courage surround us, even though we don’t stop to recognize them.

There are legends which form part of the mythology of cultures world wide, deifying and honoring the “female” – as a creative spirit, as the “giver of life” – and as goddesses. India has its pantheon of  “Devis,” worshiped for the roles they play in her ancient and plentiful mythology.

The correlations between such legends and myths crisscross and resonate. As does the concept of “Changing Woman” – who is one of the most revered of deities among the Native Americans of the southwestern United States. For the Navajo people, Changing Woman is central to their way of life. She is a benevolent figure, giving people their abundance and teaching them to live in harmony with all things. She is part of the initiation ceremony of Navajo women, imbuing young girls with the values of love, hospitality, and generosity. She teaches that within each woman is the source of food, creation and harmony.

Her  most important quality is that she can change at will from a baby, to a girl, young woman, and age into an old woman – repeating the cycle, performing roles within the mythic framework as needed. Changing Woman is part of the Navajo spirit, and lives through them as a nourishing goddess, who teaches the wisdom of nature and the cycles of birth and death.

My upbringing was full of such stories of goddesses. Much like the Changing Woman, they colored my life through the voices of my grandmothers. They were celebrated as Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Durga, Kali, Parvati, and many more as I discovered for myself as I grew older. Worshiping them I gradually accepted that they each had qualities I could identify with – as the woman I was becoming.

In an attempt to acknowledge, and applaud the creative female spirit, I have created a series of “portraits” of women I have the privilege of knowing personally. This series celebrates the ability of women, to hold on to their creative identity while they “shape-shift” and evolve to fulfill the many labels and roles in their lives.  It is the only way I know how to walk with them – to join in their journey, and learn from their stories.