Decoding mysteries of the divine femme
CHENNAI: Temple sanctorums hold intriguing stories — those which have their roots set in a period 2,000 years ago. Aren’t you curious about how goddess Kali came to be depicted with her red tongue out and skeletal heads around her neck? Or why goddess Matangi is worshipped with meat and wine in a place that holds the highest levels of sanctity?
Madhu Khanna, professor of Indic religion and Sanskrit scholar, decodes this mystery of goddess worshippers for us. She picks anecdotes from her 25 years of study on tantric goddesses, for which she has earned a doctorate from the Oxford University. Madhu was in the city recently for the launch of Saktapramodah (Sapta is tradition of goddess worshippers) of Deva Nandan Singh — a book that is a compendium of 16 ritual manuals dedicated to 10 tantric goddesses.
After the British invasion, the practice of goddess worship was mostly lost and many were resorting to fraudulent means. So Raja Deva Nandan Singh, an aristocratic zamindar of Muzaffarpur, Bihar, compiled the correct practices of worship of goddesses and brought out the book Saktapramodah in the 19th century (1860). “What I have done is, I have edited and revised the text in Sanskrit and also added a 100-page introduction in the book. Now, it is bilingual,” says Madhu.
She says that in the 15th and 16th centuries, the worship of goddesses was an anti caste tradition — outside the vedic mainstream. “Like Mathangi who is associated with impure substances and Umavathi, a widow. It was a tradition that formed a new social base and was born out of struggle. It widened the base of worship,” she says.
“And the interesting part is,” she adds, “These goddesses were not worshipped individually but as a group. They encompassed femininity.” These include vedic goddesses like Kamala and Lakshmi, Saivites like Tripura Sundari and Bhairavi, Buddhist goddesses like Tara and Chinnamasta, and Kali among others.
The goddesses, she says, went underground with the beginning of a patriarchal society in the first century. “Now, after 2,000 years, we are re-reading the texts and finding the archeological evidence. In India, however, things are better off. The goddesses have only transformed. People used to worship smallpox goddess once and Santoshi ma, granddaughter of Lord Siva, was worshipped in the 1960s,” she says.