The Goddess Chronicle
The legend goes that when the formidable buffalo demon Mahishasur was wreaking havoc on the three worlds, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva pooled in their energies to create a fearsome Goddess to slay him, as he could not be killed by either man or animal. The battle raged on for nine days, with Durga killing Mahishasur on Vijaydashmi.
Much like Eve fashioned out of Adam’s rib to serve a particular purpose, the Goddess then, despite being the most powerful deity, owes her creation and control to the Holy Trinity.
In Anuja Chandramouli’s new book Shakti: The Divine Feminine, however, Durga is Usas reborn. After her humiliation at the hands of her father, the hoary Brahma, who tries to rape her, and the celestial couple—Indra and Sachi—who envy her beauty and sexual freedom, the Goddess of Dawn decides to stop being nice and channels her hurt to reinvent herself as a fierce protector.
Chandramouli takes well-known stories of the Goddess’ valour from Hindu mythology—the creation of Durga, killing of demons Madhu-Kaitabh, and the slaying of Mahishasur—and retells them with great imagination and compassion. She packs in delicious twists with dollops of irreverence to free female agency in narratives that have been authored and appropriated by men for centuries.
The Goddess Shakti may be the source of all creation and the protector of the three worlds, but she faces the same problems as most mortal women. The ambitious among her celestial subjects resent owing anything to a female boss and plot to malign, control, possess and—when possible—destroy her. The men who adore her also vex her by placing her on a pedestal, and stifle her with the burden of their expectations.
Of course Shakti’s job has never been easy given that her creation is run by a pantheon of petulant, egoistic and chauvinistic men, led by Indra, who spend their hours in heaven plotting new intrigues, granting ridiculous boons and attacking hapless beings over petty jealousies. It is in her characterisation of devas and asuras that Chandramouli is at her imaginative best and once again proves herself to be a storyteller extraordinaire.
The line between good and evil is always fuzzy in the story, especially in context of Indra’s intrigues. Handsome, promiscuous, cruel and living in perpetual fear of losing his throne, he is more than matched by his diabolical wife, Sachi. Their shenanigans and the author’s deft exploration of their twisted psyches makes for a fine anatomy of evil.
Indra’s unwarranted murders of saintly asuras like Trishiras (pure envy) and Vritasura (was androgynous and started a Shakti cult), shaming of the victim (Usas), and attacking Shakti (at Daksh Prajapati’s infamous yagna) make him an even bigger villain in the story than Mahishasur. It is the most terrifying form of Shakti—Kali—who then must break free of her gentler self and deal with him.
Chandramouli’s Shakti best exemplifies Gandhi’s teaching of hating the sin and not the sinner. Before she frees Mahishasur from his hate-filled existence, Durga strips him of self delusions and makes him see the truth and cleanse himself with remorse.
There is also a misguided Vedic brotherhood in the plot—a lot like the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture and morality today—who serve the wrong than right in trying to ensure women remain stay-at-home wives and mothers and neither sex finds creative or sexual fulfillment.
The book’s celebration of the body is just as engaging as its critique of patriarchy. Usas’s curvaceousness is the envy of heaven. Kali couldn’t care less about personal grooming and has zero issues with body hair. And given her stressful nature of work, Shakti has mood swings that Shiva and Vishnu tackle with remarkable sensitivity. The most perfect union in the story is that of Shiva and Shakti, who give each other ample space, with neither seeking to control or possess the other.
The author’s interpretation of Shakti as a spunky Goddess, her depiction of the damage done by patriarchy and puritanical morality to both men and women makes for a delightfully stimulative read. For the feminists, humanists, spiritually inclined and those who like to keep an open mind, it is the perfect food for thought this Navratri.