Feeling The Distance Goddesses Once Again
In the mid seventies when I arrived in the United States I heard people call Marilyn Monroe a goddess but Virgin Mary who had all the characteristics of being a goddess was denied that status. To me things seemed upside down.
In India, I did not pay much attention to goddesses, but they were everywhere. Friends and family talked about the efficacious power (Sakti) of the Great Goddess (Devi). The many energies of Devi in the form of various goddesses is a common belief. During yearly festivals I viewed, with much interest, their graceful iconographic forms. The celebrations of Navaratra, Shivratri and Diwali brought to focus the images aflame with exquisite grace as well as sinister inelegance. The goddess myths and images awoke feelings of aesthetic delight and mystery.
When I came to America I brought the memory of the goddesses with me. Yet, I did not understand their meaning. It was obscured in the darkness of my ignorance. Why do goddesses look the way they do? Why are women as well as men devoted to them? Why am I attracted to them? The absence of images around me became part of the emptiness that I generally felt in this foreign country.
After a few years in my adopted country, I joined the Department of Religion at the University of Pittsburgh. I read goddess scriptures, looked intently at her images and interpreted Hindu goddess imagery and myths. I understood that the goddesses are significant cultural symbols in addition to being many other things.
By the time I received my doctoral degree in the Phenomenology of Religion I had reached the threshold of understanding. I began to be emotionally inspired by the goddess exemplars. This process had a transformative effect on me.
Goddess imagery is intense and paradoxical: erotic and sacred, seductive and powerful, beautiful and sinister, life-giving, life-sustaining and at the same time gruesome and destructive. Their paradoxical nature made sense to me. I saw myself in them. What I thought were contradictions in me — sexual partner and suckling mother, dotting and disciplinarian, loving yet outraged at gender, caste and class prejudices and inequality – were, in fact, activated goddess energies. They were dormant in me.
To awaken the dormant energies, I needed to deeply study and sensitively look at the goddess images and experience the delight of their dance, between mundane and transcendental, in my heart. My study and viewing the goddess imagery ended as a personal pilgrimage. The pilgrimage center, as it turned out, is my own inner light – the Goddess within me.
Excerpted (and revised) from my book, Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings and Models, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 2003.