Arghya Dipta Kar
This article explores the gender dynamics centring round the myth of the goddess Satī, with reference to the Bengal cult of Śakti that finds articulation in the Mahābhāgavata Purāṇa1. This involves a comparison between the version of Satī in the above Śākta text of mediaeval Bengal and the one in earlier Purāṇas like the Śiva.2 The study highlights how with the adaptation of the Śaiva myth into the goddess-centric Purāṇic text, Satī emerges from a subordinate and powerless wife to an independent and omnipotent matriarch. With this, it has been observed how the Sanskritization of the female oriented religious traditions of Bengal and their assimilation into Brahminism entailed a total remoulding of androcentric Brahminical myths. As this article argues, the goddess tradition proved powerful enough to totally subvert and restructure the gender hierarchies implicit in myths such as that of Śiva and Satī.. Finally, considering the accepted status of Satī as a role model for Hindu women, the article enquires into the possibility of effecting gender revolution through the popularization of her gynocentric, anti-patriarchal version as established in the Mahābhāgavata Purāṇa.
Introduction- Enquiring into the evolution of religious cults, one must foreground the diverse cultural dialogues that weave into myths and icons pertaining to both canonical and non-canonical forms of religion. In the context of Hinduism, this dialogic nature is spelt out particularly in the Purāņas. It is interesting to observe how these texts operate through a complex network of narratives that perpetually re-mould re-structure themselves to fit into heterogeneous sectarian requirements. Our study concerns the goddess Satī, who on a pan-Indian scale, is held to be an archetype of ‘womanly’ virtues, celebrated for her loyalty and devotion to Śiva, her husband. However, as this article explores, in the Bengal version of this goddess, she sheds off her role of dependence and subordination; and assumes an overwhelmingly dominant position over all male authorities. It must be observed how the religious ethos of Bengal was responsible for this metamorphosis.
Śāktism in Bengal: Centrality and Supremacy of the Goddess- Our discussion might begin with a brief consideration of Śāktism in Bengal, consisting in the worship of goddesses such as Durgā, Kālī, Tripurasundarī and also a huge number of folk deities like Śītalā, Manasā or Mangalacaņḑī. It has a powerful expression in the Tantric culture of this region, centred round a group of female deities called the Mahāvidyās.3 In sharp contrast to the patriarchal religion of Brahminism, Śāktism displays a unique system of female-oriented ontology, theology and cosmogony. Here, Śakti holds a dominant position over Śiva, being the dynamic cosmic energy responsible for all creation, as opposed to the latter who is passive and inert without her power.4 In the iconography of Dakṣiṇakālikā, based on the dhyāna given in the Kālī Tantra,5 the goddess is depicted as ‘standing on the corpse (śava) like body of Śiva’. The same dhyāna describes her as ‘involved in reverse sexual union (viparītarati) with Mahākāla’6, where she sits on top of him. Citing a handful of examples from the Tantric texts of Bengal that establish Śakti as the Absolute, and highlight her supremacy over Śiva; one might turn to the Nirvāņa Tantra7. Here the Ultimate Reality is the Supreme Śakti, who combines both Śivahood and Śaktihood like the two halves of a gram8, thereby absorbing within herself both the male and the female cosmic principles. Creation arises with the division of the two and then Śiva is produced from her as her son, whom she herself marries. Very important in this respect is the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra9 that eulogizes Kālī as the supreme origin of the universe. Describing her relationship with Mahākāla (Śiva), it says, Mahākāla, the Destroyer of the Universe, is your form. At the Dissolution of things, it is Kāla who will devour all, and by reason of this he is called Mahākāla, and since you devour Mahākāla himself, it is you who are the Supreme Primordial Kālikā. Because you devour Kāla, you art Kālī, the original form of all things, and because you art the Origin of and devour all things you art called the Ādyā Kālī. Resuming after Dissolution your own form, dark and formless, you alone remain as One ineffable and inconceivable.10
The Upapurāṇas of Bengal- Alongside with the Tantras, the cult of the female divinity occupies a dominant position also in the Brahminical Purāņic tradition of Bengal. It might now be considered how the framing of this tradition of a universal great goddess was itself effected though constant dialogic negotiations between Brahminical and non-Brahminical religious currents, that resulted in the composition of the Upapurāṇas. It might be asked, why was it at all required to compose these Upapurāṇas? Kunal Chakrabarty11 explores the complex political nuances within the cultural exchanges between the smārta Brahmins and the aboriginal population of mediaeval Bengal, which lay outside margins of Vedic culture. As regards the strategies employed by the former in effecting this negotiation, he makes the following observation: The brāhmaṇas, especially in the peripheral areas, wanted to enter into a dialogue with the indigenous population through the composition and propagation of a set of texts, because the success of brahmanical hegemony depended on the acceptance of their normative prescriptions and the internalization of their cultural assumption by the local people. They composed their texts with a view to invoking a particular response in their intended recipients.12
With reference to R.C.Hazra’s13 extensive studies on the Śākta Upapurāņas and Chakrabarti’s exploration of the dialogues governing their formation, the association of these texts with Bengal might be asserted. The available Śākta Upapurāņas include the Devī14, the Kālikā,15 the Mahābhāgavata16 and the Devībhāgavata17; all of which celebrate Devī in her various forms.
In this context, it is to be stated that unlike the patriarchal religion of the Vedic and Brahminical communities, the religious life of mediaeval Bengal was dominated by the cults of diverse aboriginal and independent goddesses, who were later assimilated into the pan-Indian concept of the Great Goddess; as a strategy to absorb the local population of this cultural zone into the fold of Brahminism.18 The Durgāsaptaśatī 19, whose origin is located in Bengal by a considerable number of scholars20, illustrates a complex interaction amongst various Vedic, Purāṇic and folk traditions to crystallize out the grand concept of a unified universal goddess.21
The Mahābhāgavata- Another such significant example of Brahminical appropriation of this powerful female-centric religious tradition of Bengal is the Mahābhāgavata (to be distinguished from the Vaiṣṇava Bhāgavata,22 a canonical Mahāpurāṇa). Being of a comparatively later date, it is not mentioned in any text other than the Bŗhaddharma23 which also draws narrative elements from it. As according to Hazra, the Mahābhāgavata was composed around 10th to 11th Century A.D.24 Ascribed to Vyāsa for the sake of authenticity, the text particularly emphasizes its own divinely revealed nature.25 From the centrality it attributes to the shrine of the goddess Kāmkhyā26, an inference might be drawn that it was composed in the eastern part of Bengal adjacent to Kāmarūpa. It celebrates the exploits of Devī in the roles of Prakṛti, Satī, Pārvatī and Kṛṣṇa.27
The Goddess Satī: A Comparative Study- The present article however focuses primarily on the Mahābhāgavata’s rendering of the goddess in her incarnation as Satī. It will be observed how this goddess involves a layering of complexes such as human/goddess, sovereign/subordinate, wife/mother, dominant/docile. As regards the Dakṣayajna myth in whose context she emerges, Shashibhushan Dasgupta28 is of the view that it is a documentation of the confrontation between the Yajna-oriented Vedic religion represented by Aryan authorities like Dakṣaprajāpati and the cult of the aboriginal deity Śiva, lying outside the margins of Vedic culture. In her dual roles as Dakṣaprajāpati’s daughter on the one hand and as a form of Śakti on the other, Satī occupies an ambiguous position as per her Vedic or non-Vedic origin, well reflected in her multilayered character that will be soon explored here. It will be observed how patriarchal29 texts like the Śivapurāņa are in a perpetual process of reducing her role to that of a subordinate female consort: powerless, dependent and at times even morally inconsistent enough to demand an immediate intervention of male authorities. However it remains to observe that when this myth was to be circulated in Bengal, how regional religious cults and sectarian orientations entailed an urgency to reframe its entire fabric. A comparison between the Śiva Purāņa and the Mahābhāgavata versions of the Satī myth will unravel a process of radical subversion of the formers’ underlying patriarchal ideology by the latter; thereby exploring its potential for gender-revolution.
1. Satī in the Śiva Purāņa- Summarizing the long narrative in the Śiva Purāņa dedicated to the goddess’s incarnation as Satī, the very purpose of her birth is to fulfill Brahmā’s wish by deluding the ascetic Śiva from his penance into the life of a householder.30 Born as the daughter to Dakṣa, she engages in hard penance to have Śiva as her lord.31 The latter however agrees to accept her under a long list of conditions, one of which demands of her an unfaltering belief in her husband’s words, failing to which she would be immediately abandoned by him.32 Wedded to Śiva under strict moral conditions freshly framed for her, Satī however fails to fulfill this condition as once she doubts his words when he says that Rāma is the deity he worships. Not only does she counter her husband’s view, but also proceeds forth to test Rāma by appearing before him in the form of Sītā. However, her attempt to delude him is frustrated since Rāma recognizes her instantly and when the broken-hearted goddess returns to Śiva, the latter has already abandoned her from his heart.33 Fallen from grace, Satī has to pay the price of her life for her transgression; for soon her father Dakṣa arranges a grand Yajna, in which he invites all gods and goddesses, except for Śiva and Satī. Having received the news, an eager Satī approaches Śiva to grant her the permission to attend the event. The latter does not agree, but Satī’s adamant resolve to be present at the Yajna drives her to move against her husband’s command and this further adds to her burden of sins. However at the Yajna, she finds herself humiliated when her father repeated hurls insulting words at Śiva, which the loyal wife finds impossible to tolerate. Repentant for disobeying her husband, she immolates herself by virtue of her Yogic powers.34 Otherwise considered an incarnation of the Great Goddess, Satī’s human career is indeed pitiable and pathetic, and all what happens to her at the end is in fact her punishment (for failing in being an absolutely unquestioning and obedient wife) at the hands of the patriarchal legislators of the Purāṇic culture. However, her act of self-immolation makes her into an epitome of ‘womanly’ virtues like loyalty and sacrifice, held in high esteem in any patriarchal society.
2. Satī in the Mahābhāgavata Purāņa- When the Śivapurāņa myth of Śiva and Satī was to be circulated in Bengal, the Brahminical authorities might have found it difficult to accommodate it into the gynocentric (if not matriarchal) religious culture of this region. Here, the androcentric and patriarchal narrative entered into a dialogic negotiation with the Śākta theology in order to fit into the religious temperament of its native population. This dialogue was effected through significant re-framings, restructurings and re-hierarchizions of the myth’s narrative contents so that it could be appropriated into the powerful cult of the female. The Mahābhāgavata Purāņa illustrates this very cultural process in its retelling of the Satī myth. In this context, two fundamental points are to be observed. On the one hand, when recast into the Bengal mould, the myth’s ontological and theological foundation had to be uncompromisingly altered into the frame of Śākta beliefs, yet on the other; the basic course of events could not be compromised with, for after all, the myth had to be that of the Dakṣayajna. As it will be observed in course of the following discussion, the narrative structure of the Mahābhāgavata has been framed round a double-layered level of hierarchical orders. On the surface, it is the same patriarchal account of Satī’s life as Śiva’s wife and Dakṣa’s daughter and her self-immolation at the Yajna. Yet, beneath this surface is another order that flows like a cultic unconscious occasionally bursting forth, disrupting the text’s surface reality. This consists of the centrality of Satī herself by virtue of her identity as the Supreme Goddess who is the creatrix of all beings including the trinity gods. It is interesting to note how the powerful undercurrent of gynocentricity dismantles the entire structure of patriarchal meanings centering round Śiva’s phallic authority.
Notably, the status of the second order as an ‘unconscious’ to be ‘unearthed’ is highlighted in the text itself. As it narrates, once Nārada enquires Śiva about the identity of the Supreme Divinity worshipped even by the trinity gods, but Śiva makes all efforts to evade the question lest the ‘secret’ gets revealed.35 However when the former proves his steadiness in the pursuit of this secret knowledge, Śiva finally says, She Who is the subtle Mūlaprakṛti, the origin of the universe and the eternal one, is Herself the Supreme Brahman and the Deity we trinity gods worship. Just as here in this universe there is a Brahmā, a Viṣṇu and a Maheśvara who is myself; as its creator, preserver and destroyer; of millions of such Brahmās, Viṣṇus and Maheśvaras dwelling in myriads of universes, She is the Creatrix. Though herself formless, she playfully assumes bodies. By her is the universe created, by her preserved and by her it is destroyed. She deludes the world. Earlier, She in Her complete incarnation had become the daughter of Dakṣa and then that of Himavat. Partially She became Lakṣmī and Sarasvatī as the wives of Viṣṇu; and Savitrī, the consort of Brahmā.36
Śiva narrates how before the creation of the universe, Śakti alone existed as the Supreme Reality beyond which there was nothing. She desired to create and produced a Puruṣa whom she divided into Brahmā, Viṣṇu & Śiva.37 The supreme goddess commanded them all to perform austerities on the causal water and in course of their penance, she individually tested their fortitude. Of the three, only Śiva stood her test.38 She then granted him the boon, ‘I, the perfect Prakṛti, will myself incarnate as Dakṣa’s beautiful daughter;and will be your wife.’39
This forms the ‘background’ of Satī’s birth. Her roles as a wife and a daughter in the patriarchal institution of family are only ‘assumed’ ones externally imposed on her. The above narrative serves as a rite of passage for the omnipotent matriarch’s voluntary ‘entrance’ into the phalocentric order. Paradoxically, this very ‘entrance’ into the patriarchal order is again a subversion of its sexual norms as here it is a mother who marries her own son.
Only after having established thus the supremacy of Śakti over Śiva, the ‘surface level narrative’ discussed earlier, begins. Satī goes on playing a docile submissive wife, but the fixity of this role is continually diluted as the ‘gynocentric unconscious’ goes on undercutting all phalocentric claims to the centre. Hence, all patriarchal orders have been rendered playful and the goddess’s roles as a daughter or a wife are made to be only a sport (līlā) of hers, which deludes even Śiva. As the text narrates, when Dakṣa invites all the gods to his Yajna except for Śiva, Satī approaches her lord to grant her the permission to visit her father’s place.40 Śiva refuses and one must mark the way his entire discourse is aimed towards the perpetuation of patriarchal hegemony. A son in law always expects great honour at his in-laws’ place. The father in law too should receive him with great honour. He should never dishonour his daughter’s husband or exhibit any lack of affection towards him. Or else, he will violate the principle of dharma. It is true, o it is true. To hate one’s son-in law is a great sin’ 41
Satī still keeps on insisting that being a daughter, she has every right to visit her father even without invitation.42 Śiva says, Do not disobey me and drop the idea of going there. A woman can never be happy by transgressing her husband’s commands.43 Finally, he chides her; you never obey my forbidding and will do whatever comes to your mind. Fools only commit blunders and blame others. I have known, you the daughter of Dakṣa, will never be held by my words. Do whatever you like, why wait for my permission? 44
Satī now makes a vital decision and here begins the disruption of the surface-layer patriarchal order in the narrative. She muses in her mind, only on account of his hard penance; Śankara has been able to have me as his wife. Now, he is ignoring me and hitting hash words at me. I shall quit him and my father, the pride-puffed Prajāpati, and will return to my true abode for some time. This will be my own sport.’45
So here, it is not Śiva abandoning a transgressing Satī but the latter deciding to punish Śiva for his transgression. She gradually reveals her true form, casting a strange glance at him with burning eyes and gives a frenzied laughter. Thunderstruck, Śiva discovers the terrible goddess Kālī standing in front of him- naked, wearing a garland of human skulls and bearing a sword in her hand. Shaken from his ground, the terrified Śiva runs and watching him flee thus, Kālī laughs aloud.46 The woman who a moment ago was praying to him with extreme humility, now amuses herself with the sight of his helplessness. When Śiva attempts to flee, she checks him by surrounding him from all sides in the form of the ten Mahāvidyās (Kālī, Tārā, Ṣoḍaśī, Bhuvaneśvarī, Bhairavī, Chhinnamastā, Dhūmāvatī, Bagalā, Mātangī and Kamalā).47 This dramatic shift in power hierarchy renders ridiculous the long speech made by Śiva about a wife’s duties towards her husband. At last, he is forced to beg pardon; I have known you to be the perfect Prakṛti, the Highest Creatrix. Whatever I have said, ignorant of your true nature and blinded by delusion, please pardon that. You are the Primordial one, the supreme Vidyā residing in every object. Ever independent you are. Who is there to impose rules upon you? When you have decided to go to Dakṣa’s Yajna, what power do I have to stop you? Pardon me for whatever I have said deluded by the ego of being your husband. 48
Interestingly, the authority vested in Śiva as the goddess’s husband proves a mere illusion, since it is none but by the will of the goddess alone that he is allowed this status. The illusion is soon broken when she reveals to him her reality as the Ten Mahavidyās. What has been called the ‘narrative unconscious’ or the ‘gynocentric undercurrent’ now fully disrupts the surface reality of Śiva’s patriarchal power and unleashes what can be justifiably called a ‘textual carnival’. In its process of reframing the Śiva-Satī myth, the Mahābhāgavata thus first accommodates and then shatters the level of narrative containing the gender hierarchy established in the Śiva Purāṇa. Patricia Dold’s essay ‘Kālī the Terrific and Her Tests: The Śākta Devotionalism of the Mahābhāgavata Purāņa’49 explores the gradual process of the goddess’s humbling of Śiva’s pride, which continues even up to the next half of the narrative when Satī re-incarnates as Pārvatī and unites with him. It is interesting to unravel the layered structure of Bengal’s reception of the aforesaid myth, as it involves a complex paradox of patriarchal power and matriarchal sovereignty. Initially, he acknowledges her as the Great Goddess, but later, when married to her in the form of Satī, suffers from the pride in his status and no longer recognizes Satī or Kālī as the supreme deity. By the end of the text’s third narrative, Śiva overcomes his pride and becomes the Goddess’s greatest devotee, humbling himself before the terrific Kālī.50
Remarkably, when the text narrates the episode of Satī’s self-immolation at Dakṣa’s place, two fundamental changes have been introduced. First, it is not the real Satī who quits her body but only a shadow of hers (Chhāyā Satī or Chhāyā Kālī)51 who resembles the former in every aspect and is appointed by her to play the mortal woman; while the original Satī remains in an invisible celestial form. Secondly, what prompts her self-immolation is not (unlike as in the Śivapurāņa) a keen feeling of repentance owing to her presence in the Yajna where her husband is not given any share of respect; but an angry decision to quit the body born from Dakṣa.52 Besides, one must draw a comparison between the two texts’ visualization of the goddess in her final act of immolating herself. As the Śivapurāņa describes, the Yogic process through which she quits her body is a gradual sublimation of her soul though complete surrender to her lord. …Having sipped water duly, covering up her body entirely with her cloth she closed her eyes and remembered her lord. She then entered the yogic trance.
… Keeping her face steady she balanced the winds Prāņa and Apāna. She then lifted up the wind Udāna from the umbilical region, stabilised it in the cardiac region took it through the throat and finally fixed it in the middle of the eyebrows.
... She desired to cast-off her body due to her anger with Dakşa. She desired to burn off the body and retain the pure wind by yogic means. In this posture she remembered the feet of her lord and nothing else.
…Her body divested of its sins fell in the yogic fire and was reduced to ashes, O excellent sage, in accordance with her own will. 53
In sharp contrast to the above description, the Mahābhāgavata inscribes into her act a tremendous amount of self-assertion. Having said thus, the enraged Chhāyā Kālī assumed a terrible form with three burning eyes and her forehead rising up to the region of the celestial bodies. Her mouth was gaping wide. Touching her feet, her long tresses were hanging down. Her lustre resembled the mid-day sun and her colour was that of the dark clouds of the day of annihilation. With her body dazzling with angry flames, the Great Creatrix gave a frenzied laughter repeatedly; and in a deep voice said to Dakşa, ‘I shall go not only out of your sight, but also out of the body born of you.’ Then before the sight of all the gods, the goddess Chhāyāsatī, with eyes burning with anger, entered into the Yajna fire.54
If the genesis myth discussed towards the beginning of the Mahābhāgavata narrates the omnipotent matriarch’s voluntary acceptance of ‘womanly’ roles in patriarchy as a daughter and a wife, the episode of her self-immolation is all about a deliberate rejection of these very roles and a dramatic break out from patriarchal power-institutions governed by the father on the one hand and a husband on the other; since rejecting both, she re-assumes her independent position as the Supreme Creatrix.
Parallel Comparison with Sītā in Adbhuta Rāmāyaņa- It requires to be mentioned here that alongside with Satī, another spouse-figure held in high esteem in Hindu patriarchal discourses is Sītā. However, in the gynocentric religious culture of Bengal, the latter too casts off her assigned subordinate role and gets metamorphosed into a power-figure. If the Mahābhāgavata illustrates a re-construction of the myth of Satī, an example of similar multileveled rendering of the Sītā myth is provided in a version of Rāmāyaņa called the Adbhuta Rāmāyaņa55, a late sixteenth century text with resemblances to Tamil materials.
To sum up the narrative in the above text, after the killing of Rāvaṇa and Rāma’s return to his capital, a group of sages visit his court to praise him for his heroic deeds. It is then that to the astonishment of all, Sītā smirks and questions Rāma’s prowess by providing an account of a thousand headed Rāvaṇa dwelling in an island called Puṣkara, and a thousand times more powerful than the ten-headed one. Rāma’s pride is hurt and with all his army he immediately starts for Puṣkara. A terrible battle follows and the new Rāvaṇa proves to be unimaginably more powerful than previous one, since he succeeds in smiting Rāma down with his arrows. When all are lamenting, Sītā suddenly gives a frenzied laughter and assumes the form of Mahākalī. In a moment she produces thousands of demi-goddesses from her body and chops of all the heads of Rāvaṇa. Then she starts a terrible dance and proceeds to destroy the whole universe. To protect the gods, Śiva intervenes and prostrates under her feet. To appease her, Brahmā restores Rāma back to life. Waking up, the latter is astonished to see his Sītā in such an overwhelming omnipotence. He worships her as the Supreme Being and like Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavadgītā 56, Sītā blesses Rāma with the divine vision of her supreme form as the Absolute.57
Cultural Reception of the Mahābhāgata version of Satī and the Question of Gender Relations- The above discussions on the Bengal Śākta reworking of the mythologies related to Satī and Sītā foregrounds a central issue pertaining to gender construction. This concerns popular mythology’s role as carriers of social hegemogy through the setting up of role-models; since all are familiar with the patriarchal inscriptions in the traditional understanding of Satī and Sītā as ideal examples for Hindu wives. As T.B. Coburn posits the question in respect to the latter, how does the multiplicity inherent in the Rāmāyaņa tradition bear on understanding Sītā as a role model? Similarly, since it is now a commonplace that the Great Goddess as mother is not merely a benign nurturer but also a horrific destroyer, we might also ask: how is this Devī, who is often anything but a model wife, related to the exemplary Sītā?58
This question, which equally applies to Satī as in the Mahābhāgata, opens up an enquiry into the reception of cultural icons as fixed or flexible in their assumed meanings. This amounts to asking what after all can be the possible social implications of Satī and Sītā as role models, considering their versions in the Mahābhāgavata and the Adbhuta Rāmāyaņa? Can the patriarchal icons be boomeranged back to undo the very ideological foundations of patriarchy? Here it is important to mark that the genesis narrative and the Daśamahāvidyā myth in the Mahābhāgavata enjoys tremendous popularity in Bengal and has been adapted into innumerable later discourses including Bhāratacandra Rāya’s Annadā Mangala,59 Girish Ghosh’s play Dakṣayajna60 and even has a film version as Satīr Dehatyāga.61 The potential contained within it to disrupt phalocentric hierarchies is well recognized everywhere. However, there are certain adaptations of it which display a tremendous effort to curb its subversive anti-patriarchal element. Reference must be made to a poem called ‘Satī Samhāra’62 by a contemporary Tantric practitioner named Sri Abhijit, who has the image of the goddess Ādariņī installed at his residence in Santiniketan, Birbhoom district. His misogynist rendering of the myth re-inforces the Śivapurāṇa version of Satī as a frail, confused woman, easily given to errors for which she is punished at the end. Here, after the division of Śiva-Śakti, the latter forgets her divine nature and a quarrelsome, transgressive, headstrong Śakti nags for worldly enjoyments, having all her good deeds exhausted. In her arrogant audacity, she once assumes her Daśamahāvidyā form, disobeying Śiva’s authority. As a result, the one who was once absorbed in austerities for the precious treasure, has now lost everything. She has been emptied by her untimely sleep. Śiva’s Satī has lost her light in the pride of self-transformation. The daughter of Dakṣa has fallen from the grace and rare Mantras of the five headed one, though once the Great Goddess.63
The fall finally culminates in her death. One wonders what justification might Sri Abhijit might provide for contradicting the very meaning of ‘Mahāvidyā’, for here she has been literally made to function rather as Avidyā, the very opposite of Vidyā. Such patriarchal receptions and reproductions of the gynocentric myth of the Mahābhāgavata indeed highlight the potential within it to effect gender relations.
This again foregrounds another question as regards gender hierarchies. What after all can be an alternative to patriarchal orderings? A mere reversal of the centre, with the structure remaining the same? For is not the Mahābhāgavata and the Adbhuta Rāmāyaņa’s version of female-centricity after all a plain reversal of the hierarchy implicit in the Śiva Purāṇa and the Rāma-centric Rāmāyaņas?
Here, it again requires to be remembered that in the polyphonic discourses of the Śākta Purāṇic literature, while on the one hand patriarchal orderings are rendered in playful terms; yet on the other, the goddess-centricity too is playfully postulated for ultimately the underlying philosophy is founded on the monistic doctrine of ultimate non-duality of the male and the female cosmic principles. In their attempt to strike a negotiation between the male gods of Brahminical religion and the sovereign status of the goddess in Bengal, the smārta authorities had to turn to a process of unification thereby dissolving the duality between them. This is well exemplified in the Devībhāgavata Purāņa,64 which despite its Śākta tendency of glorifying the goddess over all male deities, does not compromise with the doctrine of non-duality between Devī and her male counterpart. In the abovesaid texts, the goddess herself declares before Brahmā, that Puruşa and Myself are one and the same. He is what I am and I am what He is. Differences arise owing to confusions…Brahman is One without a second and is eternal. Yet at the time of creation, it appears to be dual….Again after the final dissolution, I am neither male, nor female, nor neuter. Differences exist only during creation and are so imagined into existence.65
This spirit of non-dualism also pervades the Mahābhāgavata and the Adbhuta Rāmāyaņa. The eighteenth chapter of the former66 declares that the Ultimate Reality is the non-duality of Śiva and Śakti. It also applies to the latter where the very first book establishes that Sītā is Rāma and vise versa, with no difference existing between the two.67 One cannot ignore the role of the Tantric tradition of Bengal in shaping this doctrine of Śiva-Śakti non-duality.
Conclusion- These are significant accounts of the medieval Bengal texts providing a version of non-dualism that does not however amount to any essentialistic fixation of meanings and identities. This non-duality is a flexible one welcoming a diverse range of dualities or pluralities, rather than excluding them. Meanings and hierarchies are now set and now dismantled, amounting to a dilution of their hegemonic elements. With this it might be argued that critical evaluations and socio-cultural understandings of such myths can to a great extent be effective in re-moulding the cultural psyche deeply informed by role model icons.
1. Srīmahābhāgavatam, ed.&tr., Panchanan Tarkaratna Nababharat Publis., Kolkata, 1995).
2. Śiva Purāņa, Part I, Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology, vol. 1, tr. a Board of Scholars and ed. J.L. Shastri (Delhi: Motilal Banasridass, 1970).
3. For discussions on the Mahāvidyās, see for instance Madhu Khanna ‘Introduction’ in Śāktapramodaḩ, ed. Madhu Khanna (New Delhi: Tantra Foundation, 2013), pp. 9-78.
4. See for instance, Upendra Kumar Das, Śāstramūlaka Bhāratīya Śaktisādhanā, vol. 1, (Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2010), pp. 343-344.
5. śavarūpa-mahādeva-hṛdayopari sansthitām| ----Kālī Tantra, ed. Srimat Paramatmanadanath Bhairav, Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, Kolkata chapter 1, verse 34, p. 5.
6. mahākālena ca samaṁ viparīta-ratāturām|| -------Ibid., chapter 1, verse 35, p. 5.
7. Nirvāṇa Tantra, in Tantrasamgraha, ed. Saumananda Das ( Kolkata: Nababharat Publishers, 1408 Bangābda) chapter 1, verses 14-30, p 2-4
8. This stands in sharp contrast to what Ellen Goldberg observes in course of her study on the iconography of Ardhanārīśvara in The Lord Who is Half Woman ( New York: State University of New York Press, 2002 ), where she explores how in this androcentrically androgynous deity, the feminine element is subsumed and absorbed into the male.
9. Mahānirvaṇa Tantra, ed. Arthur Avalon, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, 1989, ullāsa 4, verses 9-34, pp. 53- 61.
10. tava rūpaṁ mahākālo jagatsamhārakārakaḩ| mahāsaṁhārasamaye kālaḩ sarvaṁ graşiṣyati||
kalanāt sarvabhūtānāṁ mahākālaḩ prakīrtitaḩ| mahākālasya kalanāt tvamādyā kālikā parā||
kālasangrasanāt kāli sarveşamādirūpiņī| kālatvādādibhūtatvād ādyā kālīti gīyate||
punaḩ svarūpamāsādya tamorūpaṁ nirākŗti| vācātītaṁ manohagamyaṁ tvamaikavaśişyase||-Ibid., ullāsa 4, verses 30-33, p. 61.
11. Chakrabarti Kunal, Religious Process (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001)
12. Ibid., p. 23.
13. Hazra, R.C., Studies in the Upapurāņas, vol. II (Calcutta: Sanskrit College,1963) pp.1-444.
14. Devīpurāņam, eds & trans., Panchanan Tarkaratna, Nababharat Publishers, Kolkata.
15. Kālikāpurāṇa, ed. Panchanan Tarkaratna (Kolkata: Nababharat Publishers,1384 Bangābda).
16. See Note 1.
17. Devībhāgavatam, ed. SriPanchananTarkaratna, Nababharat Pub., Kolkata, 1388 Bangābda.
18. Chakrabarti Kunal, op.cit., pp. 199-202.
19. Durgāsaptaśatī, with seven commentaries in Sanskrit, viz., Pradīpa, Guptavatī, Caturdharī, Śāntanavī, Nāgojībhaṭṭa, Jagaccandrikāand Damśoddhāra, e.d., KshemarajSrikrishnadas, Bombay: Sri Venkateshvar Press, 1989.
20. See for instance, Swami Jagadishvarananda,‘Bhūmikā’ in Śrīśrīcaṇḑī, ed. and trans. Swami Jagadishvarananda (Kolakata: Udbodhana Press, 1962) pp. 28-29.
21. Coburn, T.B., Devī Māhātmya: The Cryatallization of the Goddess Tradition (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984) p. 1.
22. Bhāgavatapurāņa, with Curņika commentary. 2vols (Bombay:Sri Venkatesh Press, 1949).
23. Bṛhaddatmapurāṇa, ed.& tr., Panchanan Tarkaratna, The text draws its narrative of Śiva-Satī (madhyamakhaņḑam, chapter 1-9) from the Mahābhāgavata. Nababharat Publishers, Kolkata.
24. Hazra, op.cit., pp. 355-357.
25. Srīmahābhāgavatam, op.cit., chapter 1, verses 46-52, pp. 5-6.
26. Ibid., chapter 12, verse 1-46, pp. 66-70
27. The Mahābhāgavata makes Kŗşņa into an incarnation of Kālī rather than that of Viņşņu (Srīmahābhāgavatam, op.cit., chapters 49-55, pp. 198- 226). This is a significant example of Śākta appropriation of Vaişņava icons and myths.
28. The Dakṣayajna myth emerged in order to unify the Vedic cult of Rudra who deserved to be served with Yajna and Śiva who was deprived of Yajnas, being outside the Brahmanical fold and accompanied by ghosts and phantoms---- Dasgupta Shashibhushan, Bhārate Śakti-Sādhanā O Śākta Sāhitya, Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad, 1367 Bangābda, p 43.
29. The predominance of a male deity necessitates the text’s theological structure to be patriarchal.
30. Śiva Purāņa, op.cit., ‘Rudrasamhitā’, sectionII (Satīkhaņḑa), chapter11, verses1-51, pp.319-324.
31. Ibid., chapter 15, verses 1-28, pp. 336-339.
32. Ibid., chapter 16, verses 38-44, pp. 345-346.
33. Ibid., chapters 24-26, pp. 384-395.
34. Ibid., chapters 28-30, pp. 405-417.
35. Srīmahābhāgavatam, op.cit., chapter 2, verses 27-33, p. 8.
36. yā mūlaprakŗtiḩ sūkşmā jagadādyā sanātanī| saiva sākşāt paraṁ brahma sāsmākaṁ devatāpica|| ayameko yathā brahmā tathā cāyaṁ janārdanaḩ| yathā maheśvaraścāhaṁ sŗşţisthityantakāriņaḩ|| evaṁ hi koţikoţīnāṁ nānā brahmāņḑavāsinām| sŗşţisthitvināśānāṁ vidhātrī sā maheśvarī|| arūpā sā mahādevī līlayā dehadhāriņī| tayaitat sūyate viśvaṁ tayaitat paripālyate|| vināśyate tayaivānte mohyate ca tayā jagat| saiva svalīlayā pūrņā dakşakanyābhavat purā|| tathā himavataḩ putrī tathā lakşmī sarasvatī| aṁśena vişņorvanitā sāvitrī brahmaņastathā|| - Ibid., chapter 3, verses1-6, p.10.
37. Ibid., chapter 3, verses 11-19, p. 11.
38. Ibid., chapter 3, verses 38-49, p. 13.
39. pūrņā prakŗtivāhaṁ bhavişye tava gehinī| sambhūya tanayā cārudehā dakşaprajāpateḩ||-Ibid., chapter 3, verses 77, p. 15.
40. Ibid., chapter 8, verses 2-3, p. 35.
41. jāmātā śvaśurastāne’pekşate paramādaram|| śvaśuro’pi tamādŗtya svālayeşu samānayet| adānaṁ vapyavātsalyaṁ jāmātari vivarjayet|| anyathā dharmahāniḩ syāt satyaṁ satyaṁ varānane | jāmtŗdveşataḩ pāpaṁ jāyate vai sudāruņam|| -Ibid., chapter 8, verses 8-10,p. 36.
42. Ibid., chapter 8, verses 27, p. 37.
43. tasmāttvaṁ tatra mā yāhi na mamājnāmatikrama| bhartāraṁ samatikramya na nārī sukhamaśnute|| -Ibid., chapter 8, verses 36, p. 38
44. avāritāsi devi tvaṁ yathecchhaṁ kuru sarvathā| apakarma svayaṁ kŗtvā paraṁ duşayate kudhīḩ|| jānāmi vāgvahirbhūtāṁ tvāmāhaṁ dakşakanyake| yathāruci kuru tvanca mamājnāṁ kiṁ pratīşyase||-Ibid., chapter 8, verses 53-54, p. 39.
45. samprārthya māmanuprāpya patnībhāvena śankaraḩ| māmavajnāya vacanaṁ bhāşate’ti dāruņam| tyaktvainamapi darpişţhaṁ pitaranca prajāpatim|| saṁsthāsyāsi kiyatkālaṁ svasthānaṁ nijalīlayā|-Ibid., chapter 8, verses 57-58, p. 39.
46. Ibid., chapter 8, verse 67, p. 40.
47. Ibid., chapter 8, verses 75-80, pp. 82-83.
48. jāne tvāṁ parameśānīṁ pūrņāṁ prakŗtimuttamām| ajānatā mahāmohādyaduktaṁ kşanturhasi|| tvamādyā paramā vidyā sarvabhūteşvavasthitā| svatantrā paramā śaktiḩ kaste vidhinişedhakaḩ|| tvancedgamişyasi śive dakşayajnavināśane| kā me śaktistvāṁ nişeddhuṁ kathaṁ tatrāsmi vā kşamaḩ yaccoktamatimohena matvatnamaṁ patiṁ tava| tatkşamasva maheśāni yathāruci tathā kuru||-Ibid., verses 100-103, pp. 83-84.
49. Dold, Patricia, ‘Kālī the Terrific and Her Tests: The Śākta Devotionalism of the Mahābhāgavata Purāṇa’ in Encountering Kālī: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West, Rachel Fell McDermott & Kripal, Jeffrey J., eds., (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas Publishers, 2005), pp. 39-59.
50. Ibid., p. 47.
51. Srīmahābhāgavatam, op.cit., chapter 9, verses 56, p. 48.
52. Ibid., chapter 9, verses 81-82, p. 53.
53. Śiva Purāņa, op.cit., chapter 30, verses 3-8, p. 415.
54. evamuktā tu sā devī chhāyākālī ruşānnitā| dadhau bhayānakāṁ mūrtiṁ jvalannetratrayojjvalām|| nakşatralokasamprāpta-mastakāṁ vistŗtānanām| āpādālambisammukta-keśapāśavirājitām|| madhyārkasahasrābhāṁ yugāntajaladaprabhām| tataḩ sā krodhadīptāngī sāţţahāsaṁ muhurmuhuḩ|| kŗtvā gambhīrayā vācā dakşamāha maheśvarī| ahaṁ te cakşuşorvāhyā bhavişyāmi na kevalam|| tvajjātadehavāhyāpi bhavişyamyacirādiha| evaṁ chhāyāsatī devī krodhaddīptavilocanā|| paśyatāṁ sarvadevānāṁ yajnavahnhau samāvaiśaṁ| Srīmahābhāgavatam, op.cit., chapter 9, verses 78-80, p. 53.
55. Bŗhat Adbhuta Rāmāyaņa. ed. and tr., Dhanapati Haldar (Kolkata: Rajendra Liabrary, date of publication missing) chapter 17-26, pp. 119-166.
56. Śrīmadbhagavadgītā, ed. Swami Advaitananda (Kolkata: Bharat Sevashram Sangha, 2005), chapter 11, verses 9-46, pp. 378-396.
57. Bŗhat Adbhuta Rāmāyaņa, op. cit., verse 7, p. 156.
58. Coburn, T.B., ‘Sītā fights while Rāmā Swoons’ in Breaking Boundaries with the Goddess :New Directions in the Study of Śāktism, eds., Cynthia&McDermott, NewDelhi, Manohar, 009, p. 36.
59. Bhāratcandra O Annadāmangala, ed. Bhabesh Majumdar, p. 123-128.
60. Dakşayajna in Girish Rachanabali, (vol. 2) ed., Dr. Deviprasad Bhattacharya, Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata, 1945 pp.5-42.
61. Satīr Dehatyāga (in Bengali), directed by Manu Sen, 1987.
62. amūlya nidhir anveşane tapasyāratā chhilen yini- āj ekānta niḩsva, riktā halen akāla nidrāyǀ
śiver satī, jyotihīnā halen ātmavikārer abhimāne ǀ pancānaner samasta dayā evaṁ sudurlabha mantra theke, pūrņa rakşaņa theke cakita cyuta halen dakşa kanyā, satī bhagavatīǀ-Abhijit, Sri, ‘Satī Saṁhāra’ in Ādariṇī Tantra, (Kolkata: Sahayatri, 2005), pp. 79-85.
63. Ibid., p. 83.
64. See note 15.
65. sadaikatvaṁ na bhedo’sti sarvadaiva mamāsyaca| yo’sau sāhamaham yā’sau bhedo’sti mativibhramāt|| ekamevādvitīyaṁ vai brahma nityaṁ sanātanam| dvaitabhāvaṁ punaryāti kāla utpatsusaṁjnake|| nāhaṁ strī na pumāṁścāhaṁ na klīvaṁ sarvasaṁkşayaye|sarge sati vibhedaḩ syāt kalpito’yaṁ dhiyā punaḩ||’-Devībhāgavata, op.cit., Part3, chapter6, verse2,4,7,p.144.
66. Srīmahābhāgavatam, op.cit., chapter 18, verse 12-14, p. 92.
67. Bŗhat Adbhuta Rāmāyaņa, op. cit., chapter 1, verse 16, p. 13.
Arghya Dipta Kar
Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilizaions,
Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.