“Devi: The Goddesses of India” edited by John Stratton Hawley & Donna Marie Wulff

Hindus, by and large, are accustomed to a plethora of Gods and Goddesses. From childhood on they have seen their parents and the elders in their houses worship a myriad of gods and goddesses. Every child will remember a shrine, big or small, ornate or simple, which housed the gods and goddesses to which the family prayed. The Gods and Goddesses which featured in the prayers often depended upon which part of the country one lived in. In the North of India, it was commonly Vaishno Devi, just as it was Durga in the East of India and Saraswati , the Goddess of Learning in the South of India. Perhaps Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth was a common factor all over the country. I too had my own notions about the Goddesses of India.

I was interested therefore to read, “Devi: The Goddesses of India” edited by eminent scholars John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff. The edition I read has been published by Aleph in 2017 for India and its neighbouring countries. Hawley is the Chairman of the Department of Religion at Barnard College. Earlier he was the well-known director at the South Asian Institute at Columbia University . Wulff is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University. They are widely respected for their scholarly credentials.

The book is a collection of twelve essays contributed by different scholars. The first chapter by Thomas Coburn is about Devi, The Great Goddess and Coburn relies upon the ancient text of the sixth century, the Devi Mahatmya to describe how she exemplifies the power of illusion and redemption (maya) ; earthiness and materiality (prakrti), and power and energy ( sakthi).

I particularly enjoyed Cynthia Ann Humes’ personal account of what it is to be experience mass worship when she is one amongst thousands jostling to pray to Vindhyavasini. She captures eloquently the sights, sounds and smells of the heady experience. David Kinsley’s chapter on Kali makes compelling reading as the subject is one which catches the imagination of every reader, be he Hindu or otherwise.

Sri or Lakshmi as she is popularly called and her role as the consort of Lord Vishnu is described by Vasudha Narayanan while Donna Wulff covers the story of Radha and Krishna which has been the source of many a legend.

The second part of the book starts with an essay on Ganga Maiya by Diana Eck who writes about how Mother Ganges holds a unique position in the Hindu religion being a tangible river and the very embodiment of sakti. The story of Saranyu the wife of the sun is then told by Wendy Doniger starting from earliest reference in the Rig Veda to the present.

Kathleen Erendl writes of  Mata Sheranvali who has to be one of the most popular Goddesses in the Indian pantheon and her avatar as Durga. Moving far away from the Himlayas to the South Indian State of Kerala on the other extreme of the vast Indian sub-continent, Sarah Caldwell writes about the powers of Bhadrakali and how it is common for some women amongst her worshippers to get possessed. Lindsay Harlan writes the story of Sati Godavari who curses her enemies and blesses her devotees. In the concluding chapter, Lisa McKean writes about Bharat Mata and how modern social, economic and political forces have given renewed vigour to the observing of Bharat Mata as Mother India. In the epilogue, Rachel McDermott describes how Kali has acquired a prominent place in the American and European religious movement sometimes called womens spirituality.

The book is interesting and was to me quite educative even though I have lived all my life as a Hindu in India. My tip to the reader would be to read one essay at a time. It is not the kind of book that one can read at a stretch. You may or may not find this as fascinating as I did but it is recommended for all those who wish to unravel the mysteries that often surround the Hindu religion.


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