Difficult Transitions

In the three articles “Kumaris: The Temporary Child-Goddesses of Nepal” by Jesse Pesta, “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” by Isabella Tree, and “The Very Strange Life of Nepal’s Child Goddess” by Julie McCarthy, the authors explore the difficult transitions kumaris face once they hit puberty and have to return to a normal life.

In the three articles, the writers explain the practice of worshipping kumaris, child-goddesses that are the “living embodiment of Durga, the Hindu goddess of strength and protection” (Pesta 1). Hindu holy men choose these kumaris after considering the child’s zodiac, determining whether the child possesses the “’32 characteristics’ of physical perfection,” and conducting several other tests that would help determine which child is the living goddess (McCarthy 3). Once the kumari is selected, she holds her reign until she reaches puberty or loses any blood. Kumaris is rarely seen once she is chosen, living an isolated existence in which she is carried around because her feet cannot touch the ground.

Pesta’s article, “Kumaris: The Temporary Child-Goddesses of Nepal,” emphasizes the importance of the kumari tradition during the time of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal in April. While many of the buildings in central Kathmandu were badly damaged or destroyed, the local kumari’s home remained intact. Those faithful to the kumari tradition saw this as a sign of the her power; they believe that they survived the earthquake because of the “blessings of the goddess” (Pesta 4). The article (as do the other two articles) also discusses the need to educate kumaris during their reign so they are not as far behind in their education when they must join the real-world. Though some see the kumari tradition a violation of human rights, in a video interview attached to the article ex-kumari Chanira Bajracharya explains her belief that especially in a male-dominated country such as Nepal, “the kumari tradition gives an important message to the society that girls are to be respected” (Pesta).

McCarthy’s article, “The Very Strange Life of Nepal’s Child Goddess,” explores the experiences that Bajracharya had as a kumari in more detail. She recalls during her reign that she felt “a distinct physical sensation when the force was present in her” and during that time she “understood people’s ‘wishes and granted them'” (McCarthy 5). She explains that there was a supreme being that manifested her body and made decisions for her. Feelings of greatness are heightened by “the culture,” “the religion,” and “the state” which “subsidizes Kumaris with a small stipend in recognition of their service” (5). The article also reveals that the reasons a kumari must retire once they hit puberty is because it makes them more susceptible to the distractions of young men and as a child grows older, “she will be tempted to tell the secrets of the temple” (5). However, much of the information about the kumari (what she knows/does) is a mystery because she is a goddess and, if she were to share those things with the rest of the world, she would be nothing but a “common woman” (5).

Although Pesta and McCarthy’s articles were very informative, I found Tree’s article, “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” the most interesting because it traces the experiences of a girl and her family as she goes through the steps to become a kumari. While I was reading it I felt that Tree was much more involved in the actual experience of the kumaris than Pesta and McCarthy, making the writing feel more genuine. In her article, Unika is in the process of becoming a kumari and her father expresses his concerns with the situation. Though being the parents of a child goddess is an honor, he was worried about the costs of having a kumari daughter. These costs include the price of “special clothes and make up” and creating a space of worship in the house with a throne in which the kumari can receive visitors. The family would have to perform daily worship rituals, the kumari would have to be carried everywhere, she would have to be put on a strict diet, and everything in the house would have to be kept “ritually pure” (Tree 2). In addition to all of this, she would not have a proper education and it would be difficult to find a man to marry her because “men are superstitious about marrying ex-kumaris” making it very difficult to assimilate to the real world once her reign is over.

I found these three readings incredibly interesting, but I think as a whole, a lot of the information was redundant. As I mentioned before, I found “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” the most intriguing because of how involved Tree was in the process – she seemed to make a real personal connection with Unika and her family and watching Unika change into the kumari over time brought a fresh perspective. Though looking at ex-kumaris sheds a lot of light on some of the faults in the system, it was interesting to look at, in detail, how the kumari is chosen and the dilemmas that families face leading up to a daughter becoming a kumari.

The concept of the kumari giving the people of Kathmandu hope after such a devastating natural disaster made me wonder what the class thinks about the relationship (if there is any) between religion and optimism. Is somebody who believes in a higher power more likely to look optimistically toward the future?

The disconnect between the people declaring this tradition a violation of human rights and the people who follow the tradition/the women who have served as kumaris also brings me back to the question: whose responsibility is it to determine what religious practices are “okay” to practice?

I thought it was interesting that in the kumari tradition, they trust younger children with secrets more than older adolescents. Growing up, the younger children would never be informed of any secrets because they were thought to be more likely to slip, so it was a very new concept for me. Reading this section made me wonder how they ensure that the outgoing kumari won’t share the “secrets of the temple” as they grow older and less inclined to keep those secrets.

I also found it interesting how the kumari comes from a Buddhist family, but she is considered a reincarnation of Durga, a Hindu goddess. It made me wonder why Buddhist families are willing to put forth their daughters for this position. How does being a kumari affect ones religious beliefs?

Implications Kumari Must Face

In “The Very Strange Life of Nepal’s Child Goddess” the author gives a detailed description of kumaris in the Kathmandu Valley and selection process as well as life after being a kumari. This article described how the Kumaris are chosen from the Newar community. Newars were the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. They are Buddhists who adopted the Hindu caste system and overall, symbolize harmony. The Kumari is believed to be in the incarnation of the goddess Durga. Durga is thought to visit the Malla dynasty each night until the king makes sexual advances and then Durga exits in anger. The king dreams about Durga, where she tells him to “find a child from the Shakya caste. I will enter her soul and you can worship her as you worshipped me.” The king obeys the dreams and the Living Goddess is born as the Kumari.

The article describes the exclusive selection process where the young child must meet 32 physical characteristics. During elimination rounds of choosing the Kumari, a certain group of religious figures are present during the tests. When selected, the Kumari lives must live in isolation and is not allowed to divulge secrets of her experiences until she reaches puberty, when she is deposed.

The ex-Kumari that was highlighted in this article seemed to note the idea of secrets and the capacity of young girls to retain these secrets. At such a young ages, many girls do not fully understand the power of secrets and the meaning behind them. When she divulges a secret, she is considered a “common woman.”

“Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” discusses more of the implications to being a Kumari and how the transition is for families. While the Kumari is worshipped among the community, the article brings up the point of the family and the financial difficulty of maintaining the lavish lifestyle of the Kumari. For example, make-up, outfits, and certain foods make traditions and rules difficult to financially abide by. The author also discusses how the Kumari is immediately dethroned as soon as blood exits the body. This happens when the female gets her first period. Ages vary among Kumaris and while each one is different, the transition into normal life is rough. Kumaris have been sheltered their entire life making interactions with people difficult. While these girls are still young to transition into adulthood, education is also difficult to catch up on and takes particular attention and tutors to help the girls catch up.

I found both of these articles to thoroughly describe the history and the implications of the life of a Kumari. While both state the transition out of being a Kumari is tough, the financial burden seemed to be the intriguing to me. How can families financially support the needs and lifestyle of a Kumari? Is there financial support from religious figures? If the family cannot support the Kumari is it possible to deny the election to be a Kumari?

The obvious transition for the female back into common womanhood seems to be interesting to look at too. The girl featured in “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses,” Chanira, ended her time as a Kumari and now wants to pursue music. At a young age, these girls are taught to close their mouth and not respond in public settings, because of these taught social interactions, today, Chanira awkwardly answers questions and seems to have difficult with interactions with people. I wonder if Kumari’s ever adjust to “normal life.” So much of our adulthood is dependent on our values we learn as children, how can ex-kumaris make this immediate 360 change and forget everything they learned up to their adolescence and change their values? How might the family all of a sudden stop change their ways of teaching their young daughter and transition back into regular life. Is the family, not just the Kumari, viewed differently when the Kumari is worshipped? With western culture learning about this part of religion, can the Hindu beliefs of the Kumari and the transition into normalcy be changed with these influences? Or do the Hindus believe in upholding tradition and beliefs? With such a feminine based religion, is it difficult for males to understand the struggle of Kumaris during and after being a Kumari? Do you think Hindu males feel the same sympathy as the western culture?

Transition to and from Divinity

“The Very Strange Life of Nepal’s Child Goddess” provides a summary of how the practice of having a Kumari came to be (based on one of the many stories), the selection process. I found the piece insightful since it touched upon various aspects of the history and current importance surrounding the Kumari. The Hindu goddess Durga is believed to have visited the king of the Malla dynasty until he made sexual advances, which caused her to disappear. When she came back in a dream, the goddess told him to find a child from the Shakya caste because she would enter the child’s soul so that the king could continue to worship her. 32 characteristics and various tests as used to search for the goddess among the available little girls.

Throughout the piece, the secrecy not only surrounding the selection process, but also the life of the chosen child is highlighted. Only a select group of religious figures are allowed to be present during the tests, the Kumari lives in isolation for most of her time, and is not allowed to talk about much of her experiences after she is dethroned. This sense of mystery provides a sense of legitimacy for the religious practice: “It’s a mystery. It’s sacred. And if we tell all of the secrets, she’ll no longer be a goddess” (3).

It was interesting that once the Kumari is older, it is believed that “she will be tempted to tell the secrets of the temple,” instead of being more trustworthy due to her age (3). While she may be deemed capable of keeping secrets, she is still “susceptible to the distractions of young men” (3). Is this the case because she is a woman even though she is believed to be a reincarnation of the goddess Durga? If the Kumari came to be because of a man’s sexual desire, then why are men able to tempt the Kumari and not the other way around? Is the child seen as sexually enticing since she is believed to be a reincarnation of the goddess? Are there any male versions of Kumari, and if so, how does their reign come to an end?

While this first piece provided a nice overview, I like that “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” explored the life of a Kumari and then her transition back into mortality. While a girl is the Kumari, she is “believed to have powers of prescience and the ability to cure the sick, fulfill specific wishes, and bestow blessings of protection and prosperity” (1). Even though she is the religious force in the community, her family bears the financial burden associated with making sure she follows all of the requirements, including eating specific foods, and wearing certain clothes and colors (It is mentioned that teachers tutor the girls for free, so does that mean that donating to Kumaris is common? Does corruption make it so wealthier Kumaris are chosen?) As soon as she gets her period, the goddess then exits the body, and the search for the new host child begins. The very same powers that were once revered can then be the cause of snakes exiting the vaginas of ex-Kumari’s and devouring the men they are having intercourse with. Although there is a form of rehabilitation that occurs after the Kumari is dethroned in order to diffuse her powers, she is not given any support or guidance when entering the human world. Chanira says that a larger stipend to cover the various expenses that come with being a Kumari, counseling to ease the drastic transition back to mortality, and a support network of former Kumaris would be of great aid (6).

The portion of the article that described Chanira’s shy behavior when being interviewed, and fears including crowds, traffic, and strangers intrigued me. Although I figured that such isolation would have social interaction repercussions, she validated and gave insight to my assumptions. While it is clear that being a Kumari impacted the way she interacts with life, I couldn’t help but look for ways in which Chanira was a “regular” girl: she worse leggings and a Koala sweater, and hoped to be a musician someday. I guess I wanted to see if some of her personality remained intact because Unika went from a smiling girl to a Kumari that had an “aura of imperiousness that made [the author] feel like a child” (6). Have psychologists talked to Kumaris? Do human rights activists have the authority to step in and intervene when this is a religious practice and they would be outsiders imposing their own beliefs (which is more important, the girl’s mental health or upholding a tradition?)?

Both pieces mentioned the significance of the earthquake destroying all of buildings besides the residence of the Kumari, which highlights her power. The author of “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” mentions that the religious practice is losing support from the community because “people are not used to following religious disciplines these days. They are becoming distracted by other things” (3). What has lead to the decline is support for Kumari’s (Western ideas?)? I’m also curious as to whether this auspicious sign that came about as a result of the earthquake will increase the belief.


Devi: A Modern Representation of Classic Mythology

In a constantly evolving world, how can old traditions keep up with modern culture? When Hinduism was first created, legends and stories were passed down through oral traditions. Now, there are many forms of media to communicate a message. Authors today have their choice of film, texts, and images to convey an important story. In Shekhar Kappur’s Devi, the author uses the form of a graphic novel to tell the story of Devi versus Bala. In this day and age, graphic novels (also known as comic books) are extremely popular and well known in pop culture. However, the classic story of Devi story is embellished and updated to appeal to a younger crowd by using typical archetypes and art styles seen in popular comic books today. Shekhar Kappur has redesigned the classic epic of Devi into a superhero comic book in order to help keep religion relevant in todays pop culture.

In Shekhar Kappur’s Devi, we are first introduced to our heroine during an intense battle. Here, we see Devi’s army versus Bala’s army. It is explained to us in the prologue that Bala has gotten too powerful, and that he must be taken down because he has turned evil. We are also told that Devi was created by all of the gods donating power to her so that she may kill Bala, but in reality she simply returns Bala to his father, Bodha, who asks Devi not to kill Bala but rather keep him imprisoned for all of eternity. Devi accepts this request and returns her powers to all of the gods. The scene changes to sometime in the future. Now, Bala and his underlings have returned to kill the next incarnation of Devi, as they are aware the goddess will be reborn soon. Here, other characters are introduced, such as Krathra (an assassin of the gods) and Inspector Rahul Singh (a police officer), and the story begins to take a much more modern turn. In this time, there are all of the modern conveniences of the 21st century and then some, so cars and guns can be seen. The story then focuses on our main protagonist, Tara Mehta, who is unwillingly going the reincarnate of the goddess Devi. Tara is kidnapped by a secret society called the Durapasya who are planning on killing her so Devi can reincarnate in her body. However, this plan goes awry once Bala’s assassins appear to kill Tara before she can be a vessel for Devi. Great chaos occurs but Tara ends up back at the Durapasya’s hideout, all the while being exposed to Soma, which allows Tara to communicate with the gods, including Isana, the first Devi incarnation of Devi. A violent fight between the Durapasya and Bala’s assassins occurs, which causes the Durapasyas to be unable to kill Tara before the goddess Devi inhabits her body. This ends up with Tara still being herself, but with Devi’s powers.

I found Kappur’s reimagination of the story of Devi really gripping and enjoyable. It changed the classic tale of Devi into a “chosen-one” superhero story, a common archetype found among many different superhero stories (i.e. Superman, Ms. Marvel, etc.). Reading this, I was reminded of the Thor comic books, which were also inspired by mythology, although Thor is from Norse mythology and Devi is from Hindu mythology. I also found it interesting that in Devi, when Tara is speaking to different gods and receiving powers from them, she does not just receive powers from Hindu gods such as Kama (the Hindu god of desire), but she receives powers from gods of other traditions as well. Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, gives her the power of light and the Greek god Apollo gives her skills that will make her a better warrior. However, there are also some gods that are unique just to this comic book. Kapital, the wealth god, blesses her with money while Interface, the messenger of the gods, promises to make her “look, smell, and sound so good they won’t know what hit them.” Kapital is clearly based on money, as he is literally made out of money, and every time he speaks the letter “s” is replaced with “$,” i.e. “Onward my dear, with my ble$$ing$, bli$$ point be your$.” Kapital can also be interpreted as a manifestation of Capitalism itself. Interface is obviously based on technology and possibly the media, as he is made out of wires and electronics. He also speaks as a stereotypical talent agent, and is most focused on Tara’s outward appearance to the world, promising her great PR, charisma, and catchphrases. This could be an interpretation that he represents the media that promises to paint Tara in a positive light.

I find it interesting that he chose these two entities to be gods in his story. Is he trying to make a statement about capitalism and the media being so important to people that they are like gods now? Also, I am interested to see how people feel about the idea of recreating a religious story into a superhero comic book? Do you think it is disrespectful and discrediting the sanctity of that religion or do you think that it’s ok to be inspired by religion?

As a side note, I would like to point out that it seems Devi is not alone in reimagining Hindu gods as superhero characters. Disney’s Pixar is now coming out with a new short film called “Sanjay’s Super Team,” which seems to be a young Hindu boy imagining Hindu gods as an “Avengers” type team. It isn’t out yet, but here is a link to a preview of it.

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=222ztGhX4SE


Tales of Durga – Femininity & Symbolism

Tales of Durga tells the story of the Hindu goddess Durga, as she protects the devas (benevolent deities) from the warring asuras (malevolent deities). The comic is broken into three main stories, “Durga—The Slayer of Mahisha,” “Chamundi,” and “How Durga Slew Shumba,” each of which depict Durga defeating a commanding asura who challenges the devas.

The first story, “Durga—The Slayer of Mahisha,” begins with the asura Mahisha pleading with the deva Brahma to make him immortal. Although Brahma denies his request for immortality, Mahisha seemingly tricks him by entreating him, “If I must die, Lord, let it be at the hands of a woman” (3). Brahma capitulates, and Mahisha revels in what he believes to be an assurance that he cannot be defeated: “How can a woman, a helpless creature, kill me?” (3). Feeling invincible, Mahisha and his fellow asuras engage in battle against the devas, who as males cannot kill Mahisha. After eradicating the devas, Mahisha assumes the throne of Indra, and begins a reign of terror and oppression against those whose allegiance lies with the devas. Powerless against Mahisha, the devas seek the help of the Trimūrti—the three deities Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—who call upon the divine feminine manifestation Durga. Armed with the weapons of the devas and riding atop her lion mount, Durga confronts Mahisha at his palace and destroys his army. After a skirmish in which Mahisha takes the form of various fierce animals, the goddess finally kills Mahisha, to the triumph of the devas.

The following story, “Chamundi,” begins in a similar fashion, with an asura—this time Shumbha—ousting the devas from their heavenly abode. And again, the devas appeal to Durga for help. As the devas pray, Shiva’s consort Parvati, an aspect of Durga, appears, and the beautiful goddess Ambika emerges from Parvati’s body. Upon seeing this, Chanda and Munda, two of Shumbha’s disciples who had followed the exiled devas, return to inform Shumbha of Ambika’s divine beauty. Determined to marry Ambika, Shumbha commands his two disciples to capture her. However, Ambika informs them that she has “taken a vow that I’ll marry only him who can conquer me in battle and humble my pride” (18). After receiving word of this, Shumbha sends an army of asuras to confront Ambika. But Ambika effortlessly obliterates the leader. As the persisting asuras approach Ambika, Kali, the ferocious incarnation of Durga, emerges from Ambika’s forehead, violently crushes the asuras, and beheads both Chanda and Munda. Pleased, Ambika gifts Kali with the epithet Chamundi, after the two disciples she decapitated.

The final tale, “How Durga Slew Shumbha,” picks up where the last left off. Shumbha brings an army to fight the two incarnations of Durga, who had just defeated his men. As they surround Ambika and Kali, the Shaktis—“the inner force of various god”—come to their rescue (24). Hundreds of female forms, each an incarnation of Durga, engage the asuras in battle. One of the asuras, Raktabeejas, is injured, and every time a drop of his blood contacts the ground, a clone is born. Kali prevents his blood from hitting the ground (presumably by slurping up the blood with her wild tongue), while the others kill the clones. Soon the Shaktis are victorious, and only Shumbha remains. The Shaktis all merge into Durga, who destroys Shumbha as the devas once again rejoice.

One of the most striking things about these stories is the feminist aspect. In contrast to the sexism we saw in the Tibetan Buddhist merit economy that Gutschow explored, these tales portray femininity as not just equally respected, but at times superior. For instance, in the last frame of the comic, the male devas—including the supreme deity Indra—are seen bowing down to Durga, saluting her. There is an interesting symmetry here between this scene and the event that Gutschow recounts in Being a Buddhist Nun, where Abbi Yeshe, the highest ranking nun, bows down to Tashi, the young novice monk. It would be interesting to see how women are treated in Hindu cultures, and to see if we encounter the same conflict between doctrine and practice that we discovered in the Zangskari merit system. What do others think about the Hindu divine force being feminine?

Another notable thing represented in the comic was the idea of gods having various incarnations, forms, or aspects. We see this especially when Durga declares, “The goddesses you see are but different forms of myself” (30). The comic made it easy to follow (especially with its “footnotes”), but within Hinduism in general, it can be difficult to get a grasp on which gods are related and in what way. What makes matters even more complicated are the sectarian differences between Hindu schools—e.g., disagreement about which god is the “supreme” god, etc. Did others find that the illustrations helped them better conceptualize the interactions between the Gods?

I would also be interested in learning whether these stories are exclusive to Hinduism or if they exist in some form in other religions, especially Buddhism and Jainism. There were several parts of the stories that reminded me of Buddhism. For example, the asuras in general felt similar to the Buddhist realm of the demi-gods, who are engaged in perpetual disagreement and combat. Were there things that others found similar to Buddhism, or to another Himalayan religion?

Lastly, anytime I encounter religious stories like this, I always wonder what they symbolize. What are the lessons these stories are trying to convey? The obvious trope in the Durga stories is the triumph of good over evil. What familiar stories do others identify here? Do we think that these are supposed to be representative of events that occur within the human mind (in Buddhism, for example, the demon Mara personifies aspects of human psychology that obstruct our path toward liberation)?