The goddesses keep us firmly rooted in the world rather than giving us an opportunity to transcend it.
The goddess appears in many forms in popular Hinduism, from serene and domesticated Lakshmi to fiery Durga and to wrathful Kali. As the Roman calendar year draws to a close, we have occasion to celebrate all these aspects of the female divine. The major festivals that crowd these months — Dasara, Diwali and Kali Puja — remind us that the goddess has always been present and it is time to acknowledge her power and her place in our lives.
In many parts of the country, Dasara celebrates the victory of the goddess over the buffalo demon, Mahisha. Durga Mahishasuramardini was formed from the combined energies of the male gods who were unable to defeat the demon on their own. After ten days of gruelling battle, Durga kills the demon and order is restored to the three worlds.
Some stories tell us that Kali, the goddess’s wrath, emerged from Durga herself during the battle. Other stories say that the gods’ energies split into two, producing golden-skinned Gauri and dark-as-night Kali at the same time. In later versions, Durga remains alone, unattached to any male god, but Kali becomes associated with Shiva as an aspect of his female consort. Often, she dominates Shiva — a common image of Kali shows her dancing on her husband’s dead body.
In direct contrast to this bloodlust, Hinduism provides the goddess with a gentle face and aspect in the figure of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, born when the ocean was churned by the gods and the asuras. The festival of Diwali expands to celebrate our relationship with the gods and demons as well as our relationships within the family.
Different regions and different cultures emphasise different relations — the South pays heed to the killing of Narakasura while the North designates a special day for brothers and sisters.
More and more, however, the core of Diwali has become the worship of Lakshmi. As we invite her into our homes and ask for her blessings, we recognise that material wealth is an essential element in human life. So also, the more martial aspects of the goddess remind us that conflict is a part of the universe as a whole.
In general, the goddesses we celebrate keep us firmly rooted in the world rather than giving us an opportunity to transcend it.
In more abstract philosophies, too (such as Sankhya), the female principle is the one that creates the world, the Shakta traditions give the goddess primacy and associate myriad manifestations of the world with her.
The idea of the goddess and her power is not without its problems. If Prakriti is celebrated as the maker of the world, she is also responsible for Maya, its illusory nature which keeps us bound in the cycle of rebirth. Though Durga remains independent, she is created from the surplus energy of the gods. Kali’s outstretched tongue expresses shame as she dances on Shiva’s corpse. Just as a patriarchal culture cannot tell stories of truly empowered women, so also, it cannot envision a truly supreme goddess.