- This year, on 24th October, eighth day (Ashtami) of Navaratri, two women priests from the Odia American community in Long Beach, California, will perform the ritual on Zoom.
Navaratri, the nine-day long festival to celebrate the goddess Durga, started on October 17th. It will culminate in the welcoming of Durga, the slayer of Mahishasura, on 25th of the month according to the lunar calendar. The name Durga in Sanskrit means ‘the fortress.’ According to Markandeya Purana, composed in 5thor 6th century C.E., Navratri (nine nights) stands for Druga’s nine invincible manifestations to destroy evil and restore peace and order. It is also celebrated as nine days of war between Durga and Mahisasura, the buffalo demon, culminating in his demise.
The words Devi Mahatmya (significance of the mother goddess) elaborates on the 108 names of Durga highlighting all her extraordinary attributes and accomplishments. The central tenet is that “the ultimate reality in the universe is here understood to be feminine.” Durga is Shakti incarnate, the very symbol of “power” or “energy,” that transcends gender, the ability to create, nurture the goodness and restore order. Hence every Hindu aspires for Druga’s blessings.
Hinduism is the only contemporary world religion that has a living tradition and practice of goddess-worship and Durga is a solace to millions. Yet, I see a disconnect between the text and the context. The divine feminine ritual is traditionally monopolized by the Brahmin male priests and women play the sidekicks. Women cook, clean, prepare for the ritual but the recitation of the hymns to invoke the goddess remains in the hands of the male priests. In the diaspora, some Indian women are taking up leadership roles in the worship of Durga, but it is very much tied to the patriarchal social system they have brought with them from India.
On 24th October, eighth day (Ashtami) of Navaratri, Kasturee Mohapatra and Sneha Mohanty (top photo), two women priests from the Odia American community in Long Beach, California, will perform the Durga ritual on Zoom and will be joined by hundreds of Odias all over North America and back in Odisha. Kasturee says “both of us priests will be doing puja maintaining distance”.
Kasturee Mohapatra has been in charge of Durga puja celebration for the last 17 years. She took over the puja from Sneha Mohanty, another female elder who was performing the ritual at her home. Sneha’s health was failing and the community was growing larger. Now both of them officiate the puja as a community event. Kasturee told me that the Brahmin priest was not useful. No one would understand his Sanskrit chanting and the community members did not pay attention to the ritual. She consulted with Sanskrit scholars in India and translated the relevant slokas (chantings) to prepare a booklet in English. She made copies for the 300+ attendees at the Durga Puja.
In 2013, I attended the Durga Puja celebration in Long Beach. Sneha and Kasturee sang the slokas (hymns) on the stage and invited interested members to join them. Only women came forward to participate in the ritual. Parents along with their children sat and witnessed the puja the whole time. Kasturee says “the puja is more simplified and easier for the audience to understand.” This process lasts a couple of hours compared to the ten-day celebration back home.
Immersing herself in the ritual, Kasturee is confident that the ritual should not be the monopoly of the Brahmin male priest. She says, “the women decided that since they organize the whole event, why not do the puja too”? The puja was followed by a sumptuous meal shared by the community.
Men also agree — Tutu, one young man, who helped in the preparation of this feast for over 350 people, told me, “It is wonderful that Kasturee bhauja (sister in law) is doing it. Now we do not have to look for a male priest. She is a great influence on the community.” Another young man, Ashok, who was also helping, chimed in “we are all there to support her”.
Kasturee’s husband Deba Mohapatra says, “I am here to follow her orders.”
A young newly-wed Bengali woman, Maumita Maity who had recently moved from Kolkata, the center of Durga puja celebration shared her thoughts: “It is a beautiful community event — more social than ritualistic. This puja is different from the puja among the Bengalis back in India. Women are deeply involved not just attending the puja, but also organizing it. Here, the focus is bringing the mother within you.”
In transplanting themselves to the new world, women in the diaspora have continued to celebrate Durga puja, among other rituals. It is heartening to see that they are changing the script of worshipping the goddess by taking the place of male priests. This does not happen in the temple dominated by the male priests.
Durga Puja in India
After 30 years of being away from India, I was back on puja streets in Cuttack in 2018, immersing myself in pavilion hopping, enjoying the hustle and bustle of Durga puja, trying to cover more than 160 Durga idols sprouted in different neighborhoods. The whole town got festive for the Puja. Now, new LED lights cover the town being imported from China. A new crowd puller was the introduction of musical programs with young half clad women dancers dancing to the tune of Bollywood music. These spaces are sadly turned to be more masculine with throngs of male audience stopping their motorbikes, scooters, cars and bicycles to watch the spectacle. For women it is not considered to be safe to be part of this crowd.
I celebrated Durga Puja in Kolkata last year and visited the famous Tara pith in Bengal – a Shakti peeth, known as the abode of Druga’s third Eye and considered as one of the most sacred places in India. It is also called the home of Tara, the tantric goddess, a living incarnation of Durga. Here, I saw a woman priest in the midst of hordes of men. But this temple is not considered a part of mainstream Hinduism; remaining at the fringe like other tantric temples. My hijra friends in Cuttack were performing the ritual without the help of any Brahmin priest. Even if hijras are mentioned in Hindu religion, they remain on the fringes of the society. They are looked upon as unstable and openly contaminated.
Some women use goddess Durga as a role model and are redefining the patriarchal tradition by taking up leadership roles. One wonders whether the worship of Durga translates into women’s agency and wellbeing in India and Indian diaspora.
Durga Puja celebration is meant to help the members of the community to acknowledge the innate power inherent in women. Invocation of Durga should help us rise above the divisiveness and various forms of evil manifested in society. The message is clear – triumph of good over evil. It is not female power over the male but a look beyond the women’s ‘traditional’ qualities of care, sacrifice, and sustenance in family and community and promote a change in the existing structures of political power. In celebration of Durga, we need to acknowledge the feminine principle as well as Shakti, the power to destroy evil.
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.