Don't count on divine interventionDashain is the time to worship the goddess, have a terrific time, and that’s where the story should end.
The Dashain (Dasami, Dussehra or Durgapuja for others) festival always makes me nostalgic about the innocence of my teenage years in a village in eastern Nepal. The goat meat (meagre though it was), the fair on the 10th day, visits to friends’ homes and all-night performances of the epics made me forget the complications of the world.
The blessings of Dashain continues unabated from the elders to the younger family members. This 10-day festival’s blessing extends even now for five days. While pundits invoke all 10 forms of the goddess, many elders in the family chant Chandi or Durgasaptashati, which is also known as Devi Mahatmya. And there are mantras chanted while giving blessings during the last five days.
The essence of all this mantra chanting is to praise the power-goddess for her mythical acts of taming and killing a havoc-causing demon named Mahishasur, literally the devil disguised as a bull buffalo. This incident in the scriptures marks the creation of binary between the cow and the buffalo, good and evil. The mantra of blessing itself, through a series of literary tropes invoking prominent mythical figures, endows the receiver of the blessing with long life, enviable wealth and fame, the annihilation of enemies, unparalleled wisdom, uncompromising truthfulness, indomitable strength, certain victory in battle and so on.
While I am all for receiving and giving these blessings, the years of higher education have robbed me of my village innocence. I now find that even centuries or millennia of Durga worship has failed to make the Hindus prosperous enough to create more than a handful of billionaires among a billion Hindus. Hindustan remained under colonialism for centuries. Instead, those who didn’t invoke the power-goddess and received or gave Durga blessings ruled India and siphoned off much of its wealth, leaving millions of Indians to die of disease and famine.
But most important of all, even after millennia of Durga worship, many evils still rule Hindu societies. One of the most despicable evils is the caste system. Oppression of fellow Hindu Dalits (the oppressed) in the form of practising untouchability continues in most Hindu societies. Which goddess Durga is going to kill this evil animal? In fact, it is not even animal, poor species getting blamed for all kinds of human failings. Instead, it is Hindu men and women who practice untouchability against their fellow co-religionists. Who is going to kill this demon that lies in the minds or hearts of caste Hindus?
The victory of good over evil, therefore, like the blessing of other noble, desirable goals, cannot happen just by chanting mantras. Their psychological effect may be palpable, but their social and worldly value is nil. If only by chanting and invoking evil were to disappear, Hindu society would have become a magical paradise. Equality rather than hierarchy, humanity rather than dehumanisation of fellow humans, justice rather than injustice, truth rather than hypocrisy would have prevailed.
Instead, old Mahishasur has been replaced by or taken on the form of a new set of demons—Moloch and Midas, who have spread their wings everywhere in South Asia, demanding the sacrifice of street urchins and blessing the Midas of today with petrified sensibilities. Is it the passive act of wishing all the good things that have set Hindu society adrift? Where are the wealth-giving Bill Gates and Warren Buffets among the Hindus who could endow public causes? For all the blame that Anand Giridhardas (Winner Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) heaps on the Gates and Buffets, their wealth has done some public good across the globe. Andrew Carnegie endowed American public libraries. It’s not Mukesh Ambani and near to home Binod Chaudhary, but Azim Premji who pledges to give away his wealth for civic causes.
But the worst of them all have been the Hindu rulers. Even if one discounts the luxury-loving tyrants they called kings (righteous kings dwell only in the utopian world of the myths), avowedly Hindu rulers in the largest democracy haven’t overcome evil, as Durga’s blessings and invocations suggest. Instead, they are spreading hatred and fear against others, which are nothing but forms of evil.
Democratise the institutions
At home in Nepal, the goddess may have helped to overthrow the tyrannical monarchy (I’m aware that the atheist Maoists would fiercely oppose my suggestion and would like to take full credit themselves for the removal of the monarchy), but she hasn’t instilled good sense in Nepal’s elected rulers. Democracy brought them to state power; but they refuse to democratise the country’s institutions, such as the universities, where they pick and drop university officials as though they were pawns.
So, I would say let’s worship the goddess, play cards or read books as you like, eat meat or vegetables, sacrifice live animals or gourds; but don’t depend too much on her for good things in life and society. Following Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1725) and its 20th-century interpreters, like Edward Said, I would say whether the goddess blesses us or not with the good things in society in place of evil, her worshippers would do better to take control of their society and country to make it better themselves. Because humans have shaped society, it’s them, not some gods or goddesses, who can change it for the better. Rather than praying and blessing or, better yet, with prayers and blessings, do or say something every day to rid Hindu society of the evils of untouchability, sexism, cultural chauvinism, illiteracy, inequity, inertia caused by poverty, selfishness and hubris caused by wealth and power. If followers of the goddess show such initiatives, she may well really bless in concrete terms not too far in the future.
What do you think?
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