Super-Powerful Shaktis : Durga and Parvati

Jennifer Takhar

"That Durga...What a woman!'" (445)

Hindu goddesses are traditionally conceived to be strong figures, even indomitable ones. By comparing his female characters to these goddesses, Rushdie attributes them with a force of character. He perceives India as a matriarchy, an ideological presumption whereby maternal power, energy and love is the means to social cohesion. The reign of the goddess is a gynocentric period, an important concept in feminist myth and anthropology: It involves

the sharing of certain kinds of women-centred beliefs and women centred organisations. Gynocentric activities involve a set of women's strengths which could be explored and cultivated ; for example, the strength of women's eroticism...". In The Dictionary of Feminist Theory by Maggie Humm, p.116.

Through worship of the goddess mother, and women oriented beliefs, we recognise women as primal power incarnate. (Adrienne Rich, 1976) Indira is Durga, Uma is named after a goddess, "goddess from a machine;" for all her family Aurora is considered an irresistible goddess.

The devi (or goddess) in India is presented as fulfilling many different roles : at a rudimentary level, she is shown as a maternal village divinity, then as the wife of Shiva and in a relatively auxiliary mode as the wife of other great gods. These feminine figures cannot be truly understood without the attachment of the notion of shakti. The vedic word shakti "energy" designates the energy personified in the spouse of Indra, god of war and thunder who is the chief god in the vedic pantheon. The idea of shakti has been amalgamated with mythological images of female deities : it is conceived as a force field, a principle which enables a sensibilisation to the world for the supreme god, who is inactive without it. In a broader sense, shakti is the "vitalélan ", the animating factor as illustrated in the fiercely anti-colonial Bengali novel, Ghare Bhaire (The Home and The World, 1915) by Rabindranath Tagore, where the tribune Sandip asks the self-emancipating woman Bimala to become the shakti of the nation.

By far the most remarkable of the shaktis is Shiva's spouse, who is known under a variety of forms and names. The most commonplace representations are Durga the "inaccessible, " Uma "the favourable," Gauri "the fair one, " Kali "the dark-complexioned " (or less likely perceived as symbolising feminine Time), Candi the "violent,",Parvati "the mountain girl" (an allusion to one of her incarnations), Kumari the "virgin," more generally Devi Mahadevi, is the goddess par excellence. The more redoubtable aspect of shakti is found in ancient literary texts : goddess of war, destroyer of men, satisfied by bloody animal sacrifices, inebriated by human flesh and wine, dragging horse and human cadavers, gathered from the battlefield to her altars. (See Devimahatmya, where a detailed description is given of how the demons Madhu and Kaitabha endeavour to destroy Brahman: Devi emerges from Brahman's body and engages in a 5000-year combat which ends in the destruction of the demons.)

Durga is one of the most formidable and overpowering goddesses of the Hindu pantheon and also one of the most popular among devotees. Her very first mythological function is to combat demons who threaten the stability of the cosmos. In this role she is depicted as a great warrior queen with several pairs of arms, each wielding a weapon. She rides upon a ferocious lion and is deemed unbeatable. According to David Kinsley, almost all Durga's mythical exploits show her as being independent of men and relationships with them ; she is terrifyingly powerful. In the interest of this study, the image of Durga is the opposite of the image of the docile Indian woman : this goddess who massacres demons desiring to mate with her, and who exists independently, not needing masculine protection or guidance, represents a true feminine vision :

[Durga] challenges the stereotyped view of women found in traditional Hindu law books. Such a characterisation perhaps suggests the extraordinary power that is repressed in women who are forced into submissive and socially demeaning rles. " David Kinsley in Hindu Goddesses, p.34

In this role inversion Durga exists outside the fixed structures that bind women and she provides a refreshing and inspiring version of reality for Indian women. At a certain point in her existence Durga couples up with the God Shiva, later becoming his wife and mother to his child. In this role Durga takes on domesticated features and is identified with the goddess Parvati.

In Midnight's Children a character named Durga dominates and crushes the burly Sikh, Picture Singh, with her "preternatural breasts (which) unleash(ed) a torrent of milk" (448) and according to grapevine tattle, she is said to possess two wombs. Saleem acquaints us with this dhoban/washerwoman without really wanting to get too close to her: "It was with the greatest reluctance that I agreed to make her acquaintance ; it is with the greatest reluctance that I admit her into these pages" (445). We have not forgotten that Durga means "the unapproachable." Saleem fears her because she symbolises the hope that he has completely lost because of the consequences of the state of Emergency. Durga incarnates the future, "of new things" : "her name, even before I met her, had the smell of new things ; she represented novelty" (448). She is blessed with superabundant fertility and is even capable of foretelling the imminent death of Saleem, "I mention Durga...because it was she who...first foretold my death" (449). According to Picture Singh, she is also responsible for the healing of Aadam Sinai, stricken with a particularly virulent case of tuberculosis. In a certain respect this imperious woman is reflected in the equally audacious, courageous character Tavleen, the beautiful Canadian Sikh terrorist of flight 420. In The Satanic Verses, Tavleen proves to be more resistant than her masculine accomplices in the hijacking operation in which the two heroes of the novel, Saladin Chamchawala and Gibreel Farishta are embroiled. Rushdie describes her body as being armed with powerful explosives, as if these explosives were potentially destructive female corporeal appendages : Tavleen "exposes herself" to the petrified plane passengers: "she lifted the loose black djellabah...so that they could see the arsenal of her body, the grenades like extra breasts nestling in her cleavage (81)...those fatal breasts...(87). The author's masculine gaze appears to condemn female sexuality ; Tavleen is attractive but she is also deadly. In Midnight's Children, The Moors Last Sigh and The Satanic Verses, Rushdie is torn between feelings of dread and desire for these female figures. Durga and Tavleen inspire fear because they effortlessly eclipse the men who surround them.

In Rushdie's work as well as in Mistry's fiction there are an array of female characters that could be compared to divine figures because they grant wishes and know how to predict the future. The description of these women is however sinister, they are old and unsightly and we are deliberately lead to suspect that malign forces lurk beneath their prodigious gifts. It is possible to infer from this that Rushdie and Mistry perpetuate the image of woman as witch, the darker side of Devi.

The mysterious old mushroom seller is the woman responsible for the curse that hangs over Moraes, the inexplicable disease that makes him age at twice the normal speed. Aurora jokingly expresses her desire to have a short gestation and her wish is granted. The old woman disappears after casting the spell on Aurora's unborn child: "Obeah, jadoo, fo, fum..."(141). In A Fine Balance, it is an old anonymous village woman who predicts that the character Monkey-man is going to kill someone. When he kills the dog that massacred his two monkey companions, the old wizened woman predicts that "'The murder of the dog is not the worst murder he will commit,' she repeated with grim forcefulness" (pp.269). We later learn that Monkey-man killed Beggarmaster, the Godfather of Bombay's beggardom (556). In Such A Long Journey, the very superstitious Miss Kutpitia casts spells and is supposed to be well versed in the art of black magic "jaadu-mantar "(63) (in Gujerati.) For the children in the Parsi quarter she therefore becomes a "daaken " (2), a witch because she is old, lives alone and causes the children who happen to come too close to her, to flee for safety.

The characters Parvati and Shiva of Midnight's Children are both inspired by Hindu gods of the same name. Their stormy relationship in the novel is supposed to reflect that of the mythical gods and it is a positive female representation that Rushdie makes of Parvati. Wendy O'FLaherty has come closest in making sense of Shiva's complex and paradoxical persona :

The contrasting aspects of Shiva are artfully combined...(he is seen) as the three-eyed god...then as the clever dancer (erotic), then as the wandering beggar (ambiguous), then as the rider on the bull (erotic), the poison eater (ascetic), and finally as the god whose linga (penis in Sanskrit) is worshipped by yoga (ambiguous). [Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Shiva, (8)]

The name Parvati means she who dwells in the mountains or the mountain girl. Her mythology is inextricably linked to that of her spouse. The goddess Parvati is above all known as Shiva's wife, who obtained her husband through great heroic effort and she is the one who provokes him into creating their child, this being necessary for the conservation of the world. In Midnight's Children Rushdie's own version of Parvati is similar to her namesake in her exploits : "Parvati...oiled his moustache, caressed his knees and...produced a dinner of biriani (typical North Indian dish) so exquisite that (Shiva)...devoted his undivided attentions to her for four whole months... "(411). According to myth Parvati gives birth to a son named Ganesh, after four months of uninterrupted coitus with Shiva. Later this son takes the head of an elephant, echoing in this Parvati's son, Aadam Sinai, in Midnight's Children who is born with enormous ears : „ears so colossally huge (that people believed)...that it was the head of a tiny elephant...he was the true son of Shiva and Parvati ; he was elephant-headed Ganesh" (419-420). In Hindu mythology as in Midnight's Children, Parvati's objectives in her relationship with Shiva is the domestication of this ascetic and solitary god ; in Midnight's Children the parallel to this taming process is evident in Shiva's devotion to Parvati. Shiva's behaviour shoulders madness, nevertheless Parvati succeeds in subjugating him even it is only temporarily. Shiva is a god of excess, of ascetic excess as well as erotic: Saleem informs us of General Shiva's sexual activity, "at the height of his philandering there were no less than ten thousand women" (409) The goddess Parvati plays the part of moderator. As representative of the housewife she represents an ideal of controlled sexuality, notably conjugal sexuality. However Rushdie does not emphasise these traits in his novel. In Midnight's Children Parvati acts especially as a stabilising force thus restoring order. She is the one who helps Saleem return to Delhi by using her magic basket, making him invisible. She tempers even the most overwhelming of Shiva's sexual urges, a task that none other had managed before. She is a positive accomplished feminine figure.


Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Midnight's Children