Lord Shiva was married to Daksha’s daughter Sati. Sati died and was reborn as Parvati, the daughter of Himalaya and his wife Mena (Menaka). Parvati was married to Shiva. This excerpt is from the Kurma Purana (The Puranas, 12.10). It is chanted in homes and temples as divine words; it is narrated as bedtime stories to young children; it is retold as women gather to cherish the short moment of leisure in the afternoon wintry sun; it is kept alive by the Monday fasting of a young Hindu girl; it is commemorated through annual Hindu observation of Sri Swosthani Vratakatha or festivals dedicated to Lord Shiva and it is relived on village stage shows and commercial theater screens. And yet, this is a story that is taken for granted by modern society. The essence seems to be lost either in the complexities of the ritualism involved or in intricacies of ceremonial pomp that pujas are rendered to nowadays. The Purana continues: In fact, Himalaya and Mena prayed so that they might have the goddess as their daughter. Pleased with their prayers, the goddess arrived before Himalaya and Mena and showed her divine form. She also promised them that she would be born as their daughter. There were a thousand names of the goddess that Himalaya recited in the course of his prayers (The Puranas, 12.10). An inspirational story of determination and devotion, an exemplary true love, the list can go on…
However, I am not here to discuss the moral or the religious implications of the story. What I am trying to achieve is to coax my readers see what is not obvious in this story and to understand the story not just on the accounts of its divine glamour but also based on the simplicity of its essence (and NO, I am not trying to redefine its conventional meaning).
When was the Puranas written or recorded? 5th Century AD? 500 BC? Accurate time of its origin is not relevant to my understanding of the story. What is significant to me is that this verse of this Purana is a verse written in celebration of women. Celebration of women in the beginning of our existence! It was the times when parents (remember that Himalaya was a king) prayed for a daughter; it was the times when a husband (Lord Shiva) awaited a lifetime for his wife; and most of all, it was the time when a woman exhibited her own free will. Parvati chose to be born as the daughter of Himalaya and Mena (I love the very fact that she had to be prayed to and had to be pleased). While our ancestral mothers enjoyed the glory of their gender, their contemporaries in the neighboring continents did not fare well. This was what the first western woman received from God, “I will multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you” (NKJV Holy Bible, Genesis 3.16). Just imagine the lives of these women. Their lives began with a curse.
Now, fast forward hundreds of years and you can already see a dynamic reversal. Women in the east are compelled into the practice of sati and jauhar – their free will is now standardized as social norm. But in the west, women are now redeemed and can attain the highest form of maternal respect. A woman can mother the Son of God. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus”(NKJV Holy Bible, Luke 1.30-31). In the world that is so strictly patriarchal, churches dedicated to Mother Mary grow in abundance. How did the western women suddenly bring themselves in the good books of the male dominated world? But what caused the downfall of eastern women? These questions haunt me to the core.
The search for these questions led me to my studies in Medieval English and I specialized in gender and culture so that I could study the lives of women (I studied lives of saints, queens, homemakers, and prostitutes). And you might have already guessed that I found no answer. These women that I read were no different than our own Sita, Druapadi, Queen Maha Maya, Ashi Nangsa, etc. The only truth that I found was that the eastern world regressed as the power of its women waned, and the western world just marched forward triumphantly with the empowerment of its women. And here I was with my questions, back to square one.
A few days ago, a seemingly discouraging incident ironically gave me some clues to my search. Some very enthusiastic Bhutanese youth organized a special event to congratulate the recent high school graduates and I was invited to attend the function (my special thanks to the organizers). I went to the event with my excitement running high to meet the young graduates. Guests and graduates trickled in with a typical Bhutanese ease and I kept waiting. My eyes longed to see the female graduates (no offense to the young men, please). No girls showed up. None. In this 21st century America, do not tell me that no girls graduated in the past year. Do not tell me that their fathers did not allow them to attend the function. Do not tell me that they did not find time to come. Do not tell that they had no means to come. I am witness to the Teej celebration at Clarkston where hundreds of women managed time to dance to the sensuous music of Sindhu Malla. These women, young and old, not only found the means to attend the celebration, but came to the celebration leaving their husbands and children behind. What does this tell? It is women ourselves holding back. Let us stop blaming society. Let us stop whining about cultural restraints. It is we women that spin our own cocoons. Women have not lost their free will, but they have got so tangled up in trying to please others (both men and women). I just hope that they celebrate Teej not because it is what women do, but as a celebration of their womanhood. I hope they dance to the music of self-respect and sing to the glory of their existence. I hope they remember themselves in the prayers they hold for their husbands, realizing that they belong with their husbands and not to their husbands. But I can only hope. How can I forget that the enemy of a tree is not the axe, but another tree – without the wooden handle, an axe is not an axe!
As a little girl growing up, I used to be told that a girl has to be born seven (or nine, I cannot remember correctly) times as a girl in order to be born as a boy. What I remember correctly though, is that I was told of this birth and rebirth by a woman, not by a man. Similarly, guess who suppresses a new bride? Guess who teaches her that she now belongs to her husband? That she will have to iron his clothes and polish his shoes? That she will have to cook and then wait for him to eat first? I do not think it is her newly married husband dear.
Although I am beginning to gain some insights, I write this with a gnawing dread. I know that very few of my readers will be females. For you women, I would like to remind you that Parvati had thousand names. I will list here some of my favorites – Yashasvini. Nandini. Niyantri. Ameya. Triyakshhari. Adrishya. Maya. Ayoni. We should be aware that these thousand names are not mere calling names, these are the thousand virtues of Parvati, the thousand virtues a woman stands for. Let us come and take pride in our womanhood. Let us take confidence and relive to fulfill who we are as an individual self. The benchmark of our happiness is not just the happiness of our husbands, our in-laws, and our children, but also our self-satisfaction as a woman. To the men readers, I urge you to do what King Himalaya did. Pray that Sati be born again. Remind the women you meet that the world waits for them. Please go to your mothers, wives, sisters and female relatives and remind them of their thousand names…remind each of them that she is Pranada, the giver of life…Pujya, the Worthy of Worship…and Paramjotih, the Supreme Light!!!