I truly love a country that takes four weeks off to hold festivals to celebrate goddesses (no gods here, the feminine is Supreme) and light. First comes Dashain, the longest and most auspicious festival in the Nepalese calendar. Then comes Tihar, celebration of light.
Dashain, celebrated during the bright lunar fortnight until the day of the full moon, is a fifteen-day celebration of Shaktism, a major tradition where metaphysical reality is considered feminine and the goddess Parvati is supreme. Shakti comes from the Sanskrit word saktah and refers to energy, power, the goddess. During Dashain, the goddess Durga, the warrior goddess who fights evil and demonic forces that threaten peace, prosperity and dharma of the good, is celebrated in all her manifestations — Adi Parashakti, Devī, Shakti, Bhavani, Parvati, Amba, and Yogmaya. Schools, businesses and government offices all close as people return to their home villages to perform pujas (prayer rituals) and offer thousands of gifts and animal sacrifices (not my favorite way to show someone I care) to Durga, aka Parvati and Shakti.
Tihar, a 5-day celebration of light following right on the heels of Dashain. In the same way that all the deities usually have multiple names, Tihar is also called Deepawali, Swanti and Yamapanchak. Tihar honors Yama, the god of death, but most of the festivities worship Laksmi, the goddess of wealth. Again, the feminine principle prevails. Eat your heart out patriarchy. No one puts on shows like Dashain and Tihar on for you!
Oh, yes, and by the way, in case you didn’t know it, this is actually the year 2075, 56 years and 8 months ahead of the our calendar, the best of which can only offer us single holidays like Independence day, President’s Day, MLK day, Labor Day, none of which have anything to do with women. In fact, none have anything to do with the unseen spirits who surround us. And the closest we get to acknowledging the Supreme mother, she who fights our demons and brings us prosperity (among all her other duties), is Mother’s Day.
I’ve known Shakti for years as the consort to Shiva, who symbolizes consciousness, the masculine principle. In this context, in case you were thinking that nothing couldn’t be more powerful than consciousness, you are wrong. Shakti as the feminine principle is understood to refer to cosmic existence as well as liberation. I can’t help but think that worshiping only the Son of God, although he too is part of a masculine triumvirate, is relatively dull compared to dancing with Shakti, Parvati,Lakshmi, and Durga. Christians doesn’t know what they are missing. I’d would imagine that Durga considers excluding women from becoming priests in the Catholic church to be an evil that she must fight. Imagine locking the supreme mother of the universe out of any temple in the land!
Speaking of goddesses, today I took my first tour around the neighborhood after arriving at the place that I now call home and found that, on the corner of the street upon which my house sits, resides the Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom and learning. She lives in a small dusty temple enclosed with a wrought iron fence whose entry gate is always open. There is a larger than life statue of her inside the temple, dressed in long colorful cloth, and sitting way at the back of the temple, and then a smaller representation of her in front of the statue.
There is small round straw seat in front of Saraswati upon which one can seat oneself to bathe in the light of her wisdom. I presume that her smaller self has been placed there so that we can sit in front of her in a state of some intimacy since we would only be able to see her feet if we sat in front of the large statue. I’m wondering if a daily meditation in her presence will help out my learning of Nepali, the future of which doesn’t look too great since I was hoping the young woman who cleans the apartments in my building would work with me at the end of her workday at 5 but now I know that I will be teaching until 5 and, with commuter traffic, I can’t imagine I’d get home before 6. Perhaps I should call on Vahana, the only Hindu god who uses a vehicle for assistance to help me with my transportation problems. What I need is a hover craft. I am not sure how all the other deities get around. I guess they walk, fly, or use carriages of some sort.
Saraswati is part of the tridevi (female trinity) which also includes Parvati, the supreme mother, and Lakshmi, goddess of wealthy, fortune and prosperity. Laksmi is also the wife of Vishnu, the preserver of the world who is, if you recall from my last post, is part of the triumvirate that creates, maintains, and destroys the world. Thus, in the end, you have two triumvirates, one male, and one female, the members of which are connected to one another by the marriage between Laksmi and Vishnu. Face it, if you are married to the god who preserves life (Vishnu), of course wealth and prosperity are going to follow (Lakshmi).
Hindu Nepalese comprise 80% of the total population of Nepal, with Buddists coming in second, and Muslims third. Statistically speaking, you could count those who are Christians on one hand. Given the significant role that the deities play in people’s lives, it is not a surprise that many people are named after them. Which is where one starts stumbling across different names for the same god, depending upon which incarnation is of interest to the parents of the child. I learned earlier my first meeting with the faculty with whom I will be working that two my colleagues, Ashok and Khem, incarnations of Shiva. My colleague Anjana is the mother of Hanuman, the god who has the head of a monkey and is celebrated for his undying devotion and selfless dedication to Rama, who just happens to be, yes, you guessed it, an incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver who has his hands full trying to protect the earth from the insanity of humanity. Perhaps this is why everyone has to keep coming back, lifetime after lifetime. Without creation, preservation, and destruction working hand-in-hand, the world as we know it today would cease to exist.
In case you haven’t figured it out yourself, all the Hindu deities are related to one another as one big fabulous cosmic extended family who engage with one another in multiple interrelationships that span centuries because they kept reincarnating and getting new names and doing different things while still embodying the qualities that make them the particular gods and goddesses that they are. Impossible for me to keep track of, they are always showing up when least expected, and keep revealing new ways that they are all related to one another. In this way, they are a reflection of how the world really is — a network of constantly evolving relationships between people over generations.
As I sit here in my new apartment, I realize that the Department of State probably should have given me a bigger one, given how many people are already sitting here in the living room with me. Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the transformer, are over in the corner with Shakti, also known as Amma. They are trying to convince her to use her cosmic intelligence, to enlighten me about work that I am to do here. She seems to think that it is none of her business what I do here. She says that my path is mine to discover for myself.
Annapurna, goddess of food and nourishment, obviously an incarnation of Parvati, the supreme mother, is, of course, in the kitchen. Delicious scents are drifting out of the room. I hope she is making, along with whatever else she cooking, mo mo, Nepalese dumplings which, to the undiscerning eye, might be mistaken for Chinese dumplings. Yummy and very inexpensive, I expect that they will become a staple of my diet here. Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, and I are discussing e the problem I am having using ATM machines to get money to pay for living expenses. Brahma is generating new cells in my body, Shiva is breaking down worn out ones, and Vishnu is keeping the cells that are not coming or going operating at optimal levels, in spite of my age and the swirling pollution that threatens to crash though the windows at any time and suffocate us all. Well, maybe just me. I don’t think deities breathe air. I’m not sure why Vayu, god of the winds, doesn’t show up very often in Kathmandu valley. We certainly could use his help in blowing the pollution elsewhere.
Saraswati just came in from her little temple down the block to help me learn Nepali but, at the moment, she doesn’t look very happy. She is sitting on top of my Nepali grammar books scowling at me because I am blogging rather than studying Nepali. At least, when I finish writing this, I’ll be able to tell her that I learned my first word in Nepali today — panni. Water.