The celebration of Dipavali provides us a unique opportunity to reflect on questions of gender and religion in general and on the status of the female in the Hindu and wider Guyanese society.
Coming after Navaratra, Dipavali can be seen as the culmination of a long period during which Hindus concentrated on the worship of the divine as mother in form as Kali, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati.
During this period, and especially in the case of Dipavali when we worship Lakshmi as the Goddess of Prosperity, there have been lots of messages in temples and in the media. In the latter case we are treated to the usual platitudes of good conquering evil and the diyas as a symbolism of inner light and purity, and other such innocuous nonsense.
But something very fundamental has been missing in our annual messages and speeches and that is our refusal as Hindus in particular to consider the status of the female in our society against the practice of worshipping the divine in the feminine form which we as Hindus seem so proud about.
Others worship god as male and father alone, but we Hindus proclaim that we see and relate to the divine as both female and male, both mother and father.When our religious beliefs and practices with respect to the worship of Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, and Saraswati are considered alongside the reality of what goes on in society, the contradiction between the two could not be more stark and dramatic.
Because of the emphasis on the worship of god as mother, and our refusal to see every female as an embodiment of the goddess, the only female that we seem to have the greatest respect and honour for are our own mothers. After all the Vedas do tell us to honour our mothers (and fathers) as god, and in the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna makes mention of his feminine aspects. To a lesser extent we extend some of this respect to our other female relatives.
Regrettably, however, the same attitude of respect toward all females does not exist. We only have to look at the vast and disproportionate numbers of women who are slaughtered in the society with frightening frequency, the victims of what is euphemistically caricatured as domestic violence.
Our newspaper front pages are littered with this devastation. To add to this horror I have heard men, and shockingly some women, say that women who are the victims of rape and other forms of violence and abuse ask for it. They should not be out and free to move as men, or maybe they dress in a “provocative” manner. This is our collective response and justification.
But the reality is that a woman does not have to be out at nights in a bar, or does not have to be dressed in a “provocative” manner to make her fair game for violence. In reality, we live in a society with a minibus culture that blares and glorifies vulgar and demeaning music which subjects women to unending abuse. And we laugh and joke about it. This is one of the places in which the female, especially schoolgirls, are exposed to the predatory behaviour of many a bus conductor and driver.
We live in a society where rape victims are paid off with the consent of police, parents. We live in a society where persons accused of rape and others involved in even child molestation are free to roam on bail.
We Hindus are proud to declare that we worship the mother in the form of a young female child in what is called Kumari Puja. Our temple leaders make a lot of fuss if the worship is not performed according to the details of the manuals and we are often reminded that no Goddess worship can be complete without worshipping her in the form of the female child.
Yet we live in a society where from all anecdotal evidence, it seems that incest is on the rise, with the victims often being infants and children. We all know how open, trusting, innocent, pure and vulnerable these little children are whom we worship as an emdodiment of Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Yet it is this very trust and innocence that is violated; it is these same Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati who are subjected to the most unspeakable horror that scars their little lives forever.
The worship of god as mother alone seems to have one fatal flaw. Often this worship is translated in our lives to mean respect and honour only for our mothers. That is, a woman is worthy of basic honour and respect only when she fulfils the role of a mother. We may even succeed in extending this respect to the females related to us by blood and marriage. But it is here that all respect seems to end.
This to me is the challenge of Dipavali and Navaratra, to not only see every female from infant to adult as an embodiment of the divine goddess, but to see every female from infant to adult as a human person worthy of respect and honour naturally due to every human life.
I know having written this, there are many who will throw the book at me and quote chapter and verse to remind me how much Hindu culture honours the female. And, truly speaking there are many such books, chapters and verses. But all of this will mean little to the female infant who is the victim of the worst kind of sexual molestation. It will mean little to that ten year old daughter who is forced to play wife to her father.
Until we can break out of our double standard and hypocrisy our worship will remain hollow and dry, a mere formality that will suffocate and numb us into a state of oblivion that will make us unaware of the horrors of the reality of our society.
It is only when Hindu men, and I mean men, begin to treat all women, and I mean all women, with this respect and dignity as human persons that we can truly consider ourselves as devotees of Kali, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati.
This, to me, is the challenge of worshipping god in the feminine form.