October 05, 2016

Dain Puja or Lakshmi Puja?

Dain Puja

I was invited by a friend to come to Bodhgaya at Diwali to witness what she called ‘dai puja.’ If anyone was doing puja to dai I wanted to see that so I came. It turned out this rite was actually ‘dain’ puja, and I wrote about it many years ago.

In Bodhgaya, Bihar, just after sunset on the Amavasya night of Diwali people of all castes perform “dain puja.” Having studied different Hindu representations of the Devi, I am curious about this rather unconventional ritual and wonder about the figure of the “dain.” How is she worshipped and understood by those who perform the puja? What relationship does she have to the more Brahmanic figure of the goddess Lakshmi commonly invoked during Diwali?

I am drawn towards this dain puja because I suspect that it provides an image questioning the orthodoxy of religion-endorsed gender roles. An exploration of the power of the dain might undermine the religious ideology which posits that woman should be long-suffering, self-sacrificing and accept her powerlessness in socio-political and economic realms.

When I arrive at the thatch-roofed mud hut of Kamleshwari, a Chamar woman who works as a midwife, the puja is beginning. The girl children are on their haunches in front of the little house—“ghar kula,” a Brahmin woman has called it. This rite, at this time, was performed by all castes in the area. Protruding from the outside wall of the house, it is like a dollhouse—the girls place little bartans full of grains and sweets into the different “floors” of the house. The littlest girls put theirs on the bottom, and the biggest on the top. Kamleshwari lights the dias in the hands of the “dain”—an obviously female image holding aloft, over her head, a series of dias painted light blue. The dain silently presides over this rite, in this realm of the parallel world enacting the blessings of the goddess. The kumaris are putting grain in the house, between giggling and socking their pesky little brothers, so that in this new year the goddess will repeat the performance in the bigger house on which the little “ritual” house is perched. After much jostling, ooing and ahing the girls apply sindur on the dain image, a bit around the ‘ghar kula’ and then on their little brothers’ foreheads. I, too, request sindur, which they are only too happy to oblige with. Five or six little hands smear my forehead and nose with the red powder. I am blessed. Then they feed us with varieties of prasad, we admire the scene, the family, the “doll” house and the enigmatic figure holding the dias. We thank them and leave.
I speak with many local people about the “dain” and the puja. Most now call it Lakshmi puja; only when pressed do they admit that the image holding the dias is that of the dain and not of Lakshmi. When asked, “who is the dain?” most respond with this story. On dark nights the dain goes to the graveyard and digs in the soil to unearth a newly buried young child. She then massages the child’s body with oil until he comes back to life. Then the dain picks up the baby—playing and dancing wildly with it. Some say she has a broom tied to her waist during this dance. When she tires of her play she puts the child down and goes away.

Kamleshwari says that the dain sings a special song that one can learn and then they, too, can devour people. Another woman says that the dain has “goon” or powers. And that the oja or male healer, or witchdoctor was watching the dain during her dance and wanted to learn her powers. Everyone says that they don’t know any dains and that these are only stories they have heard.

There exists a complex inter-relationship between (and many variations of) “folk” Hinduism and Brahmanic Hinduism. I would suggest that the figure of “dain” can be understood to be an ancient and complex religious idea: the unitary and holistic goddess. She possesses both the power to bless one bountifully or curse one, whimsically, by withholding (grain from the land; money from business; health; children). She moves easily between the world of the living and the dead; she can revive even the dead child and play (the lila of life and death) with it. She is both the birth mother (generative) and the death mother (destructive).

Orthodox iconography and text tends to separate the beneficent-auspicious feminine (Lakshmi and Alakshmi) just as gender convention separates the ‘good’ woman/pious wife from the ‘bad’ and ‘loose’ woman or whore. Perhaps the Bihar “dain puja” retains a holistic theology of the goddess; she who transcends and encompasses blessings and deprivation; life and death.

July 07, 2016

This image comes from Tanjore, in South India. I don’t know the date, but images like this one were part and parcel of daily life placed on temples, usually, or other buildings. It is important to note that a sense of ‘privacy’ as we think of it, was not common. Labouring, as this woman was doing, was matter-of-fact and part of life. Not that everyone hung around during labour and  birth—but people did know about it.

Here we see the woman/mother stooped over, probably with the pain of a contraction. The woman attending her holds something, maybe a feather or a cloth, and she looks as though she is stroking her back. Two things come to mind. One is that the downward motion on the labouring woman’s back probably facilitates the downward movement of the energy/baby towards the birth canal. Secondly, the stroking or brushing of the skin/body or anyone is an action which is seen as cleansing of the energy field of that person. But we really don’t know for sure what is going on…we can only speculate.

I thank Stella Dupuis for this image.

May 16, 2016

Metaphysics of Pregnancy

Questions of conception, gestation and birth can found in debates about reproductive ethics, where discussions may be on legal rights and on tensions between individual entities, mother and fetus; doctors and mothers; or the state and the individual. But Elselijn Kingma, a Swedish analytic philosopher goes to the heart of the matter in what she terms the ‘metaphysics of pregnancy’. She points out that all of humans are the result of a pregnancy so this should not be the concern of only women.
Reproductive matters, according to her, are not moral but rather physical and metaphysical questions having tremendous implications for our personal and socio-cultural understandings. The depiction of pregnancy as ‘0 becomes 1’ (simply that the baby comes into being) obscures the role and physicality of the mother. Pregnancy is rather ‘1 becomes 2’. The fetus is a part of one organism and gradually differentiates from it. The mother’s body is not a simple ‘container’—a hollow to be filled by a ‘baby’. The container model pervades western and bio-medical culture—an example is Nielson’s colorful image of the ‘baby’ in the womb, which I myself was captivated by 40 some years ago. The embryo is shown as if it were an astronaut floating in space—whereas the mother and the placenta fade into the background.

Kingma maintains that the fetus is a part of one organism. She even uses the word ‘splitting’ for birth—which resonates with one ritual, which I have called separating of the atta when a laboring woman separates one mound of atta into two mimetic of the birth activity of her own body, one becoming two . Kingma argues that this phenomenon, biologically accurate, precedes and belies legal rights of individuals of the ‘morality’ of abortion debates on rights and wrongs.

Although feminists have critiqued the ‘container’ model, they mostly use a legal approach implying that the mother’s ‘rights’ are being infringed. It seems as though this philosopher and women’s incursions into science, and influence on male scientists, have begun to allow us to know the extent of interrelationships of beings.

                  Ritual splitting of the flour during labour--a common traditional practice.

The placenta, according to Kingma is the hallmark of integrated-ness. There are no firm boundaries to be drawn between when the fetus starts and the mother ends. The Placenta and mother ‘grow into each other’ and at birth time they split—this splitting action is ritualized over and over again in many traditional birth rites and customs.

We all consider our bodies to be our own unique being, so the notion that we may harbor cells from other people in our bodies seems strange. Even stranger is the thought that, although we certainly consider our actions and decisions as originating in the activity of our own individual brains, cells from other individuals are living and functioning in that complex structure.  According to an article in Scientific American “Cells may migrate through the placenta between the mother and the fetus, taking up residence in many organs of the body including the lung, thyroid, muscle, liver, heart, kidney and skin.”

April 11, 2016

Birth, Pregnancy and a Harappan Seal

This is a most fascinating comment on the female power of birth….and it is almost 3000 years old. It is called  a ‘Harappan Seal’ from the Indus Valley Civilisation. The proto-writing has not yet been deciphered. I will tell you my interpretation of what these images are telling us.

First, in the upper right hand corner we see an upside down woman, in sort of a meditative position,  with an emanation coming out of her vagina/yoni. I call this an emanation because it is not a baby, nor a plant—it is energy—that of the life force which brings both babies and vegetation into being, into this world. You will notice that her arms are on her knees in an almost meditative position.

Other images that evoke birth are the pregnant letters—see the big bellies on the right hand sides of both seal faces.

If you look to the left side of the upper seal you see two theriomorphic images, that is beings which have human bodies, but animal heads—they seem to be conversing.

 Animal heads on human bodies are not uncommon in later Indian imagery—for example Ganesh, the Yogini temples, many, many gods and goddesses are sometimes rendered with animal heads. I understand this to indicate shamanism, particularly the ability of the shaman or  person possessed to channel the spirit/perceptions/abilities of that animal.

Okay, so we have a woman with the life force coming from her vagina, and two animal/people exchanging something…what we know not….until we go down to the bottom seal.

About the bottom seal—it’s from Pupul Jayakar’s book The Earthen Drum. In that book she writes that the bottom image is human sacrifice. I always doubted that….you don’t picture a woman with life coming out of her body on one side of a seal and then chop off her head on the other. It doesn’t make sense. 

When I approached Jayakar and questioned her interpretation, she said that yes—that was probably wrong. But in the book it also said that the man approaching the woman was holding the mithuna symbols, the cup and the knife, the chalice and the blade—male and female imagery.

Now look at the woman he is approaching. She is sitting, her hair is disheveled, all over the place, sticking out. This signifies with two meanings. One is that women still, when they get possessed (and they still do in some areas get possessed either by demons, or more often the devi, the goddess) let their hair fly, loose, open, uninhibited. 

The other meaning is that she is holding a sheaf of grain on her head during harvesting. Until recently, before mechanization, this was a common sight in agricultural areas.

In my interpretation, rather than killing (human sacrifice—chopping off her head) this image shows the communication from woman to man about LIFE—both the life the harvest provides for people, and the role of woman as the bearer of life when she gives birth. She is channeling her knowledge (gnosis, gyan) of life. The man is approaching her and will receive her knowledge/experience, gather it, harvest it and return enriched.
These seals tell us things about ancient peoples’ lives.

 But we need to be aware that this birth power—and its symbology—has been codified and used extensively in pursuit of barkat—growth of riches, knowledge, power. More about that later.