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.