By Aminta Kilawan-Narine, Esq.
I half-joked with my husband the other day that God must be female. After all, females are able to assume so many every day responsibilities with grit and also have the irreplaceable power to birth new life. As Hindus around the world are in the midst of celebrating Vasant Navratri, a 9-day festival dedicated to the nine forms of the Goddess, we are reminded of the Divine Feminine.
Most religions refer to God as male. Few say that God is female. Some say God is neither. Hinduism makes room for various possibilities. It is one of the few religions that worships the Divine Feminine. The Devi Mahatyam, a Scriptural text that outlines three primal manifestations of the Goddess – Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati – reminds us that She is not merely a consort, but is Shakti (Power) itself. Shakti is synonymous with the unifying force of existence; the power of creation, sustenance and transformation. Some Hindu traditions rank the Devi Mahatyam to be just as important as the Bhagavad Gita. In the text, Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati correspond to the three gunas (qualities or characteristics of life): Tamas (destruction/chaos), Rajas (passion/ego), and Sattva (goodness/peace) respectively. Hindu philosophy dictates that the gunas reside in everything, including us humans. Thus, the Goddess resides in all of us.
Kushmani Shridevi Doobay otherwise known as Pratima, is a goddess herself. Kushmani was the lead organizer of Matadi Chowki (Chowki), an event honoring old Indian tradition that took place at Bhavanee Maa Mandir on Friday, March 16th. Kushmani was inspired to organize Chowki in a vision that came to her while she was visiting her last site of pilgrimage in south India – the Kamakshi Devi Temple, which holds one of the “Shakti Peethas,” specifically the navel of the goddess. According to legend, the Shakti Peethas are the scattered body parts of Devi Sati, who became fed up with her father’s arrogance and insults (representing patriarchy). Kushmani indicated that her Guyanese Hindu background allows her to recognize the division that exists in our community, specifically among Guyanese Sanatan worshippers and Madrassis. “We all worship the same Mother, just differently,” Kushmani said. “I also believe that even if we don’t identify as Hindu, spiritual or religious we are still the Mother’s children. The goal of Chowki was to gather EVERYONE under one roof to share love, joy and vibrations!”
Kushmani indicated that there has never been such a convening among the NYC Indo-Caribbean community. She wanted to unify, end stereotypes and raise awareness. To that end, two community-based organizations, Jahajee Sisters, a group committed to empowering Indo-Caribbean women, and the Caribbean Equality Project, a group that strengthens the voices of LGBTQ people of Caribbean descent, were asked to speak. Kushmani felt that providing a platform to discuss gender-based violence and homophobia is a spiritual task in of itself. “We have no right to exhibit sexist behavior as our deity has the female aspect, and we have no right to judge and isolate someone for their orientation or personal preferences.”
Kushmani’s call towards the Goddess dates back to when she was a little girl. “The Goddess with 10 arms who can clone herself into serene or ferocious forms was my superhero.” Kushmani’s father, Pandit Mahendra Doobay, ensured that her bedtime stories were excerpts from the Devi Bhagvatam. “Those stories gave me the same feeling of hope and adrenaline I would receive going to see a Marvel movie,” she said. Kushmani was particularly impacted by the Goddess’ form as Maa Kali, who is often depicted as dark-skinned and fierce. “I’ve heard people say such hateful things about her in my lifetime, and coincidentally the same things I heard people saying, were the same things they would say about women of a darker tone.” This fostered self-hatred within Kushmani who has a dark-skinned complexion. Once she learned the inspiring and courageous tales of Maa Kali and all the goddesses, however, Kushmani found a way to love herself. She found herself attracted to depictions of the Goddess. Anytime she felt insecure, she would look at those very depictions for strength and motivation. Prior to learning “self-love,” Kushmani admits that she feared Maa Kali.
Kushmani recounted the various appearances of Maa Kali. Maa Kali’s third appearance was during the battle of Rakta Beej. Rakta Beej was a powerful demon who has a boon that whenever a drop of his blood fell to the ground, a clone of his would be born at that very spot. Mother Durga, needing assistance during her battle with Rakta Beej, manifested from her body Maa Kali who stretched out her tongue over the earth and purified Rakta Beej’s toxic blood with her “Jwala Mukhi” (fiery tongue/mouth). “This was no easy responsibility and it was one only a fearless and intimidating form could carry out,” Kushmani said. She therefore began to take it upon herself to implement change as fearlessly as Maa Kali did. “I am not able to purify demon blood, but if I can reach one person, and guide them to changing a toxic perspective, then that is one less demonic attribute in our society…One less modern-day Rakta Beej.” Kushmani, who has emerged as a young community artist and organizer, credits much of her success to the endless support coming from her mother Kamla Doobay and her father Pandit Mahendra Doobay.
Kushmani believes that misconceptions surrounding goddess worship were created by ordinary people, practitioners and people who simply are without understanding. “Goddess worship is not evil, nor is it Obeya/Voodoo. Nor is the Goddess evil in any kind of way. Educating ourselves is the way to dispelling that which we are ignorant to.” As for equity among genders, Kushmani believes that Hinduism does uplift women’s empowerment. “It was/is our very patriarchal society that chooses not to uplift women (or each other).” Various Scriptures like the Devi Bhagvatam or Devi Saptashati/ChandiPaath glorify the Goddess and consistently repeat a cycle of praise for Her being a savior to the Gods and humanity when they could not save themselves. “We were all created as equal beings under spiritual doctrines. When Gods were helpless, they turned to the Ultimate Shakti (energy) and feminine aspect for protection and help. If this does not debunk any stereotypical or gender inbred roles, I am not entirely sure what else can.”
Kushmani Doobay has been addressing the patriarchal system set up generations ago by harnessing her own Shakti. “It starts with speaking up about the truths we were sheltered from for centuries,” she says. “We are not our Great Grandmothers who were not allowed to read and write. Rather we are the product of their sacrifices; their wildest dreams. We have intellect, wisdom and the ability to honor our repressed ancestors by using that which is now accessible to us.” Matadi Chowki was one example of how we can honor our ancestors by upholding tradition while simultaneously embracing a more egalitarian means of communal worship and revolutionary love.