Philosophical musings as far back as the Rig Veda contemplated the universe as the result of an interplay between the male principle (purusha ), the prime source of generative power but quiescent, and a female principle that came to be known as prakriti , an active principle that manifests reality, or power (shakti ), at work in the world.
On a philosophical level, this female principle ultimately rests in the oneness of the male, but on a practical level it is the female that is most significant in the world. The vast array of iconography and mythology that surround the gods such as Vishnu and Shiva is a backdrop for the worship of their female consorts, and the male deities fade into the background.
Thus it is that the divine is often female in India.
Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi, has a number of well-known incarnations that are the center of cults in their own right. In the Ramayana , for example, female characters are responsible for most of the important events, and the dutiful Sita, who resists the advances of lustful Ravana, is a much beloved figure of devotion. Lakshmi receives direct worship along with Ram during the big national festival of Dipavali (Diwali), celebrated with massive fireworks demonstrations, when people pray for success and wealth during the coming year. The Mahabharata is equally packed with tales of male and female relationships in which women hold their own, and the beautiful Draupadi, wife of the five Pandava heroes, has her own cult in scattered locations throughout India.
Parvati, in a variety of forms, is the most common focus of devotion in India. She presents two main facets to her worshipers: a benign and accepting personality that provides assistance and a powerful and dangerous personality that must be placated. The benign vision exists in many temples to Shiva throughout the country, where the goddess has her own shrine that is in practice the most frequented site of heartfelt devotion. During annual festivals in which the god and goddess emerge from their shrines and travel in processions, it is often the goddess who is most eagerly anticipated. In North India, for example, life-like statues of the loving goddess Kali, who is ultimately a manifestation of Parvati, are carried through huge crowds that line village and city streets. In South India, where gigantic temples are the physical and social centers of town life, the shrines and their annual festivals are often known by the names of their goddesses. One of the more famous is the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Minakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The temple is named after the “fish-eyed goddess” Minakshi, described in myths as a dark queen born with three breasts, who set out to conquer the universe. After overrunning the world and vanquishing the gods, Minakshi finally met Shiva and, when her third breast disappeared, accepted him as her lord. This motif of physical power and energy appears in many stories where the goddess is a warrior or conqueror of demons who in the end joins with Shiva.
Alternative visions, however, portray a goddess on the loose, with the potential for causing havoc in the world unless appeased.
The goddess Durga is a great warrior who carries swords and a shield, rides a tiger, and destroys demons when the gods prove incapable; in this incarnation, she never submits, but remains capable of terrible deeds of war.
The goddess Kali often appears as an even more horrific vision of the divine, with garlands of human skulls around her neck and a severed head in her hand; her bloody tongue hangs from her mouth, and the weapons in her arms drip gore. This image attempts to capture the destructive capacity of the divine, the suffering in the world, and the ultimate return of all things to the goddess at death.
In many small shrines throughout India, in marked contrast to the large and ornate temples dominated by Brahmanical principles and the philosophy of nonviolence, the female divinity receives regular gifts of blood sacrifices, usually chickens and goats. In addition, the goddess may manifest herself as the bearer of a number of diseases. The goddess of smallpox, known as Shitala in North India and Mariamman in South India, remains a feared and worshiped figure even after the official elimination of the disease, for she is still capable of afflicting people with a number of fevers and poxes. Many more localized forms of goddesses, known by different names in different regions, are the focus for prayers and vows that lead worshipers to undertake acts of austerity and pilgrimages in return for favors.
Along many paths in the countryside, and in some urban neighborhoods, there are sacred spots at the base of trees, or small stones set in niches, or simply made statues with flowers or a small flame burning in front of them. These are shrines for deities who are locally honored for protecting the people from harm caused by natural disasters or evil influences. Worshipers often portray these protectors as warriors, and, in some cases, they may be traced back to great human fighters who died for their village and later became immortalized. In South India, there are thousands of hero stones, simple representations of warriors on slabs of stone, found in and around agricultural settlements, in memory of nameless local fighters who may have died while protecting their communities hundreds of years ago. At one time, these stones may have received regular signs of devotion, but they are mostly ignored in contemporary India. In the fields on the outskirts of many villages, there are large, multicolored, terra-cotta figures of warriors with raised swords or figures of war horses; these are open-air shrines of the god Aiyanar, who serves as the village protector and who has very few connections with the great tradition of Hinduism.
Local deities may begin to attract the attention of worshipers from a wide geographical area, which may include many villages or neighborhoods, or from a large percentage of the members of particular castes, who come to the deity seeking protection or boons. These deities have their own shrines, which may be simple, independent enclosures with pillared halls or may stand as separate establishments attached to temples of Shiva, Vishnu, or any other great god. Deities at this level attract expressive and ecstatic forms of worship and tend to possess special devotees on a regular basis or enter into their believers during festivals. People who are possessed by the god may speak to their families and friends concerning important personal or social problems, predicting the future or clarifying mysteries. These local gods often expect offerings of animals, usually goats or chickens, which are killed in the vicinity of the shrines and then consumed in communal meals by families and friends.
In the twentieth century, there has been an increase in the number of new, regional gods attracting worshipers from many different groups, spurred by vast improvements in transport and communication. For example, in the hills bordering the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala is a shrine for the god Ayyappan, whose origin is uncertain but who is sometimes called the offspring of Shiva and Vishnu in his female form. Ayyappan’s annual festival is a time of pilgrimage for ever-growing numbers of men from throughout South India. These devotees fast and engage in austerities under the leadership of a teacher for weeks beforehand and then travel in groups to the shrine for a glimpse of the god. Bus tickets are hard to obtain for several weeks as masses of elated men, clad in distinctive ritual dhotis of various colors, throng public transportation during their trip to the shrine. In northwestern India, the popularity of the goddess Vaishno Devi has risen meteorically since independence. Vaishno Devi, who combines elements of Lakshmi and Durga, is an extremely benevolent manifestation of the eternal virgin who gives material well-being to her worshipers. One million pilgrims travel annually to her cave shrine in the foothills of the Himalayas, about fifty kilometers north of the city of Jammu.
Since the 1950s, the most spectacular example of a deity’s increasing influence throughout northern and central India is the cult of Santoshi Ma (Mother of Contentment). Her myths recount the sufferings of a young woman left alone by her working husband and abused by her in-laws, who nevertheless remains loving and faithful to her man and, by performing simple vows to the goddess (fasting one day every week), eventually sees the return of her now-rich husband and moves with him into her own house. Santoshi Ma, thought to be the daughter of Ganesh, is worshiped mostly by lower middle-class women who also pray for material goods. In the 1980s and early 1990s, her shrines were spreading everywhere and even taking over older temples, aided by the release in the 1970s of an extremely popular film version of her story, Jay Santoshi Ma .