It’s that time of the year, the time when we gather to worship Goddess Durga and ask her to protect us from evil. I’ve always admired Hinduism for its inclusion of feminine images of God. I also like that in Hinduism, the one powerful God is formless energy, or Nirguna Brahmana – no gender, no ethnicity. Though we might be tempted to refer to God as “he” the Sanskrit pronoun for God is “Tat” or “that.” It allows us to imagine God in any form we like – male, female, mother, or father.

For Bengalis, the form of Durga is particularly important. It is one of our biggest festivals. Come to think of it, majority of our festivals worship a female image of God. Perhaps that’s why growing up, I noticed a big disparity between the way we revere our Goddesses and the way we treat women everyday. The disparity between the social status of men and women in our country is nothing new. We hear about incidences, we read about them in newspapers, and social research is always coming up with the importance of educating girls in the economic development of a country.

Now lest any reader feels defensive about my writing, let me assure you that I know not all of us treat women unequally, and I know that a lot of progress has been made for women’s rights and we are still progressing. In this article, I’m not talking about satidaha, or discrimination against widows, or wife beating. I’m talking about more subtle things like the language we use, or what we teach kids. Countless times I’ve heard such things like “boys need to be strong,” or “don’t cry like a girl.” Boys are not born tough, we just make them tough by repressing their feelings whenever they show emotion. Because emotion is somehow supposed to be feminine and the feminine is somehow supposed to be weak. One Bengali insult I’ve heard often is meyelokero adham. Excuse me, but why is being a female the lowest thing you could be? Conniving and gossiping are somehow feminine things to do even though we know that we all do it! Perhaps not all of us use such sexist language, though I have a hard time believing that. But even those of us who don’t use these comparisons don’t protest against them either. We either tacitly support it, or laugh it away.

However, is it not hypocritical to worship Devi Durga if we believe women are weaklings in real life? Is it not hypocritical to tell young boys not to be like girls all year and then in these one or two festivals have them bow down before the Goddess? How ironic, that we restrict the things girls can do in life in the name of “protection” when we gather in Durga Puja to ask a woman for protection! Some of us respect women only in the motherly form. But why should we restrict respect only for mothers? What about all the other roles a Goddess has in life? Saraswati is not just our mother, but also the daughter of Durga, sister of Ganesha, and consort of Brahma. Even when she’s in none of those roles, she’s the Goddess of Wisdom. Does Hinduism not teach us to respect the feminine and masculine energies equally, in any role?

I hope that in this Puja, all of us take a moment to contemplate on what implications Goddess worship has in our daily lives. Bengalis should be at the forefront of women’s rights, considering that we are such a Goddess worshipping community. I hope we’re at least conscious of the words we use against women everyday, or otherwise they might easily become our actions.

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