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The Divine Feminine

Hindu Americans honor the power of women as the fall Navaratri festival gets underway, with implications for religion, culture, and politics

Maggie Phillips
October 03, 2022
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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Kate Medley
Manisha Patel holds a flower garbo, an integral element of Navaratri, the nine-night autumn festival honoring the power of the divine feminine, at the Hindu Society of North Carolina in MorrisvilleKate Medley
Kate Medley
Manisha Patel holds a flower garbo, an integral element of Navaratri, the nine-night autumn festival honoring the power of the divine feminine, at the Hindu Society of North Carolina in MorrisvilleKate Medley

The purple state of North Carolina is gearing up for a closely contested Senate election between former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, and the Trump-backed Republican Ted Budd. It’s a state that has also, by some estimates, seen a growth of its Indian American population of nearly 70% in the past decade, especially in the Research Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill. India is the secondmost common country of origin for foreign-born residents of the state, and Indian Americans (most of whom are likely to be Hindu) are the largest ethnic group within North Carolina’s Asian American population of over 425,000, according to advocacy group Indian American Impact. I spoke with women and girls at the Hindu Society of North Carolina’s celebration the night before Navaratri, the nine-night Hindu autumn festival honoring the power of the divine feminine, ending on Oct. 5, to see which issues are animating them.

HSNC volunteer Ami Patel said Navaratri is about “feminine energy,” describing how the first night begins with the lighting of the garbo, a lamp formed from an earthenware pot with holes in it, meant to signify the womb and the life inside it. This custom is accompanied by festive circular group dances, called the garba and the dandiya. It is during one of these dances, accompanied by a live band from the Indian state of Gujarat (the same state from which the garbo, garba, and dandiya customs originate), that Patel took some time out to speak with me. It was Sunday night, and there was no school the next day in the district, making it a perfect night, in the HSNC’s estimation, to hold a pre-festival event to bring in young people and families, for whom the ensuing nine nights of worship, dancing, eating, and socializing—which begin at 8 p.m. and go until at least midnight on weeknights—might not be feasible.

Young people of all ages and races swirled past us to the music in a bright circle, the skirts of the women and girls in traditional dress billowing out around them. With no alcohol on offer and a group of older adults observing from the back, this youth-oriented, pre-Navaratri night had the feel of a school dance. Nila Acharya, my guide for the evening from the society’s board of directors, was keen to emphasize how salubrious the whole event was, attributing the popularity of HSNC events with parents of all races and backgrounds to the intergenerational presence and overall wholesome vibe (garba and dandiya dances do not involve touching). When asked which issues are at the forefront of her concern, Patel said, “How to protect our children.”

Her answer cut right to the thematic center of Navaratri: the cultivation and generation of life, and the feminine power to defend, as well as to create.

That Navaratri eve, the international news was about women defending their basic rights in Iran, and a highly controversial woman and culture warrior on the brink of national leadership in Italy. But in the small upscale suburb of Morrisville, not far from the capital of a state in which the top concerns are inflation and education, I spoke with current and future generations of Hindu American women about their hopes and worries. Their answers suggested more quotidian struggles compared to the current global dramas where women are visibly front and center. But they also indicated that these women see themselves as engaged in a covert battle of their own, deploying the powerful weapons of tradition and community against isolation and alienation—two among the tangle of threats to America’s social harmony and mental health.

Although women have been subjugated throughout history in many cultures and societies, the power of femininity itself, at least in the abstract, has been reverenced around the world and throughout history. Indeed, the paradigm of a divinely associated woman vanquishing evil has stirred the collective imagination in various other religions, times, and places (see: popular depictions of the Virgin Mary sparring with Satan, or in the dramatic chiaroscuro renderings by female Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi of Jael killing Sisera, and Judith beheading Holofernes).

During fall Navaratri (there is a Navaratri for each of the four seasons), each night celebrates different characteristics of the multifaceted Goddess, also called Durga, in her many forms. The Vedas, the canonical texts of Hinduism, tell the stories and contain the praises of many deities, who while distinct, are ultimately manifestations of one supreme divine source. Swami Tyagananda is the head of the Ramakrishna Order of monks in Boston, and a participant in Tablet’s recent multifaith initiative The Tent. In a 2019 lecture to the Vedanta Society of Boston, he described these manifestations as a helpful way for believers to conceptualize God as something more personal, as an actual living being with attributes, rather than a distant, static abstraction.

Although Hinduism’s canonical book of hymns, the Rig Veda, contains tributes to a feminine manifestation of the divine, in his lecture, Tyagananda credited the worship of the divine feminine in its own right to the Devi Mahatmya, another book of Hindu scripture. He said it is estimated to have been written between the sixth and ninth centuries CE, becoming a seminal text for popular worship of the divine feminine aspect. The Devi Mahatmya , which he said in an email to Tablet “is customary and considered auspicious to chant” in its entirety during Navaratri, contains a legend that is central to the worship of Durga, whose name in Sanskrit he said in his lecture means “one who protects like a fort,” and which can also mean “one who destroys the evil consequences.” In this iconic story, often commemorated in the fall during Navaratri, Durga is a demon-slayer, manifested and conjured into being by existing deities through their anger with the demon Mahishasura, who with his armies is threatening the power of heaven. She confronts, dazzles, and finally destroys his forces with an overpowering personal brightness, and is ultimately victorious, subduing Mahishasura himself by stepping on his neck and thrusting a spear through his chest before decapitating him.

The emphases on Durga’s different aspects, and how she is worshipped during Navaratri, vary regionally, meaning there is no single way to observe it. “Because of the prevalence of many deities in the tradition (and consequently many festivals and temples, etc.), Hindus effortlessly move from one to another,” Tyagananda wrote in an email to Tablet, “seeing them all as different ways the Divine may appear—in different forms (or as formless), with different attributes (or as beyond attributes), etc. I have visited countless temples and prayed and worshiped there, never for a moment thinking that this was a ‘different God’ I am praying to. In fact, I have also prayed in mosques, churches, synagogues, and guradwars—but always feeling that the same Divine is present everywhere.”

Consequently, various Navaratri traditions have migrated and been adapted throughout the Hindu world over time. The HSNC event, for example, put on in cooperation with the Triangle Gujarati Association, reflects the character of the celebration in Gujarat. In his 2019 Vedanta Society lecture, Tyagananda described what he calls the autumn festival’s “mythological” pretext, the legend associated with the worship of Durga is recognized during this time in many places. A tradition in Bengal and the northeastern part of India, but which he said in his email is now observed elsewhere, holds that the annual visit of the goddess Sati (a manifestation of the Goddess) to her parents takes place every autumn. This meeting between daughter and parents is the fruit of a familial reconciliation, since Sati originally defied her parents’ wishes in order to marry the ascetic Shiva, another Hindu deity. When Sati crashed a religious celebration at her parents’ home, to which her father had invited all the gods and goddesses except Shiva, she was so humiliated by her poor treatment and the insult to her husband that she died. In the aftermath, Shiva’s attendants wrecked the banquet, and eventually, Shiva himself arrived. In grief, he commenced a dance of destruction that threatened to destroy the entire universe. The destruction was averted when the deity Vishnu recognized that Shiva’s anger and grief would not abate as long as he could see his wife’s body, and so, he cut it into pieces and spread the pieces in various distant locations. Sati was reincarnated as the goddess Parvati, a maternal figure. In southeastern India, meanwhile, Tyagananda said in his email, the nights of Navaratri are divided into three segments, with three nights devoted to three different goddesses: Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Kali (who also appears as a force to be reckoned with in the Devi Mahatmya).

Although femininity in many cultures is commonly associated with passivity, creation, and life, Tyagananda stated in his 2019 lecture that the stories told during Navaratri are a reminder that dynamic destruction is also divine, and a key part of “the eternal feminine.” Far from a “detached spectator of the drama of human life,” he said, God-as-mother “is an active participant,” serving as a protector against the dangers of evil: “vice, wickedness, cruelty, injustice, suffering,” things that Tyagananda was at pains to remind his listeners are unavoidable realities. Tyagananda posited in his lecture that a mother’s primary defining functions are childbirth, nourishment, and protection, and the Devi Mahatmya is focused on the last one. The predominant depiction of Durga throughout this particular scripture is of what Tyagananda called “a warrior goddess.”

The stories contained in the Devi Mahatmya empower women, Tyagananda told his 2019 audience; the defeat of the demon Mahishasura, along with the other stories of feminine victory over evil, demonstrate the independence and power women can possess when facing “even the worst challenges of life,” he said, noting the resonance of this message in a time when, in many areas of modern life, gender inequality persists.

The teenage girls I spoke to at pre-Navaratri, ranging from 15 to 17 years old, told me what they see themselves coming up against in the next few years as they prepare to leave home and enter college and the workplace. While the band took a break, groups of girls rehearsed garba steps or took selfies. “My GPA!” one girl said immediately, when I asked her group what issues were concerning them most at the moment. “The rat race that we’re all in to get ready for college,” was another response. More globally, however, they expressed concerns about racism and sexism. Outside, in the pleasant early fall North Carolina night, one 17-year-old said she was concerned about future challenges she would face as a woman of color, saying she already feels some of them “a good amount.” It wasn’t all negative, however. One girl spoke of her excitement to go to college and pursue her passions. Another said that although she worries about the unfamiliarity of leaving home, family, and friends, she is animated by the idea of leaving the area for college. All the same, she said, she might try to find something akin to the HSNC wherever she ends up.

We can be the margin of victory for years to come. In many ways, Indian Americans represent the new South and represent the future of politics in our state.

This is the key to the continuation of a thriving Hindu American culture, as far as board members like Acharya and HSNC President Manoj Pandya are concerned. “This place is going to belong to the youngsters,” Pandya said during the band break. “Our focus is going to be youth, youth, and only youth,” he said to the crowd of teens and young families.

Although a festival in honor of femininity, Navaratri’s capacious observances are for everyone, men and women, young and old, containing elements of a transitional seasonal harvest festival and thanksgiving rituals related to work and labor, as well. Given when Navaratri falls this year, from Monday, Sept. 26, until Wednesday, Oct. 5, the HSNC’s pre-Navaratri event on the Sunday night before a school district teacher in-service day allowed an opportunity for younger people and families to get a taste of the festivities they might otherwise miss due to homework, extracurriculars, and early weekday morning wakeups. In a similar fashion, some Protestant Christian churches are known to hold extra Christmas Eve services and close on Christmas Day to accommodate families’ schedules.

Acharya, the HSNC treasurer (also events chair, and vice president of their Toastmasters club), is a small, expressive woman who led me around the event hall with regal self-assurance, graciously greeting the many smiling attendees who recognized her, stopping here to take a picture, there to do a TV interview. As she told me in detail about the various practical concerns that go into decorating, selling and taking tickets, and setting up the hall for such a large event (she estimated around 1,500 would be in attendance the next night), as well as bringing in a band from India that needs visas, food, and lodging, I was reminded of a quote attributed to Gen. Omar Bradley about successful war-fighting: Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics. Tonight, the HSNC hall hosting this celebration of the divine feminine energy was more than it seemed. It was a battlefield, on which mothers fight against those elements of American culture that would atomize and scatter their children’s sense of self, a dance of destruction to create in their place something strong, inclusive, and beautiful.

The voices of the women at the HSNC are voices to which North Carolina politicians and policymakers (and in other swing states where together roughly a quarter of the Indian American populations reside) might do well to listen.

“As the battleground of battleground states where every vote counts,” said Indian American and North Carolina state Senate Democratic Whip Jay Chaudhuri in an email to Tablet, “Indian-Americans remain a small but powerful block. The community already remains a swing and decisive vote in key state House, state Senate, and Congressional seats. But, Indian-Americans will continue to be in a position to swing the swingest of swing states. We can be the margin of victory for years to come. In many ways, Indian-Americans represent the new South and represent the future of politics in our state.”

The sheer regional variance of Navaratri observances throughout India helps illustrate why considering Indian Americans as part of a broader Asian American political bloc is a tricky business. Consider the sensitive subject of caste (something that can be given away by a last name, but which most Americans are likely to overlook completely), and it’s clear that U.S. demographic polls aren’t really getting the entire breadth of perspective. For example, while caste is by no means an exclusively Hindu or Indian phenomenon, a recent Carnegie Endowment survey of Indian American attitudes found that nearly half of Hindu respondents, mostly born outside the U.S., identified with a caste group, and of those, they reported being general or upper-caste. This corresponds with a report from Equality Labs, a progressive anti-caste organization dedicated to amplifying issues in South Asian communities in the U.S. and abroad. In 2018 they published Caste in the United States, which contained findings from a 2016 survey of South Asian Americans. The report provides a brief history of South Asian castes in the U.S., describing a process beginning in 1965 with the passage of the National Immigration and Nationality Act, whereby a wave of wealthier, more educated upper-caste Hindus began arriving in the U.S. The report asserts that this immigration wave established upper-caste culture as the predominant Hindu culture in the U.S. by the time lower-caste Hindus began arriving in larger numbers, starting in the 1990s (the result of changing immigration laws in the U.S., and social and political change in South Asian countries). Unfamiliarity with caste culture means that until a couple of recent discrimination lawsuits by lower-caste, or Dalit, Indian immigrants against higher-caste groups and individuals in the U.S., the experiences of an entire segment of South Asian immigrants were all but invisible.

Many Americans, therefore, see influential Indian American progressives like Pramila Jayapal (herself from a modestly upper-caste background), or the 16% minority of Indian Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and take for granted a certain set of values among Indian or Hindu Americans, often conflating the two groups. But a different picture emerges from an earnest look into Hindu American cultures and experiences, which requires going beyond the simplicity of broad ethnic polling categories.

Last fall, I wrote in Tablet about how traditional Hindu values that emphasize the importance of education were shaping the policy preferences of some Hindu Americans, particularly in Virginia. It is a state with a substantial Hindu American population, and at the time, Republican Glenn Youngkin had recently won the gubernatorial election in a surprise upset. Youngkin’s victory was commonly credited to a widespread dissatisfaction with the public schools in a state that had been projected to tip in the Democrats’ direction. Hindu Americans’ concern over this issue may not indicate a full embrace of every position embraced by cultural conservatives, but it does suggest a complex, diverse faith population that defies binary political categorization.

Abortion, for example, is largely understood as a women’s issue in the U.S., and from a religious standpoint, many Hindu texts appear to discourage the practice. However, the Pew Research Religious Landscape Study in 2014 showed that 68% of Hindu Americans surveyed believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But of that group, less than half (38%) were women, while 62% were men. Additionally, among Hindus who answered that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, there were generational differences: 35% were 18-29 years old, and over half (55%) were aged between 30 and 49. Only 15% of respondents who believed abortion should be legal in all or most places were younger millennials, with the majority (75%) being older millennials and Generation X. And while Pew’s sample size carried around an 8.5% margin of error, it was evidently enough confidence for advocacy organization the Hindu American Foundation to cite the 68% statistic in its nuanced statement in support of a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

It wasn’t something any of the teens or adult women I spoke to at pre-Navaratri brought up, however (in North Carolina, it ranks eighth on top issues for voters according to a recent survey by High Point University). Rather, Acharya cited traffic concerns in the Triangle area when I asked her what issues were engaging her currently in the state. “Every day,” she said, “we have people moving in.” North Carolina is one of the states taking in expats from states like California, New York, and New Jersey since 2020, and she worries that the state’s infrastructure isn’t keeping pace with the population boom. Nevertheless, in her two decades in the state since moving here from Chicago, she says she has watched the state become more welcoming in response to the diversity the Research Triangle attracts through its plethora of career opportunities in the IT and medical fields.

The ultimate lesson of Navaratri, Tyagananda said in his 2019 lecture, is that humanity is engaged in a conflict not only with external enemies, who threaten our collective peace and harmony, but we are also each called to an internal reckoning. When we recognize true evil within ourselves, he said, we must show no mercy for the negativity and destructiveness dwelling within our own personalities. Acharya and Patel believe the HSNC’s cultural activities on display that evening have a place in that struggle.

Patel mentions gun violence as a fear she faces as a mother. Because both she and Acharya are aware of this and other stressors facing both parents and children in the U.S. today, they are passionate about passing along culture and traditions to young people, as a means of vanquishing their negative impacts. While American youth express high rates of isolation, anxiety, and depression, Patel believes the community and sense of identity provided by the HSNC is expressed by the themes of Navaratri. “As a mother,” said Patel, “no matter which mother, Indian or American, or any mother on earth, we want to give the best to our children. And that is what this symbolizes. We wanted to give them joy, we wanted to give them unity, we wanted to give them bonding.” She describes the social ties that are strengthened through the joy of the communal dancing that had just taken place in the room next door, and was about to begin again. “We want the youngsters to continue this culture,” she said.

Patel is hopeful about the future of Hindu American youth. “They’re doing a pretty good job,” she said. Acharya attributes this success to the moms. “They are born and raised here,” she said of the young people in attendance. “But they are also rooted in the original culture. And that is coming from feminine energy, the moms are doing hard work at home, too.”

For the people I spoke to, heard, and saw at pre-Navaratri, identity is something more than a poll category. It is a force strong enough to provide a sense of belonging, and flexible enough to accommodate outsiders. Earlier that day, Acharya taught a workshop to introduce the garba dances to anyone who was interested. “A festival like this,” Patel said of the community celebration, helps young people start to build the social capital that will help them offset life’s slings and arrows. “It’s not only for Indians,” she said, “We want everybody to come, everybody to share.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.