“Do you mind if I put Sindoor (vermillion) on her forehead?,” a devotee had asked, pointing to the child next to me. She then touched the little one’s feet and folded her hands together as if she was praying to the child. She gave the little girl a box wrapped with gift paper and a ribbon. The child’s face instantly glowed. While she opened her gifts, my eyes followed the devotee, who was doing the same ritual to other little girls at the Sunnyvale Hindu Temple until she had found nine girls. The nine girls were made to sit together and served a special meal.
Many believe that Navratri is a special time of year for girls who have not attained puberty. On the 8th day of Navratri, little girls are considered as different avatars of the goddess Durga. They are revered, pampered and worshipped as part of a ritual called Kanya puja.
In Nepal, the ritual is not limited to a single day of Navratri, but an on-going tradition where a little girl is chosen as the Kumari, or the living goddess, who holds the title till she attains puberty. There are several Kumaris around Nepal. The Kumari is chosen from a particular community and specific clans. The process of selecting a girl to become a goddess is surreal.
Image Credit: Metro UK
The prospective goddess will be scrutinized on 32 characteristics of physical perfection, which include blemish free skin, thighs like the deer, small sexual organs, and dainty hands and legs.
The Kumari lives a secluded lifestyle and is not allowed to mingle with people outside her close circle. Her feet are not even allowed to touch the ground leading, which is why she is carried from one place to the other. All of these rules and procedures are kept in affect, until she starts menstruating. It is believed that the spirit of the goddess vacates the girl’s body upon bleeding and is thus unfit to remain an 2avatar of the goddess.
Image Credit: Metro UK
The Irony of Kanya Puja
Some schools of Hinduism believe in the supreme power of the creator and that the creator is feminine. Adi Shakti – Absolute power is considered feminine and so Goddess Durga is considered supreme and a manifestation of fearlessness, courage and protection.
At the same time, women and girls are reduced to a dependent, discriminatory and stereotyped role, with includes having certain virtues and characteristics that they these individuals should possess. The making of goddess from a little girl or one day or as a tradition till she attains puberty is callous and savage.
The convenience in choosing a blemish-free young girl and choosing to believe that the goddess possesses her is exploitation. Considering that goddess, Durga, is depicted as a fully-grown woman, the comparison of her to innocent young girls, who have no consent or understanding of the role they are taking on, as a goddess, is contradictory. This practice not only highlights gender discrimination, but also, consistently perpetuates myths and fosters the belief that there are set standards for what girls & women can do and cannot do. It reinforces the idea that menstruation is a strange phenomenon that makes you undesirable and dirty.
While religion and worship might be a matter of choice, consent and exploitation are not. To rob little girls of their childhood to sacrifice it for the group of priests and tradition, which say she is pure and perfect enough to be a goddess, is simply inhuman.