Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal

Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal

Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal

Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal

Synopsis

The Indian state of West Bengal is home to one of the world's most vibrant traditions of goddess worship. The year's biggest holidays are devoted to the goddesses Durga and Kali, with lavish rituals, decorated statues, fireworks, and parades. In Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls, June McDaniel provides a broad, accessibly written overview of Bengali goddess worship. McDaniel identifies three major forms of goddess worship, and examines each through its myths, folklore, songs, rituals, sacred texts, and practitioners. In the folk/tribal strand, which is found in rural areas, local tribal goddesses are worshipped alongside Hindu goddesses, with an emphasis on possession, healing, and animism. The tantric/yogic strand focuses on ritual, meditation, and visualization as ways of experiencing the power of the goddess directly. The devotional or bhakti strand, which is the most popular form, involves the intense love and worship of a particular form of the goddess. McDaniel traces these strands through Bengali culture and explores how they are interwoven with each other as well as with other forms of Hinduism. She also discusses how these practices have been reinterpreted in the West, where goddess worship has gained the values of sexual freedom and psychological healing, but lost its emphases on devotion and asceticism. Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls takes the reader inside the lives of practicing Shaktas, including holy women, hymn singers, philosophers, visionaries, gurus, ascetics, healers, musicians, and businessmen, and offers vivid descriptions of their rituals, practices, and daily lives. Drawing on years of fieldwork and extensive research, McDaniel paints a rich, expansive portrait of this fascinating religious tradition.

Excerpt

In the spring of 1998, India detonated five underground bombs at Pokhran, in northwestern India. Some Indian newspapers declared Pokhran to be a shakti pitha, a place sacred to the goddess Shakti. Western observers wondered whether this was some sort of religious justification for India’s nuclear testing.

The term shakti has a variety of meanings in India. According to the Sam. sad Bengali-English Dictionary, it means power, strength, might, force, capability, energy, and potency (and it was a name for an ancient missile). Shakti also means the female principle taking part in creation, or the female deity.

The goddess Shakti is the essence of divine power, whose presence is believed to be manifest in certain places on earth. As the story goes, when the goddess in her incarnation as Sati committed suicide (due to her father’s insults to her husband, Shiva), Shiva was maddened with grief and danced with her body in his arms. The gods wished to stop his mad and destructive dance, so they chopped her body into pieces. These pieces fell in different places in India, and each place became sanctified ground. These are the shakti piṭhas or sati piṭhas, and today these places are recognized as shrines, which are visited by religious pilgrims. The goddess is believed to reveal her power of creation and destruction in such places—and what place could reveal power more clearly than a place where nuclear weapons have been detonated?

India is an important area of study for goddess worship. Whereas many feminist theologians and mythologists struggle to reconstruct ancient goddess traditions from the artifacts found in such an-

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