In the country of Nepal, where numerous deities are worshipped and celebrated, the status of women is a complex and varied mystery. But considered in the light of the stories and images of the goddesses of Nepalese Hinduism, a clear picture of the hopes, motivations and constraints of Nepalese women is revealed. Three goddesses: Sita, Dhurga, and Laksmi are especially significant.
In the epic, Ramayana, Sita embodies chastity, endurance, and wifely devotion. The wife of the avatar, Rama, she was abducted by the demon, Ravana, who was soon overwhelmed by her beauty and overcome with lust. In spite of his pleas, abuse and threats, Sita was able to maintain her fidelity to Rama, but when Rama finally rescued her, he could not conceal his doubt about Sita`s faithfulness. In a desperate attempt to prove her complete devotion, Sita gave herself to be consumed by fire in a funeral pyre. Agni, the Lord of Fire, deemed her innocense, and the flames did not harm her. Later, she was banished o the forest and there in grief, nurtured her two sons for fifteen years. Finally, unable to endure Rama`s scorn, she gave herself to be swallowed by mother earth.
Sita`s story, for me, echoes the patriarchal nature of the Nepalese family life: the women`s acceptance of the higher position and greater importance of men, the mother`s preference for a male over a female child, and mother`s willingness to allow male children to gain better access to education.
In Sita may be seen the tremendous devotion expected of a wife by a husband, devotion that continues in spite of beatings and rejection. The same characteristics may be seen in the woman who untiringly strives to keep the family intact while her husband is away for months or years serving in the British or Indian army or working in a distant place.
This devotion endures even in the humiliation of a husband taking a second wife.
The shadow of Sita also lies among those passive and helpless Nepalese women humiliated by poverty, victimized by male exploitation, abducted for flesh trade, and among those denied of their family inheritance because they are not male. Sita can be seen among those who are crushed by the loss of honor and dignity, those who can no longer fight for their rights and choose death by suicide.
The other figure is Dhurga, the other goddess who receives high recognition among both Nepalese men and women. The goddess of absolute power and strength, Dhurga is that power, the personification of the active forces of the universe. She is power in the blending of the three gods: Brahmin, Vishnu and Shiva. These gods fight and triumph over Mahisasura. A redemptive and revengeful goddess, Dhurga is annually celebrated by offering a sacrifice of blood of slaughtered animals.
Dhurga is reflected in the lives of Nepalese women as their strength completes a man`s identity, the wife`s faithful and unwavering support is then the power behind the man`s popularity and success.
Being proclaimed a mother goddess, Dhurga can be seen reflected in the Nepalese culture`s affirmation of the greatness of motherhood in its perpetuation of the human race. Her power is also manifested in the recent movements
in women`s rights in Nepal. Women now sit in the Parliament,participate in the Panchayat forum, and excel in various professional endeavors. These women are really rebuilding, if not transforming, their country. Such power can be seen among wives and mothers in their constant role of nurturing children and becoming responsible citizens at the same time. Dhurga`s strenght is manifested in the matriarchal nature of in-law-relationships. The mother-in- law often projects a dominating authority over her newly wed daughter-in-law and continues to hold a tight control over her son even after the marriage. Dhurga`s power can also be found among those few women who have withstood the ridicule caused by their remaining single or marrying late.
Laksmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune, is honored during the harvest season. Laksmi is a goddess associated with light, color, music and dance and to whom puja, worship for the goddess is given. Laksmi is believed to make nocturnal visits to homes to give blessings to the acquired wealth of the family. The women of the family make preparations to welcome Laksmi by cleaning the hosue and setting up lights to brighten the night.
The contemporary manisfestation of Laksmi is seen in young brides who bring wealth to the family of the groom in accordance with the dowry system, in wives and working mothers who earn income for the famiy in addtion to their hard labor within the homes, and among those Nepalese women who constitute the chief labor force of the agriculatural sector.
Laksmi is invited into Nepalese homes and is asked for her grace and blessing. In so doing, families affirm that the product of their labor, their wealth, is something to be put within the context of religious worship. By contrast, in the race to buy puja materials, and in the pompous display of valuables, one sees the spirit of consumerism and materialism that has seeped into the contemporary Nepalese
family life. The display of lights as the goddess is received
into the home may, however, give strenght to those who desire to dispel the darkness brought by ignorance and distorted values.
Such is the status of women and motherhood in the family life of Napal. Sita, who personifies chastity, endurance and wifely devotion, is tainted with pessimism and defeat in the context of a male dominated society. But this status can be redeemed by the absolute power and strenght of the mother goddess, Dhurga, who is reflected in the intellectual and spiritual energy of women who have challenged the traditional role of men. The image of Laksmi is reflected in the condition of women as the taken-for-granted providers of wealth and prosperity. Nepalese women and mothers, as the labor force behind most economic gain, may serve as an awakening lights from the distortion involved in the mad race towards materialism. The strenght of each of these mythological figures is clearly reflected in the modern life of the Nepalese women.
(in a series of articles on the women situation in Nepal, Elizabeth Padillo Olesen )