Published on 29th September, 2013, in Mid-Day.
A prince abandons his wife and infant son to become a sage who discovers the path of liberation from suffering. The prince came to be known as the Buddha and his path came to be known as Buddhism.
The very opposite story is found in Hinduism: a sage is coaxed to marry and produce sons who provide for and protect humanity, while his wife encourages him through conversation to reveal the secret of outgrowing the human fear of invalidation. This sage is called Shiva and he is called the destroyer in Hinduism. He destroys by embracing the Goddess, addressing her as his Shakti, strength, rather than as Maya, delusion.
The opposing structure of the two stories reveals the fundamental tension in Indian thought: must we give up worldly life to be truly happy or can happiness emerge within the household itself? Despite the hold of monastic orders, it is the latter thought that finds greater favour in Indian society. Ultimately, even God has to marry. Without the Goddess he is stripped of divinity.
The Goddess plays a key role in Indic thought, most in Hinduism, quite a bit in Buddhism and to some degree in Jainism.
In the Hindu Puranas, it is the Goddess who challenges ritualism and hierarchies and notions of purification that shape Indian society, when as Sati she defies her father’s ritualistic excesses by choosing to marry a man/god, Shiva, who disregards all rituals.
Buddhism of the Buddha transforms as the centuries pass from the old Thervada school (Sri Lanka) to the later Mahayana (China/Japan) and Vajrayana (Tibet) schools. In narratives and imagery, he becomes less intellectual and more affectionate, less withdrawn and more compassionate, sprouting many hands that comfort and guide, as the concept of Bodhisattva gains ground. And this transformation is also associated with a Goddess, Tara. She softens the stern world-renouncing Buddha and makes him a savior who helps those who are unable to help themselves. Tara is a mysterious goddess who can transcend the divide of Buddhism and Hinduism. Her temples are found across Bengal, Orissa and Assam but here she is identified with Kali: very different from the Blue and Yellow and White and Green Taras of Tibetan Buddhism who are associated with Lakshmi and Saraswati as well as Durga and Kali.
In Jainism, she is Padmavati, a demi-goddess, having not quite the stature of the ascetics such as the Tirthankaras but one very popular amongst the common folk who seek material pleasures in this life, hoping to eventually outgrow their karmic hunger for wealth and power and fame, and walk the path of the Jina. Though her name associates her with a lotus and hence with Lakshmi, she is also a fighter and guardian goddess like Durga, who along with her husband, Dhararendra (Indra of the earth), protects Parshva, the 23rd supreme sage of this era. Padmavati is more popular with the Digambara Jain tradition, not the Shvetambara tradition.
Goddess is central to Tantra, a body of texts (not just Hindu) that emerged alongside Agamas and Puranas in medieval times. These texts gave great value to imagery and all things tangible over the abstract philosophies of the sages. They spoke less about delusions and more about power. They spoke less about purification and more about pollution. Tranquillity was abandoned in favour of sensory agitation. In other words, the Goddess demanded that life be affirmed, not denied.