When I was a child, I and other girls my age were regularly called by neighbours for kanya bhojan on auspicious days such as the Ram-Navami or Durga-Puja Ashtami/Navami. I remember the reverence with which entire families touched our feet while we squirmed uncomfortably, and the loving attention that was showered upon us from all directions while we were fed goodies and given gifts. It was as if they really believed that we were goddesses. All this stopped abruptly when we hit puberty. No kanya-bhojan. No gifts and goodies. No longer goddesses.
I remember asking my mom why hitting puberty divested a girl of the assumed divinity.Not that I really wanted to be considered divine, but what was the rationale behind this abrupt demotion? Did the Goddess not have periods herself?My mom went about doing her work as though she hadn’t heard me.
I sensed the answer to my question as I grew older. The onset of periods denotes the onset of the process of becoming sexually mature. It changes the way she is looked at by men, and by extension, the whole society. She becomes an object of the collective male desire. She becomes a piece of property belonging to the whole community, guarded carefully by her parents till they can grant personal ownership rights to somebody they consider suitable enough.(It is another matter that those considered ‘suitable’ might be so few and far between that they will consider it their right to be plied with money and gifts before they agree to accept this property.That’s a topic for another day). The girls no longer remain even human, so how can they be considered divine, even if it is only for a short while on one or two days each year.
This viewing of girls as property is entrenched in popular contemporary Hindu culture.The most obvious manifestation of this is the Kanya-daan, the all important ritual performed at the very beginning of traditional Hindu marriages. It involves a senior male relative(father, paternal uncle, paternal grandfather) putting the bride’s right hand into the groom’s, amidst much chanting of mantras. My grandmother once told me that her father, a Sanskrit scholar of repute, had explained to her the meaning of the kanyadaan mantras as follows–
“Along with the clothes(vastra) and the gold jewellery(swarnalankara) which she is wearing, I gift this girl(kanya) to you. You must promise that you will keep her, feed her and clothe her in a manner appropriate to your resources as long as she lives. You must promise that you will never ever hit her, not even with a flower. In return she will look after your needs, cook for you and bear your children.”
If one were to go by the kanyadaan mantras , even the jewellery gifted by a girl’s parents to their daughter do not quite belong to her but to her ‘keeper’. Just about everything on her person, including her clothes, are ‘gifted’ away along with her.She might as well have been cattle. It is the marriage ceremony which well and truly shows women their place in the society–starkly, unambiguosly.
By the time they get married, women are convinced of their worthlessness anyway.The one-time goddesses, post marriage, pray and fast for being a ‘sada-suhagan’ –in other words, to die before their husbands do. Bear in mind that in traditional arranged marriages, which is what most Indian women still have, the age-difference between bride and groom is at least five years and often around ten years. This devi-worshipping society wants its women to die when they are past their reproductive years and no longer attractive enough sexually, and it is they themselves who are made to pray for an early death.
And oh, the former goddesses had better not produce more of their ilk. The only way they can regain a little bit of their lost divinty is by producing sons, more sons and only sons. You see, there is only so much space for goddesses, past and present, here. And of course, there is all the space you want for sons, gods if you please, who remain very much god-like all through their lives. Ironically, sexual maturity, which reduces girls to the status of ‘property’, actually brings about a corresponding enhancement in the status of boys. His coming of age is a pointer to his impending marriage, which will bring with it the ability to (quite literally) lord it over a girl and her entire family.