Ahead of the festival season, as I was watching television in Hyderabad, I was a bit surprised to see the channels and advertising agencies using the mythological tales of Rama’s victory over Ravana to wish their audiences for Dusshera or Vijaya Dashami. Even the WhatsApp forwards from my South Indian friends and family wishing me had images of Rama. This seemed at odds with the story I had been told in my childhood: that this festival celebrates Durga’s defeat of Mahishasura.

When I asked my students about this, they reiterated that Vijaya Dashami marked Rama’s triumph. For them, Diwali too was associated with Rama and his return to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana. To me and others in South India, Deepavali is associated with Naraka Chatur Dasi, when the goddess Satya Bhama, who accompanied Krishna to the battle, killed the asura king Narakasura.

I was intrigued to note the different associations these major festivals had in different regions: in North India, they were related to Rama but in the South, they were associated with female goddesses .

Of course, mother goddess worship is more prevalent in South India, where local goddesses protect each village. As an anthropologist, I wanted to understand why forms of mythology for the same festival differ in the two regions. I also wanted to understand why a hyper-masculine society is so invested in mother goddess worship.

By no means am I calling South India matriarchal. It is also undeniable that the myths of Durga and Satyabhama foreground male dominance: Durga is able to defeat Mahishasura because the gods have lent her their strength, while Krishna pretends to faint in order to anger Satyabhama into killing Narakasura. Despite this, the myths are predominantly women-centred and celebrate women’s power over male demons – unlike the myths that are popular in northern India.

A painting titled 'The Goddess Devi Fights the Buffalo Demon, Mahisha' from around 1800. Credit: The Detroit Institute of Arts.

The imposition of Ramayana-related myths on the women-centric ones in South India in recent times is not a mere coincidence. Scholars such as Manjari Katju have noted that organisations such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, Vishva Hindu Parishad and their parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have tactically employed myths and symbols to bring “pan-Hindu/Indian identification” in an attempt to garner Hindu votes.

Though the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s attempts to use religion for political mobilisation were initially more successful in North India, with the greater spread of television in the late 1980s, the propagation of the myth of Rama became much easier. Over the last two decades, temples for Rama have sprouted across South India.

The Ramayana, Katju contends, is about a rashtrapurusha (ideal national man) and a maryadapurshottam (righteous man) – a story valorising male supremacy. Sita is submissive and obedient, dependent on men. She is presented as an ideal woman and wife, without agency, just like many other women in the Ramayana.

By contrast, I wondered why the other great epic, the Mahabharata, has not inspired any major festivals in North India. Perhaps it is because the women it features have much greater control of their destinies. For instance, the wife of the five Pandavas from the epic is considered the main goddess (Draupadi Amman) in the folk culture across Northern Tamil Nadu, especially in the Vellore district.

An idol at the Draupadi Amman temple in Alandur in Chennai and a detail from a reclining idol of Draupadi at a temple near Auroville in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Karthikeyan0393, CC BY-SA 3.0 and John Hill, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bengal is another important region where mother goddess figures are prominent in the pantheon. However, the mythologies about them have been refashioned in keeping with patriarchal ideals. In the process, Durga and Kali have been tamed so much that they are often associated with or shown dominantly with the other male gods such as Ram, Karthik, Ganesh and Shiva.

When I was visiting the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata a little before the Covid-19 lockdown, one of my Bengali friends observed that Durga idols are increasingly being portrayed in a peaceful manner.

My friend’s parents had the same observation. In their childhood, they said, Durga idols were ferocious, depicting her battle victory with demonic forces. But now, the weapons she traditionally holds in all her eight hands are slowly vanishing or becoming more passive. That trend has continued and is visible on images uploaded on social media.

The Dharmaraya Swamy Temple in Bengaluru that is dedicated to Draupadi and the Pandavas. A detail from the temple depicts Draupadi with the Pandavas and Krishna. Credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, derivative work: Redtigerxyz, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike in other parts of India, Durga Puja in Bengal is celebrated along with the other five deities. Ganesh and Karthik are Durga’s sons, while Lakshmi and Saraswathi are her daughters. Though her husband Shiva is usually not worshipped as one of the main deities, his presence is imperative in the Durga Puja celebrations. Over the past few years, though, Shiva has been brought to the forefront,

Bengalis believe that after Durga has defeated Mahishasura, she has come back to her maternal home. She is accompanied by her sons, sisters or daughters to stay for four days. As she returns to her husband’s house, she is given a farewell by offering her food, grandeur worship and tears of joy. This, believers explain, is why Shiva is not explicitly worshiped along with the other deities in the pandal.

A Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata in October. Credit: PTI.

Durga, according to tradition, is equated with the daughters of the Bengali family. She is worshiped and sent off to her husband’s house at the end of the festivities.

Archival images show the other gods and goddesses accompanying Durga as much smaller in size but modern iconography or idols depict them in equal size. Her sons (Ganesh and Karthik) and sisters (or daughters) who accompany her reduce her from the ferocious matriarch warrior to a wife, mother and daughter. Perhaps, where the worship of women goddesses is stronger, patriarchal forces come up with ways to make the goddess docile.

The entrance to the Draupadi Ratha and a fresco of Durga inside the ratha at Mahabalipuram. Credit: Liji Jinaraj, CC BY-SA 2.0, and Samrajclicks, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A similar trend can also be found in the mythology of Kali. In August 2021, after moving to Bengal as a teacher, I started to ask my students about her. Why was she created? Whom did she defeat in battle? Most of my students could not answer. However, the story they narrated had been spread through calendar art and popular iconography.

The story starts after the battle. Kali is furious and is about to destroy the universe with her tandav dance. Shiva lay down in front of her, and when she realised that she was going to step on Shiva, she regained consciousness.

Durga becomes Kali at the request of the gods, who have failed in their attempt to defeat the demon Rakthabija. Rakthabija has a unique boon: every drop of his blood that touches the Earth gives rise to a clone of himself. Kali, in her ferocity, ensures that not even a single drop of blood touches the ground. She drinks his blood with her tongue out, holding a bowl to catch any blood dripping from Raktabija’s severed head.

Illustrations of Kali, by an unknown artist on the left and by Raja Ravi Varma on the right, in public domain, via The Metropolitan Museum and Wikimedia Commons.

But this part of the story is losing its prominence. Most of my students were only aware of the other part of the myth – of Shiva pacifying her.

Though we claim that we want women to be independent, through the stories and mythologies of mother goddess worship, we are taming the goddess. The vision of the peaceful, weaponless, husband-controlled woman accompanied by her family embodies our expectations of the ideal woman. This ideal is being perpetuated through stories, calendar art and iconography.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that mythologies are subject to change according to the time and situation. He also implies that myths or part of a myth can be created and inserted into the corpus of existing mythology. The inclusion will be widely accepted if it suits contemporary social ideology and needs.

In an era in which our political leaders privilege homogeneity, it is important to preserve the diversity of our mythologies and ensure that our mother goddesses are allowed to stay strong and furious, rather than attempting to tame them through stories and iconographies.

Sipoy Sarveswar teaches Anthropology at Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan, West Bengal. His X handle is @SSarveswar