THE GODDESS IN HINDU-TANTRIC TRADITIONS: DEVI AS CORPSE.
By a meticulous examination of Sakta-Tantric texts, Mukhopadhyay's book manages to deliver exactly what the subtitle reads--Devi as corpse. The appendices attached, which contain the outline of Mahabhagavata Upapurana, Brihaddharmapurana and Annada Mangal (texts that he maintains are grossly neglected in the Sati-Siva myth), provide a glimpse into the extensive research the author has taken up. In The human death, the divine corpse, the author delves into the concept of the corpse and by extension, the difference between the dead body and the living one. The Samkhya philosophy of Purusa and Prakrti is broken down by introducing the element of energy (a separate category) that allows the passive Purusha to see and the inert Prakrti to dance. Sakti, thus, is presented as the "mediatrix between consciousness and matter" (8), existing as much in the corpse as in the living body. He introduces the Sati-Siva myth, its various versions and the problems they pose to the Sakta-Tantric texts. The problems including the nature of Sati's embodiment, Sati-Shadow as fiction, the nature of Sati's agency/passivity and dismemberment leading to the plural energy-self accompanied by Siva's self expansion, excessive sexualisation of the dismembered body parts and the erotic-spiritual nature of Siva's love in general, are explored in detail in the next two chapters.
Using Biernacki and Shaw as preliminary points for his research, Mukhopadhyay's concern in his next chapter, Reinterpreting the myth of Sati: the devoted husband and the corpse of his wife, is that the Siva-Sakti myth is not studied in its entirety and that the exclusion of "the Kamakhya centric narratives of the myth and the tantric discourses of the Sati pithas" may encourage "fallacious generalizations" (31). His observation of Spivak's resistance to admitting any protofeminist elements to the Sati myth establishes his argument: there is no mention of the works that posit Sati as 'Absolute.' By the inclusion of Kashmir Shaivism, the author's analysis stands as more wholesome and encompassing. The concept of Svatantrya Sakti linked to the Divine Feminine is used expertly to advance the idea of Sati as the free and Absolute power. Annada Mangal is also consulted to demonstrate how Siva understands Sati as the World Mother and, that the corpse is as much Sati as the Divine Mother. Focusing on the embodied Sati, the author essentially cancels Spivak's remark of "sanctioned suicide" (37), settling the Sati-Shadow Sati debate with flair. In fact, his painstaking research has unearthed vital textual evidence, that of Neela Bhattacharya Saxena's, which points out how Shiva himself forbids widow immolation.
The author is efficient at dethroning Sati from the homogenous, subaltern status that Spivak has attempted to assign her and instead, poses a fundamental question-problem: Are we ready to see Sati "as the emblem of the "feminism of classical Hinduism"" (38)? Looking at Mahabhagavata, he also emphasizes that Sati is not pativrata but instead, a paradox of power that is uncontrollable and at the same time, in control. He mentions a string of actions wherein Sati is not a passive observant but a force that acts, whether it is by choosing to enter Shiva's life or ascending the pyre as an "embodied wife." Mukhopadhyay comes back to the connection between the corpse and the self, something that can never be separated completely. Sati's case is that of a perpetual physical presence as, unlike a corpse, her body has not been burnt but scattered. This physical presence creates a perpetuated existence that is loved and preserved in memory. But that is not all, the Sati pithas become concrete evidence of Sati's self-assertion, as opposed to the reiterated image of Sati as an ideal wife ascending the pyre. The sthals, then, become a sight for celebrating the agency of Sati, not the subdued sacrifice of a wife. In Dismemberment as pluralization, the author talks of the two aspects of the dismembered trope. The liberatory one, which focuses on the unbounded body destabilizing not only the image of the body but that of social order giving way to a "horizontal cartography," places Sati as the "deathless Mother of the Universe."
The second trope is of dismemberment as pluralisation, which does not view dismemberment as fragmentation but as pluralisation of Sati accompanied by the self-expansion of Siva. The corporeal divide between Sati and Siva gives way to the arrival of Parvati and instead of closure, the narrative of Sati pithas continues the story in a loop like structure.
This narrative presents Siva in a new light: temporally situated/meditative Siva as well as a passionate Siva frozen in time in his pluralistic form, expanding himself to preserve a love that is erotic as well as spiritual. Although the Sakti Pithas focus on dismemberment, they celebrate the holiness of the dismembered parts as well and the union of the plural-selves of Sati and Siva.
In The Shakti Pithas, the author points out that the Devi's energy, unlike Shiva's, continues to be her essence both in life and in death (which he refers to as "Devi-as-corpse" (72)). Citing an anecdote from Bharatchandra's Annada Mangal and the Brihaddharmapuraea on how the lingayoni myth was created in the first place, he interprets it as "prefiguring the active corpse of Sati, and how pivotal a role it plays in our understanding of the larger philosophy of Purusa and Prakrti. Philosophically speaking, the spirituo-moral examination that the Devi undertakes and the choice that she settles, for invites a broader opinion--deification (the balance struck between the individual deity and the public avowal of his/her accomplishment), under all circumstances, is a positively inclined struggle, rather than a settled fact between deitizing (continuous assertion of the entity that the deity is) and deitification (the objective approval or acceptance of the deity's right to evolve into higher virtues of the same form). (1)
As the author demonstrates in Spinozean terminology later in the chapter, the energy-entity of Sati's corpse stands for the simultaneous existence of natura naturata (the permanent, created characteristic of nature) and natura naturans (incremental naturing of the nature that will be), thus justifying their coterminous being (76). In response to Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's comment on the linga-yoni myth, Mukhopadhyay charts two inconsistencies in her criticism that I find admirable: first, the "erotic motif" can be understood as a trope that "successfully problematizes the epistemologies (I think cosmologies is a more accurate word here) of life and death, as the corpse-turned-yoni may represent not just the "strong tie between life and death" but also the porous border between death and life" (73), and second: while Sati may or may not be a subject of "erotic death", her corpse that is capable of being a yoni can continue symbolizing a corpse while being able to "emerge as a birth-giver" (73). As the clarification follows immediately after, her body, from a philosophical perspective, is always existent (75). This assertion is furthered when Mukhopadhyay re-reads Rana P. B. Singh's unidimensional understanding of Sakti pithas by remarking that each of the 51 piths are in fact a "microcosmic manifestation of Her" (80-81), instead of being representative of partial wholeness. This is carried forward into Shava Sadhana where the linga-yoni complex interpenetrates into the larger philosophical domain of Purusa, Prakrti and Pralaya (86), and that the yoni is "the active womb that has an agential role to play in the emergence of the linga and not otherwise.
While applauding June McDaniel's assessment of the relationship between the Sadhaka, the Devi and the Corpse, Mukhopadhyay finds it behovely to mention that her study overlooks among other things some important aspects of religion: the sui generis status of Hinduism in its interpretation of death and the soul, and that the Devi's powers "should not be seen as an external intervention but rather as an internal reorganization of Shakti" (92). The myth of the Sati pithas, through Sri Aurobindo, foregrounds a "theo-aesthetics of fragmentation" (100), where Prakrti willingly sacrifices her being so that "unenlightened beings", through the practice itself, can uplift themselves spiritually. In perhaps the most poetical line recorded in this book, the author puts forth the penultimate argument of his thesis: "Nature is both the womb and tomb, the motion of life and the stasis of death, the continuum of living and dying beings" (104). To sum up, if the reader can willingly ignore all the Sanskrit diacritical marks missing in the book and a few printing errors (pp. 77, 100, etc.), it is most definitely a must-read for academic scholars worldwide.
EFL University, Lucknow
SHOUVIK NARAYAN HORE
(1) That Shiva wins the prize for true devotion is an act of defiance against the implied covenants of aesthetics. In the words of P. B. Shelley: To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite/ To forgive wrongs darker than death or night/ To defy power, which seems omnipotent/ To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates/ From its own wreck the thing it contemplates. (Prometheus Unbound, IV: 570-74)
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|Author:||Sundriyal, Ankita; Hore, Shouvik Narayan|
|Publication:||Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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