A Destruction of Kindness
Family and religion teach us to be kind, but to what end? If kindness relegates us to a cave of perpetual solitude, perhaps it’s better to do as you please?
I was raised in a Hindu household, which sounds like my parents shared the same set of beliefs. But there is no exact unifying Hindu tradition. My father’s devotion stemmed from the singular belief that the Divine has no face, no name, no set of identifying characteristics (nirguna bhakti). My mother, on the other hand, has worshipped icons, has conceptualized the Divine in many and distinct forms, the cast of characters celebrated in the Hindu pantheon (saguna bhakti). To her and to many other Hindus, there is a difference between Lord Viṣṇu and Lord Rām. At the same time, even these devotees believe that the multitude of godly forms return to the same, greater reservoir of power. Hinduism is neither wholly monotheistic, nor fully polytheistic. The faith hinges on the belief that there are many deities and they must be worshipped one at a time, a concept known as kathenotheism.
In Hinduism, it is not a presumed that the Supreme Being is a masculine force. All devotees fundamentally believe that the Supreme Being is not gendered, or instead, that They embody all genders. This is confusing for believers of other faiths, who are familiar with structures that celebrate masculine energy. A key component of Hinduism, in direct contrast to that, is an understanding of the Goddess, of Devī. To put this in context of the Hindu pantheon, the Goddess herself explains to sages that she manifests herself in many ways. Is the Goddess good? Yes, she can be. Is the Goddess bad? Yes, she can be.
Breaking down the hundreds of thousands of personifications of the feminine Divine means keeping in perspective mortal conceptions of gender. Though reductive, religious scholars have simplified the goddesses into camps of benevolence and malevolence, based overwhelmingly on their marital status. Sītā, Pārvatī, Rādhā are consort goddesses. They get married. They do not cause harm. In their stories, no one dies. But the malevolent goddesses are without men, unmarried, raging. These goddesses are alone. They punish and liberate. Of course, this abridged categorization ignores an integral Hindu understanding of God, gender, and balance.
Perhaps human women can only be benevolent or malevolent, but goddesses are cut from the same cloth as gods, and as such can take gentle (samuya) and fierce (raudra) forms. Unlike consort goddesses who serve to check and tame the fierce male deity, unmarried goddesses get to be the fierce deity. Calling any Divine energy malevolent, however, overlooks its purpose: to restore order to our world. Even if the Goddess is sometimes bad, Her love is always good.
My first year in college started off innocently enough. It was an idyllic campus: shared by a small population of intense young people and home to the Scott Arboretum, which means that there are towering trees and blooming flowers everywhere. In that place, high from the pollen, everything felt intended and purposeful. At least that’s what I thought when I found myself texting someone well into the night, when I caught his gaze in our singular dining hall. He was the vibration in my back pocket. When after weeks of messaging and looking, we made plans to watch a movie, it seemed obvious what would happen. First, he would ask me to have dinner and I would share a booth with him, picking at our shared french fries. We would go back to my room, sit on my bed, turn my laptop on. We would watch a movie and halfway through, he would put his head in my lap. I would see his face reflected on the laptop screen. The movie would be three hours long. We would stay like that for three hours, frozen. And then, he would tell me that we should watch another movie, do something else, another time. I would agree. We would hug good night. I would fall asleep in my bed that smelled like him. This happened. I was happy.
There are thousands of manifestations of the Goddess. To simplify this multitude, devotees refer to them as some perpetually changing combination of Seven Sisters. Of those sisters, Vaiṣṇo Devī is always the eldest. She is known for her ritual purity, worshipped as both a young girl and a mother, never as a lover or wife. In her first lifetime, her name was Trikuṭā. As a young girl, she meditated on Lord Rām. The backstory on Rām is that his wife, Sītā, was abducted by an evil king, Rāvaṇ. Rām passed Trikuṭā on his way to rescue Sītā. Trikuṭā told him that she wanted to be his wife, but he had vowed to be faithful to his wife. Finally, as a compromise, Rām told her that he would come back to her and if she recognized him, he would marry her. Later, after rescuing Sītā, he appeared before Trikuta in the form of an old man. She did not recognize him. He revealed himself and consoled her, saying that in the age of Kalyug, the Dark Age, he would take on another form and she would be his consort. Until then, she was to meditate in a cave in the Trikuṭ mountains of North India. That cave is still her home today.
Three days after watching that movie, I heard a rumor that he had hooked up with someone else. That on the same night, after leaving my bed, he had walked over to someone else’s room. I laughed it off. I didn’t want to be jealous or petty, but I also didn’t want to be stupid. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to know the truth. I sent that quintessential we should talk text. It was the day of a blizzard and most of campus was closed. We decided to meet at the Student Center. In the hours leading up, I rehearsed what I wanted to say and my measured reactions to the two possible outcomes. Either he said yes, or he said no. I wasn’t going to push beyond my first question. We weren’t exclusive and it was just a date, so regardless, he hadn’t done anything wrong. I told myself that no matter what he said, I couldn’t be angry. I couldn’t be hurt.
Actually Vaiṣṇo Devī is not just living in that cave; she has become the cave. The place is alive with her spirit and energy, serving simultaneously as both temple and idol. Her origin story, full of love and devotion, explains how she has manifested into nature. My mother has gone to Vaiṣṇo Devī, has followed the famous pilgrimage path. It was Vaiṣṇo Devī who charted that course, who walked that way first, as a young girl. In comparison, Rām’s actual wife, had her own call to the land. In the years that followed his rescue of Sītā, Rām started to doubt his wife’s fidelity: she had been under the control of Rāvaṇ and anything could have happened. To prove her loyalty and purity, she walked through fire for him. That should’ve been the end of it, but it wasn’t. The people continued to question Sītā and as a result, Rām’s judgement. So, Rām banished her from the kingdom, even knowing that she was pregnant. Sītā raised her sons in the forest. Eventually her boys grew up and fought in a battle against their father. When Rām realized these were his children, he welcomed them back into his kingdom. He asked Sītā to join them as well, but Sītā was betrayed, broken-hearted, and done. She asked Bhūmi, literally Mother Earth, to take her back. Rām demanded that his wife be returned to him, but the earth remained silent. Rām never married again. Instead, he had a golden image of Sītā made, to keep him company, to sit on a throne beside him. When people call Sītā the golden goddess, this is why.
I hugged him hello and then I told him what I had heard floating around the rumor mill on campus. “Did you hook up with her that night?” He looked at me, unblinking. “If you tell me you didn’t, I’ll believe you.”
“I didn’t,” he said.
I nodded and then smiled. “Okay, that’s all I wanted to know.” It was over. We were fine.
“Wait,” he said. He looked up at the ceiling like he was looking up to someone. A minute passed. He cleared his throat. “I did.”
Like Vaiṣṇo Devī, I felt confided to my place. Here was a seemingly good man who had led me here and I had followed, had accepted. At the very least, I should have called him a liar. But I had practiced the kindest, most generous and level-headed responses. It wasn’t just for him, but for the sake of personal dignity. I hadn’t expected him to lie. I hadn’t expected to believe a lie. Instead, I took everything back, I said that I must have been confused, that I must have made a miscalculation. It couldn’t have been a date because if it had, he wouldn’t have left my room and gone to someone else’s. That would be weird, maybe even inappropriate. He didn’t correct me. He told me that he liked me, liked spending time with me, that I was cool. We talked for a while longer, until it felt that our shaky friendship could stand up, and then we hugged goodnight. I trudged through the snow back to my dorm, alone.
During the age of Kalyug, when Rām said he would come for her, Vaiṣṇo Devī appeared amongst her devotees in the form of a young girl. She orchestrated a ritual feast and helped to pass out food offerings. In that crowd was disciple Bhaironāth. She served him vegetarian food, but he wanted meat. She told him to accept what he had received. He became angry. When he moved to strike her, she sensed his malicious intent and disappeared into thin air. He became obsessed with finding her. His focus and determination parallels Rāvaṇ’s sexual desire for Sītā. But with no fulfilled promise of Rām, Vaiṣṇo Devī had to take care of herself. She continued to move out of his sight. At one point, he came across a merchant and asked if a certain young girl had been seen nearby. The merchant warned him, said that this wasn’t any ordinary young girl, but a manifestation of the Goddess. Bhaironāth ignored him.
Because there was another woman, someone to be linked in direct competition with, I felt compelled to be my kindest self. I did not judge him. I did not condemn him. I was aware of the multitude of lies that he would offer up and then immediately take back. I loved him. So, when we spent time together and he left, I did not think about what he was doing and who he was doing it with. I was not jealous. I gave him friendship and affection. I waited. If he was going to make a decision, I would let the decision be made. In comparison, I steeled myself to what other people said, what other women said. I thought about the good, consort goddesses and wanted to be like them— fair, forgiving. It was work. I felt like I was disappearing in a fog of mercy.
It continued like this for months and then he started dating her, started a relationship with her. Once when he had a backache, he asked me if I could get a lacrosse ball for him. He wanted to roll it over his sore muscle. I didn’t think too much about it. He was hurt and he wanted my help. I wanted to be a good friend (a friend can never be a bad friend) and a good person (a person can never be a bad person). I talked to someone on the team and got the rubber white ball. The night he came to get it, he stood in the doorway of my room. It was the first time I was grateful for a fixed boundary, for my own sense of place. We talked for an hour, hovering in our in-between. After he left, I felt a shutter close in my heart. It was never going to happen and I did not want it to, not anymore. The story, long, circuitous had led to this precise reality. A couple of years later, he married her. When I think about him now, my first love, it doesn’t feel like any of this happened to me. It doesn’t feel like I was really there.
At some point, Bhaironāth cornered the young girl in her cave and she revealed herself in her fiercest, most destructive avatar. As she cut his head off, he told her that he was not sorry to die, because he was dying at the hands of the Goddess. But, he said, could she forgive him? He did not know who she really was, he did not recognize her. Could she forgive him and grant him liberation? Otherwise, he will definitely come back as a sinner. She was the Mother (a mother can never be a bad mother). Vaiṣṇo Devī, in her grace and mercy, granted him his liberation. Since then, believers have visited her at her cave and asked for their deepest desires to be realized. On their way back from her, they stop to worship at the temple built to honor Bhaironāth’s decapitated head. After all this time, she still gives and forgives.
Last year, a visiting priest at my mother’s temple said that Kalyug is over. We are presently in a new age. I asked my mother about Rām’s promise to Vaiṣṇo Devī, who is still waiting for him. She raised her eyebrows at me. “Rām is never going to marry her, he’s Rām. Anyway, Vaiṣṇo Devī can’t get married. It doesn’t work that way.”
For Hindus, the gods and goddesses in mythology are not just defined by their divinity, they are also shaped by their delicate humanity. Vaiṣṇo Devī, who grants wishes for thousands and thousands of believers, is forever stationed in a cave, because someone told her he would come back for her. No one believes he will ever come back for her. If he does, she leaves the cave and that doesn’t fit the narrative of prayer and deliverance. But Vaiṣṇo Devī can’t be bitter, can’t be angry, because she is a good mother, because she is a good girl. She must give, must let her love destroy. She killed Bhaironāth and saved him, in a single moment. In the climax of that story, she is beautiful, smiling, serene.
All of the manifestations of the Goddess, even the most ferocious, capture this controlled energy: her loving gaze destroying evil in the briefest instant, liberating and enlightening. It is her kindness that quite literally kills, because the Goddess is always kind, because the goal is never her own selfishness, her rage is never her own rage. The things she has done have been done for the protection and restoration of our world, for the good of all the gods. But if we believe Vaiṣṇo Devī is real, then she must feel like dying. I would. I did. If Vaiṣṇo Devī is real, I wonder if she still wants to marry Rām. I wonder if she thinks of him and his empty promise in this new age. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe, after all this time, it’s like she was never really there. If he came to her cave today, maybe she would simply turn him away.