Navratri special: Why Indian households need to reimagine the kumari puja
When the ritual of kumari puja was started by Ramakrishna Paramhansa, it was meant to reinforce the essential divinity of the girl child. It is critical that this association is reimagined and refurbished in the current context to make it relevant.
Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series for Navratri, on how the Durga Saptashati shaped our knowledge of the goddess.
Part III: Re-imagining the Kumari Puja in households 
On the mornings of the eighth and ninth days of Navrati in many households, young girls between the ages of one and 16 (commonly referred to as kumaris) are bedecked in their finery and worshipped as living images of Durga on this earth . They are fed well and showered with gifts with the hope that they will bless the devotee. But Navrati gets over on the 10th day, and so does the child’s association with divinity! When the ritual was started by Ramakrishna Paramhansa, it was meant to reinforce the essential divinity of the girl child. It is critical that this association is reimagined and refurbished in the current context to make it relevant.
11.6 of the Saptashati states ‘Sthreeya samastha sakala jagathsu’ (roughly translated as — ‘all women in the world are your images’). This is an extremely powerful injunction that has not received the attention it deserves for reasons that are not too far to seek. It is also pertinent to again mention here that Durga Mahishasuramardini is a fiercely independent goddess — she is not a consort Goddess and yet she is the Divine Mother.
If all the above concepts are juxtaposed on kumari puja, it can be inferred that kumari puja should not just find manifestation in worship but move beyond. The kumari or the girl child has to be protected, educated and nurtured into an independent, strong woman leader with an identity of her own. Cliched and didactic as it may sound, kumari puja is a ritual that exhorts us to do our bit for the girl child and to respect her as an individual, not only because it is fashionable to do so but also because it is a part of our heritage that has degenerated over centuries. Kumari puja is not an annual celebration but a pact with posterity. It will succeed the day millions of households make it a part of their daily puja.
It is time for the Kumari Puja ritual to be extended. Support for the extension of the ritual has to come from all quarters — political leaders, members of the civic society, academicians and religious leaders. It is immensely possible and pertinent to launch a set of public programmes aimed at stirring fellow citizens to make empowerment of the girl child through education a part of their kumari puja.
The Government, various trusts and foundations and individuals could launch and integrate scholarships for academic excellence, excellence in sports and excellence in the arts as a part of the Navratri/kumari puja celebrations. It is true that this can be done even otherwise, but linking education and empowerment to tradition could have a far reaching impact on the masses and may survive for generations to come. This should not be construed as an assault on the secular fabric of the nation — a kumari is not fettered by narrow boundaries of religion, caste and region. She is just that twinkling little girl who demands and commands our love and attention and is a manifestation of the Divine on this earth.
Suffice it to say, I believe that the Saptashati has great potential to be used to help empower women in the country and help fight some of the biases established in popular imagination . Mythology and spirituality when intertwined and interpreted sensitively have an amazing power to influence positively too! Twenty-first century India which is in the throes of a new dawn, should not shy away from using narratives and frames from popular mythology to fight that mythology which is promulgated and propagated to establish tenets which are anachronistic and irrelevant. Well, that is a discussion for another day!
Shubha Navratri! Shubha Dussehra!
 Kumari puja is a part of many temple rituals. Discussing the pros and cons of that are beyond the scope of this series.
 Attested to by the Durga Saptashati
 It is important to mention that it has been widely debated whether the Saptashati is a feminist text or not. It has been argued that the manifestation of Durga in episode two is a patriarchal injunction to state that Durga is powerless without the tejas of the male gods. It is implied that the female is inferior to the male. The reference to the demons wanting to possess Devi Ambika because of her unparalleled beauty (in the third episode) also seems like a patriarchal injunction. That seems to bear merit but then, a destruction similar to those of the demons, is that which awaits those who wish to possess. A further discussion of the term feminism with its various meanings and cognate expressions and the applicability of the expressions to the text are beyond the scope of this series.
Original Texts and Translations:
Sri Durga Saptashati, Original text with Hindi translation, Gita Press, Gorakpur, India.
Swami Sivananda, Devi Mahatmya, The Divine Life Society, Shivanandanagar, India, 1994.
Cheever Mackenzie Brown. The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi Bhagavata Purana. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
David R. Kinsley. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.1986.
R.G. Bhandarkar. Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems. Indological Book House, India. 1987.
Swami Chidananda. God as Mother. Divine Life Society.
Thomas B Coburn. Devi Mahatmya, The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. South Asia Books, 2002.
Upinder Singh. A history of ancient and early medieval India: from the Stone Age to the 12th century. New Delhi: Pearson Longman. 2008.
Vidya Dehejia. Devi: The Great Goddess: Female Divinity in South Asian Art. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 1999.
Garima is an independent business and strategy consultant and an Indic Studies enthusiast. She can be reached at email@example.com
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