Heart of the Devi: Teachings of The Goddess for Modern Society

Heart of the Devi: Teachings of The Goddess for Modern Society

For too long, the masculine archetypes of power, strength, and logic have dominated the feminine expressions of empathy, creativity, and intuition. The signs of this toxic relationship can be seen all around us. For many of us, “Father Time” rules our lives. We are bound by schedules, deadlines, and alarm clocks. Our society was built upon the idea of conquering “Mother Nature”. As a result, our planet and its resources have been pillaged as humans continually devolve into a less connected, artificial, unsustainable existence.

The sacred text Devi Bhagavatam (literally, story of the Goddess) is a compilation of ancient Goddess worship stories. Ramesh Menon’s book Devi is an accessible retelling of these stories for modern English language readers. Devi has been a powerful piece of my spiritual growth. Although the Goddess stories were conceived in ancient India, their relevance to modern Western society is undeniable. These Goddess legends are an often overlooked tool that could encourage the individual and collective growth and healing that the world needs.

Many of the stories follow a similar format:

  • The gods face an unfamiliar challenge
  • Their typical approaches cannot conquer the challenge
  • Eventually, the gods swallow their pride and pray to the Goddess for help
  • Devi to the rescue!

The gods, who represent masculinity, repeatedly use old methods to try to overcome new challenges. When they realize the shortcomings of their power and force, they bow down to the feminine energy that permeates all creation.

New problems need new solutions. For solutions to be new, their motivation and approach must change. In personal lives, this means embracing feminine qualities such as vulnerability and creativity when strength and logic do not apply. For society, this means we must do more than put women in roles of leadership in our masculine dominance hierarchies. We are obligated to restructure those systems so that they reflect feminine ideals such as compassion and empathy.

The collective obsession with toxic masculinity is not only the root of sexism; it is also the cause of systemic racism. For centuries, brutish policies of colonialism and imperialism have robbed indigenous cultures of their connection to Mother Earth. When indigenous peoples and people of color are perceived as being unevolved savages, it becomes easier for the white men at the top to enslave them and pass legislation (like the War on Drugs) that unfairly targets them.

Puja table in Patrick's small temple he established in Austin.

The Goddess Myth

While reading Devi, I found that the story of the demon Mahisha was especially meaningful. Mahisha was a terrible beast, half-human and half buffalo. Aiming to receive a boon from Brahma, Mahisha sat in tapasya (intense meditation) for ten thousand years. After such a grand offering, Brahma, the Creator, came down from heaven to grant the demon any wish. With no hesitation, the beast asked for immortality, to which Brahma replied,

“Death is certain for he who is born, just as birth is certain for he who dies. Why all these immense mountains and the deep ocean, the sky and the very earth, the void and the galaxies will die when their time comes. Ask me for any boon other than immortality and I shall give it to you.”

In these stories, the demons always try to find some loophole to bypass their mortality. For instance, in the Ramayana, Ravana presumed a man could never slay him, so he asked for the boon that no god could ever kill him. Foolishly believing that a woman could never kill him, Mahisha asked that no man of heaven, earth, or the underworld could ever kill him. Brahma smiled and said, “so be it.”

With his newfound power, no mortal man could challenge Mahisha. It did not take long for the demon to rule the entire earth. After his easy conquest of this realm, Mahisha set his sights on the heaven known as Devaloka.

Mahisha sent a messenger to visit Indra, the king of the Devas (gods), who presides over Devaloka. The messenger told Indra to either bow to Mahisha or prepare for battle. Indra knew of Mahisha’s boon and strength, yet he told the messenger that he was eager to meet Mahisha in battle. Indra was arrogant and proud.

After being threatened by Mahisha, Indra sought the council of the heavenly guru, Brihaspati. The sage told Indra,

“What is written in the book of fate must happen, and agitation will not help you… So if you are serene and patient when suffering inevitably comes, it will not seem as long or as sharp as it does to the impatient, anxious man… Contentment is the wealth you should seek for yourself. It is a kingdom that never perishes and which no one can take from you.”

The boastful Indra replied, “no man ever became famous, wealthy, or happy without breaking his back… for those who would rule, prowess is their most precious treasure.”

Brihaspati saw that the challenge of fighting Mahisha was different from past battles and urged Indra to take a new approach. Indra’s fixation on power and strength made him deaf to the wise words of his guru.

Indra recruited every god for his celestial army. Even Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva prepared for battle against Mahisha. The battle raged for a hundred years. Eventually, Mahisha took Indra’s throne in Devaloka. Darkness ruled the three realms.

After centuries of hiding in fear, the Devas once again sought the counsel of the great Trimurti that is Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. After living in despair for so long, Vishnu suggested that the arrogant gods bow down to the great feminine energy.

Upon their surrender, the ineffable Maha Maya Devi appeared before them. She was beauty and peace incarnate but also terrifying and ominous. The gods fell at her feet and offered their weapons to her. The roar of her sweet laughter filled them with bliss.

When Mahisha heard this laughter echoing through the Himalayas, he sent scouts to find its source. When the confused demon learned of Devi’s beauty, he tried to marry her. She had other plans. Devi said to Mahisha’s messengers,

“I am only a witness in this world. I have no desire, and I am eternally free. I have no enmity with anyone, but when great evil rears its head I must crush it or the worlds would be plunged in darkness… I have come to restore dharma.”

As she slew his immense and powerful armies, Devi gave Mahisha numerous opportunities to surrender. Blinded by his pride, Mahisha chose death over compliance. The demon, a symbol of outdated dominant masculinity, was conquered by the creative force of feminine energy.

The Devas proclaimed,

“Oh, it is by your power that Brahma creates, Vishnu preserves, and Siva destroys the universe! The Trimurti are helpless without you, Devi, Cause of all causes... You are the primal power…”

The Goddess in The World

Just as Indra was unequipped to battle Mahisha, the world's current power structures are unequipped to confront the challenges they face. The foes that nations are battling now --things like the pandemic, climate change, and the collective trauma of systemic racism-- are not the types of enemies that the strong, brave male leaders of the past have faced. These new enemies cannot be pressured into submission by economic sanctions or military might. The major threats to humanity we are facing now require leadership that places a higher value on human life. Our leaders must be receptive to new ideas and open to new, radical approaches to problem-solving. Empathy must triumph over ego. Leaders must realize that they are not separate from those that they lead.

Shifts towards compassionate leadership can already be seen around the world today. Recent protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed people of color have prompted discussion on the need for policing reform. Some reform has already happened and is showing promising results.

For an article on news site FiveThirtyEight, Samuel Sinyangwe compiled and analyzed data on police shootings around the US. He found that police shootings in several major cities have dropped significantly in recent years. In Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Baltimore, shootings declined when those cities implemented use-of-force policies that followed the Department of Justice recommendations. Denver, Los Angeles, and Dallas saw their numbers of police shootings drop after passing measures that require officers to focus more on de-escalation tactics.

Around the world, countries with female leadership have been handling the COVID-19 pandemic with better results than their male counterparts. Taiwan, Germany, and Finland -all countries led by women- have seen significantly fewer cases and deaths than their neighbors.

Most notably, New Zealand eradicated COVID-19 and went 24 days without a single case. (New Zealand reported twenty-three active cases as of August 7, 2020.) New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s advice to her country when entering lockdown was “stay home, stay safe, and be kind.” She knew that the COVID-19 crisis would require mass cooperation. During her frequent Facebook Live updates, she comforted and empathized with her fellow New Zealanders.

Ardern’s compassion and empathy do not make her a weak leader. Her vision is clear and consistent. Her government’s actions are decisive. Because of her transparency, honesty, and kindness, most New Zealanders trust Ardern. According to The Guardian, 92 percent of New Zealand residents thought that the country’s strict lockdown was the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, the country with the most COVID-19 deaths is being led by a president who is treating the pandemic like a military invasion. President Trump sees anyone who disagrees or challenges him as part of the enemy. This new foe is being fought with old mindsets. Those mindsets are failing miserably. No amount of rugged, puffed-chest bravado can defeat COVID-19.

In an editorial titled Modelling the Pandemic, Professor of Global Public Health, Devi Sridhar urged world leaders to “ensure representatives with diverse backgrounds and expertise are at the table when major decisions are made” regarding COVID-19 response. She also stressed the danger of relying primarily on mathematical models when implementing pandemic strategies.

“Mathematical models do not include value systems or morals so their outputs must be used cautiously, and with attention to ethics. A model might suggest, for example, that allowing 95% of the population to continue life as normal while 5% become critically ill is a suitable path forward. This is when leaders must consider the values, needs, and preferences of their populations when deciding whether to follow it.”

The fact that someone named Devi is urging world leaders to empathize with the people of their nations makes me confident that the Goddess is always watching over us.

The Goddess Within

To facilitate the collective shift towards Goddess energy, we all need to embrace it on an individual level. This embrace will look different for different people. Many of us have built masculine walls around our energetic hearts. We lay bricks of strength and determination to protect the softest part of our being. These walls may have protected from legitimate threats. They have served us well. What we don’t realize when the walls are frantically being built, is that they may be working better than expected. Yes, the walls keep out harm, but they can also obstruct love, joy, compassion, and intimacy from finding the hridaya ( spiritual heart).

To tear down these walls, one must become more vulnerable. More pain may be let in, but more joy will also enter the heart.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper or more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” - Brené Brown

As I type and share these words, I can feel some of my walls crumbling. My inner critic says, “Great. Here we go again. Another white guy is telling everybody that they’re doing it wrong. Oh, this time he’s mansplaining feminism? Even better.”

When I drop the over-protective, macho defense-mechanism, I know that sharing my views through writing is part of my purpose. These ideas won’t do much good for the world bouncing around in my thick skull. They need to be expressed.

The relationship between masculine and feminine should not be seen as a battle. The ultimate goal is to bring these two energetic forces into balance and harmony. The logic and reason of science are seen by many as superior to the intuitive, emotional, connected spiritual life. Both science and spirituality seek to explain the mysteries of the universe. Imagine what could be accomplished if they were balanced and used together. Imagine what the world could look like if masculine and feminine energies were balanced and used together.

(Patrick M. Davis is a journalism student, leader of a Hindu-centered spiritual community, and kirtan musician in Austin, Texas. His articles have been published by Be Here Now Network and The ACC Star. )