Nepal's "living goddess" tradition meets modernity - Commentary



By: Kamal Raj Sigdel
Posted: 10/20/08
Last week, Nepal witnessed the coming of a new "living goddess" in the sacred temple of Kumari in the ancient city of Kathmandu. News headlines splashed in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, BBC, and many other media across the world.
The news stories tried to present the event as vividly as possible, but mostly cast the event as an exotic oriental experience. The government of Nepal, too, did its best to publicize the event in the world tourism market. What seriously lacked in all these media representations, however, was a real analysis of the tradition's challenge to survive.

According to local legend, the tradition of virgin "living goddess" worship, as manifested in the Kumari of Kathmandu, dates back to the time of the Vedas. The ancient Hindu monarchs used to worship Kumari (the virgin) for power to win great wars. It is believed that unlike the living human goddess today, Kumari used to be one of the immortal deities.

When it came to the seventeenth century monarch Sidhinarasingh Malla, however, something very unfortunate happened. One day, when the queen saw the king playing dice with the Kumari, she complained, thereby offending the goddess and prompting her disappearance.

After the king made several appeals and apologies, the deity agreed to reincarnate herself by entering into the body of a young girl, whom he could visit once per year. She would, nonetheless, vacate the young girl's body during menstruation. Today, when the young goddess comes of age, a panel of sacred judges identifies a new girl to become the next living goddess.

The first challenge to this tradition came when the monarchy was abolished after the successful April Uprising of 2006. When the king was sacked, Nepalese authorities chose to assign all cultural responsibilities the head of state.

Unlike the dynastic kings, current heads of state can be anyone from any religion, as the country has been declared a secular state. The culture would face a serious problem if, in course of political developments, a non-Hindu becomes a president and fails to carry on the cultural responsibilities that the cultural groups assign.

More intriguing is the way the Maoist-led government is dealing with the tradition. Allaying people's fear that the communist government scarps all "bourgeoisie" cultural practices, the Maoists have allowed the tradition to continue, probably because they understand that the culture has its own unique political semiotics, which were displayed during the Democratic Movement of 2006 against the monarchy.

When the movement was in its climax, the Newar community of Kathmandu invited the prime minister, instead of the king, to pay an honorary visit to the Kumari, which marked the first symbolic abolition of the monarchy. Though the Maoists understand that the Kumari deserves their respect, they are not clear about how a secular government can continue to sanction affairs that are particular to a certain religion. If they do not change their wrongheaded policy now, the culture will soon lose its way.

Another challenge comes from the unrealistic representation of the tradition by the international media, who allege that the tradition is a human rights violation. The argument is that the tradition, against the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is "executing the child and snatching her right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."

Most of the allegations - which come primarily from the Western media - are baseless. If the culture does not violate the rights of the child in the eyes of the Newar community, it should be allowed to continue as it has for centuries. In fact, the living goddess lives for about seven to ten years in the luxury of the Kumari palace, just as an elected president lives in the presidential palace, with all facilities provided, with her parents and friends around her and with her education advanced by special tutors.

Thus, it is in the best interest of the government of Nepal to prevent its head of state from religious meddling by shedding off the cultural responsibilities that it inherited from the Hindu monarch, while at the same time clarifying some of the myths associated with the tradition.


(Sigdel is an Asia Pacific Leadership Program fellow at the East West Center and can be reached at kamal.sigdel [at] gmail.com.)
© Copyright 2008 Ka Leo O Hawaii

3 comments:

  1. What the hell? I've heard that the Living goddess is just 3-year old. you gonna kill her? looks too superstitious, western media is right. Nepalese better shed off thier superstition

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  2. the analysis was good. but still could have done a little more research. and lacks some arguments on the favor. and another thing is, past years we have seen muslim chairman of National assembly receiving tika in Dashain from the then kings. so i think provided the people of nepal value the tradition, the head of state religion issue won't kill our tradition.
    and to the bro MCLAN, listen, before you cite something as superstitious go to the root, and see how things operate. when someone is called a god, nepalese would die for the god. so the killing is out of question. and superstition is with people all around the world. like in the US everyone thinks muslims are terrorists. ain't that superstition. a presence of muslim in a crowd stirs up terror. what is that. and Kumari ain't superstition. go to kathmandu, see the devinity in that young girl and speak bro. as a nepali your rash comment offended me. esp the killing part.
    think before you speak."with all due respect!"

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  3. I buy into your comments Dear Pacified devil, (looks like my bro, hun?), However we cannot speak of Muslims in that way. About McLan's comments, that is the problem here in the West. People see thier civilization as the only right thing and cannot come out of their filter/lence. There are multiple truths, and so there is no single truth. What is important is, one should not be so aggressive toward others' culture. There is no truth that transcends culture.
    Thanks
    Look and Gaze

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Only genuine comments please!

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