The Blessing of the Living Goddess

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 13 May 2018

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The late John O’Donohue tells a beautiful story in his book, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings. (I love this book. If you’re looking for an inspirational text to read each day, this is it.) 

As a young priest O’Donohue was sent to visit a community of nuns who lived in mostly silent contemplation. When he arrived, an old sister opened the door. Knowing that O’Donohue was a new priest, she asked for his very first blessing. She knelt before him and he drew upon every resource he knew “to invoke the most intimate blessing.” 

And then it dawned on him that the situation was incredibly ironic. Here he was blessing a nun who had lived for more than 60 years “contemplating the searing silence and darkness of God,” and she was asking him, a 25-year-old priest, for his blessing. When she stood up, he knelt down before her and asked for her blessing. The sister was utterly taken aback. She mumbled something and practically ran out of the room. No one, certainly not a priest, had ever asked for her blessing before. 

Who has the authority or the right to bless anyone? In O’Donohue’s Irish Catholic tradition, the priest, always a man, acts as the conduit to God, the Father.  But O’Donohue is far from orthodox. He asks, “Who has the power to bless? There are deeper questions hidden here,” he writes. “What do you bless with? Or where do you bless from? When you bless another, you first gather yourself; you reach below your surface mind and personality, down to the deeper source within you — namely, the soul. Blessing is from soul to soul,” he says.

So hold that image in you mind for a while, that image of blessing being something that comes from someplace deep inside of you, that reaches out to something deep inside someone else. If the word “soul” doesn’t work for you, think of the Eastern word, namasté

Namasté: “The light in me bows to the light in you.” 

Hold onto that light and come with me to the beginning of creation as it’s told in Nepal. 

“In the stillness of time, before end or beginning, Adi Shakti Maha Maya, Supreme Power Great Illusion, created existence. ” She began with one single syllable, the resounding sound of OM, which rushes through the sky and creates the wind. With the wind comes touch, and then comes form and a great brightness that she shapes into the sun. Then comes water, and out of the water,  intelligence, emotion and darkness come into being.  From these three qualities she forms three gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

She gives each god his assignment. “Brahma,” she says, “You will be the creator. Vishnu, you will be the sustainer because, in time, evil demons will try to take over creation. And, Shiva, you will be the destroyer.” 

Brahma creates life on earth and 330 million gods. Everything is balanced. Everyone is happy, and then, sure enough, evil demons begin to attack the gods, and the gods begin to lose the battle. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva become furious. They become so enraged that bright light shines from their bodies and flames come out of their mouths. 

A female form emerges out of the great burning fire of their anger. She is the Goddess Durga, the single Mother Goddess with infinite identities, mightier than all the gods. She rides off on her lion and she vanquishes the demons. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva bow down and they worship her. Peace has returned.

What happens next is a long complicated story. After her victory, Durga retreats into a thought-form of herself, into a small triangle of gold which eventually becomes passed from generation to generation of kings — the Mallas— who rule in the Kathmandu Valley for nearly 300 years. They venerate Durga who they call by the name Taleju.

In the mid-1700s, one of the Malla kings builds a palace to house a Living Goddess, a young girl who will serve as the human embodiment of the great Mother Goddess, Durga. She is called the Kumari, and so begins the tradition of the royal Kumari, the one who blesses kings. When the Malla kings are conquered by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha King in 1768, Shah cleverly manages to secure the Living Goddess’s blessing. Even as a conqueror, he knows that he cannot rule without her. His offspring continue the tradition, and the Kumari’s place in Nepali society remains secure.

***

This past February, David and I stood in the courtyard of a small palace on the far end of Kathmandu’s historic Durbar Square. A local guide was telling us stories of the Kumari, of the young girl, the Living Goddess, who must be beautiful with cow eyes and absolutely pure, not ever having had a single cut or scratch. She must undergo a mysterious initiation, demonstrating exceptional poise. She will live in the palace, the Kumari Chen, until she begins to show signs that she is about to have her first period. Then she is replaced by a new Living Goddess. The current Kumari has only arrived a few weeks ago. She’s three and half years old.

Above us, a curtain is drawn aside from an ornate second story window. A little girl dressed in dark pinks and reds looks out beyond our heads. Her hair is tied in a topknot. Her eyes are made up with long black lines that stretch to her temples. We stand with a group of tourists and we automatically start to call out like total fools, “Hello! Namasté!” 

She is small, adorable, and shockingly serious. She doesn’t smile, or make eye contact. She stands perfectly still, and then she’s gone. What I don’t realize at the time, is that we have just been blessed by the Living Goddess. If she had smiled or made eye contact, we were told, we would have been cursed, so powerful is her gaze.

Like many people who see her for the first time, I become obsessed with the Kumari. I ask all the Nepalis we meet what they know about her. Most people don’t know much. She’s the living embodiment of Durga. There’s only one Kumari, the one in the palace in Kathmandu. She can never marry because any man who marries her will die a treacherous death. Before she can become Kumari she must walk through a dark temple filled with the heads of dead animals. , I later learn that none of this is true.

Everything I do learn about the Living Goddess is thanks to the British writer, Isabella Tree, who researched the Kumari tradition for more than 16 years, getting to know ex-Kumaris, their families and their caretakers as she explored “the myths and legends that naturally run circles around historical facts in Nepal.” 

Most ex-Kumaris do marry and no, none of their husbands have ever died a gruesome death. Yes, there is a secret initiation ritual, but it doesn’t involve anything terrifying. Yes, the Kumari cannot have ever bled. No cuts, no scratches, no menses. 

The Kumari tradition comes out of the Buddhist tantric tradition of the Newar people who have lived in the Kathmandu Valley for centuries. The Newar have their own language and culture and see themselves as the original people of Nepal.  They have a unique approach to Buddhism that focuses on being connected to the physical world rather than rejecting it. 

The Kumari tradition itself dates back to the 10th century or perhaps even earlier, when many Newar villages throughout the Kathmandu Valley had their own Living Goddess, a young girl who housed the spirit of the Goddess Durga and ensured the wellbeing of her community. Today, there are at least 6 or 7 documented Kumaris in different towns or villages who have varying ritual responsibilities, but the royal Kumari in Kathmandu is the only one who has the authority to bless kings.

This is a fascinating story of a living Buddhist goddess who came to ensure the power of Hindu kings. That’s no accident. Nepal is this unique crossroads between Hinduism and Buddhism, where one tradition has left its mark on the other. Somewhere, in the mists of time, the Hindu kings who came to rule Nepal must have become intrigued by the power of Newar Buddhist practice, believing that their fate was caught up with the Living Goddess. In return for being allowed into the Buddhist inner sanctum, the Hindu king would have offered patronage and protection, something that the Buddhists would have been eager to secure.  

The royal Kumari is usually three or four years old when she is taken from her own family to live in the Kumari Chen with caretakers who come from a family that has been serving the Kumari for generations. She is actually treated like a goddess. She is served by both a Buddhist priest and a Hindu priest. She’s showered with gifts and fed delicacies. She can be encouraged, but she can never be scolded. She must always be barefoot. She can walk and play inside the palace, but she cannot walk outside upon the ground, except once a year when a white cloth is spread out before her as she walks through the Temple of Taleju on the final day of the festival of Dasain. This is the day when great sacrifices of goats, buffaloes and other animals are made to Durga to satisfy her thirst for blood so that she will continue to protect the people for the next year.

As one Kumari caretaker explains to Isabella Tree, blood is the energy force of life. The Kumari is not supposed to bleed because she must contain all the power of life inside her. The forces of female creativity are potently concentrated within her body. This is what enables her to be the embodiment of Durga. This is what gives her the supreme power to bless. A single drop of blood would cause her to lose that power.

Hindus and Buddhists come to her for blessings, to be cured of illnesses, to remove obstacles from their lives. For generations, she was seen as pivotal to the wellbeing and very existence of the kingdom. Every year, at the September festival of Indra Jatra, the king of Nepal would kneel before her and ask for her blessing. If she was pleased with him, she would mark his forehead with vermillion, a red tikka that would signify her blessing. If she refused to bless him, bad things could happen. 

There were stories of kings who died not long after the Kumari’s blessing was withheld. If the Kumari fell ill, even mildly, this could also have terrible consequences. In 2001, when King Birendra and his family were massacred by the king’s son in an alleged murder-suicide, the Kumari caretakers pointed to the fact that she had suffered an inexplicable rash 24 four days before the tragedy.

In 2008, when Nepal’s monarchy ended and the country shifted to democratic rule, the people worried whether the Kumari would bless the new prime minister. There was much concern and confusion. The kings had always been initiated into daily veneration of the Kumari. How would she respond to the new prime minister, who was also a Maoist? Would he bother to go to the palace during the traditional festival when the king was blessed each year? To everyone’s relief, he went and she blessed him.

What I don’t know, is what the people thought when the earthquake of 2015 devastated much of Kathmandu. Many ancient temples surrounding the Kumari Chen were damaged or destroyed. Did people worry that the Kumari had somehow lost her power? Did they believe that Durga, the Mother Goddess, Source of All, was angry?

Of course, not all Nepalis believe in the power of the Kumari. In 2005, there was a court case filed that tried to liberate the Kumari. There were worries that these children were being abused and drugged. Yet according to a book that was written by an ex-Kumari and Isabella Tree’s interviews, the greatest challenge for a Kumari is having to step down from life as a deity to return to life as a mortal. Was it hard to stay quiet for long hours at a time? No, the ex-Kumaris say. Something happens to you when you sit on the throne. You know you are the Living Goddess. But limited access to schooling was a serious concern, something that appears to have changed in recent years. Despite the critiques and the end of the monarchy, the tradition continues to be supported by the state and remains strongly respected.

***

On our last day in Nepal, David and I returned to Durbar Square in Kathmandu. We’d been told that our sighting of the Kumari three weeks ago was a rare occurrence. But I’d just finished reading Isabella Tree’s book and I wanted to take one last look at the Kumari Chen. 

It was quiet in the courtyard, a few other tourists milled around, when once again the curtain was pushed aside from the ornate second story window. The young Kumari stood at the window dressed more formally, all in red. Again, she looked straight out across the horizon. This time we knew not to try to catch her attention. Others called out, but we were silent. We were blessed for a second time and then she was gone.

Who has the authority or the right to bless anyone? What do you bless with? Or where do you bless from? Whatever tradition you consider, the power to bless has always had deep significance. A pulsing life force, something that vanquishes illness, obstacles and evil, something that reaches deep inside of the one who blesses and reaches out to the one who is blessed, these are the hallmarks of religious blessing. 

I believe in the power of blessing as something greater than just wishing you well. I may not be able to channel the strength of the goddess Durga, but I can feel as if I’m channeling something essential in myself that I want to pass on to someone else. It’s a thought that has a physical quality, an energy that spreads.

Years ago, when I worked as a hospital chaplain, I would find myself blessing patients I didn’t know as I passed them in the corridors. It might have been as simple as a silent “May you be peaceful and at ease.”  Often it was only a quiet acknowledgement that we were two human beings passing each other in all our human frailty. 

In biblical tradition, the blesser often places their hand upon head of the one they bless, transmitting holy confirmation. In Nepal, the bright read tikka placed upon your forehead is a very visible and physical manifestation of a blessing. Here, we may not physically bless each other, but I know we often share our blessings. You don’t need to touch the one you bless to let your inner light shine upon them, and to feel their inner light reflect back upon you. As John O’Donohue writes, “Blessing is from soul to soul.” 

May you be so blessed. 

Amen. Blessed Be. Namaste. The light within me bows to the light within you.

Download The Blessing of the Living Goddess