Friday, August 8, 2014

Goddess Mariamman and Kasi Swami, Temple Founder

This week I visited Kiran and Philippe (co-founders of Greenland Ashram set in the Arunachala countryside) which is currently under development and is expected to be completed within the next several months, see this link for a pictorial representation of the current status of their Ashram. 

While there Kasi Swami, who lives nearby, stopped at Kiran's house to give her a selection of herbs and natural remedies and advice of how to use them to help cure a skin condition she is currently suffering from. One could say that Kasi Swami is a sort of patriarch of the local village and many villagers go to him for help with illnesses, advice for protection against the "evil eye," and for remedies that can bring better fortune into their lives. In Tamil Nadu such patriarchs are still very easy to find, and are usually highly respected in their communities.

Kasi Swami

After leaving Greenland Ashram I stopped by Kasi Swami’s small Mariamman Shrine of which he is founder. Mariamman is a ancient mother goddess worshipped by Dravidians from pre-Vedic times to bring rain and prosperity. One legend about the origin of Mariamman is she was the wife of Thiruvalluvar (the famed Tamil poet) and after she caught smallpox was reduced to begging from house to house for food. For relief and to keep flies off her smallpox sores she would fan herself with leaves from the neem tree. She recovered and people worshiped her as the Goddess of smallpox. Even now in Tamil Nadu to keep smallpox, cholera and chickenpox away, neem leaves are hung above the main entry-way of homes. 

Another belief is that Parasuram’s (incarnation of Lord Vishnu) mother was Renuka Devi who came to be worshipped in the names of Mariamman, Karumariamman and Renuka Parameswari in Tamil Nadu. 

Land surrounding the small Mariamman Shrine

For a fascinating insight into the mythological theme of Mariamman, I quote the following from David Kinsley’s vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu religious tradition, in his book "Hindu Goddesses". 

“An important theme in myths concerning the origin of village Goddesses is the injustice done to women by men. Two of the best-known myths concerning the origin of the popular goddess Mariamman in South India include this motif:-

In one version a young Brahmin girl is courted by and eventually married to an untouchable who has disguised himself as a Brahmin. On discovering the trick, the woman becomes furious and kills herself. She is transformed into a Goddess and in her Divine form punishes the untouchable by burning him to ashes and otherwise humiliating or humbling him. 

Trident and lemons beloved by this aspect of the Goddess

Unusual representation of trident in stone form

Another version of Mariamman’s origin identified her with an extremely pious, pure wife who is married to a devout holy man. She is so pure that she can perform miraculous tasks such as making jars out of loose sand and boiling water simply by placing a pot of water on her head. One day, however, she sees two gandharvas making love and feels envy for them. Thereupon she loses her miraculous powers. Discovering this and suspecting sexual disloyalty, her husband commands their son to kill his mother. The son obeys his father and decapitates his mother. Eventually she is restored to life but in the process her head and body gets transposed with those of an untouchable woman. Mariamman is thus understood to have a Brahmin head and an untouchable body, which is significant in terms of her ambivalent nature and her role as a village Goddess exemplifying the social status quo in which Brahmins are the head of the social system. 

Lion, the mount of this Shakti Goddess

However, it could be said that nowadays many are unfamiliar with the various legends connected with the Goddess Mariamman thus worship Her purely as Parvathi (Goddess Shakthi - wife of Lord Shiva). 

In small village Temples (such as the one in this posting) the Goddess is usually depicted in a sitting posture and flanked by Ganesha and Subramanya on her sides. She is portrayed as a beautiful young woman with a red-hued face, wearing a red dress. Sometimes she is portrayed with many arms—representing her many powers—but in most representations she has only two or four arms. She may be represented with two demeanours—one displaying her pleasant nature, and the other her terrifying aspect, with fangs and a wild mane of hair. 

Goddess Mariamman

In Tamil Nadu such Patriarchs as Kasi Swami are still very easy to find, and are usually highly respected in their communities. Here in the Tiruvannamalai area one of the most recent and famous such Swamis was Swami Vellayanada of Karumarapatti who died several years ago after reaching a hale and hearty age. As I am personally familiar with details of a miraculous healing that Vellayananda was involved in, and as he was such a colourful figure, will make a posting about him on Arunachala Mystic very soon.

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