Katmandu in Nepal is more cosmopolitan than India with goods and products in the bookstores, groceries, and restaurants catering to both Eastern Asia and Western Europe. The city is in a valley and polluted so that you see the air when you first arrive. However, it is surrounded by the beauty of the highest Himalayan mountains. A member of a group of visiting Israelis over the age of 60, said he tried to hike a Himalayan mountain with his group – hey they were paratroopers 40 years ago - and he said he needed to be bailed out by the accompanying jeep. Climbing here over a mile high is for the young. I took a cab. The local valley people are simultaneously Hindu and Buddhist, but the Tibetans are settling the mountain tops. The Nepalese tradition of Hinduism is different than that in northern India; The most notable is the Kumari Devi, the worship of a young girl.
What is a devi? Why do we translate it as god (small g) when medieval Hebrew and Arabic translated the word as angel (malakhim or malkaya).They did this based on Rig Veda (1.22.20) “All the suras (i.e., the devas) look always toward the feet of Lord Vishnu.” They considered the devas as naturalistic and cosmological forces.
Here in Katmandu, Nepal there is a tradition of worshiping a pre-pubescent girl as the spirit of femininity that is not tied to a male, pure potentiality of the female. This is a good case to think about what would be the Jewish category for such an activity because it does not fit into our standard view of Hindu idols as objects or statues. This is a first draft without answers but this girl is a good test case.(I will come back to it in a later post but the word for God, capital G, in Northern India Hinduism is Ishvara or Bhagwan. People generally have a single Ishvara but many devas)
So how do we understand a devi, when a girl is chosen to act as a devi for a few years and then become an ordinary person to get married? Symbol? Emblem? Idol? Bear in mind that in Northern India, the same tradition just has a girl dress up symbolically for one day a year for the festival of Navaratri in each major Temple and all the little girls are brought to Temple for a blessing. (Navaratri is a 8-9 day festival in which a different aspect of womanhood is celebrated each day.) But in Nepal, she is a declared a god for her entire childhood.
Kumari, or Kumari Devi, is the tradition of worshiping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in Hindu religious traditions. The word Kumari, derived from Sanskrit Kaumarya meaning “virgin.”A Kumari is believed to be the spirit of the goddess Taleju (the Nepalese name for Durga) until she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body. Serious illness or a major loss of blood from an injury are also causes for her to revert to common status. The veneration of a living Kumari in Nepal is relatively recent, dating only from the 17th century.
The worship of the goddess in a young girl represents the worship of divine consciousness spread all over the creation. As the supreme goddess is thought to have manifested this entire cosmos out of her womb she exists equally in animate as well as inanimate objects. While worship of an idol represents the worship and recognition of supreme through inanimate materials, worship of a human represents veneration and recognition of the same supreme in conscious beings.
Kumaris are now allowed to attend public schools, and have a life inside the classroom that is no different from that of other students. While many kumaris, such as the Kumari of Bhaktapur, attend school, others, such as the main kumari in Kathmandu, receive their education through private tutors.Her playmates will be drawn from a narrow pool of Newari children from her caste, usually the children of her caretakers. She will always be dressed in red, wear her hair in a topknot and have the agni chakchuu or “fire eye” painted on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.
So let’s return to the original question: What is a Jewish conceptualization of this conception of divinity? Unlike the incarnation, there is no becoming flesh or human because only her spirit becomes divine. And second the infinite unknown of the Brahma is not known through her. She only represents the creative potential of the feminine. Worship of the girl is not a rejection of God the creator; it does not seem to be shituf. Hinduism assume that Brahman is attribute-less and is known through the attributes of the Ishvara and devis, but anything can be a manifestation or epiphany of the divine- any object animate or inanimate. A form of “no place is devoid of God” but not an immanent god of creation rather a manifestation,” no place is devoid of the ability to manifest some attribute of God.
If this case does not immediately fall into the Gemara’s categories
The first thing that comes to mind is Rav Nachman’s story “The Master of Prayer” were each human attribute when taken to extreme by a person makes the person into a God. The person with the most wealth is to be worshiped as a God since he has perfected that attribute.
Next, I think Shlomo Lutzker’s introduction to Maggid Devarav LeYaakov, where the pious one is advised to see God’s attributes in the physical. When one tastes sweetness in food, then raise one’s thoughts to think of the sweetness as an attribute of God. Physical objects are to be used to raise ones thoughts by treating the physical object as a specific manifestation of a divine attribute. The analogy would work if a specific object would then be raised to manifestation status as a devi.
The Ibn Ezra tradition as expressed in writers of the 14th century thought Hindus are bringing down ruhaniut. Idel has written much about this Hermetic bring down but it does not fell the same as this panentheistic anything can reveal an attribute of the divine.
Is it different than a saint, Pope, or rebbe? It does seem similar to those who treat living Hasidic Rebbes as divine or at least an image to draw spiritual of a divine attribute– and they give blessed food just like the girl. Is it like a Chabad follower who says boranu about adonenu?
What if Judaism had people become personified sefirot? Or what if Judaism had more prayers to angels not just machnesei rahamim but daily angelic prayers? Yet, on some level the girl remains a personified Jungian attributes.
Furthermore, do the two traditions of India and Nepal, one where she is a devi and other where she isn’t, count as two different traditions? This is an important question.
One of my Hindu doctors back in Bergen county has a little shrine in his office with pictures of modern rationalist Hindu thinkers and it also includes a picture of Albert Einstein. He knows Einstein is not technically a traditional deva but he is praying to the spirit of wisdom and scientific inquiry. Is it to be considered many gods or just personalities or emblems of the attribute of knowledge? What if he also had a picture of the goddess of wisdom and learning, would it change things?If YU was a Hindu institution, there would be a shrine to Maimonides, Rav Soloveitchik Reb Hayyim and the founder of the school Bernard Revel. They would offer a flower to the shrine before class, before public lectures, or exams. Would it be many gods? What if there was a three dimensional image of the sefirah hochmah, or hochmah, binah and daas?And what of a businessman with a shrine to Ganesha- the deva for prosperity- is it the same as the girl for femininity or the goddess of wisdom?
What is the Jewish translation of devi for the 21st century? Is it still angel?
As I am uploading this post, a friend who is a day school teacher wrote as his Facebook status:
It takes tremendous effort to not think of G-d as if He were a person (and sometimes too to not think of people as if they were G-d).
After my recent post on Mimamsa was posted, I have the pleasure of seeing in the new issue of Hakirah an article that makes the same point about a fruitful comparison of Mimamsa and Rabbinic interpretive theory- Daniel A. Klein, Rabbi Ishmael, Meet Jaimini: The Thirteen Middot of Interpretation in Light of Comparative Law