The Ambivalent Mistress: A Study of South Indian Village Goddesses and their Religious Meaning

Brubaker, Richard Lee

     It is the fascinating character of South Indian village goddesses that prompted the present study; it is their coherent structure of meaning that constitutes the central thesis to be demonstrated. . . . Some of our findings may be applicable to village goddesses elsewhere, but our attention will be focused on that large southern region in which the structures of religious meaning which constitute these findings are most fully developed and most concentrated. We shall not be concentrating on one particular goddess . . . . Nor shall we be concentrating on the several goddesses of a specific locality or small district."
     The primary subject of our analysis will be the symbolism surrounding the goddess. Some of this symbolism appears in myths and some in ritual actions, while numerous other realms contribute additional symbolic elements. . . .Our first chapter is an attempt to locate the Dravidian gramadevata within the Indian tradition. . . . First a typology of Indian goddesses is proposed . . . in which some of the specific characteristics of the gramadevata's ambivalent sacrality are brought . . . Next there is an extended discussion of local deities, examining the importance of locality in Indian religion and certain complexities arising therefrom, sorting out the various types of 'supernatural' beings found on the local village scene, and coming to a clearer understanding of village goddesses as tutelary deities of the communities in which they dwell. A third section then confronts the apparent contradiction between the first two, between the goddess as village guardian and as dangerously ambivalent, and sets the stage for an examination of this apparent contradiction as a significant religious paradox.
     The next three chapters touch upon this paradox at a number of points as they develop material necessary for an understanding of the goddess. They constitute a systematic survey and analysis of basic data": "the identities and general characteristics of village goddesses"; "where and what forms the goddess is physically represented in the village"; and the myths and rituals associated with the goddesses, with special attention being given to "village-wide festivals in times of crisis." The study then "builds on what has gone before, integrating central symbolic themes in mythology, ritual, and village life. Here the gramadevata's paradoxical relationships with disease, with demons, and with the village community are further explored, with special attention focused on the crucial symbolism of the buffalo sacrifice. This exploration results in a new interpretation of the South Indian village goddess, one disclosing even greater depths of meaning in her ambivalently redemptive power. She is presented as one who, rather than either simply inflicting the epidemic or simply protecting her people from it, actually undergoes it herself along with the village -- and does so deliberately, inviting a confrontation with male disease demons, an encounter with a decidedly sexual dimension and one which accomplishes a paradoxical ravaging-and-renewal of village life.
     Our final chapter, then, places this interpretation in perspective. It is seen as one of three major ways to understand the goddess and her ambivalence, each of these ways expressive of a distinctive religious orientation available to human beings in all times and places. . . . Implications of the three views of the goddess are then elucidated and connections among them examined. The final conclusion is that the essential religious meaning of the South Indian village goddess is a sacred mystery of a very specific kind which, while understandable in three distinct ways, is ultimately a unity encompassing all three.