CREDIT: <a href="">Mike Chang</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Mike Chang (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: The Rights of Human Goddesses

Aug 28, 2008

There are those who argue that basic human rights are bestowed by some form of deity or god. But others are making the case that sometimes basic human rights are denied to the deities themselves, in this case child goddesses. In Nepal, the young girls who are worshiped as living goddesses are now awarded basic human rights by the state.

The Supreme Court of Nepal recently ordered the government to guarantee basic health care and education to the living goddesses. These living goddesses, or kumaris (literally virgins), are selected on the basis of 32 attributes of perfection, including eye color, shapely teeth, and voice timbre. A young kumari candidate must also possess a "body like a banyan tree," and "golden, tender skin that has never been scratched or shed a drop of blood."

After frightening selection trials, the spirit of the goddess is said to enter the young girl's body. She then takes on the clothing and jewelry of her predecessor and takes up her role as a kumari.

During festivals, the elaborately bedecked kumaris are carried about on a palanquin or wheeled around in a chariot. At all other times, the Royal Kumari is confined to the Kumari Ghar building, where she performs daily rituals and is visited by thousands of supplicants seeking her blessing.

The onset of menstruation or the skin becoming scratched or broken invalidates a kumari for worship. She then changes back into a normal mortal and the search for a new kumari begins.

Advocates of this tradition argue that the selection ritual promotes inter-religious fellowship, because the process calls for Hindu-worshiped kumaris to be chosen from a Buddhist tribe. They also argue that the parents are free to decide whether to let their daughters serve as kumaris, noting that the girls receive state allowances and care. Critics argue that the job and lifestyle of a goddess violates the girls' basic human rights.

Three years ago, public interest litigation was filed by advocate Pundevi Maharjan. He argued that kumaris have been deprived of their child rights, including right to school, right to free movement, and right to preferred food.

The recent court judgment argued that kumaris should not be treated as bonded laborers and that restrictions on free movement should not be imposed. "There should be no bar on the Kumaris from going to school and enjoying health related rights as there are no historical and religious documents restricting Kumaris from enjoying child rights," reported the court.

For 240 years, until roughly two years ago, the Nepalese monarch received blessings from the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, giving him the authority to rule the country. Changes in Nepalese politics could make the current kumari search the last. The country's new leader, Prachanda, a former Maoist rebel, does not agree with the tradition, as it is linked to the caste system and incompatible with socialism. "The Kumari is not an essential institution for the new Nepal," said Janardan Sharma, a Maoist MP.

According to The Times, the prestige of the kumari may also be on the wane among the population of Nepal. In the past, hundreds of parents would offer their daughters for the Royal Kumari selection process, whereas this year in Kathmandu only five families offered their daughters.

Approximately 1,000 miles to the southwest, another type of goddess devotion is taking place. The devadasis of southern India stem from one of the country's oldest practices. The word devadasis itself is derived from Sanskrit meaning a female servant to god. But the nature of that service and the name given to it have changed dramatically over time.

Devadasis traditionally found work in Hindu temples, where they sang "devotional songs and danced in devotion to the deities," according to K. Santhaa Reddy of the National Commission for Women in New Delhi. They also kept classical traditions alive by teaching music and dance to young girls. Only very recently have most devadasis found themselves as members of the sex trade.

Traditionally, devadasis were literate, drafted from good families, and viewed as auspicious. Today, however, they come from low castes and are often illiterate, with the majority of modern devadasis working as straightforward sex workers. Although prostitution is illegal in India, estimates place at least 25,000 devadasis in the state of Karnataka alone.

Once highly revered in the cultures of ancient Sumer, Babylonia, and Greece, veiled references to religious prostitution even appear in the Hebrew bible. The devotions, however, have become far removed from the religious sphere and are rare outside of Southeast Asia. In most places, they are now prohibited by constitutional law.

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