December 04 2020

Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz on the Nepalese Hindu Goddess Svasthani

Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz talks about the textual and limited iconographic history of the mysterious Nepalese Hindu goddess Svasthani. Birkenholtz's book documenting her research into the goddess and the puranic texts that develop around her, Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal (Oxford University Press, 2018) won the AAR's 2019 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Textual Studies.

Transcript

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host Kristian Peterson. And today I'm here with Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz, Associate Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University. And winner of the AAR Book Award in Textual Studies. She's here to speak to us about her book, Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal, published with Oxford University Press. Congratulations, Jessica, and thanks for joining me.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Kristian Petersen:

This is a really interesting book. I hope that some listeners will tackle this, even if it's not the subject that they are working on directly. Because I think there's some interesting broader issues that I think will help them think about other subjects and communities. But before we get into that, can you help us think about Hinduism in Nepal? So some people might be familiar with Hinduism from other contexts, but what do we need to know about Hindu religious identity and practice in this part of South Asia to start to understand your project?

Jessica Birkenholtz:

Right. That's a great question. And a question that really is at the heart of the book, actually, in many ways, because one of the objectives of this book was to forefront Hinduism in Nepal. So oftentimes when we think of South Asia, we think of India for obvious reasons. It's physically, geographically, culturally, politically, economically dominant in the region, but it does not constitute South Asia in its entirety. And when we oftentimes think of Hinduism, the first thing that we think of, of course, is India. And again for obvious reasons. But it is not the only place that we find Hinduism in South Asia. And in fact, Nepal has a very long history as being a Hindu kingdom. And it was, in fact, a Hindu monarchy up until 2008. So its status, in any case, as a Hindu kingdom, nation, culture is really very fresh and very prominent.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And so, one of the things that's always interested me about working in Nepal is trying to bring more, to highlight, illuminate Nepal as a very rich, cultural, religious context, in which to think about religion, to think about South Asia. And Hinduism, oftentimes, again, the Nepali forms of Hinduism get conflated with Indian forms just as Nepal, in general, oftentimes gets conflated as part of India, or it's just not thought of, it's not brought up in the conversation about South Asia or about Hinduism.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And so, one of the things that I seek to do in my work is to give some attention to the different religious cultures in Nepal, most specifically Hindu religious cultures. And in terms of what's there or what's not there and how it relates to what we find in Hindu India, there of course is a great degree of continuity and many respects the fact that, that any of these states, ordinations in South Asia ended up how they did, part of India or not, where lines were drawn or not is, these are modern political nation states.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And so, there's a lot of cultural linguistic, religious continuity and flow back and forth, particularly between the Southern strip of Nepal and Northern India. But there are also a lot of important differences between forms of Hinduism that we see in Nepal versus what we see in India. And of course it bears saying that India, being such a massive country with so many different cultures and religious practices and whatnot, it gives a false sense of reality that India is monolithic or Hinduism in India is monolithic, because of course it's not, nor is it in Nepal either.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

But in terms of what we see on the ground historically, and in Nepal today, there are two dominant forms of Hinduism. The first being the Newars. The Newars are considered to be the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, which historically constituted Nepal Proper, again, Nepal as we know it today, that is a much more recent development. And historically when referring to Nepal, that just referred to the Kathmandu Valley and its immediate environments surrounding it. And the group that, the population that lived there were the Newars.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And the Newars practice both Hinduism, Buddhism, and a combination of both. So it's a very common joke that if you ask a Newar, "Are you a Hindu or Buddhist?" They'll say, "Yes." So there's a lot of fluidity in terms of religious practice among the Newars, which lends some really interesting flavor to Newar culture.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

So, the book that's at the heart of my book is Newar, originated as a Newar tradition and narrative and texts and so on. But the other dominant group and I really do mean dominant now, they are politically, economically, socially dominant in Nepal and have been since the 18th, late 18th Century, are the Parbatiya Hindus, the hill Hindus. And the hill Hindus, the Parbatiyas, their heritage traces back to India, but they came from the Western Hills outside of Nepal Proper, back when it just meant the Kathmandu Valley.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And when the Parbatiyas came in and they conquered the Valley, there was a mixture of, a mixing of these two different dominant forms of Hinduism as well as other religious traditions, like Buddhism and other indigenous forms of religion as well. So we see a lot of, so Newars have a lot of practices and traditions that are really practiced only among Newars and they would seem familiar, I think, to anyone who is familiar with Hinduism from different parts of India, similar, but new, in that way of, within the great diversity and realm of possibility that is Hinduism all over South Asia and beyond now.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

So the Newars and the Parbatiyas are the two dominant forms of Hinduism today, as I said, the hill Hindus who are all high caste, they're Bahun and Chhetri, which is equivalent in Nepali to the Sanskrit Brahmin and Kshatriya classes at the top of the social hierarchy. And Newars have a very extensive caste system of their own. So they have Brahmins, Newar Brahmins as well and the whole gamut. But these two populations are really interacting and intersecting. And that comes out very much in this textual tradition that is the focus of my book. Because it originated as a Newar tradition. But then as the Kathmandu Valley became infused, and with this influx of Parbatiya Hindus, who then also took up the tradition, we see it really become a near universal Nepali Hindu tradition practiced by both Newar Hindus and Parbatiya Hindus.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And interestingly, one of the things that has always surprised me, or at least piqued my curiosity, back when I first started this project, was that Indian Hindus who happened to be living in Nepal were completely unaware of it, which really, for me, highlights one of the many ways in which this is a Nepali specific tradition. And again, that's one of the things that excited me about this project in the first place, was finding something that was unique to Nepal and a real contribution that was born in Nepali soil and culture and religious practice. And it certainly becomes more than that. And it certainly takes in a lot of Hinduism from outside of its immediate context. But it really has been a very, in many respects, unifying to the degree that any one thing in the Hindu world is unifying for all Hindus, but it has become the main Hindu text in Nepal and has been for a very long time.

Kristian Petersen:

So, at the center of your study is this goddess and the tradition developed around her. Can you tell us a little bit about who this goddess is, about her birth and emergence and transformation over time?

Jessica Birkenholtz:

Sure. The goddess in question, her name is Swasthani, which is a really, she's a really interesting figure, because she's not a very, she's rather opaque. And it's difficult pinpoint her in certain ways, unlike, there's other Hindu goddesses in the Hindu world. So, Swasthani, I translate as the goddess of one's own place, Swasthan and then the feminization i at the end. But that's not very specific. And whereas, so many other goddesses' names say something very specific about them or their powers or their purpose, their mythology, what have you. So, Swasthani, this tradition and the goddess, the earliest reference that we have to her is the text itself. And the text is the Svasthanivratakatha, which means The Story of the Ritual Vow to the Goddess Swasthani. And this text dates back to the late 16th century.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And one of the, again, a curiosity of this tradition is that we really have no, almost no evidence of the tradition, of the goddess outside of these manuscripts, these Svasthanivratakatha manuscripts, which just for ease of those who are not familiar with this part of the world, I'll refer to as the SVK.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And so Swasthani herself, she is worshiped primarily in the form of this text. So she is brought out only once a year for the course of a month. The text itself is read over the month of Maagh, which translates to mid December to mid January. No, sorry, mid January to mid February. And during that month, the text is read from cover to cover. And historically, these were handwritten manuscripts, of course, and that was the goddess herself. She didn't have any graven images, any other kind of drawings, those emerged much later in the tradition. So really the only, we have only three statues that we know of to her, two were [inaudible 00:13:28] and one was just consecrated within the 21st century. So within the last 15 years. Leaving two others that were built about the same time around 1674, I'm sorry, 1764.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And so it's very striking that she is a goddess without a lot of iconography. That being said, in various manuscripts, there was a slow emergence of iconography that depicted her initially as a consort of Shiva, the Great God Shiva. But ultimately there's a major shift in her iconography, which again is very limited and never exists outside of manuscripts. But this shift is from her being positioned, seated next to Shiva and the way that she has been depicted now for a very long time, about a hundred or a little bit more years or so, is that she's seated on a lotus flower in the middle of, and circled by the Ashtamatrika, the eight mother goddesses.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

So she remains an interesting and oblique figure, the story that the SVK tells doesn't say anything about her origin per se. It just teaches humans how to perform the Ritual Vow to her. But does not tell us really anything more about her own story or who she is. She just kind of appears. And so she's, to me, very fascinating in that respect as well.

Kristian Petersen:

Now she, the tradition around this goddess changes dramatically over time. You started to allude to some of those, the conditions which made those changes possible, but what can you tell us about how this came from a local to a translocal type of tradition? What were the key factors in the transition of the practices around this goddess? What were that changed over time?

Jessica Birkenholtz:

Well, one of the main arguments in the book is, or objectives in the book is to recover the history and development of the SVK. So again, as our really only source for this goddess, which incidentally, I became fascinated by this text. And it was my interest in her as a goddess really was secondary initially. And of course she's a key component, but she is so in the background in many respects, I mean, she's both ... Swasthani Parameshwari. So she's this preeminent, divine female divinity, but she also is so physically absent, which says a lot about tantric influences on her.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

But in any case, so the way that this text developed from being really just the oldest text that we have told only this very local folk legend about Swasthani and about a mother and her son and daughter-in-law, the mother being very pious, the son also being very responsible and beautiful, and the daughter-in-law not. Right. She's kind of the opposite of the two. And this shows us the way to incur the goddess' wrath, but also to receive her benevolence.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And the way that the story, so it stays in that form for about the first 200 years of its written history. And it's also worth noting that this tradition has an unbroken textual history. So we have the oldest [inaudible 00:17:47] from 1573 CE, and we have texts up to the present day without any kind of break or absence in-between. And the number of texts that we have continue to grow and grow and grow suggesting the growth of the tradition.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

So the first 200 years are pretty consistent, just focusing on that local legend. Around the 18th century, we suddenly see the infusion in three different phases of Pranic narratives. So very well known mythology drawn from Brahmanical classical Hinduism and the normative Sanskrit texts of the Pranas, that are a warehouse of mythology for Hinduism at large. And what I argue in the book is that the three phases in which these Pranic narratives are added into the SVK, both the timing of those phases and the particular narratives that were added in during each one reflects broader conversations, discourses, political events, and repercussions that were happening in medieval Nepal and the larger region, including India.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And so these are not one to one correlations necessarily. It doesn't map that specifically on to each other, but when you look at the history and development of the text, and when it goes from being a local folktale in many ways, or folk legend, to becoming its own Pranic text very much mirroring, mimicking some very well known Mahaprana's great Pranic text. And what I argue is that we see a relationship there that this local text SVK was being used both as an archive to document, but also a warehouse to process these local and regional and translocal events that were happening. And the way in which the lay population in Nepal was taking all of that in and responding to it.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

So this is very much a lay tradition, and circulating among the people. And what I argue is that, again, we can kind of see the contours and the specific narratives that were chosen at these different times to include our reflecting broader discourses about what it means to be a Hindu in Nepal, vis-a-vis outside of Nepal and specifically in India. And this is where the making of Hinduism comes into play, that I argue that the SVK was a really benign, and whether it was intentional or not, we'll never know, but it served as this really important medium for having these conversations among just the general population who was participating in this and who was taking in all of these outside influences and processing them and rejecting some, accepting others, or tweaking them and so on.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

So that's how this overall process, without getting into the specifics of it, that we can see that Nepal always positioned itself as a very historical [inaudible 00:21:27] always suggest that Nepal was very isolated, that its rulers really sought to limit outside exposure and they did to a very large degree. But part of what I seek to demonstrate in this book is that there was actually much more awareness and conversation going on in Nepal, both at the ruling level, but also among the general population.

Kristian Petersen:

Now, there's a great deal in the book that, of course we don't have time to cover, unfortunately. So I certainly encourage listeners to get the book. And especially if they're interested in South Asian literary traditions, the tensions between local and translocal, or even global now traditions and how they work, ideas about centers and peripheries. I know I certainly benefited in my own work from thinking about it with your texts. But I'm wondering from your perspective, how do you imagine that others in the study of religion might benefit from your book either in your, perhaps some of your conclusions or some of the approaches you've taken with your textual archive? What do you think others might learn from your book?

Jessica Birkenholtz:

Well, I think it serves as a model in a couple of different ways. I mean, for scholars of religion who are coming for our field geographically or in a different religious tradition, certainly the textual work that I did for this project of really deep diving in archives and doing a very close reading of these different manuscripts to reconstruct the way in which this tradition evolved and developed into something really powerful. I always say that it's hidden in plain sight. I mean, this is a really dynamic archive that most Nepali households have a copy of it in their homes and continue to read it every year, but are unaware of just all the history that's behind this text.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

So the close textual work that's involved, I think can be instructive. The way it helped me think about language was also important and seeing, so the text SVK has been written in Newar, Nepali and Sanskrit and the dynamics and the relationships between those three languages has been very interesting to look at and the ways that they interacted within this one particular textual tradition.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

So we often assume that Sanskrit is a cosmopolitan language and that Nepalian Newar are both vernacular languages, which of course they are, but there's a bit of, it's not as linear as that, and it's not as hierarchical in the sense of a vertical hierarchy between them. So thinking about the relationship between different languages at play within a particular tradition.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

And lastly, I would say that for those who are interested in certainly center and periphery, those kinds of conversations, local, translocal, but also women, a lot of this is a "women's tradition." And I try and complicate what that means because when I started the project as a very naive undergraduate student and then graduate student, that meant one thing to me, and it means a very different thing to me now in the way I understand this tradition. And so there's a lot of food for thought in terms of women and women's traditions and texts and things of that nature. So those might be some access points for others.

Kristian Petersen:

Well, it's certainly a wonderful book and well deserving of the award. So congratulations.

Jessica Birkenholtz:

Thank you so much. It's a real honor. And I feel very grateful to have my work recognized in this fashion and by scholars who are coming from outside of South Asian studies or Hindu studies. And so thank you.