A living goddess

Nepal's Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9 Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

Nepal’s Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9
Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

In the US – and probably elsewhere where the movie Frozen has been popular – little girls are dressing up as princesses (and buying lots of princess-related merchandise). There was a reminder this week that there are in fact parts of the world where young girls get the royal treatment, namely through a story on NPR about one of Nepal’s “Living Goddesses”, the Kumari Devi, age 9. The story of her experience during the recent earthquake offers a mirror on Nepalese culture as well as insight into how the natural environment is seen in that country. The goddess is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists, considered the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga. She’s selected as a young child and lives an isolated and secretive existence and is rarely seen in public. According to the story, “Last month’s earthquake brought much of Kathmandu’s historic Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site, tumbling to the ground. Nepal’s showcase temples and palaces were reduced to ruins. But save for a few cracks, the home of the city’s Living Goddess remained intact.” According to the goddess’s caretaker Gautam Shakya, the building’s square shape stabilized it, but a priest cited in the story claims it was nothing so mundane: “It’s the power of the goddess; it’s about faith…It’s been the home of Kumaris for ages and we believe the force of that goddess made the house safe.” This is in keeping with an attitude towards the natural environment at odds with mainstream Western views, which maintain a secular perspective informed by modern environmental science. Whether the Nepalese view makes it any easier to deal with the devastation and loss of life caused by the earthquake is yet to be seen.

Nepal is majority Hindu country, with about 80% of the population, and around 10% Buddhist. But the Kumari Devi transcends and integrates the two religions:

Kumaris are drawn from the Newar community, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley for whom planets, karma and an array of gods play a vital role in day-to-day life. Gautam Shakya, in the eleventh generation of Kumari caretakers, says they are Buddhists who adopted the Hindu caste system and embody harmony. “One doesn’t discriminate against the other. We Newars are Buddhist. The Kumari is from a Buddhist family — but she is a Hindu goddess,” he says.

That makes the Kumari Devi not only a divine being, but a symbol of religions coming together, something the world could use more of these days. The life of the Kumari is led mostly in private, with most of her time spent with priests, with only rare public appearances. People strive to see her, as that is considered to bring good luck. When she does appear in public, her feet never touch the ground, being carried in a golden palanquin. She always wears red and has a “third eye” painted on her forehead. But the princess life does not last. The Kumar devi keeps her divine position only till puberty, at which time another young girl is selected through an elaborate and mostly secretive process.

A documentary in 2007 chronicled the life of Kumaris in Nepal:

Sports, race, & identity

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

One of the ways we create unique personal identities is through the free-time activities we choose. These days those activities are likely to involve lots of screen time. In response, parents may be looking for activities to get their children moving – and outside. One likely direction are sports, either individual or team. What sports children choose is likely influenced by their parents, by friends, and by what’s available nearby. One of the other factors is the current popularity of any given sport. Interest in soccer (football) always goes up when the World Cup rolls around. Of particular importance are major sports figures, particularly if they offer some personal connection. They can function as a “reference group”, a group we aspire to join. A story on NPR this week looked at the inspiration that Venus and Serena Williams have given young African-Americans to take up tennis and asked why it is that Tiger Woods has not had the same effect in golf. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that tennis, like golf, was seen as a sport for the leisure class, i.e. in the US, predominantly for whites. Of course, it takes more resources to play golf than it does tennis. But it is also likely just the image that golf projects, not a likely imagined future for most young African-Americans. There have been efforts to interest urban youth in golf, notably through the First Tee program, which has had success in some cities.

Of course, professional basketball remains the imagined future for a good number of talented young African-Americans. The NBA has over 70% Black players. As Michael Dyson pointed out in his book on “Reflecting Black”, basketball has become much more than a sport for many urban communities, “it also became a way of ritualizing racial achievement against social barriers to cultural performance.” (pp. 66-67). It used to be that baseball offered similar opportunities for Blacks – and it still does for Dominicans, who continue to flock to the US to play in the major leagues. But in last year’s World Series, there was not a single African-American on the winning team (the San Francisco Giants). There were also no Blacks on the team the Giants beat to get to the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals. Comedian and baseball fan Chris Rock commented: “How could you ever be in St. Louis and see no black people? And get this. Their crowds were more than 90 percent white — like the Ferguson police department!” In fact, he has a whole routine on the whiteness of baseball: