The Politics of Paganism

©Copyright 2003 Vincent Bridges

Far away, in the shadow of the towering White Himalayas, there lies an ancient kingdom where, until recently, paganism and politics still existed in the primal balance achieved at the end of the Paleolithic golden age. In the hidden valley of Nepal, land of the three kingdoms, a living goddess controlled the relationship between governed and governor. Between the people and the king lay the land and it’s ancient personification as the goddess, whose power was loaned to the king as the right of sovereignty. And, as such, might be taken away if misused.
As modern pagans, we are all too often apolitical. We might vote for Gore because of his environmental stance, or even join Green Peace, but rarely do we see our religious beliefs as having deep political implications. But they do, and the loss of those political ramifications led to the stake and to our modern wasteland of pathological displacement.
The story of Nepal is therefore instructive, for we have few models outside of antiquity or legend. Let us begin then with the source – the mythic landscape.
Once upon a time, according to the ancient chronicles, the valley was a vast lake called the Nag Hrad, or “Tank of Serpents.” The nagas were dragon-serpents who guarded a treasure deep in the lake. A Buddha from a past age tossed a lotus seed into its placid waters, and from this grew an amazing thousand-petaled lotus that shone with the blue light of transcendental wisdom.
Aeons went by. And then one day, the Bodhisattva Manjusri arrived, having heard tales of the lotus and its light. He stopped at the edge of the lake, and being thwarted by the nagas, found that he could not approach the lotus. However, after consulting with Vajra Yogini, a manifestation of Dolma/Tara the mother goddess, he decided on a radical plan. He would drain the lake, bind the nagas and thereby share the lotus light with everyone.
Seizing the great Sword of Discriminating Wisdom, Manjusri sliced the mountainous rim of the valley in a single stroke, creating a gorge through which the waters of the lake, and its nagas, poured. As the water rushed out, the nagas were caught in a bottomless pit, where, along with their treasure, they remain to this day. The lotus settled to a small mound in the center of the emerging valley, eventually to become the stupa of Swayambunath.
Now, the curious point here is that geology agrees with and supports the myth. Roughly 20,000 years ago, an earthquake did in fact drain the vast lake that was Nepal valley, slicing open the rim as neatly as if it had been done with a sword. The lake formed as much as a million years earlier when the Himalayas lurked upward. Therefore for many thousands of years, there was indeed a large, deep lake of placid blue water surrounded by high, white mountains, just as the traditions say. All we are missing is the giant lotus, radiating light.
The chronicles continue in a similar vein, telling tales of gods in human form and of kings with the power of gods and their interaction. In this magical era, a single king could rule for a thousand years and temples were endowed with images of the gods who sweated, bled and spoke as they communicated their desires. This sense of a magical reality within a mythological landscape remains strong even today.
Buddhism arrived in the valley very early, so early in fact that it became woven into the fabric of its mythological past. During the reign of the semi-legendary Kiratis — whose founder Yalambar fought and died in the epic struggle depicted in the Mahabharata — the Buddha and his disciple Ananda visited the valley. They founded a school in Patan, where the Buddha elevated a family of blacksmiths to goldsmith status and gave them his own clan name, Sakya.
A few centuries later, the great Indian Emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, made a pilgrimage to the Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini, in the terai or plain to the south, and then continued on to Katmandu valley. He built and enlarged stupas at Patan and Swayambunath, and his daughter married the local prince, Devapala. This link to the original Indian traditions ensured that Buddhism would survive in Nepal long after it had died out in India.
At the turn of the 4th century CE, the last Kirati king, Gastee, was overwhelmed by an invasion of Rajaput princes from the areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India. The Licchavi princes spread a veneer of Hinduism over the local Buddhism, creating a unique mixture of practical shamanism and sophisticated philosophy. This Nepalese Buddhism owed as much to Rajaput tantrism as it did to the teachings of Siddhartha.
Later branches of the Licchavis, the Thakuris, were instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Tibet. Princess Bhrikuti brought some of the Buddha’s relics with her when she married the king of Tibet, Tsrong-tsong Gompo, and eventually converted him. For her devotion, she was identified with Tara, the Tibetan mother goddess.
After this high point, the Thakuri dynasties settled into a kind of semi-mythological Dark Age. An example is the story of King Gunakamadeva. It seems that the god Indra, whose interest in the valley went back to the primordial blue lotus era, assumed human form to observe the Indrajatra festival in his honor. A group of tantric magicians spotted him and bound him with spells until he granted them a boon. Indra’s boon was the wood from a celestial tree, used by the king to construct a large seven-tiered pagoda called the Kasthamandap, or the “House of Wood.” From this came Katmandu as time chipped away at the extra syllables.
Early in the 13th century, court intrigues and intermarriage brought a new dynasty to the throne when King Ari-Deva took the name Malla, meaning fighter or wrestler. The early Malla period was a time of peace and stability, even as the dark clouds of invasion and disaster gathered. But in 1311, the Moslem invasion that had devastated India for generations swept through the region, ravaging the whole valley by fire in the words of a contemporary chronicler.
These Moslem incursions had a tremendous effect on India, and a powerful but indirect one on the valley. During this period, the valley became a refuge for all sorts of displaced cultures and religions. As the refugees blended with the peculiarly Hindu Buddhism of the valley, strange and extravagant hybrids developed. One of these was the cult of the living goddess, Taleju.
As we have seen, goddess worship is as old as the valley itself. Princess Bhrikuti, a Buddhist, was worshiped as an incarnation of Tara, and even Manjusri asked permission from the Vajra Yogini before he drained the lake. As early as the 11th century, King Laxmikamadeva instituted the worship of the Kanya Kumari as an aspect of Shiva’s consort, Shakti. But the arrival of the foreign Taleju marked the beginning of a new kind of goddess defined relationship with politics and power.
Around 1330, an adventurer named Raja Hari Singh and his private army of South Indian Nayars conquered the three kingdoms and became King of Katmandu. The earlier dynasties had ruled by extension of the god of kingship, Indra’s, authority. But the Moslem invasions had destroyed the Brahmin class of the Mallas, and Raja Hari Singh, clearly no incarnation of Indra, needed a source of legitimacy by which to rule.
He found it in his Nayar retainer’s devotions to their goddess, the mysterious Taleju. Combined with the Kanya Kumari, she became the royal patroness, and in true Nepali fashion, was soon assimilated intothe cults of Durga, Dolma and Tara. Although Hari Singh failed to establish a dynasty, the cult of the living goddess caught on. Within 50 years, the Malla rulers almost supplanted by Hari Singh would be competing with each other to build the most extravagant Taleju Mandir or temple on the main square of Katmandu.
What made Taleju so powerful, and virtually unique, was her devotees’ insistence on her “living” status. Not content with animated statutes or the casual divine visit, Taleju’s followers declared that she was literally present as an incarnate divine being. How this originally worked is unclear, but it soon became institutionalized as a department of the state.
The story goes that Taleju appeared to Hari Singh and his Malla successors in human form. This was so beguiling that one Malla king made an indiscreet overture, which enraged the goddess. She threatened to abandon him, his family and the valley for good, until he pleaded with her for mercy. To prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again, the goddess declared that she would return only in the body of an inviolate young virgin, chosen from the Sakya clan of goldsmiths blessed by the Buddha.
And so it remains to this day. A young girl, aged 4 or 5, is carefully chosen from the Sakya clan. Her body must be flawless and she must have the 32 specified and distinctive signs that identify the goddess. As a final test, the young candidates are subjected to a grisly ritual. The girl who remains calm and selects the correct articles belonging to her predecessor must be the goddess. Her horoscope is done, to see how it matches with the king, and then she is installed in her residence. There she will remain, except on festival days, until she bleeds, either from a wound or the onset of puberty.
Today, her residence is the 18th century bahal or monastery just off Durbar Square in Katmandu. Two large painted lions guard the entrance, and the lintels over the doorway have laughing skulls that suggest the Grateful Dead or voodoo’s Ghedes. Inside the small courtyard, as far as the casual visitor is allowed, the carvings are even more intricate. Animals and humans riot in a frenzy of sexual ecstasy that is beyond anything the western mind, with the possible exception of Bosch, can conceive.
For a few hundred rupees, the goddess can be persuaded to appear at a small window overlooking the courtyard. A shy young girl, not more than eight years old and with more eye shadow than Cleopatra, steps up to the window. She looks down and smiles at the small knot of tourists, her expression one of infinite melancholy, and then she is gone.
And yet, this child is a vehicle for a supernatural being who is, theoretically at least, more powerful than is the king.
All of these threads come together during the eight days of Indrajatra, the festival where, a thousand years ago, Indra was caught celebrating and forced to divulge the secret of the celestial tree. On the third day, the Kanya Kumari, or Living Goddess, emerges from her residence painted as a hummingbird and ready to receive the homage of the entire valley. She is carried through the streets in a highly colorful chariot, accompanied by two young boys representing Ganesh and Bhairav, until she arrives at Durbar Square and the Taleju Mandir. There she receives the puja or worship of the people.
The climax of the ritual comes on the final night of the festival as she offers the tika of her protection and endorsement to the king. By this acknowledgment, he is empowered to rule for another year. Omens are carefully watched, and the Kumari’s favor is considered necessary for the king to be legitimate.
In the early years this was crucially important. As the Mallas split into small warring factions and competing city states, the authority to chose a ruler became all important. Nothing demonstrates this more than the story of the 18th century adventurer, Prithvi Nayan Shah.
It was the latter days of the Three Kingdoms Era, when the small city-states of the valley engaged in endless disputes and intrigues. For a century or so, a Rajaput kingdom to the south of the valley, Gorkha, had been gaining in power and prominence. Ignored by the quarreling Kings, Prithvi Nayan Shah the Gorkha Warlord managed to enter Katmandu during the final day of Indrajatra, when the Kumari endows the king with the right to rule.
This was a calculated move. The Malla king’s soldiers were too drunk to fight, and the conquest was easy. The Shah entered the square at the head of his soldiers, and, the legitimate king having fled, the Kumari offered her protection to him. He accepted the tika and became the king of Nepal, founding the dynasty that survives to this day.
Although the dynasty would have serious problems along the way, the Shah Era began grandly with a surge of expansion, halted by contact with the British. A brief war led to concessions – the country was closed to all but the British, with a resident at Katmandu, and Britain had the right to recruit from the Gorkha hill tribes for its army. With the threat of foreign intervention averted, the court at Katmandu turned inward and plunged into a round of intrigue and betrayal. This came to a head in 1846, when a noble family, the Ranas, staged a coup.
For the next hundred years, the Ranas ruled through their control of the royal government. The king and his family were held as prisoners and hostages in the royal palace and the day-to-day workings of the government rested in the hands of the Rana Prime Minister. This office, called Maharaja or great king, was made hereditary, establishing a sort of quasi-dynasty. However, only the King received the Kumari’s favor.
In the wake of World War II, as changes swept through India, China and Tibet, the moment came for the restoration of the Shah dynasty in Nepal. Opponents of the Ranas had formed the Nepali Congress Party during the war. This new democratic movement saw the King as the embodiment of his people’s hopes and aspirations. Finally, in 1950, King Tribhuvan escaped from the palace and sought refuge in the Indian Embassy. From there he flew to Dehli, where he was recognized as the legitimate ruler of Nepal.
India eventually negotiated a settlement. The Ranas fled and the King returned to the valley in triumph. His victory was honored by a special appearance of the Kumari, who bestowed her blessing on the changes. King Tribhuvan died in 1955, and was succeeded by his son Mahendra, who ruled until 1972. His son, Birendra, still rules the valley, as the world’s only official Hindu monarch. Every Indrajatra, the King still comes to the Kanya Kumari for permission to rule.
However, King Birendra has several times been exposed to the power of the living goddess. In 1979, the Kumari refused to give the tika of protection to the King, which sparked six months of riots and civil disturbances before the King gave in and instituted the changes, in a nationwide referendum, that the Kumari desired. In 1990, however, a similar power play by the Kumari resulted in a change in the constitution.
As Nepal became more dependent on western aid and financial assistance, the west became more insistent on certain changes. The IMF, USAID and the World Bank considered rule by goddess to be absurd, and so, after a last attempt at exerting her authority, the 1991 constitution changed forever the nature of kingship in the valley. The Kumari’s favor or displeasure might sway the people, but the government would no longer rise and fall on account of it.
And so, far away in the shadow of the White Himalayas lies an ancient kingdom where until recently a goddess religion exerted direct influence on the state. While there are many lessons to be drawn from this story, I’ve shared it here for a couple of reasons.
First of all, it illustrates in a direct way the idea that the land and the king are one, the heart of the Grail mythos. If there is any one political principle that can be said to lie at the root of any concept of paganism as a goddess based, earth-centered spirituality, it is this one. In a sense, it is the only valid form of government, one that enforces the concept of accountability in a personal and direct way.
Think for a moment of how different our current political landscape would look if our government were based on these concepts. This is so mind-boggling that it is hard to visualize. Not only would the Bush-Cheney oil cartel not be in the White House, the world itself would look so different as to be completely alien. Who knows what we really lost with our indigenous cultures in the west?
We certainly lost our connection to the land. Our dominant paradigm is one of exploitation, because the Bible says so, and this has led us to our present psychotic state of rampant self-consumption. What would happen if we consciously began to change that perspective?
My second reason for sharing this story brings us to the core of that last question. As I pieced together the story of Nepal’s living goddess, I was struck by how the outer image of the goddess seemed to change as needed, while the inner reality stayed the same from Vajra Yogini to the Kanya Kumari. This made me curious about how the archetype may have manifested in the west.
From the Kanya Kumari, literally Virgin Goddess, to the Virgin Mary is actually a very short hop. In that sense, the Virgin apparitions, from Lourdes to Fatima, Zeitun and Medjegorria, suggest a new current of long displaced feminine power, the Lady of Sovereignty, emerging into our reality, and to a certain degree effecting politics. What this means in the long term is hard to tell, but we may take it as a sign that new/old forces are emerging from the Dark Ages of the current paradigm.
From this and the tale of the living goddess, I draw two succinct lessons.
One: The land and the king are one.
And Two: The goddess is willing to help, if we will just pay attention to her warnings.
Therefore, it falls to us, as followers of a new form of goddess-based, earth-centered spirituality, to give voice to the goddess’ pleas and to insist on a form of government that embraces the new/old paradigm of the Lady of Sovereignty. Who will speak for the trees, and all the other living beings without voices, if we who are self proclaimed worshippers of Nature will not?