“Gender, Power, Place, and the Body in the Iconography of the Goddess Swasthani”
Professor Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz
Date - Monday, June 18, 2018
Time - 3:00 p.m.
Venue - Fulbright Commission Auditorium, Gyaneshwor
The goddess Swasthani is found, according to devotees, “in every Hindu household in Nepal.” By this, they refer to copies of the SwasthaniVrata Katha, the sixteenth century devotional text dedicated to Swasthani that Nepali Hindus recite annually yet today. Despite the popularity of her text, Swasthani herself remains remarkably elusive and nearly invisible outside of and even within her own tradition. That is, there is virtually no documentation of Swasthani outside of SwasthaniVrata Katha manuscripts, and her tradition as a whole historically lacks iconography and other physical or artistic representations of the goddess. It is therefore significant that since her origin in the late sixteenth century, Swasthani has undergone two major transformations with important implications for her identity and interaction with devotees.
In this talk I explore these critical shifts within the Swasthani tradition that mark her gradual but meaningful transformation from a bodiless, invisible, unfixed, private aniconic figure, represented alone by Svasthani texts, into an embodied, visible, fixed, public protector goddess with a temple of her own. I employ Swasthani as a case study for thinking about the process of becoming a goddess and, more specifically, an embodied goddess, and ask what is lost and gained in this transformation. In mapping out these shifts, I argue that Swasthani’s body, her physicality, is peripheral to her tradition, and ask what significance this has for understanding her, the history and future of her tradition, and the dynamics of gender, power, and place in the Hindu tradition more broadly.
Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her first book, Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal (Oxford University Press, 2018) presents an archival and ethnographic study of Nepal’s goddess Svasthani, the widely read Svasthanivratakatha, and the role both goddess and text have played in the construction of Nepali Hindu identity and practice. She is also co-editor of Religion and Modernity in the Himalaya (Routledge 2016), and is the Reviews Editor for HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies.