Matangi tells a secret—that there’s a hidden joy, even power, in being an outcast.
Matangi is a sexy 16-year-old goddess surrounded by wild animals in the forest, sitting on a corpse. She’s wearing red, and has a garland of poisonous gunja seeds around her neck, a skull and a sword in her hands. Her worshippers offer her polluted substances like leftover food and sometimes even menstrual blood. She represents the wildest, most untamed, dirtiest, and most reviled aspects of society, as well as the lowest castes of Indian social hierarchy, the people sometimes called Untouchables. This alluring figure is sometimes called the Outcaste Goddess—she is an outcast, but also refuses the lines drawn between social castes.
Matangi is one of the Dasamahavidyas, or the Ten Great Wisdom Goddesses. These feminine figures represent the Tantric idea that everything, every experience we could have, is a manifestation of Shakti, the energy of the great goddess. The big and the small, the rich and the poor, the pure and the polluted—all these things are essentially made up of the same stuff. Tantra is as insistent about this as Brahminical Hinduism (the more mainstream form of worship) is about the line between these binaries.
These ten forms of the goddess seem to me to be telling a story of power in unexpected places (see my recent posts to meet more of them). In many cultures, certainly including North America, feminine energy is suppressed and repressed for people of all genders. The Wisdom Goddesses give us different ways to think about how to be powerful in a world where power seems like a narrow thing given to a narrow group of people.
One way to think about Matangi’s power is to consider a University of Montreal study that showed that out gay and bisexual men were less depressed than straight men. This was a surprise because obviously straight men have more power in society. Gay and bisexual men are often seen as outcasts and face discrimination. And yet, their levels of stress and depression are lower than those of straight men performing their masculinity in just the way society wants them to. Columnist Dan Savage speculates that this is because in order to hang on to their social power, straight men must perform a very rigid version of masculinity. Gay and bisexual men can be big and strong or petite and feminine, they can like musical theatre or hard rock, pina coladas or straight whiskey. Being cast out of mainstream masculine roles means having the freedom to express oneself in a much wider range of ways—ways that can include hints of femininity.
Traditionally in India, the Brahmins, the most powerful religious caste, are the ones who perform rituals and create rules and boundaries for everyone else. The men of this caste must adhere to strict rules about purity and pollution, and must not accept a drink of water from someone from a lower caste let alone touch her. Matangi’s sexiness represents the draw, perhaps especially for this group of people, to return to the forest, to the ways of the wild animals, where civilization does not repress our natural urges, where purity and pollution don’t matter, and where one can connect with the goddess in a range of different ways.
Matangi tells a secret—that there’s a hidden joy, even power, in being an outcast. We all have ways in which we feel that we stand outside the circles of power. Matangi suggests that our difference can be they key to knowledge and experiences that are not available to the inner circle. If we stopped trying so hard to fit in, she asks, what would we do with that freedom?