Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Kumari and the innocence of children

I post the news frequently here because myth and fantasy is not about escape. The study of myth, fairy tale, folklore, and fantasy has several very practical aims. One is to learn to recognize the wonder of the moment, the daily wonders that we overlook because we get caught up in a fast-car cubicle world, or because we spend too much time tripping over the cluttered furniture of our own minds. Seeing a dragon snuggled on a violently red autumn leaf, we might be reminded to glance outside and see the autumn beauty that we have been ignoring.

The other practical aim is to become more aware of the stories – the underlying myths as well as the folktales of the moment – that we hear or tell to explain what is going on around and inside us. Myth is the language through which we interpret the world. 9/11 has become a mythic moment for us, complete with iconic and immediately recognizable images, its villains and its cellphone-equipped heroes. Columbine as well. If we allow ourselves to be defined by our myths without thinking about them and without retelling them in more deliberate ways, then we become twigs hurled down the river that is made up of our stories. We lose the chance to tell new stories that will transform and renew us. We lose the chance to change our world by changing how we look at it and how we talk about it.

Folklorists and fantasists are called to be fully engaged in the current scene, and Dante’s Heart is a venue for gathering to discuss the fantasy of the everyday, not the fantasy of escape. For this reason I keep posting news.

Here is today’s clipping.

Recent news of the retirement of Nepal’s current kumari (or “living goddess”) has brought a lot of international discussion and much protest to the tradition of kumari-puja, or virgin worship. Human rights activists within Nepal are petitioning to end the tradition, which requires the deification of a young girl as kumari until the age of puberty. The current kumari is retiring at eleven years of age, during which eleven years she has been worshipped by supplicants in Nepal as a goddess, an incarnation of Kali. As kumari, she becomes a focus for devotion and hope for an entire people; critics of kumari-puja point out that the creation of a child goddess denies that child a normal life and the chance for a full adulthood – effectively crippling the child psychologically.

The Nepalese kumari is not the world’s only example of the sacred child. Consider another extreme – the Vestal Virgins of Rome, revered by the people but buried alive if, upon reaching puberty, they were caught pregnant or in flagrante delicto.

How do we balance the beauty of a myth and tradition that heals and renews an impoverished people with the future suffering of a human being who must learn that she is not divine? And how do we, if angered at such traditions, manage to ignore our own? Do we do a lesser kind of this same thing in our sheltering of our own children, in mainstream American culture? Is the celebration of innocence a kind of deifying of the child at the expense of a normal life? We do not practice such extremes as the nineteenth century (consider the numbers of young Victorian girls who went to their marriage beds knowing nothing about sex), but how many youths in our culture are thrown into the world bereft of either a rite of passage or preparatory training for adulthood? How much do we attempt to hide from our children, and for how long? After all, ours is the culture that wrote Peter Pan, the celebration of the boy who never grows up, the boy who lives as a semi-divine and eternally innocent Pan amid a world of dangerous adults. A thing worth thinking about.

We act shocked at another culture’s kumari prevented from growing up on time (and I know that it is an equally terrible thing when one grows up too fast), but do we stop to think about our own culture’s kumari traditions and conventions, which are often invisible to us because they are of lesser degree and because they are ours? Think about the anguish of prolonged adolescence (the very concept of adolescence is unknown in many cultures) over the course of years, because we hold stubbornly to the idea that the innocence of the child is sacred. Think of the difficulty parents face in our culture in letting children go – think of the long struggle between parents and teenagers, think of the teen pregnancies, deaths by DUI, and torn families created by our culture’s inability to define the line of demarcation between innocent child and adult man- or woman-of-the-world, and its frequent inability to train future adults or to allow children to grow and develop. In our culture’s way of thinking, there is something divine and sacred in the innocence of the child, and in so many ways we define ourselves by our myth of the loss of innocence, and the guilts and nostalgias that myth demands. In what cases do we, too, no less than another culture in the Himalayas, carry this myth too far?

If there were a way to quantify the cost of such a myth, the cost of protecting children from the pain of growing up, what would we see? If we could count the dollars spent on therapy, or on divorce lawyers, or on varied means of self-medication?

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