By Dr. Suresh Kurl
October 11 was a glorious morning. I woke to the CBC radio reporting that the UN General Assembly has formally declared the day as the International Day of the Girl Child. Then, I read that it was because of Canada’s campaign to recognize girl’s rights throughout the world. Congratulations Canada! Generations to come will be proud of you.
October 11, 2012, might be the day, when the world woke up or went to bed, depending where you live, to the UN dedication of the day to Girls rights, but Hindus have been celebrating girls and their rights for ages. They celebrate them bi-annually, for nine days in a row each time, in March-April and in October-November.
This is how it all started: Indian mythology is full of references to demons. We can perhaps compare them to a many-times-magnified-form of Genghis Khan, Caligula, Hitler, or even to those Rwandans, who mercilessly butchered thousands of their fellow citizens and tossed their bodies in the rivers to rot. But the difference between the Genghis Khan types and the mythical ones is that the latter types could appear at any time, any where, and in any form, as human or beast, at will. They could also please supreme powers for their favours. Mahishasura (Mahisha = buffalo + asura = demon) was one of those demon kings. He had the blessings of Lord Brahma that no man could ever kill him on the earth.
Mahishasura got intoxicated on Lord Brahma’s blessing. He started torturing his subjects and challenging the might of gods. He even expelled Indra from his own domain, heaven. When gods realized they could not subdue Mahishasura, they approached Lord Shiva for help. Shiva, feeling their distress, produced Durga, the most beautiful and powerful goddess out of his third eye. The gods were pleased to see her. They armed her with their weapons and sent her off to kill the demon, and free them and the earth from his terror.
When the Goddess riding her tiger approached Mahishasura, he was so taken by her beauty that he, instead of fighting her, proposed to her. The goddess chuckled and turned him down cold. She fought him fiercely, but don’t forget that he too wore the shielded of Lord Brahma’s blessing. It took her nine days and nights to kill him. Hindus where ever they are, in India or abroad, celebrate her victory, twice a year, and call her nine troubled days of war against the demon, “Navaratri.”
The eighth day of Durga prayers is called, “Durga-ashtami.” On this day, Hindus invite nine little girls, no more than nine years old, into their homes to worship them as Mini-Durgas. These unmarried virgin girls are known as kanyaas. My mom would identify nine neighbourhood kanyaas and send me off to escort them to our family ceremony. I would approach their mothers, introduce myself by telling them who I was and bring the girls to my home. As these kanyaas were in high demand that specific day, sometimes it was difficult to find the exact number. In that case, I substituted them with their younger brothers, but only nine years or younger. They did not mind being picked as substitutes. The halva with deep fried bread they would get to eat was still going to be delicious, and the money given to them also had the same purchasing power as given to their sisters.
Once at our house, mom would wash their feet, as a gesture of devotion to Durga, put a red dot on their foreheads, cover their heads with red scarves and give them food and money. After that, though I wasn’t much older than them, I would escort them back to their parents.
When we moved to the west we started celebrating Durga Ashtmi with our little girls. But they renamed the practice. They called it “Girls’ Day” like “Mother’s Day” and Father’s Day”. So, you see, the United Nations is not the first institution to declare a day for the Girl Child, Indians have been celebrating it for a long time.
But what seems tragic now is that though we have kept the tradition, a significant number of us celebrate it without emotional, moral and spiritual commitment to the well being of the little girls. Dr. Prabha Jha of The Center for Global Health Research in Toronto, Canada says that parents have aborted up to 12 million girls over the last three decades in India. Not only that, we also hear of honour-killings and bride burnings every so often. There is this historic city, Bharatpur in Rajsthan, India. I heard it has a “Chilling tradition….where every girl is born to be a sex slave.” (Liz Hazelton; Mail Online; September 22, 2011). Somehow we have become more resolved to having male-children, forgetting that aborting or killing, born or unborn girls alike, reduces our chances for Moksha.
I salute Anil Kapoor, a popular Bollywood actor, who has become involved in the CNN Freedom Project Ending Modern Day Slavery. I also salute Minister Ambrose of Canada for her campaign to recognize girls’ rights to equal opportunities. But the United Nations will have to come up with concrete measures to insulate the Girl-Child from painful and humiliating sexual rituals (circumcisions) and early and forced marriages. In my view, neither has the bi-annual worship of Mini-Durgas stopped gender-selection nor has the annual Children’s Day, started by the Late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Lal Nehru, stopped child labour in India. Celebrations are a fleeting pleasure; they don’t guarantee dignity
[Dr. Suresh Kurl is a South Asian Community Activist, a retired Registrar of the BC Benefits Appeal Board and an Ex-Member of the National Parole Board].