Indian goddesses have long been associated with the act of possession. Temples, large devotional gatherings, jagrans—these are spaces where the goddess has been seen to manifest herself through her devotees. While many may see these as psychological disorders or acts of fraud, the phenomenon of possession, which involves a woman dancing or chanting or spinning with her hair flying loose, is common to nearly all parts of the country and in evidence even today. It also has a large set of believers.
The goddess is also believed to make an appearance in other forms, not always through a human vehicle, to answer her devotees’ prayers. In North India, Devi Seranvali is among the major goddesses known to possess her devotees and appear on their behalf when the situation so demands. Her story is told at many jagrans (all night prayers for the mother goddess) that take place across the country. The following is one of the many oral tales collected by Kathleen Erndl in her essay titled Seranvali in the book Devi.
A potter Icchu Baba had found an image of the goddess while digging up the earth. He took the image home where his daughter Nanda and son Nandalal set up an altar for the goddess and they prayed to her by lighting a lamp every morning and evening, singing devotional songs and offering prasad. Now the contractor who had sold the potter his land found out about this and he laid claim on the image. But Baba refused to give it to him and the contractor then took the case to the village council. The council decided that the image should be put back where it was found. Left with no choice, Baba took the image on his head and set out, lamenting all the way that now that the goddess had left his home he would never be able to take her name. On his way back, his children met him and asked him why he was weeping because, they said, the image had flown back to a niche in their house.
Word spread and the entire village soon started coming to the potter’s house to offer their prayers and other donations. The contractor was livid and he complained to Emperor Faruq Shah in Delhi about a potter who was earning more money than what was going into the royal coffers. The emperor summoned the potter but when his men arrived at his hut, they found him very ill. The king’s henchmen rounded up the children instead. But as they left home, they lit the evening lamp for the goddess promising to come home before it was time to light one the next morning.
The emperor threw the children into prison for it was too late to do anything by the time they reached his court. Come morning, he told them, he would decide their fate. The children prayed to the goddess all night, pleading for her intervention, beseeching her to do something so that they could light the lamp for her the next morning.
The devi’s power was invoked and the king’s lion throne began to shake and in her wind form, ‘pavan rup’, the goddess descended upon the kingdom and held her trident to the king’s chest. The emperor apologized to the mother goddess and released the children and became her devotee.
In this story, the goddess intercedes on behalf of her devotees but does not use them to accomplish her task or let people know her will. She uses the wind form to tame the enemy. But there are other stories of how Seranvali Devi possesses a believer to show her powers and help her devotees.
Story Collected By: Arundhuti Dasgupta
Location: Punjab & Haryana