Katmandu – The Kumari Devi

Katmandu in Nepal is more cosmopolitan than India with goods and products in the bookstores, groceries, and restaurants catering to both Eastern Asia and Western Europe. The city is in a valley and polluted so that you see the air when you first arrive. However, it is surrounded by the beauty of the highest Himalayan mountains. A member of a group of visiting Israelis over the age of 60, said he tried to hike a Himalayan mountain with his group – hey they were paratroopers 40 years ago – and he said he needed to be bailed out by the accompanying jeep. Climbing here over a mile high is for the young. I took a cab. The local valley people are simultaneously Hindu and Buddhist, but the Tibetans are settling the mountain tops. The Nepalese tradition of Hinduism is different than that in northern India; The most notable is the Kumari Devi, the worship of a young girl.


What is a devi? Why do we translate it as god (small g) when medieval Hebrew and Arabic translated the word as angel (malakhim or malkaya).They did this based on Rig Veda (1.22.20) “All the suras (i.e., the devas) look always toward the feet of Lord Vishnu.” They considered the devas as naturalistic and cosmological forces.

Here in Katmandu, Nepal there is a tradition of worshiping a pre-pubescent girl as the spirit of femininity that is not tied to a male, pure potentiality of the female. This is a good case to think about what would be the Jewish category for such an activity because it does not fit into our standard view of Hindu idols as objects or statues. This is a first draft without answers but this girl is a good test case.(I will come back to it in a later post but the word for God, capital G, in Northern India Hinduism is Ishvara or Bhagwan. People generally have a single Ishvara but many devas)

So how do we understand a devi, when a girl is chosen to act as a devi for a few years and then become an ordinary person to get married? Symbol? Emblem? Idol? Bear in mind that in Northern India, the same tradition just has a girl dress up symbolically for one day a year for the festival of Navaratri in each major Temple and all the little girls are brought to Temple for a blessing. (Navaratri is a 8-9 day festival in which a different aspect of womanhood is celebrated each day.) But in Nepal, she is a declared a god for her entire childhood.

Kumari, or Kumari Devi, is the tradition of worshiping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in Hindu religious traditions. The word Kumari, derived from Sanskrit Kaumarya meaning “virgin.”A Kumari is believed to be the spirit of the goddess Taleju (the Nepalese name for Durga) until she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body. Serious illness or a major loss of blood from an injury are also causes for her to revert to common status. The veneration of a living Kumari in Nepal is relatively recent, dating only from the 17th century.

The worship of the goddess in a young girl represents the worship of divine consciousness spread all over the creation. As the supreme goddess is thought to have manifested this entire cosmos out of her womb she exists equally in animate as well as inanimate objects. While worship of an idol represents the worship and recognition of supreme through inanimate materials, worship of a human represents veneration and recognition of the same supreme in conscious beings.

Kumaris are now allowed to attend public schools, and have a life inside the classroom that is no different from that of other students. While many kumaris, such as the Kumari of Bhaktapur, attend school, others, such as the main kumari in Kathmandu, receive their education through private tutors.Her playmates will be drawn from a narrow pool of Newari children from her caste, usually the children of her caretakers. She will always be dressed in red, wear her hair in a topknot and have the agni chakchuu or “fire eye” painted on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.

So let’s return to the original question: What is a Jewish conceptualization of this conception of divinity? Unlike the incarnation, there is no becoming flesh or human because only her spirit becomes divine. And second the infinite unknown of the Brahma is not known through her. She only represents the creative potential of the feminine. Worship of the girl is not a rejection of God the creator; it does not seem to be shituf. Hinduism assume that Brahman is attribute-less and is known through the attributes of the Ishvara and devis, but anything can be a manifestation or epiphany of the divine- any object animate or inanimate. A form of “no place is devoid of God” but not an immanent god of creation rather a manifestation,” no place is devoid of the ability to manifest some attribute of God.

If this case does not immediately fall into the Gemara’s categories
The first thing that comes to mind is Rav Nachman’s story “The Master of Prayer” were each human attribute when taken to extreme by a person makes the person into a God. The person with the most wealth is to be worshiped as a God since he has perfected that attribute.

Next, I think Shlomo Lutzker’s introduction to Maggid Devarav LeYaakov, where the pious one is advised to see God’s attributes in the physical. When one tastes sweetness in food, then raise one’s thoughts to think of the sweetness as an attribute of God. Physical objects are to be used to raise ones thoughts by treating the physical object as a specific manifestation of a divine attribute. The analogy would work if a specific object would then be raised to manifestation status as a devi.

The Ibn Ezra tradition as expressed in writers of the 14th century thought Hindus are bringing down ruhaniut. Idel has written much about this Hermetic bring down but it does not fell the same as this panentheistic anything can reveal an attribute of the divine.

Is it different than a saint, Pope, or rebbe? It does seem similar to those who treat living Hasidic Rebbes as divine or at least an image to draw spiritual of a divine attribute– and they give blessed food just like the girl. Is it like a Chabad follower who says boranu about adonenu?

What if Judaism had people become personified sefirot? Or what if Judaism had more prayers to angels not just machnesei rahamim but daily angelic prayers? Yet, on some level the girl remains a personified Jungian attributes.

Furthermore, do the two traditions of India and Nepal, one where she is a devi and other where she isn’t, count as two different traditions? This is an important question.

One of my Hindu doctors back in Bergen county has a little shrine in his office with pictures of modern rationalist Hindu thinkers and it also includes a picture of Albert Einstein. He knows Einstein is not technically a traditional deva but he is praying to the spirit of wisdom and scientific inquiry. Is it to be considered many gods or just personalities or emblems of the attribute of knowledge? What if he also had a picture of the goddess of wisdom and learning, would it change things?If YU was a Hindu institution, there would be a shrine to Maimonides, Rav Soloveitchik Reb Hayyim and the founder of the school Bernard Revel. They would offer a flower to the shrine before class, before public lectures, or exams. Would it be many gods? What if there was a three dimensional image of the sefirah hochmah, or hochmah, binah and daas?And what of a businessman with a shrine to Ganesha- the deva for prosperity- is it the same as the girl for femininity or the goddess of wisdom?

What is the Jewish translation of devi for the 21st century? Is it still angel?

As I am uploading this post, a friend who is a day school teacher wrote as his Facebook status:

It takes tremendous effort to not think of G-d as if He were a person (and sometimes too to not think of people as if they were G-d).

Post Script
After my recent post on Mimamsa was posted, I have the pleasure of seeing in the new issue of Hakirah an article that makes the same point about a fruitful comparison of Mimamsa and Rabbinic interpretive theory- Daniel A. Klein, Rabbi Ishmael, Meet Jaimini: The Thirteen Middot of Interpretation in Light of Comparative Law

25 responses to “Katmandu – The Kumari Devi

  1. First of all, Judaism does have people who personify sefirot- Shivat Haro’im. And if you expand it to divine names- the Zohar would propose that every tzadik is an extention of divinity and personification of a divine name, just like the famous quote about Rabbi Shimon- ” את פני האדון ה׳ אלהי ישראל- דא רבי שמעון״.
    And as Rabbi Froman and his friend professor Liebes used to point out, female without male is distinctly demonic in Kabbalah. So Judaism would view this cult as particularly bad news.

  2. Rav Chayyim of Volozhin points out that one manifestation of avoda zara is when people worship powerful or wealthy people, people who manifest specific holy traits, or unique objects, so as to bind themselves to the godly qualities they manifest. (See Neffesh Ha-chayyim, Sha-ar 3, chapter 9)

    For example Daniel absented himself when Nebuchadnezzar wanted to worship the holy spirit that he manifested, because he couldn’t allow himself to be an object of avoda zara. And the commentators say that Yaakov wanted not be buried in Egypt because he knew that his corpse would be worshipped there.

  3. walter benjamin

    Shaya’s comment.
    The יעב״ץ says this is חירוף וגידוף ו לא איכפת לי אם הרשב׳י כתב זה בעצמו

    • Is it may better to have 330 million acts of giduf than 330 million gods?If we consider someone saying they are God as blasphemy but what if they say they are an angel or spirit?

  4. I’m just loving this whole inquiry. Thank you so much and keep it up!

  5. walter benjamin

    Strange reply but considering oneself God would be incarnation which is privy to Christianity in its specific form. Being an angel or spirit is much more polysemic. BTW ‘adon’ in the scripture quoted above is sanctified so it does present a problem.

  6. walter benjamin

    I just remembered a quote from Suhrawardi saying ” we are all crypto-polytheists”.
    I am assuming the 330 million are Americans?

    • No, devas. There is a line from a hindu text that is used in [Christian] books about Hinduism to say they have 330 milion Gods, but my point is that they have 330 million devas, one supreme being, one divinity, and in many of the cases only one monotheistic God. Here is a case to help think about this category of deva as soul-spirit, angel, or guardian spirit.

  7. I think of the lurianic instruction to kiss your mother’s hands on leil shabbat, she being/manifesting/symbolizng the partzuf of tvunah and you ze’eir anpin.

  8. …maybe ‘reflection’ is a better word to use for the connection between the human mother and the partzuf, keeping in mind the strong demarcation in kabbalat ha-ari between the world of atzilut (and the partzufim in it) and the 3 lower worlds, i.e. between the world of elokut and non-elokut.

  9. What sort of liturgy is involved? Is it simply the reverence of offerings? Is it prayers for intercession? (Those we have to angels, of course.) Or is it something else?
    Reb Zalma
    Reb Zalman has an exercise where one davens with a prayer hevruta, director the prayer to the God inside of /manifested in the person (and your hevruta does the same to you.)

  10. The dieties in Hinduism represent different manifestations of Suprme divine power.What do your cherubim represent? Read Yoga Vashistha to understand Hinduism.
    and do not use abusive words for Hinduism like avodah Zarah when you are neither a born Hindu or nor a Hinduism practioner be humble ..But a cow eater who sacrifices red heifer will not understand Hinduism.

  11. For Jews some aspects of Hinduism are considered ‘foreign worship’ but this is particular to whether Jews can engage in the practice as Jews.
    As far as the Vedanta is concerned it seems quite removed from any “foreign worship” however Shankara himself wrote a least one hymn to a goddess.
    A Brahman can see someone begging for charity in order to eat but will say ‘that is his karma’ and not give. Do you think that the classification of humans, one better than the other is worse than eating meat? I don’t think most Jews would not give charity unless they knew that the person was dubious and even so it would still be considered charity according to Jewish law.
    I also read once on Shankara {who was a Brahman} when he came across an untouchable and begin to avoid him realized the absurdity of the systematic classification of Hindus and laughed at himself for even considering that he was better. A good example of ‘adhyasa'{superimposition}.

  12. Walter,
    You raised a very important pertinent question First ,What is Femenine presence of Divine(Shekhina) mean? Do you understand it?What is Shekhina..and what is the nature of that divinity..why do you call her Queen..if she is non entity..why femenine ? If you understand..Do you know Shekhina is considered bride of Hashem(King).? Now Can you please tell me what is Shakti?

    Shakti : Shakti (Sanskrit pronunciation: [ˈʃʌktɪ]) (Devanagari: शक्ति; from Sanskrit shak, “to be able”), meaning “Power” or “empowerment,” is the primordial cosmic energy and represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move through the entire universe in Hinduism.[1] Shakti is the concept, or personification, of divine feminine creative power, sometimes referred to as ‘The Great Divine Mother’ in Hinduism. On the earthly plane, shakti most actively manifests through female embodiment and creativity/fertility, though it is also present in males in its potential, unmanifest form.[2]
    Shakti and Brahman are related to each other like Husband and Wife(Shiva Shakti) symbolically.So can you tell me where is the confusion?

    Now your second question coming to Caste,,,first of all there is no word like Caste in Hinduism.Remember that,
    The word we use is “Varna”.Varna was based on mental aptitude.A son of Brahman can be unfit for Brahman work and could be a warrior or could do service for others(Shudra).Sage Valmiki who wrote Ramayana was a Hunter and was born of shudra but he is considered a Brahmin.It was not inherited thing but was corrupted to become a inherited .
    So Do not use the word “Caste” ,Use Varna.The people were free to move across varna from Brrahmins to shudra and to shudras to Brahmins but they got caste in stone due to corruption.As for your Brahmin begging for charity,I can see a crooked Jew like Madoff cheating others and yet following Judaism? Do you think it is all right for a Jew to behave like that when the 10 commandments says : Not to steal?
    They are social reform movements who try to change it.

    Now my most interesting question to you : is why jews are not able to concentrate on their spiritual practices but look to Hinduism/Buddhism – Yoga and meditation./Gurus for their own spiritual growth? Is it due to lack in your system though you claim to have a contract with God at SInai?Follow your own path and do not mix the traditions by being a rolling stone.Why do Jews want to indulge in Hindu practise whether it is Yoga or Meditation ? Can you clarify this deep mystery to me.

  13. Amit, regarding why jews might look at others, if there exist this phenomenon of human being looking at others, isn’t it part of all of us? (How could it be a human thing but not part of everybody?) Like everything else it has a good sides and bad sides, but it’s nothing to disassociate one’s-self-from and just project out on others.

  14. According to my am haaratzus, a thing can only be defined as avodah zarah if yesh bekocho lehara uleheitiv, not if it has supernatural powers of perception alone.

    The idea described seems to be more similar to kavod hatorah (e.g. the kavod we give to a sefer torah) than anything else – as we have here a crystallization of Godliness.

    In Western terms it seems to be a bit like idolatry of a ‘script’ (as in Transactional Analysis), which is fundamental to script transmission, and does not seem to attract any reprehensibility in Orthodox circles.

  15. Actually, there is a Jew(ess) worshiped in India – Mirra Alfassa aka “The Mother”:)
    Also, I highly recommend watching Satyajit Ray’s classic depiction in “Devi” (1960):

  16. we do — ushpizin — in lurianic kavvanot for [first brachah of] tefillat ha’amidah

  17. Glad you saw and liked my Hakirah article. In researching it, I was surprised to find that the parallels between R. Ishmael and Jaimini had been so little explored. You may have also noticed that I dropped a footnote referring to the statement by the Israel Chief Rabbinate affirming that Hinduism is not idolatry — I thought it might be an eye-opener to those who might have felt uncomfortable with my comparison of Jewish and Hindu legal traditions.

  18. alon goshen-gottstein

    you say above – “it is not shituf”. why not? this would be a classical case of shituf, if the kumari is understood in light of the broader hindu philosophical principles that you present. my experience in Nepal is that almost no one seems to be aware of these principles, much much less than in India.

  19. There is an idea in early Chassidus that the Avos embodied the sefirot while at the same that they were aware of both that fact and of the larger concept of the sefirot and could see the sefirot playing out in their own actions.

    If one wanted to push this idea, there is room to do so.

    Unrelated, Embodiment involves an extreme range of possibilities from relatively theologically benign (such as someone acting in a way that is a reflection of a Divine attribute) to extreme concepts of incarnation and embodiment.

    We need a larger Jewish vocabulary of embodiment, including a discussion of gradations and manifestations that could be mapped out over historic and literary examples including Kabbalists, Chassidim, Midrashim, etc. in order to have this conversation in a sophisticated manner..

  20. The Alon Goshen-Gottstein article doesn’t seem to be available there.
    Do you know how to access it?

  21. alon goshen-gottstein


    the article is called judaisms and incarnational theologies, in two parts

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