So it is said that the Goddess Sati awoke famished and weak from a yearlong meditation and asked her husband Shiva to bring her a meal. Shiva, the God of Death and Destruction, refused. He reminded her that she took an oath to be the householder and menial tasks like cooking were beneath him. Sati, exasperated and ravenous, asked again if her husband would bring her sustenance and again Shiva stubbornly refused.
So Sati swallowed her husband up. Furious at this injustice, Shiva took his sword and cut himself out of his wife’s stomach. He then cursed her, setting her afire until she was withered and ugly, smoke emanating from her skin. She would from here on be known as Dhumavati, the Witch Goddess of Widows.
Dhumavati is a feared and unloved Goddess, depicted with sagging breasts and crooked teeth. She wears dirty rags as clothes, live snakes encircle her wrists, and crows fly after her, cawing in sync with her cackle. She carries a skull and a stereotypical witch broom. Though she is quite enlightened and wise, people run in fear when they see her. She cares not for her appearance, but finds immense joy in thinking and walking the earth.
How are we to interpret this tale? I could obviously talk about outdated gender stereotyping in Hindu mythology. Perhaps I could write about the patriarchy; in a society where men have the power, women must remain powerless or be ever known as witches.
I’m more interested in the fact that we would avoid someone who carries the actual knowledge of life after death simply because she is ugly. While it’s human to flee from the unknown, it’s a spiritual bypass to assume that beautiful and shiny are the only things of value.
We love the superficial. Five of the ten most-followed Instagram accounts are Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Kendall Jenner, Khloe Kardashian, and Kourtney Kardashian. These influencers are famous simply for…being famous. The most watched DIY videos of 2019? Not cooking videos or home repair how-tos, but make-up tutorials. Get a dewy, youthful glow NOW using highlighter! Because what could possibly be more important than looking youthful?
How we present ourselves to the world matters, of course, and fashion, hair, and make-up knowledge can give us confidence to do so well. But are we shallow enough to believe that fame, beauty and youth provide the only worth?
Of course marketing practices and social media have groomed us to see life as a mile wide and an inch deep. Our lives are increasingly “instant,” everything designed to allow us to do more in less time, get more return for less investment. The forced multitasking of a digital world is rewiring our brains, shortening our attention span and exploiting our biological propensity for mindless superficiality. One of my yoga students recently shared that she hasn’t read anything longer than a magazine article in over a year. “I just can’t pay attention. Or I get tired and fall asleep, so when I pick up the book the next night, I can’t remember what was happening. It just feels like too much work.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that anxiety is also at an all-time high. Perhaps we’re just too exhausted to care about anything else. We’re so covered up with driving carpool and grocery shopping and posting selfies and attacking our relentless to-do list, we don’t have the mental bandwidth for understanding climate change or the collapse of the global economy or even asking ourselves what we want our lives to look like. So the superficial feels like a balm.
But only momentarily. We might exalt the superficial and call it a life, but we’re not fooling anyone. Life is meaningless and it’s our responsibility to apply meaning to our existence. This means the hard work of deep living. If you want an authentic, interesting life, you have to work for it. Like Dhuamavati, spend more time thinking and walking the earth. Try new things. Ask lots of questions. Read things that aren’t on a screen (it’s the easiest way to live a thousand lives). Find – and use – your unique gifts. Travel, cook, write, draw, sing, play, move, paint, and build. Try and fail and try again, all with wonder and joyful abandonment.
Look beyond the appearance of things to the actual heart of things. That’s where real life lives.