Tag Archives: Hindu

WE WOKE, WE ROSE AND WE ARE WOMEN ON FIRE

INNANA Goddess on Earth / MYTHICA photography by Lisa Levart

INNANA
from the series MYTHICA/Goddess on Earth
Photo Collage by Lisa Levart

This year’s International Women’s Day falls forty-six days after women and men around the world made history, staging the largest one-day demonstration on record.

For years, while the Tea Party galvanized its grass roots, the left fell into a slumber. But women are used to acting fast, from grabbing precious moments of sleep between feedings to juggling home and work; to snatching little hands from a hot stove before they burn. On January 21st, we women woke in a fury and went to work. Wearing knitted Pussy hats, we began marching, joining circles of resistance, boycotting stores, relentlessly hounding public officials, chastising politicians on for their lack of leadership and outrage; and standing up to the bully-in-chief.

Women's March, D.C. Photographs by Lisa Levart

Women’s March on Washington
Photograph by Lisa Levart

This mammoth, tidal wave of energy surprises no one who knows his or her Goddess myths. For over a decade, I have worked on a project entitled Goddess on Earth. Through photography, I portray powerful female archetypes embodied in contemporary women. All kinds of women have participated: actors, writers and musicians; non-profit warriors, entrepreneurs, and CEOs. And they have interpreted formidable myths from around the world; Hindu Warrior Goddesses who slay demons and hold their bloody heads for all to see (Kali); Hawaiian Goddesses who spew fiery lava at a moment’s notice (Pele); and African Goddesses who whip up destructive storms to destroy the old and bring in the new (Oya), to name just a few.

Which brings me to Inanna, the Sumerian Goddess of the Heavens. In this ancient myth, Inanna descends into the bowels of the earth to visit her sister, Ereshkigal, the Queen of the underworld. On her journey, Inanna passes through seven gates, where she must disrobe and leave behind her royal jewels, until she is standing naked in front of her sister. She dies in the underworld kingdom and is left hanging from a hook on the wall, but after three days and three nights, Inanna is reborn and returns from the underworld. Spiritually transformed, she no longer fears death, and is truly empowered.

Leonore Tjia was 13 years old when I photographed her for Goddess on Earth as Mnemosyne, the Greek Goddess of Memory.

Mnemosyne Photographs by Lisa Levart

Mnemosyne (from the book Goddess on Earth)
Photograph by Lisa Levart

Now, a 27-year-old activist, she has grown into to a fierce and vivacious poet and sexuality educator, working with renowned sexual empowerment expert Amy Jo Goddard (author of Woman on Fire: 9 Elements to Wake Up Your Erotic Energy.) It was Leonore’s choice to portray Inanna, in our second photo session -14 years later.

About her Inanna portrait, Leonore wrote:

 As a sexuality educator my work involves helping people to step bravely towards what has long been considered taboo, dangerous or off-limits. So many people avoid working on their sexual issues out of fear of what they’ll find if they take the lid off the box. The ironic thing is that if you never do it, you will never have the pleasure, or power, or intimacy, or richness of life you desire.

The crux of Inanna’s story is that transformation does not come through peaceful meditation, but through violent confrontation with our buried shadow aspects. The Trump regime offers us this opportunity— the lid is off the box now when it comes to facing the American legacy of racism, classism and xenophobia. I also see it drawing out the shadowed aspects of liberalism and progressivism — mainstream feminism is being taken to task for excluding women of color, and it’s important for white feminists to face this and acknowledge the racism we all inherit from white supremacy. I hope all of us who are called to activist work in these times can feel inspired by the ferocious story of this goddess.

My life’s work is creating art that celebrates the feminine face of God. Through Goddess on Earth, I have come to truly honor the innate power, fortitude and fearsome drive of women. In my bones, I am confident we will survive this upside down, dark time because of the strength and determination of women. We, with our beloveds by our sides, will use everything we have – our creativity, passion and self-knowledge to burn hot- like boiling lava- until we have ascended – reborn and transformed- from this dark underworld we currently reside in.

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I Just Want To Have Fun!

In his 1991 pre-TED Talk  “talk”, John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, delivers countless “light bulb” jokes, all while detailing ways to foster creativity. The main take-away for me is that creativity is not a talent or ability. Creativity flows, Cleese believes, when you are in an open, expansive and relaxed state. And the more playful you are, the longer you can maintain this state.

To get into this “Open Mode” Cleese recommends these conditions:

Space: a secluded oasis of quiet where you are sealed off from the pressures of daily life
Time: limit the time in your space to a pre determined beginning and end
Time: allow yourself enough time to ponder before accepting your creative choice
Confidence: while you are experimenting, nothing is wrong.
Humor: humor is an essential part of spontaneity and helps get you into the Open Mode

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John Cleese also spoke of another condition that resonated with me. He recommends that your “play friends” be people you like and trust; individuals who will support and encourage you during your unedited exploration. Which brings me to Karen Lorre, actress, love goddess, and founder of Yummy Meditations. I met Karen serendipitously two years ago in a Santa Monica restaurant and immediately felt a divine connection. Several days later, an Aphrodite portrait emerged from the foamy waves of Malibu. (You can read about the making of her Goddess on Earth Aphrodite portrait here!). Karen inspires me deeply; she lives life with an abundance of joy, unconditional love and vibrant spontaneity. Her trust in me always fosters my creativity.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Karen and I mused about making another Goddess portrait. The result of our play time together is “Lila.” In the Hindu tradition, Lila is a way of describing our human reality and the result of spontaneous, divine play.

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On portraying Lila, Karen wrote;

When I look at the wildly innovative creativity that is in nature, I see how much this divine universe loves to play in new and fresh ways! Being playful allows me to be an open conduit for this unbounded, novel, ingenious divine, and feels fun, effortless, exciting, and full of laughter and wisdom! Being playful makes everything easy. Being playful brings out the best in me and in everyone I encounter. I love embodying the essence of Lila! I love you! ”

During the process of creating Karen’s Lila portrait, were John Cleese’s conditions present? Indeed they were. Our creative space was nestled in the magical Hollywood Hills, perched high above the din of Sunset Boulevard. The end time was pre-determined; we were going to a dinner party together AND the sun was setting! We gave ourselves extra time the next day once we had a clearer concept of the Lila image. Karen’s unconditional love and support gave me the confidence to try anything. And humor? Adorned with a tutu around her neck and a Mad Hatter’s hat floating on her head, our sense of humor was in full throttle.

Which reminds me; how many Goddesses does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: None….. they are already enlightened!

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Women, Power and the Rule of Three

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My personal relationship with power is fraught with anxiety, self-doubt and fear of conflict. As a woman, I doubt I am alone in this, yet as I struggle with this confounding reality, I wonder what my ideal relationship to power should be?

As an artist with ancient mythology embedded in my DNA, I have examined this issue before. I have photographed prominent feminist leaders such as Gloria Feldt, (who portrayed the strong-willed Lilith, Adam’s first wife), and Starhawk (who portrayedMaeve, the Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty). Both women advocate re-envisioning women’s connection to power.

Other ancient myths reflect our contemporary relationships to power as well. Durga is a fearless Hindu Goddess who symbolizes power in all its forms. Durga — whose name means “invincible” — is a ferocious protectress against injustice and all human suffering. Traditionally she is depicted astride a tiger or lion: symbols of her unlimited power. Often illustrated with eight arms, her capacity for action speaks for itself. Durga also has three eyes: her left eye represents the desire to act, her central eye the capacity to follow through with one’s desires, and her right eye, action itself.

 

DURGA’S LEFT EYE REPRESENTS A STRONG FEELING OF WANTING, OR THE DESIRE TO ACT.

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I was introduced to Francesca Kelly this past summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and returned to photograph her several weeks later. Francesca is a pioneer rescuer of the Marwari, a rare and indigenous Indian horse breed. After a twenty year battle with the Indian Government to lift the export ban of the Marwari, Francesca and her partner Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod have helped resurrect this threatened breed.

 

DURGA’S CENTER EYE REPRESENTS THE CAPACITY TO FOLLOW THROUGH WITH ONE’S DESIRES.

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Francesca quickly identified with Sherawali, the warrior incarnation of Durga, and chose to portray her for the Goddess on Earth series. Surrounded by marshes on Chappaquidick Island, we created a commanding image of Sherawali. To accompany her portrait, Francesca wrote:

“It has been my privilege to be a key protagonist in the renaissance of the Marwari. The confidence to actualize ideals, to remain unimpeachable, to incorporate if you will, at the best of times, the qualities of Sherawali, is a battle and sacrifice all must experience.”

 

DURGA’S THIRD EYE IS ACTION ITSELF.

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Francesca’s embodiment of Sherawali in the photographs we created portray the symbolic trinity of Durga’s spiritual stages of power.

Far from being archaic, ancient symbolism continues to influence the necessary re-envisioning of feminine power. Durga demonstrates how modern women can use power in its multiple, generous forms as the manifestation of reflection, intent, and capability. Sherawali and Francesca are role models for contemporary women warriors (my conflicted self included) who are looking to add layers of empowerment to their lives. With mythical and ancient symbolism to guide me, I will continue to nurture my passions, practice and embrace tools for empowerment, and take action to achieve my desires.

(Francesca Kelly is seen with Sushil Kumar, a horse trainer and tent-pegger from Dundlod, India.)

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Serving Food With a Healthy Portion of Love

In this season of short days and long nights, we turn inwards — seeking sustenance in the holiday rituals of our families and communities. For many of us, it’s a time that brings us into deeper engagement with the traditions of food and cooking that have been passed down through our families and friends. It’s also an opportunity to reaffirm our connections to our communities, and the ways we nourish and give to others.

Annapurna/ Goddess on Earth Bhavani Jaroff

This month I photographed the natural foods chef, educator, and food activist Bhavani Jaroff. She is the founder of iEat Green, a motivational, educational organization that “acknowledges the pleasures of the table, and promotes eating as a social experience for families, friends and co-workers.” iEat Green is founded on a passion for delicious foods, healthy lifestyles and reducing one’s global footprint.

For Bhavani, the link between cooking and social consciousness is deeply important. Since 1993, she has organized and served a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal to the homeless in Rufus King Park in Queens, NY. Last year, over 600 less fortunate people savored a feast prepared by 125 volunteers. This annual ritual is one that brings people together, volunteering their time and skills, in service to their community. Bhavani recognizes the sacred potential of food and cooking to bring people together, and to challenge social injustice, economic unfairness and food inequality.

For Goddess on Earth, Bhavani chose to portray Annapurna, the Hindu Goddess of harvest and the kitchen. In India, she is the divine mother who feeds and nourishes the hungry, imparting the delicious and healthy food she cooks with holiness. Often depicted with a spoon and jeweled vessel, images of Annapurna are placed in kitchens and restaurants throughout India. She symbolizes unending abundance and food as the sustainer of all life.

On choosing to portray Annapurna for Goddess on Earth Bhavani wrote,

“When I am in the kitchen, or when I am teaching about cooking, the most important thing I talk about is imparting the food you are cooking with the secret ingredient of love! So much of the food we eat today is void of love and nourishment, that is why, as the Goddess Annapurna, I encourage growing our own food, harvesting our own food and cooking our own food with love, and then feeding everyone.”

Like Annapurna, Bhavani is an inspiration to find the sacred in the mundane acts of cooking that we undertake every day — often without recognizing them as rituals. And yet the story of this Goddess highlights the life-giving importance of food — just as Bhavani’s work illuminates the potential of cooking to build stronger communities and address social inequality. May the sacred myth of Annapurna and the passionate activism of Bhavani, inspire us all to prepare the food we serve ourselves, our families and our communities with a healthy dose of love.

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Goddess Bless America – My WIld and Crazy Fantasy

According to the New York Times, the word God was used a total of 57 times during the recent Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Just for fun, let’s imagine if the word Goddess were used instead. Would the switch of one word in a very public arena change contemporary women’s views of themselves and their relationship to power?

I believe it would. As the author Carol Christ wrote in her widely reprinted 1979 essay Why Women Need the Goddess: “Religious symbol systems focused around exclusively male images of divinity create the impression that female power can never be fully legitimate.” Without imagery and words that reflects our female experience of the Divine, how can contemporary women see themselves in all their diversity, complexity and most powerful selves?

Let’s explore a society that does have abundant representations of the Divine Feminine and how these symbols can and do inspire contemporary women. In the Hindu religion, the Goddess Shakti is considered the energizing force of the cosmos and the fundamental creative instinct for life. In Goddess on Earth, Karen Siff Exkorn, the author of the bestselling book The Autism Sourcebook, portrayed Shakti and described her connection to the Goddess:

“Shakti represents fierce, creative energy, the energy that I had to call upon… when I had to fight the system to get my son the services he needed after he was diagnosed with autism.”

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The Goddess Durga, also from Hindu mythology, is celebrated as the destroyer of human sufferings. She is an avenging warrior — think super hero — and protectress against human suffering and the cruelty of war. India’s first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was often compared to this Goddess, even being hailed by the prominent Indian politician Bal Thackeray as “an avatar of Durga” in the Indian Express. InGoddess on Earth, the renowned food writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey chose to embody the Goddess Durga, writing:

“I have never accepted any constraints put upon me as a woman. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to the Goddess… Adjoined to her husband Shiva, in their half-man, half woman form, she is fully capable of co-ruling the world”.

Speaking of co-ruling the world, Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of the Paley Center for Media, pointed out in her blog “Where are all the Leaders for Women, Not Just Women Leaders?” that the U.S. ranks 69thamongst countries with the highest percentage of women in government. 69th! Behind such countries as Andorra, Rwanda, and Cuba?! Watching the current presidential campaign, and the unbroken lineage of male presidents who have dominated our politics since America’s inception, I’m feeling a serious need for more Durga, more Shakti. Perhaps it is possible, as Carol Christ also wrote, that “as women struggle to create a new culture in which women’s power, bodies, will, and bonds are celebrated, it is natural that the Goddess would reemerge as symbol of the newfound beauty, strength, and power of women.”

So indulge me, please, in my fantasy: at a not so distant future presidential convention, amongst the usual hullabaloo — bright lights, throngs of waving posters and eager faces — a new speaker takes the stage. During the soaring oration detailing the state of the economy, the plight of the middle class and the role of government, I hear the speaker say it: very simply, the word “Goddess”. In the moment that follows, as the profundity of that word sinks in, women — and men! — will be electrified with a transformed vision of women’s powerful capabilities, innate strengths and formidable empowerment. Now I’m really excited about our political future! Goddess bless America!

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