From Stigma to Shakti: The Politics of Indo-Guyanese Women’s Trance and the Transformative Potentials of Ecstatic Goddess Worship in New York City

Stephanie Lou Jackson

A transnational Indo-Caribbean ecstatic religious movement has gained increased momentum in recent years, characterized by spirit possession and mediumship in veneration of the female presiding deity Kali Mai (Mother Kali), or as she is increasingly referred to, Mariamman, the South Indian goddess of rain. Indo-Guyanese-Americans view themselves at the forefront of this movement and take much pride in the growing popularity and maintenance of goddess-centered worship in New York City. At the same time, this present-day proliferation and increased visibility of goddess worship in NYC, which confronts variations across the wider Indo-Caribbean ecstatic religious community as a whole, have also heightened practitioners’ awareness and insecurities concerning the authenticity and legitimacy of their own practices, claims, and beliefs vis-a-vis the differentiated ones they increasingly encounter. Central to these concerns for Indo-Guyanese-Americans has been (re)defining the “proper” role of

S.L. Jackson (H)

Music Department, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, NY, USA

© The Author(s) 2016

G.J. Hosein, L. Outar (eds.), Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, New Caribbean Studies, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55937-1_18

women in ecstatic rituals due to an ongoing anxiety about the prevalence of women’s trance at public temples. Despite a dominant discourse that they should not, women routinely undergo trance at temples.

Approaching this paradox through a feminist critique, I suggest that “anti-trance” narratives about women operate not simply as proscriptions but contain and mediate multivalent messages constitutive of emergent Indo-Guyanese diasporic subjectivities within the broader context of a transnational ecstatic religious movement. I argue that the dominant discourse itself, and ambiguity often characterizing women’s trance, are generative spaces—platforms for women’s self-assertions and potential upward mobility that ultimately help to contribute to, and galvanize, an Indo-Guyanese ecstatic religious movement.

Furthermore, by examining women’s lived experiences of trance and gender ideologies characterizing Indo-Caribbean ecstatic religious discourse, this chapter also addresses the relative paucity of scholarship pertaining to Indo-Caribbean women’s first-hand experiences with ecstatic religious systems. Doing so positions Indo-Caribbean women’s ecstatic religious experiences in future dialogue with the growing body of scholarship that focuses on the gendered implications of women’s involvement in Afro-Caribbean ecstatic religious traditions throughout the Americas, often as spiritual healers (Prorok 2000; Castro Flores 2001; Alexander 2005; Clark 2005; Vidal-Ortiz 2008; Romberg 2003, 2014; Beliso-De Jesus 2015). While comparative analysis is beyond the scope of this chapter, I instead provide a preliminary analysis by presenting another case study that considers the complex and varied relationships between ecstatic religiosity, race, and class in the production and mediation of alterities and racial subjectivities in the Americas, while putting into focus the particularities of Indo-Caribbean, and in this case, Indo-Guyanese-American, women’s realities.

Lastly, my analysis builds upon recent scholarship that examines the historiography and cosmology of goddess-centered worship in Trinidad (McNeal 2011; Younger 2010) and Guyana (Stephanides and Singh 2000; Younger 2010) and definitions of shakti as divine primordial feminine energy for goddess-centered worship (McNeal 2003). The ethnographic research that I have conducted over the course of the last four years in New York City and during trips to Guyana and Trinidad in 2012 and to Guyana in 2016 reveals an ongoing dynamic process whereby Indo-Caribbean-American religious practitioners today reincorporate, reassemble, and make use of concepts like shakti in order to reinvent and reimagine gendered and racialized selves. Thus, this analysis strengthens an understanding of who is the goddess Kali, or Mariamman (the significance of her name which I explain below), according to Indo-Caribbean- Americans who invoke and embody her. It provides concrete examples of the ways female practitioners are capable of channeling the goddess’s divine power and knowledge just as scholars in the past have championed Kali as symbolically representative of Indo-Caribbean feminist aspirations and transgressive potentialities (see Reddock 1998; Mehta 2004; Puri 2004; McNeal 2011; Kanhai 2012).

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