‘In the West, the woman in the family is mostly seen in her role as the wife while in India, the woman of the house is always the mother. Even an unmarried woman without children is often addressed as the mother. It is a gesture of respect, because Hindus consider the mother as supreme… I offer this book at the feet of Ma Kali with reverence…’ writes Elizabeth U Harding, the American author of ‘Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar’. Sometimes we become complacent about our own values, and it takes the fresh eyes of an empathic foreigner, searching beyond the extreme dryness of Western rationality and complementing it with the vivifying spirituality of the East, to awaken us to the splendour in our front yard.
Durga-Puja time is here again, occasion to remind us – for we tend to forget – of the centrality of the Universal Mother in our existence. Belief in a Mother Goddess can be found in almost all races and religions in the ancient times, the Semitic, Hellenic, Nordic and Teutonic alike, but what singles out India has been the continued history of the cult from the hoary past till now.
As Harding observes: ‘Considering the first being a child relates to is its nurturing mother, and considering that primitive people who had no scientific knowledge must have watched the miracle of birth with wonder and awe, it comes as no surprise that our remote ancestors greatly revered the mother. When ancient people began to conceive of a higher supernatural being that would nourish and protect them from evil, they naturally conceived it in the image of the mother.’
‘Mother Earth’, a term first used in the English tradition (to the best of my knowledge) by the great historian Arnold Toynbee, has now assumed great importance as we have come to realize that our survival, in fact our very existence, is dependent entirely on the earth that nourishes us, and protection of the environment is now the fundamental concern to address. Harding emphasizes this intimate link by noting that ‘if we dig through our carefully built-up layers of society-dictated values, we will admit that somewhere deep in the heart is a very soft spot reserved for our earthly as well as archetypal mother.’
But as we evolved, she continues, ‘we began to understand that there cannot be any creation unless there is the union of two, the male and the female. Extending human analogy to the creation of the universe as a whole, we came to believe in a Primordial Father and a Primordial Mother which formed the first pair. All the pairs in the universe are said to be replicas of this first pair.’ Hence we will find that all Hindu deities are always paired, for example Shiva-Parvati.
This principle of creation can be extended to all that exists in the universe, as has been discovered and established experimentally by recent science, where the idea of positive and negative, and other pairs of opposites (e.g. electron spins) is fundamental to both theoretical formulation and practical application. However, we can go even beyond that to a unitary perspective, also of Hindu origin, towards which science is now converging with the discovery of quantum phenomena.
But let us return to today’s theme. In positing a ‘powerful Mother Goddess as the governing force in the universe’, Harding echoes the words of Swami Vivekananda during a talk in the US way back at the turn of the 19th century: ‘Every manifestation of power in the universe is Mother. She is life, She is intelligence, She is Love. She is in the universe, yet separate from it… She can show Herself to us in any form at any moment. She can have name and form, or name without form, and as we worship her in these various aspects, we can rise to Pure Being, having neither form nor name.’
No one who has ever participated in a Durga-Puja with a clean heart could have missed this experience of rising to a sense of self larger than the material — to come back down, alas, to the mundane, but nevertheless and hopefully, enriched for a more meaningful involvement with fellow human beings, with one’s own family to begin with. It is a pledge we must take as we go through the coming days of purification and prayer, and obtain illumination in our minds as to what course we must chart for a better future for all of us.
As great thinkers have pointed out, the legend the Devi-Mahatmya which is recounted during Durga-Puja is an ‘allegorical representation of the continual war that is going on within the divine and the demoniac in man’, between the passions and instincts that have been the subject of modern psycho-analysis, and our more sublime nature which tries to overcome them.
Durga-Puja gives us the opportunity for critical self-analysis, besides surcharging us with the Shakti of the Mother so that we may face life with fresh resolve. Some would call that catharsis, but those who have experienced the surge of this energy know that it is something much more redeeming.
Why do we need a constant renewal? This is also an archetypal paradigm, if we care to examine existence with the use of simple commonsense allied to reason. As we observe it, existence, whether living or non-living, is a continual cycle of birth-growth-decay-death. Depending upon scientific, philosophical, literary or spiritual standpoints, the terms used may differ but the underlying pattern is the same.
If we stick to the creation paradigm, we can easily see that the cycle is one of creation-preservation-destruction, but remember it is a cycle. Once we are ‘created’, we need to preserve ourselves before we eventually get destroyed, and renewal is part of the preservation process. It is not only physical renewal that we require, we also need to recharge as it were, the reserve of energy that drives the cycle, and it is the experience of those great sages who have gone before us that energy is more than only physical dimension.
Such a sage was Sri Sri Yogananda, who lost his mother at the age of five years, and who, searching, found her in the Universal Mother, through whom he ‘connected’ with her at will. He has described his experience in the book ‘The Divine Romance’, all sadness gone from his life. Others have also recorded their journeying towards the Devi, in Sanskrit meaning ‘The Shining One’.
One such account describes that ‘you will realize that the divine Shakti not only guides and inspires but initiates and carries out your works’ and, if you are patient, have perseverance and fortitude to continue on the upward path, there will come a stage of perfection such that you are ‘completely identified with the Divine Mother and feel yourself to be no longer another separate being… but truly a child and eternal portion of her consciousness and force.
‘Always she will be in you and you in her… your constant, simple and natural experience that all your thought and seeing and action, your very breathing or moving come from her and are hers. You will know and see and feel that you are a person and power formed by her out of herself, put out from her for the play and yet always safe in her, being of her being, consciousness of her consciousness, force of her force, Ananda of her Ananda.’
Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati, about whom I wrote last week after he attained Mahasamadhi on 23 September last, in one of his talks entitled ‘God, Man and World’ put across this idea of the Divine Mother in the following words: ‘An omniscient, omnipotent God is referenced by “He”, the Father. It’s a local expression that reflects a patriarchal social structure. Why should it be He? If you use the word father, a local word, you must also think of mother. Then you should look upon God as the parents of the world. Because you are using a local word to reference God, it is necessarily both He and She. They are the parents of the world, both He and She and there is no distinction.’
In the book ‘Devimahatmyam – In Praise of the Goddess’ the author Davadatta Kali, who is a native English speaker combines his ‘Western scholarship with an insider’s perspective based on my 37 years of spiritual practice within the Hindu tradition, to observe in his introduction that the Devimahatmyam (‘Glory of the Goddess’) is a ‘spiritual classic that addresses the perennial questions of our existence: What is the nature of the universe, of humankind, of divinity? How are they related? How do we live in a world torn between good and evil? And how do we find lasting satisfaction and inner peace?’
The narrative of Devimahatmyam that is recounted during the nine nights (Navaratri) of Durgapuja is ‘about allegories of outer and inner experience, symbolized by the fierce battles the all-powerful Devi wages against throngs of demonic foes. Her adversaries represent the all too human impulses arising from the pursuit of power, possessions and pleasure, and from illusions of self-importance. Like the battlefield of the Bhagavadgita, the Devimahatmya’s killing grounds represent the field of human consciousness on which the drama of individual lives plays out in joy and sorrow, in wisdom and folly. The Devi, personified as one supreme Goddess and many goddesses, confronts the demons of ego and dispels our mistaken idea of who we are, for – paradoxically – it is she who creates the misunderstanding in the first place and she alone who awakens us to our true being.’
We have only to look around us in our own country and in the world today, and we will see what happens when people become possessed by the ‘all too human impulses arising from the pursuit of power, possessions and pleasure, and from illusions of self-importance.’ As well as the demons of ego, and the battlefields and killing grounds of folly and sorrow.
Perhaps we have never more needed the message and enlightenment of the Devimahatmyam as we do now.
- Published in print edition on 16 October 2015