Durga: The Feminine Dimension in Religious Experience

Durga is one of the most formidable goddesses of the Hindu Sacred Space. Durga itself signifies in Sanskrit a fortress, referring to one who protects

The month of Ashvin (September – October) marks the arrival of the Goddess Durga when she comes down from the Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, the abode of her husband Lord Shiva. Durga Puja is more than a ritual. It invests the lives of everyone with a new consciousness for the nine days she is among us known as Navratri, the nine nights. There is an inexplicable fervour around this time.

Durga is one of the most impressive and formidable goddesses of the Hindu Sacred Space. And no doubt one of the most popular. The term Durga itself signifies in Sanskrit a fortress referring to one who protects but who is also unassailable.

From the hoary past, Durga has epitomized Shakti, riding invincible on her vehicle, the fierce lion, king of the forest. It is in the context of a cosmic crisis caused by a demon the Mahisa who could not be subdued by the gods that Durga came into being. Most unsubmissive, not even to the male deity, Durga rules mighty and alone. She is not given to fulfill household duties. She is a warrior. She can hold against any male on the battlefield. Unlike the normal role attributed to women, Durga stands outside the normal societal code. She stands on her own. It is at the inability of the gods to tackle Mahisa, who was granted a boon through his austerities that he would be invincible, except by a woman, that Durga was conceived. And thus the desperate gods created Durga out of a great cosmic light. She was so resplendent that her splendour spread throughout the universe.

Durga is empowered with all the Cosmic Energy. All her companions who manifest as different forms of her own self are female like her. She deludes the demon. She is beautiful and seductive in appearance. With this beauty she entices her victims who seek to be her lovers, the demons into a fatal encounter whom she tears to pieces. The female elements who support her are among others the ferocious Kali, and the group powerful deities known as the Sapta Matrikas – the seven mothers. They are as wild and fierce as she is. She is equally the most benign protectress of the Universe and humanity.

However the gods empower Durga with their weapons. Shiva gives her his trident, Vishnu gives her his chakra – the discus. Vayu – the Wind God gives her his bow and arrows. Durga holds all the weapons that can uphold Dharma, including her own weapons: the conch, sword, javelin, shield, and a noose.

Actually man lives by his imagination and myths and stories. When man first appeared on earth he was faced with the vast cosmos and its terrible climatic phenomena. He was awed by the cosmogony of the universe which puzzled and intrigued him. Over millennia, he developed myths and legends that followed him into his cave, dwellings, into the forests, the fertile plains, the mountains, the deserts and the oceans. In this vast evolution of the universe, he too went on evolving, battling against all the hazards of nature and his own species, homo sapiens. He needed a Father and a Mother to take care of him, to listen to his pleas and supplications and who would love him, protect him and console him.

Thus our ancient ancestors developed tales and lores that have passed on from several thousands of years into oral and then written literature.

And so began the story of the Devi Mahatmya, one of the most beautiful Sanskrit religious texts. The story existed much before it was actually composed. “Throughout the Eurasian land-mass as far back as Paleolithic times, women and men observed the female’s awesome capacity to create new life and identified that power with divinity.” (Devi Mahatmya – David Nelson 2003). The pre-Harappan cultures existing thousands of years before the Devi Mahatmya appeared worshipped the Mother Goddess/ goddesses as did their counterparts in other civilizations in the Neolithic Near East.

The notion of one supreme Goddess is formulated in a Rig Vedic hymn known as Devisukta (Hymn to the Goddess Rig Veda V 10.125). Other goddesses too such as Vak, Saraswati, Aditi etc. are mentioned. In these verses of the Devisukta the Devi reveals her might and glory. “She is the shining consciousness…in her, all live who see and breathe and hear what is said.” She is the mother of all. She rules and upholds the universe. Her greatness pervades heaven and earth. She is transcendental. It is therefore widely held by scholars and the learned that the Devisukta of Rig Veda holds the origin of the Devimahatmya.

It is much later that a story told and retold took shape around the fifth or sixth century AD within the Puranic scriptures. This marks indeed a defining moment in Hindu religious history of several millennia. The Devi Mahatmya also known as Devi Saptasati has united diverse strands of Indian mythology, practices, beliefs and philosophy, ultimately producing the one great magnificent divine poem glorifying the great Goddess Durga.

The three Durga Dhyana Argala–Stotra, Kilaka–Stotra and Devi-Kavaca (all salutations to Candika) are the gateways to the unfolding of the splendour of Goddess Durga.

Believed to be developed from the Northwest of India the Devi Mahatmya spread in quick strides into Bengal where it became known as Chandi. And the rest of India. When the outmigration of the Girmitiya Indentured labour took place from this Bhojpuri-Bengali-Awadhi-Oria- belt as from 1834 the people carried with them also the Devi story. That is why every village or hamlet of Mauritius had a Kalimai under a Neem tree, who guarded the village and protected the displaced Indian in an alien environment. The Ramakrishna Mission in Vacoas has been the precursor of Durga worship on a large scale in Mauritius and has for decades celebrated the Durga Puja as the great Ramakrishna was a Bhakta par excellence of the great Mother.

The Durga Puja gained greater prominence and popularity among all Hindus in India and the Indian diaspora with the advent of Bollywood and its magnificent devotional powerful soul stirring songs sung by equally powerful nightingales such as Lata Mangeshwar and Anuradha Paudwal, and others.

In 1975 the advent of the film Jai Santoshi Ma (Mother Satisfaction/Contentment) gave another boost to the worship of the Goddess and created a new wave in Mother worship.

But the picturing of Ma Durga in several Bollywood films with accompanying poignant Devi songs have given a new vibrancy to the worship of Durga and her other female companions like Kali. Greater academic research and studies by scholars in the West and E-technology have also helped in the impact of the Female Energy manifested through Durga Devi. In Mauritius professional and working women worship the Durga in their homes early morning before they set out to work. It goes without saying that this period is strictly a vegetarian regime for one and all in the family.

A myth is not a mere fiction say the authorities, just because it does not describe a historical occurrence. Synesius of Cyrene said “Myths are things that never happened, but always are.” Truths which elude us normally in our mundane life and difficult to explain or grasp in our own conventional ways, are grasped through myths told and retold orally, touching deeply at the root of the human psyche. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell defines myths as :

  • Inspiring a sense of awe
  • Explaining the origin and nature of cosmos
  • Supporting the social and moral order
  • Awakening individuals to discover their own Inner Self.

As is done definitely in the Devi Mahatmya.

The Devi Mahatmya or Sapta Sati also known as Chandi is divided into 13 chapters of seven hundred mantras. Three aspects of the Durga – Divine Mother are depicted (1) Mahakali (2) Mahalakshmi (3) Mahasaraswati.

During the Durga Puja, kathas or Durga Paath are conducted in all temples or improvised beautifully decorated pavilions. The many legends and other stories showing the victory of the invicible Durga are recited together with upkathas. Veritable cities of the Goddess are created. With sounds, symbols and other manifestations, Bhakti – devotion is aroused in the public. Truly the Devi significantly manifests herself to ardent devotees. Three characters are central to the Devi Mahatmya: the virtuous king Surath disowned by his own after the loss of his kingdom; the Merchant Samadhi equally dispossessed of his wealth and thrown out by his greedy family including wife and sons. The third character is the Seer – Medha in his hermitage in the beautiful peaceful forest abode. The Sutradhara – Markandeya relates the story. The Seer relates to them the story of Mahamaya – disillusion and how they can come out of it through surrender to the Mother Goddess.

Science and Maths too make use of symbols to reach a certain truth. Likewise the ancient people used lores, myths and symbols to take the restless mind of man especially the general folk to the Higher Consciousness or Truth.

If pain and effort are taken in presenting the story of the Durga Saptasati and explaining it rationally in all its allegories and metaphors to the disillusioned youth and the easily swayed gullible with care and intelligently, then the problems of conversion would not arise. The door to door and one to one method of convincing the Hindu devotee of the great and mighty power that is his heritage is the best. This would be a better vibrant and convincing way to chase away the tantalizing luring hounders and their proselytizing ruse.

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