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Goddess Durga: Where She Comes From And What She Signifies


“Ya devi sarvabhuteshu shakti – rupena samsthita, namas tasyai, namas tasyai, namas tasyai, namo namaha;
Ya devi sarvabhuteshu shanti – rupena samsthita, namas tasyai, namas tasyai, namas tasyai, namo namaha”

(“To that goddess who abides in all beings as power: salutations to Thee/ To that goddess who abides in all beings as peace: salutations to Thee”)

Hindu Goddesses have their own place of pride in the present-day society and co-exist with the revered Gods in their innumerable manifestations, sometimes even overshadowing them. The inculcation of the image of the Indian nation as a beloved, deified mother Bharatmata by the nationalist Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in Anandamath, a novel published in 1882, left an indelible mark on the mass consciousness vis-à-vis Hindu Goddesses.

Bharatmata has much in common with the Goddess Durga, as her iconography shows. Like Durga, she rides a lion (or a tiger), and she has the same matronly smiling face. Durga, in fact, is the most popular of all incarnations of the militant mother-goddess. In India, she is worshipped during the autumn festival of Dussehra over a long nine-day period across different avatars. Goddess Durga easily eclipses all other Goddesses in Hinduism in terms of aura and invincibility.

Goddess Durga is one of the major goddesses of Shaktism. Shaktism emerged as a formidable cult of Hinduism during the early medieval period particularly around the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. It has its roots in the Indus valley period when the cult of the mother goddess was prevalent. Shaktism accepts the female side of the Supreme Being as the source of ultimate power.

The growth of Shaktism and its evolution also continued during the Vedic period. The Vedic period is mainly dominated by male Gods although the co-existence of many famous Goddesses too, such as Saraswati, Usha, and Prithvi have also been recorded. During the age of epics (Puranas), the cult continued to develop and there is a mention in the Mahabharata about a Goddess who lives in the Vindhyas and is very much fond of meat and alcohol, and this goddess has many strikingly similar features with the Goddess Durga.

Early mention of Durga in Hindu literature is surprisingly very scant. Neither the Vedas nor the old Vedic literature mentions the name of this mighty goddess. Apart from the Mahabharata Samhita, there is no trace of her in any literature or epigraphic writings down to 5th century AD. The name Durga is not mentioned either in the Ramayana or in Manusmriti. There are only two chapters in Bombay edition of Mahabharatha Samhitha containing prayers to Goddess Durga.

The word Durga is closely associated to the words ‘durg’ and ‘durgam.’ The word ‘durg’ means a closed space difficult to pass on or achieve, while the word ‘durgam’ signifies inaccessibility. They [the words] probably derive their origin to the presence of the Goddess in the inhospitable Vindhya mountains. The word Durga appears in a few Vedic works such as in the fourth Veda, the Atharvaveda. There is mention of a goddess by the name of Durgi in Taittiriya Aranyaka. But the Vedic mention of Durga is not as profound as found in later works of Hinduism.

The life saga of Goddess Durga is vividly described in the Devi Mahatmyam of Markandeya Purana penned down by the sage Markandeya. The origin lies in an unending battle between the king of demons Mahishasura and the Gods whom he wanted to defeat and subjugate. In order to emerge superior to the Devas and become invincible, Mahishasura did rigorous penance to please Lord Brahma. Impressed by Mahishasura’s dedication, the God of creations, Brahma, emerged in front of him to grant him a boon.

Mahishasura wished for immortality, but Brahma could not grant him his wish. So, Mahishasura, asked Brahma to bless him with the powers to remain undefeated at the hands of men and the Gods. It was due to utter complacency that Mahishasura didn’t think of a woman ever killing him. Brahma obliged him by granting him the boon he had wished for.

Under the leadership of the indomitable Mahishasura, demons had defeated the Gods, led by Lord Indra. This made all the Gods approach Lord Brahma, who, in turn, accompanied them to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. On being narrated the entire scenario, Lord Shiva and Vishnu got extremely angry. A beam of light and energy emits from both of them along with similar energies from Brahma and other Gods present leading to the formation of supreme power Durga.

She was armed across all her ten arms by weapons from all Lords. This emancipation and empowerment of a woman also has significant messages for our society at large. Goddess Durga, all powerful and ferocious, entered the battlefield and decimated Mahishasura after a nine-day long battle. The Lords finally got their heavenly abode back.

Navratri is a festival of nine days in honour of Durga’s great victory. The festival symbolizes the nine days of her battle against Mahishasura and the tenth day, which is known as Vijayadashmi, is the day when Goddess Durga had finally killed Mahishasura.

During these nine days her nine forms are being worshipped by her devotees – Eailaputri (daughter of the Himalayas), Brahmacharini (one who observes the state of celibacy doing penance), Chandraghanta (one who bears the moon in her necklace), Kusmana (the creator of the universe), Skanda-Mata (the mother of Skanda, Kartikeya, born out of her powers), Katyayani (the daughter of the sage Katyayana, who incarnated to help the Devas), Kalaratri (black as night), Mahagauri (the wife of Lord Shiva, doing great penance), and Siddhidatri (the provider of Siddhis, giver of mystic powers).

Durga Puja celebrates not only the slayer of the demon Mahishashura, but also the married daughter’s return to her parents’ home for a few days; the wide representation of Durga as a smiling matron, inculcates the importance of the Goddess in a religion having strong allegiance to the trinity of Brahma: the creator, Vishnu: the preserver, and Shiva: the destroyer. Durga restores the delicate feminine social balance in Hinduism which makes it unique.

Goddess Durga, in present time, not only represents the fierce fight of liberation of women against parochial mindsets, it also represents the eventual victory of good over evil and restoration of calm and sanity through Durga’s dual-natured aspects. This explains the invocation of the hymn in the beginning of this article.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Abhikdhar2009/Wikimedia Commons.
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