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Mythical Roots

Durga, the demon-slaying goddess,

Comes on a visit every year for four days to fill our home and hearth with an abundance of happiness. She is accompanied by her divine children—daughters Laxmi and Saraswati and sons Kartik and Ganesha.

A consort of Lord Shiva and an icon of female power, she finds mention in the Vedas, the Puranas, the epics and a variety of other religious texts. Across the country, she is worshipped under various appellations, in different forms and usually alone. She is Amba or Ambika in Kashmir and the Deccan region, Hingala or Rudrani in Gujarat, Kalyani in Karnataka, Uma in Mithila, Bhavani in Rajasthan, Kanyakumari in the southern-most tip of the country, Katyayani in Vrindavan, Haripriya in Hardwar, Bheemadevi in Himachal, Vaishnodevi in Jammu, Vindhyabashini in Vindhyachal, Vimala in Pun, Kamakhya in Kamrup, Jaidurga in Baidyanath... The list goes on. A vrat called Navratri is observed with much fanfare around the period of Durga Puja in many regions. The Dussehra festival in north and west India takes place on the last day of the Puja, also celebrating the victory of good over evil. But nowhere has the worship of the mother goddess come to exercise such an all-pervasive influence over the collective imagination and life of a people.

The form in which Durga is worshipped in the annual festival is derived from the saga of King Surath, who is said to have carried out the first Durga Puja on earth. The Markandeyapurana narrates how Surath had retired to the forest in despair, having lost his kingdom and the love of his kin. There he met Samadhi, a man from a lower caste, who was in no less anguish. The two chanced upon the abode of the sage Medha in the forest. According to the sage’s advice, they went to a river bank and moulded the goddess in clay. Together, they worshipped her until one day she appeared before them and offered a boon. Samadhi sought deliverance from the cycle of life and death while Surath asked for his lost kingdom. Durga obliged both and disappeared.

Time of worship: Autumn over sprint

Durga Puja, as we know it, has shifted slot in the seasonal calendar. While the worship by King Surath took place in spring, today it is an autumnal affair. For that, one has to look at a post-Valmiki’ later-day version of the epic, the Ramayana, authored by the Bengali poet, Krittivasa.

Raffia, while fighting with Ravana to retrieve wife Sita from the abductor’s grip, invoked the Goddess in autumn. Since Ravana was a devotee of Durga, Rama was advised to seek her blessings before going for direct combat against the king of the monsters. After three days of worship, as Rama readied his offerings, he suddenly noticed one of the 108 blue lotuses essential for the worship missing. Desperate to complete his puja, he notched an arrow to his bow and aimed at one of his eyes, which were said to be as beautiful as lotuses. Just as he was about to shoot, Durga appeared, appeased by his devotion, and stopped him from sacrificing his eye. It was she who had hidden one of the flowers to test Rama. She promised to aid him in the war. A great battle followed and Ravana was killed.

In some accounts, it is Brahma who invoked Durga to secure her aid for Rama. After all, Rama was on the gods’ side, being an earthly incarnation of Vishnu. Brahma found the goddess in the guise of a beautiful girl, asleep on a leafy branch of a bel (woodapple) tree on earth. The goddess awoke at his invocation and promised to empower Rama’s bow on the seventh day of the full moon fortnight so that Ravana would be killed at the conjunction of the eighth and ninth days of the fortnight.

After Ravana’s death, Brahma, along with all the gods, worshipped her. This custom has been retained in the Pujas, with the last day of the festival being named Vijaya Dashami, the victorious tenth day, a celebration of the victory of Rama over Ravana, or good over evil.

The time of Raffia’s worship is considered to be unseasonable. A year in the human life amounts to a day on the divine calendar. Six months of the year is a day for the gods while the other six is night. Spring is part of the divine day, while autumn falls in the nocturnal half. Durga stays awake in spring and there is no need to invoke her in the vernal version of the puja (which is not much in practice today). But in autumn, she has to be woken up from sleep before the worship can start.

In all these myths about the evolution of her worship, Durga appears alone. The mother and wife are identities that she took on over time, and are typical of the eastern part of India where other gods and goddesses have become part of her entourage as her children. The accumulation of a cluster of deities to her side approximating a familial structure and, more significantly, the appropriation of a warrior- goddess as a daughter of the land are phenomena unique to the region north of the Bay of Bengal.

Genesis of the Gods

Each of the figures in Durga’s entourage has a story of origin. Often, there is more than one account of the birth. Sometimes, for the whole picture to emerge, pieces have to be stitched together from a number of myths revolving round separate gods or goddesses. This is because in Hindu mythology, divine power is manifest in myriad figures with different names. Individual myths emphasise one aspect of the god or goddess while assuming it is linked to many others. The details vary from region to region and from text to text.

Durga: The demon-slayer

Durga derives her name from her identity as the slayer of the demon Durgo. This demon was wreaking havoc on heaven and earth. Shiva, the trident-bearing Supreme Destroyer, was helpless against him as Durgo was invincible against all males. At Shiva’s request, his Consort Parvati assumed the form of a warrior and killed the demon, The connection to Parvati places Durga in a familial context and provides a vital clue to why a martial goddess is worshipped as a mother and wife.

Parvati, after all, is the daughter of the Himalayas who gained Shiva’s love after long penance and married him against her mother’s wishes. It is this daughter who returns to the lap of the Himalayas every year with her children from her divine abode on Mt Kailash