Further Reading On Durga

One of the most impressive and formidable goddesses of the Hindu pantheon-and one of the most popular-is the goddess Durga. Her primary mythological function is to combat demons who threaten the stability of the cosmos. In this role she is depicted as a great battle queen with many arms, each of which wields a weapon. She rides a fierce lion and is described as irresistible in battle. The demon she is most famous for defeating is Mahisa, the buffalo demon. Her most popular epithet is Mahisa-mardini, the slayer of Mahisa, and her most common iconographic representation shows her defeating Mahisa.

At a certain point in her history Durga becomes associated with the god Shiva as his wife. In this role Durga assumes domestic characteristics and is often identified with the goddess Parvati. She also takes on the role of mother in her later history. At her most important festival, Durga Pooja, she is shown flanked by four deities identified as her children: Karttikeya, Ganesh, Saraswati, and Lakshmi.
It also seems clear that Durga has, or at least at some point in her,, history had, a close connection with the crops or with the fertility of vegetation. Her festival, which is held at harvest time, associates her with plants, and she also receives blood offerings, which may suggest the renourishment of her powers of fertility.

The Warrior Goddess

Although several Vedic deities play central roles as demon slayers and warriors, no goddesses are cast in this function in Vedic literature. The name Durga is mentioned in Vedic literature, but no goddess resembling the warrior goddess of later Hinduism is to be found in these early texts.
Around the fourth century A.D. images of Durga slaying a buffalo begin to become common throughout India. By the medieval period (after the sixth century) Durga has become a well-known and popularly worshiped deity. Her mythological deeds come to be told in many texts, and descriptions of and injunctions to undertake her autumnal worship are common in several late Upa-puranas.

Durga s historical origin seems to be among the indigenous non-Aryan cultures of India. In addition to there beings no similar goddesses among the deities of the Vedic tradition, many early references to Durga associate her with peripheral areas such as the Vindhya Mountains, tribal peoples such as the Sabaras, and non-Aryan habits such as drinking liquor and blood and eating meat. Although Durga becomes an establishment goddess in medieval Hinduism, protecting the cosmos from the threat of demons and guarding dharma like a female version of Vishnu, her roots seem to be among the tribal and peasant cultures of India, which eventually leavened the male-dominated Vedic pantheon with several goddesses associated with power, blood, and battle.

Hindu mythology includes several accounts of Durga s origin. She is sometimes said to arise from Vishnu as the power that makes him sleep or as his magical, creative power. In the Vishnu-purana Vishnu enlists her aid to help delude a demon king who is threatening the infant Krishna. In the Devi-mahatmya she comes to the aid of the god Brahma and ultimately of Vishnu himself when Brahma invokes her to leave the slumbering Vishnu so that Vishnu will awaken and fight the demons Madhu and Kaitabha. The Skanda-purana relates that once upon a time a demon named Durga threatened the world, Shiva requested Parvati to slay the demon. Parvatithen assumed the form of a warrior goddess and defeated the demon, who took the form of a buffalo. Thereafter, Parvati was known by the name Durga. A similar account of her origin occurs in myths relating her defeat of the demons Sumbha and Nisumbha. Durga emerges from Parvati in these accounts when Parvati sheds her outer sheath, which takes on an identity of its own as a warrior goddess.

The best-known account of Durga’s origin, however, is told in connection with her defeat of the demon Mahisa After performing heroic austerities, Mahisa was granted the boon that he would be invincible to all opponents except a woman. He subsequently defeated the gods in battle and usurped their positions. The gods then assembled and, angry at the thought of Mahisa s triumph and their apparent inability to do anything about it, emitted their fiery energies. This great mass of light and strength congealed into the body of a beautiful woman, whose splendor spread through the universe. The parts of her body were formed from the male gods. Her face was formed from Shiva, her hair from Yama, her arms from Vishnu, and so on. Similarly, each of the male deities from whom she had been created gave her a weapon, Shiva gave her his trident, Vishnu gave her his cakra (a discus-like weapon), Vayu his bow and arrows, and so on. Equipped by the gods and supplied by the god Himalaya with a lion as her vehicle, Durga, the embodied strength of the gods, then roared mightily, causing the earth to shake.

The creation of the goddess Durga thus takes place in the context of a cosmic crisis precipitated by a demon whom the male gods are unable to subdue. She is created because the situation calls for a woman, a superior Warrior, a peculiar power possessed by the goddess with which the demon may be deluded, or a combination of all three. Invariably Durga defeats the demon handily, demonstrating both superior martial ability and superior power. On the battlefield she often creates female helpers from herself. The most famous of these are the goddess Kill and a group of ferocious deities known as the Matrkas (mothers), who usually number seven. These goddesses seem to embody Durga s fury and are wild, bloodthirsty, and particularly fierce. Durga does not create male helpers, and to my knowledge she does not fight with male allies Although she is created by the male gods and does their bidding and although she is observed and applauded by them, she (along with her female helpers and attendants) fights without direct male support against male demons-and she always wins.

Durga’s distinctive nature, and to a great extent probably her appeal, comes from the combination .of world-supportive qualities and liminal characteristics that associate her with the periphery of civilized order. In many respects Durga violates the model of the Hindu woman. She is not submissive, she is not subordinated to a male deity, she does not fulfill household duties, and she excels fit what is traditionally a male function, fighting in battle. As an independent warrior who can hold her own against any male on the battlefield” she reverses the normal role for females and therefore stands outside normal society. Unlike the normal female, Durga does not lend her power or Shakti to a male consort but rather takes power from the male gods in order to perform her own heroic exploits. They give up their inner strength, fire, and heat to create her and in so doing surrender their potency to her.

Many renditions of Durga s mythological exploits highlight her role reversal by portraying her male antagonists as enamored of her and wanting to marry her. They have no wish to fight her at all, assume that she will be no match for them in battle, and proceed to make offers of marriage to her. In some variants of the myth Durga explains to her antagonist and would-be suitor that her family has imposed a condition on her marriage, namely, that her husband must first defeat her in battle. The suitor is unable to do this, of course, and is annihilated in his attempt. In some forms of the myth the goddess rejects the offer of marriage with fierce, combative language, foretelling how she will tear her would-be suitor to pieces in battle. The antagonist, however, insists on interpreting this language as a metaphor for love play and blindly insists on trying to overcome the goddess in battle. In the Mahisa myth as told in the Devi-bhagavata-purana, for example, a long dialogue takes place between Durga and the demon in which Mahisa insists that as a woman the goddess is too delicate to fight, too beautiful for anything but love play, and must come under the protection and guidance of a man in order to fulfill her proper proclivities.

Because Durga is unprotected by a male deity, Mahisa assumes that she is helpless, which is the way that women are portrayed in the Dharma-sastras. There women are said to be incapable of handling their own affairs and to be socially inconsequential without relationships with men. They are significant primarily as sisters, daughters, and mothers of males and as wives. Nearly all forms of Durga s mythical exploits portray her as independent from male support and relationships yet irresistibly powerful. She is beautiful and seductive in appearance, but her beauty does not serve its normal function, which is to attract a husband. It serves to entice her victims into fatal battle.

In short, this beautiful young woman who slays demons seeking to be her lovers and who exists independent from male protection or guidance represents a vision of the feminine that challenges the stereotyped view of women found in traditional Hindu law books. Such a characterization perhaps suggests the extraordinary power that is repressed in women who are forced into submissive and socially demeaning roles. In her role reversal Durga exists outside normal structures and provides a version of reality that potentially, at least, may be refreshing and socially invigorating.

Durga s liminal nature is also evident in her favorite habitats and in some of her favorite habits. Nearly all of Durga s myths associate her with mountains, usually the Himalayas or the Vindhyas. One of her common epithets is Vindhyavasini, “she who dwells in the Vindhya Mountains.” These mountainous regions are areas considered geographically peripheral civilized society and inaccessible except through heroic efforts. The Vindhyas, in particular, are also regarded as dangerous because of- the violent and hostile tribal peoples who dwell there. Indeed, Durga is said to be worshiped by tribal groups such as the Sabaras. In this worship, furthermore, she is said to receive (and to enjoy) meat and blood, both of which are regarded by civilized Aryan society as
highly polluting. In the Devi-mahatmya Durga is also described as quaffing wine during battle in her fight with Mahisa and as laughing and glaring with reddened eyes under its influence. In the concluding scene of the Devi-mahatmya her devotees are instructed to propitiate her with offering of their own flesh and blood. Durga s preference for inaccessible dwelling places, her worship by tribal peoples, her taste for intoxicating it ink, meat, and blood, her ferocious behavior on the battlefield, and her preference for the flesh and blood of her devotees convey a portrait of a goddess who stands outside the city issued order of dharnia; her presence is to be found only after stepping out of the orderly world into the liminal space of the mountainous region where she dwells.

Reinforcing Durga s tendencies to the antistructural or liminal are certain associations with negative, or at least inauspicious, qualities or powers such as sleep, hunger, and may a (in the sense of delusion). In the Mahisa episode of the Devi-mahatmya she is called she whose form is sleep, she whose form is hunger, she whose form is shadow, and she whose form is thirst.
These associations are particularly emphasized in versions of the myth that tell of Durga s aid to Brahma and Vishnu against the demons Madhu and Kaitabha. In this myth as told in the Devi-Shatmya Madhu and Kaitabha are born from Vishnu s ear wax. They threaten to kill the god Brahma, who in turn has been born from a lotus sprung from Vishnu s navel. Brahma appeals to the goddess in the form of sleep to come forth from Vishnu so that he will awaken and slay the demons. Throughout the episode the goddess is called Mahamaya, the power that throws people into the bondage of delusion and attachment. Indeed, Vishnu is successful in slaying Madhu and Kaitabha only because the goddess deludes them into offering Vishnu a boon; he accepts and asks that they permit him to slay them. She is also called great delusion (Mahamoha); the great demoness (Mahasuri); the black night, the great night, the night of delusion; darkness (Tamas); the force at seizes those of knowledge and leads them to delusion; and the cause of bondage in the world. The entire Madhu-Kaitabha episode as told in the Devi-mahatmya hinges on Vishnu s helplessness as long as he is pervaded by the goddess, whose primary effect on him is to keep him unconscious. In this episode, then, the goddess has numbing, deluding, dark qualities, even though she is called by many positive terms. Again, Durga s role vis-a-vis Vishnu seems exactly the opposite of the normal role of a goddess as a male deity s Shakti, the power that enables the god to act in the world, in this myth Vishnu is only enabled to act when the goddess leaves him. She does not empower, enliven, or strengthen Vishnu; she puts him to sleep, reducing him to powerlessness.

Counterbalancing Durga s liminal, peripheral nature, which at times seems to threaten dharmic stability and to inhibit the spiritual quest for moksha, is her role as protector of the cosmos. Dominating her mythology is her role as the destroyer of demons who have usurped the position of the gods. As a great warrior she is created by the gods and acts on their behalf. While she is often said to transcend the male gods who create her and to excel them on the battlefield, she acts for their welfare. In doing this he acts to maintain or restore cosmic harmony and balance.

The theology underlying Durga s appearances and exploits is clear in the Devi-mahatmya, the most famous text extolling her deeds. Durga is said to underlie or pervade the cosmos; to create, maintain and periodically destroy it according to the rhythmic sequences of Hindu cosmology; and to assume different forms from time to time when cosmic balance is threatened by enemies of the lesser gods. The Devi-mahatmya puts the matter succinctly: Though she is eternal, the goddess becomes manifest over and over again to protect the world.

The Devi-mahatmya itself relates three of Durga s cosmic interventions on behalf of the gods: the battle with Madhu and Kaitabha; the battle with Mahisa and his army; and the battle with Sumbha and Niibumbha and their generals, Canda, Munda and Raktabija. The text also refers specifically to five other appearances of the goddess and implies that she is incarnate in many more forms. The myths that are told in detail in the Devi-mahatmya conform to a structure that underlines Durga’s role as the-upholder and protector of the dharmic order. Because the myths are cast in traditional structure, they also make the point that Durga transcends the great male gods of the Hindu pantheon, who in other texts usually have the central role in these myths.

The structure to which the demon-slaying myths of Durga conform is found throughout Hindu mythological texts and is consistent despite the specific deity who is featured in the myth. In basic outline the structure is as follows:

  1. A demon gets great power through doing austerities, is granted a boon as a reward, and becomes nearly invincible;
  2. The demon defeats the gods and takes over their positions;
  3. The gods prepare their revenge by creating a special being who can defeat the demon despite the boon, or else the lesser gods petition one of the great deities (Siva, Vishnu-, or a great goddess) to intervene on their behalf;
  4. The battle takes place and often includes the creation of helpers by the hero or heroine;
  5. the demon is defeated, either slain or made subservient to the gods;
  6. The gods praise the demon slayer.

In the Madhu and Kaitabha myth and the myth of Sumbha and Nisumbha, Durga is petitioned to help the gods, whereas in the Mahisa myth she is specially created by the gods. In the Mahisa and Sumbha and Nisumbha myths the goddess acts a direct, active part in the battle itself, demonstrating her superior martial skills against her opponents, in the Sumbha and Nisumbha myth she also creates helpers in the form of ferocious goddesses. In all three episodes the gods collectively praise Dui~ during the battle or after she has defeated the demons.

The theology underlying Durga’s cosmic interventions and the structure of the demon-slaying myths thus conform to the well known Hindu ideas and forms. The idea of a deity s descending to the world from time to time in various forms to maintain the balance of cosmic order is a central Vaisnavite idea. Ever- since the time of the Bhagavad-gita the idea of Vishnu’s descending to the world in different forms in order to combat disorder has been well known in the Hindu tradition. Durga, in the Devi-mahatmya, is heir to this avatara theology. Infact, in many ways Durga’s is a female version of Vishnu. She, like him, creates, maintains, and destroys the world; intervenes on a cosmic scale whenever disorder threatens to disrupt the world in the form of certain demons; and is approached by the other gods in distress. This conformity to a well known type of theology does not detract from Durga’s appeal, power, or prestige: Oh the contrary, fey creating her in this familiar role and by telling her myths according to a familiar structure, the author of the Devi-mahatmya underlines Durga s supremacy and might.

Durga’s role as cosmic queen is complemented by her role as a personal comforter who intervenes on behalf of her devotees. Near the end of the Devi-mahatmya, after the world has been restored to order, Durga herself says that she is quick to hearken to the pleas of her devotees and that she may be petitioned in times of distress to help those who worship her. She mentions specifically forest fires, wild animals, robbers, imprisonment, execution, and battle as some threats from which she will save her devotees. At the end of the Devt-mahatmya, after being petitioned by two of her devotees (part of whose petition has included offering their own blood to the goddess) she appears before them and grants their desires. To one she returns his wealth and kingdom and to the other she grants ultimate liberation. Durga, then, is not just a powerful, transcendent force whose sole concern is maintaining the cosmic rhythms, who is moved to action only when the world itself is threatened. She is attentive to the needs of her devotees and intervenes on their behalf if asked to do so. She is a personal savior as well as a great battle queen who fights to defeat the enemies of the gods.

When Durga is called Maya, or equated or associated with it, both connotations–delusion and creation-are suggested. Like Vishnu, Durga creates the world through her extraordinary power, but then she be-witches the creatures she has created. Underlying this apparently incomprehensible “game” is the idea of divine lila (sport, play, or dalliance), according to which the gods never act out of necessity but only out of a sense of play. Unlike mere mortals, the gods (in this case Durga) act not from pragmatic motives but only to amuse themselves or to display themselves. The way in which Durga s defeat of Mahisa is often depicted in Indian art suggests this theme. Typically she is shown bringing a blizzard of weapons to bear on the hapless demon, who is half-emerging in his human form from the carcass of his former buffalo form. Durga’s many arms are all in motion, and she is a perfect vision of power in action. Her face, however, is calm and shows no sign of strain. For her this is mere sport and requires no undue exertion. It is a game for her, it is Irla. She enters into the cosmic struggle between the lesser gods and the demons because it pleases her, not out of any sense of compulsion.

Durga’s identification with prakrti and with the earth itself makes another theological point. Prakrti is the physical world as well as the inherent rhythms within this world that impel nature to gratify and produce itself in its manifold species. Prakrti is both the primordial matter from which all material things come and the living instincts and patterns that imbue the material world with its proclivities to sustain and recreate itself in individual beings. As prakrti, then, Durga is inextricably associated with the physical world, the world she creates, sustains, and protects in her various forms. Durga s identification with the world is unambiguous. The Devi-mahatmya makes a point at several places to say that she is the world, she is all this. As the earth itself she conveys cosmic stability. She is the foundation of all creatures and that which nourishes all creatures. As the embodiment of f the earth she supports, protects, and mothers all beings. As Sakambhan she provides the world with food from her own body. In her role as cosmic queen, warrior goddess, and demon slayer, Durga in effect protects herself in her aspect as the-earth itself. As immanent in the world Durga is equated with the earth. As transcendent, she is the heavenly queen who descends from time to time to maintain harmony on earth.

Durga’s association or identification with sakti, maya, and prakrti lends to the great demon-slaying goddess an immediate, tangible dimension. As an expression of these ideas she is identified with the creation itself. Her presence is affirmed to pervade and underlie the actual world in which people live, and her power and strength are affirmed to imbue all creatures with the will to prosper and multiply.

The Worship Of Durga

One of the most important festivals in North India is Durga Pooja, which is celebrated in the autumn during the month of Asvin. The festival takes place over a period of nine days and is often called the Navaratra festival. The central image of the festival shows Durga slaying Mahisa The iconographical details of the images are usually faithful to the scene, as described in the Devi-mahatmya and other scriptures. Durga has many arms, each of which bears a weapon; she stands on her lion vehicle; and she is thrusting her trident into the chest of Mahisa who is in human form, half-emerged from the carcass of a slain buffalo. During the festival it is customary to recite the Devi-mahatmya in its entirety several times. The Durga Pooja festival clearly asserts Durga s central role as a battle queen and the regulator of the cosmos. In part, at least, the festivities celebrate Durga s defeat of Mahisa and the restoration of cosmic order.

This festival, in which Durga is worshiped in the form of a mighty warrior goddess, seems to be, or to have been until recently, part of a pattern of worship undertaken by rulers for success in battle. The festival of Dassera, which falls on the tenth tithi (lunar day) of the bright half of Asvin and thus immediately follows Durga Pooja (which occupies the first through ninth tithis of the bright half of Asvin), was in many parts of India primarily an occasion in which to celebrate military might and royal power and to petition for military success in the coming year. Worship of weapons was also a part of the festival in many cases.

Writing in the early nineteenth century, when the festival of Dassera was still widely undertaken, the Abbe Dubois wrote of the celebrations in Mysore:

“The Dassera is likewise the soldier’s feast. Princes and soldiers offer the most solemn sacrifices to the arms which are made use of in battle. Collecting all their weapons together, they call a Brahmin purohita, who sprinkles them with tirtham (holy water) and converts them into so many divinities by virtue of his mantrams. He then makes Pooja to them and retires. Thereupon, amidst the beat of drums, the blare of trumpets and other instruments, a ram is brought in with much pomp and sacrificed in honour of the various weapons of destruction. This ceremony is observed with the greatest solemnity throughout the whole Peninsula. . . . It is known by the special name of ayuda-Pooja (sacrifice to arms), and is entirely military.”

Alexander Forbes, who wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century, described Dassera among the Rajputs: “The Rajpoot chiefs, on the evening of Dussera, worship also the Fort-Protectress, the goddess Gudeychee. On their return from the Shumee worship into the city, they join together in bands, brandishing their spears, galloping their horses, and enacting in other ways the part of an army taking the field.”” Although the worship of a goddess is not always part of Dassera celebrations, there are many indications in ritual and mythological texts that the annual (usually autumnal) worship of a warrior goddess, often specified to be Durga, was part of festivals associated with military success. Mantras to be uttered by kings on the occasion of Dassera, for example, sometimes invoke a goddess. In the Dharmasindhu the king is to speak this prayer: “May Aparajita [the unconquerable one] wearing a striking necklace and resplendent golden girdle and fond of doing good bestow victory on “24 In the Nirnayasindha this prayer is to be said at the time of blessing weapons: “0 goddess, ruling over gods! may my army divided into four sections (elephants, chariots, horsemen, and foot-soldiers) attain to the position of having no enemy left in this world and may victory come to me everywhere through your favour.” An eleventh- or twelfth-century Jain text, the Yasatilaka of Somadeva, mentions the worship of Aparajita, who is also called Ambika. She is said to give victory in war and to be present in the king s weapons.” The text also says that she is worshiped on Mahanavami, which is the last day of Durga Pooja. Some Puranas, furthermore, say that mrajana, the worship of weapons, is held on Mahanavamr. In the Prakrit drama Gaudavaho, King Yasovarman undertakes a military campaign in the autumn. Shortly after beginning his march he reaches the Vindhya Mountains and there undertakes the worship of the goddess Vindhyavasini (she who dwells in the Vindhyas), an epithet of Durga in some texts”.

The worship of Durga also came to be associated with the military success of both the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata and Rama in the Ramayana. Although her worship by the heroes was not part of either epic tradition initially (the incidents are not found in the critical editions of either epic), a tradition has developed that insists that the worship of Durga was necessary to the success of the heroes in both epics. Durga is worshiped twice in the Mahabharata: in Virata-parva by Yudhishthira and in Bhisma-parva by Arjuna. In the latter case the occasion of Durga s praise is clear. The setting is just before the great battle that is the highpoint of the entire epic. Krishna instructs Arjuna as follows: “0 one having great arms, standing in the face of battle, say a hymn to Durga for the purpose of defeating your enemies”. The hymn that Arjuna then offers is full of references to Durga s military might and prowess. The goddess appears to Arjuna and promises him victory, after which the text says that anyone who hears or recites the hymn will be victorious in battle.

The placement of the second hymn to Durga in Virata-parva is more difficult to understand. The Pandava brothers have just emerged from twelve years of exile in the forest and are about to begin a year of life in the world during which they must remain in disguise lest their enemies discover them. Before entering the city of Virata and taking up their disguises they hid their weapons in a sami tree near a cremation ground. Yudhishthira asks Durga for protection from being discovered during the coming year and for later success against their enemies. She appears at the end of the hymn and grants his wishes. It seems that the hymn was placed at this point in the text because worship of a sami tree on the outskirts of a town is often a part of Dassera festivals. The author or editor of the hymn probably thought this an appropriate place to insert a hymn to Durga for military success.

The association of Durga with Rama’s success in battle over Ravana in the Ramayana tradition, although not part of Valmiki’s Ramayana, has become a well-known part of the Rama story throughout India. In the Kalika-purana we are told:

In former times, the great Goddess was waked up by Brahma when it was still night, in order to favour Rama and to obtain the death of Ravana.
On the first day of the bright half of the month of Asvina, she gave up her sleep and went to the city of Lanka, where Raghu’s son formerly lived.
When she came there, the great Goddess caused Rama and Ravana to be engaged in battle, but Ambika herself remained hidden….
Afterwards, when the seventh night had gone by, Mahamaya, in whom the worlds are contained, caused Ravana to be killed by Rama on the ninth day. . . .
After the hero Ravana had been killed on the ninth day, the Grandfather of the worlds (Brahma) together with all the gods held a special worship for Durga.
Afterwards the Goddess was dismissed with Sahara-festivals, on the tenth day; Indra on his part held a lustration of the army of the gods for the appeasement of the armies of the gods and for the sake of prosperity of the kingdom of the gods. . . .
All the gods will worship her and will, on their part, lustrate the army; and in the same way all men should perform worship according to the rules.
A king should hold a lustration of the army in order to strengthen his army; a performance must” be made with charming women adorned with celestial ornaments; . . .
After one has made a puppet of flour for Skanda and Visakha, one should worship it in order to annihilate one s foes and for the sake of enjoying Durga.

In the Devi-bhagavata-purana Rama is despondent at the problems of reaching Lanka, defeating Ravana, and getting back his beloved Sita. The sage Narada, however, advises him to call on Durga for help. Rama asks how she should be worshiped, and Narada instructs him concerning the performance of Durga Pooja or Navaratra. The festival, which Narada assures Rama will result in military success, is said to have been performed in previous ages by Indra for killing Vrtra, by Siva for killing the demons of the three cities, and by Vigr?u for killing Madhu and Kaitabha. Rama duly performs Durga’s worship, and she appears to him mounted on her lion. She asks what he wishes, and when he requests victory over Ravana she promises him success, The traditions of Rama’s inaugurating Durga Pooja for the purpose of defeating Ravana is also found in the Brhaddharma-purana and the Bengali version of the Ramayana by Krttivasa (fifteenth century) Bengali villagers tell of a tradition in which it was customary to worship Durga during the spring. Rama, however, needed the goddess s help in the autumn when he was about to invade Lanka. So it was that he worshiped her in the month of Asvin and inaugurated autumnal worship, which has become her most popular festival. “When Rama . . . came into conflict with Ravan . . . Rama performed the pooja when he was in trouble, without waiting for the proper time of the annual Pooja. He did the Pooja in the autumn, and later this Pooja became the most popular ritual of the goddess.

Durga’s association with military prowess and her worship for military success undoubtedly led to her being associated with the military success of both sets of epic heroes sometime in the medieval period. Her association with these great heroes in turn probably tended to further promote her worship by kings for success and prosperity.

Durga s association with military might is probably also part of a tradition, most evident in recent centuries, in which goddesses give swords to certain rulers and in which swords are named for goddesses. In the Devi-purana it is said that the goddess may be worshiped in the form of a sword. Shivaji, the seventeenth-century military leader and king from Maharashtra, is said to have received his sword from his family deity, the goddess Bhavani. One account of how Shivaji obtained his sword is phrased as if Shivaji himself were speaking:

“I received that famous sword very early in my career as a token of a compact with the Chief Gowalker Sawant. It had been suggested to me on my way to the place where it was being kept that I should take it by force, but remembering that tremendous storms are sometimes raised by unnecessary trifles, I thought it better to leave it to its owner. . . . In the end the wise chief brought the sword to me as a sign of amity even when he knew that its purchase-price was not to be measured in blood. From that day onward the sword, which I reverently named after my tutelary deity. Bhavani, always accompanied me, its resting place when not in use generally being the altar of the goddess, to be received back from her as a visible favour from heaven, always on the Dassera day when starting out on my campaigns.”

In other legends concerning Shivaji’s sword the goddess Bhavani speaks directly to Shivaji, identifies herself with his sword, and is described as entering his sword before battle or before urging Shivaji to undertake the task of murdering his enemy, Afzalkhan.

The Pandyan prince Kumara Kampana (fourteenth century), before going to battle against the Muslims in the Madura area, is said to have been addressed by a goddess who gave him a sword: “A goddess appeared before him and after describing to him the disastrous consequences of the Musselmen invasions of the South and sad plight of the Southern country and its temples exhorted him to extirpate the invaders and restore the country to its ancient glory, presenting him at the same time with a divine sword. “

A sacred sword also belonged to the Rajput kingdom of Mewar. The sword was handed down from generation to generation and was placed on the altar of the goddess during Navaratra. According to legend, the founder of the dynasty, Bappa, undertook austerities in the woods. Near the end of his ascetic efforts a goddess riding a lion appeared to him: “From her hand he received the panoply of celestial fabrication, the work of Vishwakarma. . . . The lance, bow, quiver, and arrows; a shield and sword . . . which the goddess girded on him with her own hand.”

The autumnal worship of Durga, in which she is shown in full military array slaying the demon Mahisa in order to restore order to the cosmos, thus seems to have been part of a widespread cult that centered around obtaining military success. The central festival of this cult took place on Dassera day, immediately following the Navaratra festival, and included the worship of weapons by rulers and soldiers. The worship of a goddess for military success, though not always a part of the Dassera festival, was associated with the festival. Indeed, the two festivals, Navaratra and Dassera, probably were often understood to be one continuous festival in which the worship of Durga and the hope of military success were inseparably linked.

Although the military overtones of Durga Pooja are apparent, other themes are also important during this great festival, and other facets of Durga s character are brought out by the festival. Durga Pooja is celebrated from the first through the ninth days of the bright half of the lunar month of Asvin, which coincides with the autumn harvest in North India, and in certain respects it is clear that Durga Pooja is a harvest festival in which Durga is propitiated as the power of plant fertility. Although Durga Pooja lacks clear agricultural themes as celebrated today in large cities such as Calcutta or as celebrated by those with only tenuous ties to agriculture, there are still enough indications in the festival, even in its citified versions, to discern its importance to the business of agriculture.

A central object of worship during the festival, for example, is a bundle of nine different plants, the navapattrika, which is identified with Durga herself.” Although the nine plants-in question are not all agricultural plants, paddy and plantain are-included and suggest that Durga is associated with the crops 39 Her association with the other plants probably is meant to generalize her identification with the power underlying all plant life: Durga is not merely the power inherent in the growth of crops but the power inherent in all vegetation. During her worship in this form, the priest anoints Durga with water from auspicious sources, such as the major holy rivers of India. He also anoints her with agricultural products, such as sugarcane juice40 and sesame oil, and offers to her certain soils that are associated with fertility, such as earth dug up by the horns of a wild boar, earth dug up by the horns of a bull, and earth from the doors of prostitutes. It seems clear that one theme of this aspect of the worship of Durga is to promote the fertility of the plants incorporated into the sacred bundle and to promote the fertility of crops in general.

At another point in the ceremonies a pot is identified with Durga and worshiped by the priest. Edible fruit and different plants from those making up the navapattrika are placed in the pot. The pot, which has a rounded bottom, is then firmly set up on moist dough. On this dough are scattered five grains: rice, wheat, barley, mas and sesame. As each grain is scattered on the dough,

a priest recites the following invocation: “Om you are rice [wheat, barley, etc.], Om you are life, you are the life of the gods, you are our life, you are our internal life, you are long life, you give life, Om the Sun with his rays gives you the milk of life and Varuna nourishes you with water. The pot contains Ganges water in addition to the plants; in a prayer the priest identifies the pot with the source of the nectar of immortality (amrta), which the gods churned from the ocean of milk.

Durga, then, in the form of the pot, is invoked both as the power promoting the growth of the agricultural grains and as the source of the power of life with which the gods achieved immortality. In the forms of the navapattrika and the ghata (pot) Durga~ reveals a dimension of herself that primarily has to do with the fertility of the crops and vegetation and with the power that underlies life in general. In addition to granting freedom from troubles and bestowing wealth on those who perform her Pooja, Durga is also affirmed to grant agricultural produce, and at one point in the festival she is addressed as she who appeases the hunger of the world”.

Durga’s beneficial influence on crops is also suggested at the very beginning of the festival when her image is being set up. The image is placed on a low platform or table about eighteen inches high. The platform is set on damp clay, and the five grains mentioned above are sprinkled in the clay. Although not specifically stated, it appears that the presence of the goddess is believed to promote the growth of these seeds. Furthermore, on the eighth day of the festival the priest worships several groups of deities while circumambulating the image of Durga. Among these are the ksetravalas, deities who preside over cultivated fields.

Two other distinctive features of Durga Pooja suggest its importance as a festival affecting the fertility of the crops: the animal sacrifices and the ribald behavior that is specifically mentioned in certain religious texts as pleasing to the goddess. Certainly the sacrifice of an animal, particularly when that animal is a buffalo, suggests the reiteration of the slaying of Mahisa by Durga. But the custom of offering other animals such as goats and sheep and the injunctions to offer several victims during the festival suggest that other meanings are also intended. These blood sacrifices occupy a central role in Durga Pooja. Durga s thirst for blood is established in various texts,50 and this thirst is not limited to the battlefield. Her devotees are said to please her with their own blood, and she is said to receive blood from tribal groups who worship her.” Furthermore, other goddesses to whom Durga is closely affiliated, such as Kali, receive blood offerings in their temples daily with no reference at all to heroic deeds in battle. Blood offerings to Durga therefore seem to contain a logic quite apart from the battlefield, or at least quite apart from the myth of the goddess s slaying of Mahisa on behalf of cosmic stability.

It is has been suggested that underlying blood sacrifices to Durga is the perception, perhaps only unconscious, that this great goddess who nourishes the crops and is identified with the power underlying all life needs to be reinvigorated from time to time. Despite her great powers she is capable of being exhausted through continuous birth and the giving of nourishment. To replenish her powers, to reinvigorate her, she is given back life in the form of animal sacrifices. The blood in effect re-supplies her so that she may continue to give life in return. Having harvested the crops, having literally reaped the life-giving benefits of Durga s potency, it is appropriate (perhaps necessary) to return strength and power to her in the form of the blood of sacrificial victims. This logic, and the association of blood sacrifices with harvest, is not at all uncommon in the world s religions. It is a typical ceremonial scenario in many cultures, and it seems likely that at one time it was important in the celebration of Durga Pooja.”

Promotion of the fertility of the crops by stimulating Durga s powers of fecundity also seems to underlie the practice of publicly making obscene gestures and comments during Durga Pooja. Various scriptures say that Durga is pleased by such behavior at her autumnal festival,” and such behavior is suggested in the wild, boisterous activities that accompany the disposal of the image of Durga in a river or pool.” The close association, even the interdependence, between human sexuality and the growth of crops is clear in many cultures; 56 it is held to be auspicious and even vital to the growth of crops to have couples copulate in the fields, particularly at planting and harvest time. Again, the logic seems to be that this is a means of giving back vital powers to the spirit underlying the crops. The sexual fluids, like blood, are held to have great fertilizing powers, so to copulate in the fields is to re-nourish the divine beings that promote the growth of the crops. While such outright sexual activity is not part of Durga Pooja, the sexual license enjoined in some scriptures is certainly suggestive of this well-known theme.

Another facet of Durga’s character emerges in Durga Pooja but is not stressed in the text? casting her in the role of battle-queen; that is her domestic role as the wife of Siva and mother of several divine children. In North India, which is primarily patrilocal and patriarchal in matters of marriage, it is customary for girls to be married at an early age and to leave their parents home when quite young. This is traumatic for both the girl and her family. In Bengal, at least, daughters customarily return to their home villages during Durga Pooja. The arrival home of the daughters is cause for great happiness and rejoicing, and their departure after the festival is over is the occasion for painful scenes of departure. Durga herself is cast in the role of a returning daughter during her great festival, and many devotional songs are written to welcome her home or to bid her farewell. These songs contain no mention whatsoever of her roles as battle queen or cosmic savior. She is identified with Parvati, who is the wife of Siva and the daughter of Himalaya and his wife Mena. In this role Durga is said to be the mother of Ganesa, Karttikeya, Sarasvati, and Lakshmi.

The dominant theme in these songs of welcome and farewell seems to be the difficult life the goddess/daughter has in her husband s home in contrast to the warm, tender treatment she receives from her parents when she visits them. This theme undoubtedly reflects the actual situation of many Bengali girls, for whom life in their husband’s village can be difficult in the extreme, particularly in the early years of their marriage when they have no seniority or children to give them respect and I status in the eyes of their in-laws. Siva is described as inattentive to his wife and as unable to take care of himself because of his habit of smoking hemp and his habitual disregard for social convention. The songs contrast the poverty that Durga must endure in her husband s care with the way that she is spoiled by her parents. From the devotee s point of view, then, Durga is seen as a returning daughter who lives a difficult life far away from home. She is welcomed warmly and provided every comfort. The days of the festival are ones of intimacy between the devotee and the goddess, who is understood to have made a long journey to dwell at home with those who worship her. The clay image worshiped during Durga Pooja may show a mighty, many-armed goddess triumphing over a powerful demon, but many devotees cherish her as a tender daughter who has returned home on her annual visit for family succor, sympathy, and the most elaborate hospitality. This theme places the devotee in the position of a family member who spoils Durga with
every sort of personal attendance in order to distract her from her normal life with her mad husband, Siva. At the end of Durga Pooja, when the image of the goddess is removed from its place of honor and placed upon a truck or some other conveyance to be carried away for immersion, many women gather about the image to bid it farewell, and it is a common sight to see them actually weeping as the goddess, their daughter, leaves to return to her husband s home far away.

The sacrifice of a buffalo to Durga is practiced in South India too. While agricultural fertility and her cosmic victory on behalf of divine order are themes in this ceremony, Tamil myths and rituals emphasize a quite different aspect of her character. In the Puranas, and in North Indian traditions, there is an implied sexual tension between Durga and Mahisa, her victim. In the South this sexual tension is heightened and becomes one of the central themes of Durga’s defeat of Mahisa In fact, most Southern myths about Durga identify Mahisa as her suitor, her would-be husband. Independent in her unmarried state, Durga is portrayed as possessing untamed sexual energy that is dangerous, indeed, deadly, to any male who dares to approach her. Her violent, combative nature needs to be tamed for the welfare of the world. Mahisa is unsuccessful in subduing her and is lured to his doom by her great beauty. A central point of the South Indian myths about Durga and Mahisa is that any sexual association with the goddess is dangerous and that before her sexuality can be rendered safe she must be dominated by, made subservient to, defeated by, or humiliated by a male. In most myths she eventually is tamed by Siva.

The South Indian tradition of Durga as a dangerous, indeed, murderous, bride who poses a fatal threat to those who approach her sexually contrasts sharply with the North Indian tradition of Durga Pooja, which stresses Durga’s character as a gentle young wife and daughter in need of family tenderness. The South Indian role suggests again the liminal aspect of the goddess. Unlike the weak, submissive, blushing maiden of the Dharma-shastras, Durga presents a picture of determined, fierce independence, which is challenged only at great risk by her suitors.

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