As my city, Kolkata, gears up to welcome Goddess Durga, who is said to leave her heavenly abode and start her journey for her parental home for Bangali’s own Pujo; I think it rather seemly to discuss a bit about how the tradition came into being.
It is ridiculous to think of religion as constant and cast in stone. God has survived since the inception of universe, but religion evolved. I think of religious practices as a sum total of snapshots of different generations of traditional practices. I will try to take a socialistic approach to unveil the real face of Uma.
Since antiquity, Hinduism has revered a Mother Goddess who represents motherhood, fertility, creation, destruction or who embodies the bounty of Mother Earth. Durga, as the devine mother, has been worshipped as the supreme power of nature and has been mentioned in many scriptures – Yajur Veda, Vajasaneyi Samhita and Taittareya Brahman. Durga, in Sanskrit means “She who is incomprehensible or difficult to reach.” One can unmistakably mark its association to “Durg” or Fort, which could also suggest that Durga was conceived as a War Goddess or the Goddess of the far off lands (Durgam), most probably the north east. Reference to Bhavani, the Fort Goddess and protectors of Castles against sieges is well-heard of. Even though Skanda Purana accounted the name “Durga” after a demon Durgamaasura whom she killed, it seems highly unlikely that the name has arisen thus. Another meaning of “Durga” is a shorter form for “Durgatinashini,” which literally translates into “the one who eliminates sufferings.” Worshipped as the Mother Goddess, she represents the symbol of a female dynamism. She is most often shown riding a lion, which is symbolic of her power and courage.
Goddess Durga is believed to be a form of Sakti worshiped for her gracious as well as terrifying aspect. Shakti is the consort of Shiva and she is worshiped in various forms corresponding to her two aspects: benevolence and fierceness. She is Uma, “light”; Gauri, “yellow or brilliant”; Parvati, “the mountaineer”; then the terrible emanations are Durga “the inaccessible”; Kali, “the black”; Chandi, “the fierce”; and Bhairavi, “the terrible.” In the form of Parvati, She is known as the divine spouse of Lord Shiva and is the mother of her two sons, Ganesha and Karttikeya. The Bengali association of demi goddesses Lakshmi and Sarasvati are a later extrapolation and a character sketching of a more amicable homely goddess rather than a war heroine. Thus arise the contradiction. On one hand she is a home-making house daughter Uma while on the other she is the Demon slayer Chamunda. We shall try to explore both these aspects of the Mother Goddess.
The most primitive form of Mother Shakti is the result of a mountain-goddess (Parvati) worshiped by the dwellers of the Himalaya (north east), a goddess worshiped by the nomadic conceived as a war-goddess. Then there was the rural agrarian nature goddess, also represented by mother Shakti. With time came an advancement in civilization. Man became more civilized and social. The primitive war-goddess was gradually transformed into Brahmanic mythology Goddess. Her more violent form was broken away into a new sect “trantric” Kali, yet, remained aligned to the actual form. Although Durga becomes an establishment goddess in medieval Hinduism, 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.
Kali: The Ferocious
Kali is in a stark contrast to Gauri. Kali is the fearful and ferocious form of the mother goddess. She assumed the form of a powerful goddess and became popular with the composition of the Devi Mahatmya, a text of the 5th – 6th century AD. Here she is depicted during one of her battles with the evil forces. As the legend goes, in the battle, Kali was so much involved in the killing spree that she got carried away and began destroying everything in sight. To stop her, Lord Shiva threw himself under her feet. Shocked at this sight, Kali stuck out her tongue in astonishment, and put an end to her homicidal rampage. Hence the common image of Kali shows her in her mêlée mood, standing with one foot on Shiva’s chest, with her enormous tongue stuck out.
Uma: The House Maiden
Ama, literally means ‘my mother’. Ama is the mother of Tripuri people or the mother land Tripura. As mother is full of compassion, Ama is also full of compassion, love, welfare, kindness, care, and all the qualities of a mother. She is identified with many names and forms. She is called ‘Hachwkma’ literally meaning Parvati, she is also ‘Mailuma’ means goddess Laxmi, she is ‘Khuluma’ goddess of knowledge and ‘Skal’ that is goddess of destroyer of evils or Kali. She is also the strength of soldiers or Durga. She had been worshipped by Tripuri people since the prehistoric times. This is the form of Uma in Bengal. She is Goddess Lakshmi and Goddess Saraswati in her mild form, wherein depicted as her daughters, a reference found missing in the front-line puranic texts.
Bengali Durga, is a house daughter Uma. In this role Durga assumes domestic characteristics. She is one among us, and each year she is said to descend from Kailash to her mother’s house (here in Bengal) just like the other daughters. Bengal was a trading hub, with shipping fleets going out for business during the autumn season. The men would generally leave their wives with the in-laws during this season, thus came the tradition. It is also an occasion for reunion and rejuvenation, and a celebration of traditional culture and customs.
Parvati translates to “She of the mountains” and refers to Parvati being born the daughter of Himalaya, lord of the mountains and the personification of the mountain range. The name Uma is used for Sati in earlier texts, but in the Ramayana, it is used as synonym for Parvati. If Uma is the name of erstwhile Sati, it is not congruous to the paternal reference of Mountain Kingdom. In Bengal, Uma is Parvati. Parvati herself does not explicitly appear in Vedic literature, though the Kena Upanishad contains a goddess called Uma-Haimavati. If Uma, Parvati, Sati all are one and the same then Parvati may have emerged from legends of non-aryan goddesses that lived in mountains. There has been an assimilation of gods in the later phases, a correction of sort, to strengthen a particular God or sect. If all the Mother Goddesses are proclaimed to be the same, then Shakto clan gains more followers, hence more power. Shiva is combination of various Vedic gods Rudra and Agni, the Puranic Parvati is a combination of Uma, Haimavati, Ambika and earlier Parvati, identified as wives of Rudra. Parvati is a mixture of the Vedic goddess Aditi and Nirriti,and being a mountain goddess herself, was associated with other mountain goddesses like Durga and Kali in later traditions.
Mysore Story – Mahisasur
The word Mysore is a corrupted version of “mysooru”, which is derived from the word mahishur, which means the town of Mahishasura in Kannada, the local language. Mahisasur was deemed a buffalo-headed monster. In response to the prayer by the Gods and Goddesses to save them from the demon, Goddess Parvathi, took birth as Chamundeshwari and killed the monster on top of the Chamundi hill near Mysore. Mihisasur may have been a tribal king of non-Aryan descent, hence
reffered to as Asur (non-aryan). It may so be that a war between the Mountain tribe (Nagas) and Kannads was fought. The prehistory is embedded in legends that concern the struggle that took place in southern India between Aryan peoples, who invaded from the north, and the original Dravidian inhabitants; in legendary form this struggle is represented as a conflict between devils and demons. The Aryans won, and the story has thus been retold. Often, the victory of a tribe is ascribed to the chief God (Goddess) of the tribe. We know, Kartikein is a major God of Dravidians and also the army-chief of Devas (Aryans). This victory may have been retold in the name of the War-Goddess.
The actual worship of the Goddess Durga as stipulated by the Hindu scriptures falls in the month of Chaitra, the spring time, and is called Basanti Puja. This corresponds to ideas of rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal, resurrection and regrowth. This would be typically an agrarian festival, a rural tradition to celebrate the onset of harvesting season, generally as a metaphor for the start of better times. This will be particularly important for the regions around Bengal to celebrate this season with newly reaped paddy.
Rama’s ‘Akal Bodhan’
Durga Puja commemorates Prince Rama’s invocation of the goddess before going to war with the demon king Ravana, as mentioned in Ramayana. This was an uncustomary time for commencement of the worship. This autumnal ritual was different from the conventional Durga Puja, which is usually celebrated in the springtime. So, this Puja is also known as ‘akal-bodhan’ or out-of-season (‘akal’) worship (‘bodhan’). Worship of Durga for warfare is also depicted in Mahabharata.
Mahisasur Mardini, or Chamunda, of the Dravidian local traditions was aligned with Durga of the north. Rama was originally said to have worshipped Chandi (Chumundi – Goddess of the Munda tribe), a war goddess. While narrating about Rama’s travel to South India, the writer(s) include the details of this goddess. Rama’s worship may have drawn public attention to the goddess in north India, the seat of puranic traditions.
It’s important to note here, that Mother Goddess had a specific season for worship. She was regarded as the Nature Goddess, divinity for fertility. It is 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 agriculture. When worshipped for War, she was quite distinctly being worshipped for a Military success. In the western world in the contemporary period, Athena, was a war Goddess connected with battle strategy. Some war gods and goddesses, are multi-purpose gods. Even more counter-intuitively, some war gods, like Mars, are also fertility gods.