Though boyhood has deserted me a long ago, the boy in me is still wonderstruck by the artificial yet ornate weaponry that accompanies the Durga idol. I wouldn’t have been so moved by Parvati (the wife) or Uma (the daughter). Social identities never moved me much as a child and as an adult, they bug me all the less. But there was something special about Durga. Like Blake’s ‘Tyger’, she was beautiful and ferocious at the same time. She was a woman, stronger than any man. She was a towering matriarch who had absorbed every detail of patriarchal potency. She made paradoxes possible. She was the benign protector. I was intimidated by her Coleridgean “flashing eyes, floating hair”. But simultaneously, when I stood with folded palms before her during Ashtami, the tranquility I experienced was unparalled.
This necessitates an etymological understanding of the symbology surrounding the idol form of the Goddess. In Sanskrit, Durga comes from ‘durg’ or fort – the fort that is difficult to overrun. A dash of suggestiveness is not ruled out here. She is the woman unsubdued in every sense. But we do not credit Durga for her personal invincibility alone. If Shiva could become the ‘neelkanth’ and absorb everything toxic, after the churning of the oceans (‘samudra-manthan’) and thereby save the world, Durga too is “Durgatinashini,” which literally translates into “the one who eliminates sufferings.” Come Durga Puja, Hindus and non-Hindus alike, the devotees of the goddess, seek her protection and benediction to ward off the evils of the world and simultaneously, removes their material miseries.
Petrarchanism or the Courtly Love Tradition might have deified her in a rather artificial way but I have always believed that there is always more to a goddess than meets the eye. We know the multitude of incarnations that go to singularly constitute the dominant unified power that is Durga, each a potent version of femininity, viz. Kali, Bhagvati, Bhavani, Lalita, Gauri, Kandalini, Java, Rajeswari and Ambika. Mahishasur might have been ‘mahan’ for others but Durga emerges as the ‘mardini’ of the prime asura – a term that literally means the slayer but also bears the pun on the word ‘mard’. Durga’s nine appellations are Skondamata, Kusumanda, Shailaputri, Kaalratri, Brahmacharini, MahaGauri, Katyayani, Chandraghanta and Siddhidatri and this mystical nine is more than enough to counter whatever diabolical potency Mahishashura might hold for himself. Hence, the prime difference between Durga and Mahishasura is not one of power, for both are immensely powerful in their respective ways. The difference is one of their relative approaches to power. While Mahishasura indulges in his gory power egotistically, Durga wields her power objectively by surrendering her ego. She is the veritable Hindu savior and the form of saving grace that she offers, is for all and sundry, not for her own self alone.
How can someone be up at arms against a sworn adversary without the literal arms concerned? The arc-shaped arraignment of the weapons one after the other in her ten hands offers a visual treat, leave alone the fact that the ‘dashabhuja’ was meant to be dexterous. Which child would fear any demon when its mother was literally fortified from ten directions? – (the outward eight hands representing eight quadrants) and the remaining two hands/ directions bearing the ‘trishul’, having the desired kinesis to terminate evil). Indeed the mother of all mothers protects her children from all directions.
One can also see that Durga does not merely ensure a vanguard in every direction by a mere martial defense mechanism. In fact, her sense of vigil emanates from within the conscience (‘Chetona’) because as the ‘Triyambake’, she wields complete knowledge and know-how alike. Like Shiva, Durga is necessarily three-eyed – the left eye representing desire (the moon), the right eye representing action (the sun), and the central eye knowledge (fire). It harps upon the fact that a mother is an all-knowing entity.
Over the years I had grown more and more sensitive to Durga’s weaponry. Interestingly, all the weapons are the possessions of male gods who relinquish their arms to give her the maximum defense possible. Durga is made to become an invincible construct to counter the force of Mahishasura who was blessed by Brahma that no ‘man’ would be able to defeat him in battle. The quiddity is understood that an agency who was technically a woman but having the strength of a man would be the one to bring Mahishasura to his knees.
Durga’s riding astride the lion in the ‘Abhay Mudra’ symbolises her mastery over the weakness of the human will. Durga becomes the exemplar of what we need to possess to get over the demon of ego. Down the line, thanks to the Devi, the other male gods of the Hindu pantheon became interesting for me. The Autumn Festival was a much needed reunion, a samagam, when divinity and mortality came in contact with one another. Vishnu, Shiva, Varun, Agni, Vayu, Surya, Yama, Indra and Himalaya – they were the gods I might have heard about from here and there but was not fully acquainted with. Hence, the Autumn Festival was the opportune moment to witness the assemblage of the deities in order to understand their relative merits at one go.
Indeed Durga has it all. She wields the ‘Pranava’ or the mystic ‘Om’ in the conch shell that contains the harmony of the spheres. Even ‘Shabda’ or sound is a holy agency at her service, as bestowed by Varun. Both potential and kinetic energy are at the Devi’s service, with a little bit of assistance from Vayu and Surya, who respectively offer the Devi the ‘dhanuk’ (bow) and the ‘tunir ebong teer’. Indra’s ‘bajro’ or the thunderbolt gives Durga firmness, metaphorically making her a thunderbolt in her resolution. It is a clarion call for her devotees to be firm in their convictions to reach their cherished goals. Durga becomes the symbolic thunderbolt that can sunder anything against which it strikes, without being affected itself. The half-bloomed ‘pankaja’ or lotus in Durga’s hand signals the Devi’s success, whose eventuality is certain but not yet finalized, is not in fully bloomed, it symbolizing certainty of success but not finality. Born of mud yet perfectly pristine, the lotus stands for the continuous evolution of spiritualism from within the worldly clay of lust and greed. Krishna’s Sudarshan-Chakra” or the beautiful discus, which spins around the index finger of the Goddess, while not touching it, symbolizes the fact that the entire world is subservient to the command of Durga. Yet, Durga does not misutilise the absolute power that is vested on her. As it is in the Mahabharata, the battle between the Devi and the Demon is a ‘dharmayuddha’ or the battle for righteousness to prevail. The sword symbolises knowledge and its sharp and shining blade epitomizes freedom from all doubts, which is cardinal for knowledge to emerge as supreme. Durga’s trident or “trishul” is a symbol of three qualities – Satwa (inactivity), Rajas (activity) and Tamas (non-activity) – and she is remover of all the three types of miseries – physical, mental and spiritual. Devi Durga stands on a lion in a fearless pose of “Abhay Mudra”, signifying assurance of freedom from fear. The universal mother seems to be saying to all her devotees: “Surrender all actions and duties onto me and I shall release thee from all fears”. Indeed, the fearlessness of the Devi was contagious. If the Mother was dauntless, how could her progeny remain pusillanimous for long?
The Hindu festival of Navratri celebrates nine nights dedicated to the nine divine forms of Goddess Durga, culminating in Dussera. This time the resident evil is Ravana, whose effigy is burned and blasted with firecrackers. Rama’s victory is celebrated with dandiya and garba-raas. Durga encompasses the potential of Lakshmi, Kali and Saraswati, in order to exemplify the Shakti-principle. It is also believed that Goddess Durga is the willed creation of the preserver Lord Vishnu, who wanted a self-controlled warrior goddess to protect the devas from the rakshasas. The Shakti-Mata is the best that the Hindu pantheon has to offer. As a ninetees’ kid I, an avid fan of Cartoon Network, was perfectly cognizant of how the five Planeteers submitted their respective energies to will Captain Planet to action, whenever the world was in some ecological crisis. Capt. Planet always got the job done but as a rule of thumb, he used to remind the spectators before taking leave: “Remember! The power is yours.” I was almost always bedazzled by dastardly ‘male’ American superheroes. But today, if there is one larger than life entity that moves me, it is Durga. Her ‘mudras’ are emblematic and her presence as the Supreme Being is magnetic enough to draw lesser mortals to her, forever. No matter how abysmally pathetic may be the state of the ‘kalyug’, Durga mata will come every year, in her annual cyclical round, with the promise of eradicating the vices of arrogance, jealousy, prejudice, hatred, anger, greed and selfishness. She will metaphorically ‘fort-ify’ the world with her Daiva-Shakti, ensuring the continuation of our species so that we may not forget our vital functions in life – to perform our duties and fulfill our responsibilities in life, cheerfully and not with resentment; to learn to discriminate between right and wrong; not to lose our values in life’s adversities; to live in this world without attachment to the external materiality, to do the bidding of with love and devotion and accept the eventual outcome as the Almighty’s will; not to escape from the challenges of life but to face them fair and square. The trident/trishul gives the extra voltage to mettle, so as to be able to strike the fatal blow that will defeat the inglorious adversary once and for all.
However, offence is not Durga’s prime pursuit. She is there to make the vainglorious attain the necessary anagnorisis to overcome the befallen nemesis. The Devi’s fourth lower right hand symbolizes forgiveness and her blessings. We must forgive ourselves and others for mistakes and/or any hurt we may have caused, else the very distinction between the camps of ‘dharma’ and ‘adharma’ will be lost. The flaming red sari that the Mother wears symbolizes the positive action of protecting mankind from pain and suffering.
With such a splendid presence, there is absolutely no reason why Durga would not be ‘Anandamayi’ for everyone. The ‘moho’ and the maya that come with our undue attachments bring worldly sorrow and they are overcome with the mantric chant ‘Om Sri Durgaya Namah’. Durga’s blessings are unlimited and hence the Pujas come during the season of what John Keats described in his Ode to Autumn as “mellow fruitfulness”. Plenitude and peace are manifest in the perceivable idyll of garnered grain, grazing cattle, white and pink ‘kashphool’ and their breeze-kissed tassels and a general blue sky decked with destination-less white, puffball clouds. But the tranquil skies suddenly darken ominously and end in a spatter of rain, only to become bright and sunny the very next minute. A marginal nip in the air at nights, the elusive evocative fragrance of chhatim-blossoms, the poignant agomoni songs – point to the ethos of a nostalgia, created by the steady process of life’s maturation. The time of agomoni is the time when a young bride returns to her paternal abode along with her brood for her annual visit. While Durga is worshipped as a victorious goddess, she remains fundamentally the quintessential girl arriving at her baper bari for four days of love and care, before she is bid goodbye, with hope and belief in the promise of the coming year. The little white and orange-stemmed flowers of the Shiuli trees and the caterpillars that gather at the haunt would not live to see the next Sharat but Shakti, the Mother-Creatrix, ensures that their progeny would sustain the tradition.