In Hinduism, ‘Shakti’ is the divine energy that is linked to each god, giving them their power; Vishnu’s Shakti is Lakshmi, and Shiva’s Shakti is Parvathi. Shakti is also called ‘Devi’ or goddess – the Mother Goddess. It is believed that female energy is the source, with no beginning or end, while the male is that which gives the energy its order and focus. Creation arises out of the Mother Goddess’ energy, while her male counterparts are the visible appearance of that energy; she is the whole, he is the individual part (Joseph Campbell ‘Pathways to Bliss’)
The manifestation of Durga was to restore the balance of the universe, which was being damaged by the demons’ overriding desire to dominate and control, to maintain ignorance and falsehood over knowledge and truth.
The demon, Mahishasura, after performing difficult penances, was awarded a boon by Shiva – the demon would not be killed by any man or deity. Following the tradition of demons, Mahishasura promptly began his reign of terror, killing people, and attacking the gods and demi-gods. After countless years of war, Mahishasura and his demon-army defeated the demi-gods, and he became leader of demons and demi-gods.
The demi-gods prayed to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to free them from the tyranny of Mahishasura. In response, the three gods concentrated their energy, which took the form of the goddess, Durga, the embodiment of the stronger and fiercer side of womanhood. In Sanskrit, her name means ‘invincible’.
The gods bestowed their weapons on Durga to help her in her battle. From Shiva, she received a trident, symbolising courage; from Vishnu, chakra, or disc, symbolising dharma (duty). Varuna, the god of oceans, gave her a conch (symbolising happiness, meaning we should perform our duties happily, without resentment). From Yama, the god of death, she received a sword (the eradication of vices) and shield; while Vayu, god of the wind, gave her a bow and arrows (symbolising Rama, who did not forget his sense of duty despite the difficulties he faced). She was also given a club, the symbol of Hanuman, for devotion. Himavat, the god of mountains, gave her a lion as her vehicle, symbolising unlimited power, and also uncontrolled tendencies; she sits on the lion to remind us to control these qualities, instead of allowing them to control us. Durga, in her calm form, is also shown with a lotus, which symbolises detachment; and one her hands is always raised in a blessing.
Thus equipped with the weapons of the gods, Durga was ready to battle the cruel Mahishasura. Her lion’s thunderous roars shook the world and the heavens, announcing the goddess’ ascent.
As Mahishasura watched from, what he believed to be, his safe abode in heaven, Durga effortlessly cut down his army. On the ninth day of the waxing moon, the demons, Chanda and Munda, attacked the goddess. Turning dark with anger, Durga opened her third eye, and the goddess Kali (also known as Chamunda) leapt forth. In this dark and powerful form, she killed the demons with her sword.
On the tenth day of the waxing moon, Mahishasura, furious at the deaths of his powerful demons, charged through Durga’s army. Durga’s lion pounced on the demon-buffalo, distracting him, while Durga threw her noose around Mahishasura’s neck. He managed to escape by continuously changing his form. But, each time, Durga successfully thwarted him. Finally, he reverted once more to the form of the demon-buffalo. She seized Mahishasura, and pushed him to the ground. Holding him there with her foot, she grasped his head in one hand, and pierced him with the trident. With another of her ten hands, she drew back her sword, and beheaded him.
After her victory, Durga disappeared from the battlefield, highlighting the fact that such feminine action, despite its obvious achievement, is without any grasping, ego-seeking ambition. Durga’s power is her own energy; she isn’t dependent on another. Even though she appeared when the male deities concentrated their energies, she wasn’t created by them. She herself chooses when and how she will appear in the world for the benefit of mankind.
Durga is mentioned in both, the ‘Mahabharata’ and the ‘Ramayana’. In the ‘Mahabharata’, at the start of the war of Kurukshetra, Krishna advises Arjuna to pray to Durga for victory in the battle. In the ‘Ramayana’, while preparing for his battle with Ravana, Rama first prayed to Durga. On finding out that the goddess would be pleased with an offering of one hundred blue lotuses, he went in search of them but could only find ninety-nine. He finally decided to offer one his eyes, but Durga, pleased with his devotion, appeared before him to stop, and bless him. Rama went on to defeat Ravana, and this day is celebrated as Vijayadashami (‘Day of Victory’).
The festival of Durga Puja is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Hindus, in October, and is especially popular in West Bengal. The festival is also known as Dussehra (‘the sun will not rise’; referring to Rama’s victory over Ravana) and Navaratri (‘nine nights’). The festival involves making statues of Durga fighting, or standing triumphant over Mahishasura … at the end of the festival, the statues are taken to rivers, lakes, and the sea, and ritually immersed.
Married women cover each other in 'red powder', the mark of marriage - it looks like so much fun!
By worshipping Durga, we recognise that her power is within us, in the form of complete human potential, which is there to be totally embraced. We can choose to only recognise those parts of ourselves that we are comfortable and familiar with, or we can choose to embrace everything about ourselves – not only the tender, caring, understanding parts, but also those parts that are usually associated with the negative, like jealousy and suffering. As they say, knowledge is power, and ‘knowing’ every part of ourselves gives us the power to strive for self-realisation. So easy to say, not so easy to do ...