The Sunday Section: Hindu Deities - The Goddess Durga

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.

Durga Puja, Kolkata 2010

Durga Puja, Kolkata 2010

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 ... 

The Sunday Section: Hindu Deities - Hanuman

This post is dedicated to my lovely Hatty … all good things come to those who wait :)

Hanuman is one of the most important personalities in the ‘Ramayana’, and he also features in the ‘Mahabharata’.  He is a vanara, which means ‘human with the tail of a monkey’.  His mother, Anjana, was originally a celestial being who’d been cursed and turned into  vanara; his father is Vayu, the wind god.  Being the child of the god of the wind, Hanuman was born with great physical strength, the power to fly, and divine levels of endurance.  Hence, he is worshipped as a symbol of physical strength, perseverance and devotion.

When Hanuman met Rama for the first time during the exiled prince’s fourteen year banishment in the forest, both were already aware of the other’s existence.  Hanuman offered his services to Rama, and their lives became forever intertwined.

During the war with Ravana, Lakshmana, Rama's brother, had been gravely wounded in battle and needed the life-giving herb, Sanjivani, which could only be found in the Himalayas.  As time was all-important, Hanuman flew to the mountains, but was unable to recognise the herb that was needed.  Instead of wasting time, he picked up the mountain and flew back to Lanka, saving Lakshmana's life.

This is my favourite Hanuman story … After defeating Ravana, and rescuing Sita, Rama returned to Ayodhya where he was crowned the rightful ruler.  He rewarded his well-wishers at a grand ceremony in his court.  Hanuman went up but refused any reward.  Overcome with emotion, Rama embraced him warmly, declaring that he could never adequately honour or repay Hanuman for all that he’d done for the brothers, and for Sita.  But Sita insisted that Hanuman deserved honour more than anyone else present, and asked him to name a gift.  When he finally asked for the necklace of precious stones from around her neck, she gave it to him.  Hanuman immediately began to take it apart, peering into each stone.  The shocked onlookers demanded to know why he was destroying the precious gift, and he replied that he was looking into the stones to see if Rama and Sita were within; if they were not, the necklace was worthless to him.  Some of them began to ridicule Hanuman, insisting that his love and devotion for Rama and Sita could not possibly be as deep as he professed.  In response, Hanuman tore his chest open, and all were stunned to see Rama and Sita literally in his heart.

Hanuman statue at Batu Caves 2007 (prior to being painted)

In the 'Mahabharata', Hanuman’s story is tied in with the five Pandava brothers; Bhima, the second brother, and Hanuman shared the same father – Vayu, the god of the wind.  Promising to aid the brothers in the great battle at Kurukshetra, Hanuman positioned himself in the flag of Arjuna’s chariot to secure and stabilise the war-vehicle.  The triangular saffron flag of Hanuman represents stability and equilibrium, control of the senses and the mind, and a sign of victory over all that is evil.  

Hanuman also represents the unlimited power that each of us possesses, which lies unused, and of which we are generally unaware exists.  Hanuman directed all his energies towards worshipping Rama; his undying devotion eventually freed him from suffering any form of physical fatigue.

Hanuman is one of those deities who, instead of being only worshipped on a pedestal, is one you can view as your friend, who'll always be right there, by your side.  As Hatty says: "Hanuman rocks!"

The Sunday Section: Hindu Deities - Vishnu and his Avatars Pt. 4 - Buddha

I was brought up in the belief that Vishnu's ninth avatar, Buddha, was the Buddha of Buddhism. 

But, according to others, they are two different entities.  In Buddhism, Buddha isn’t worshipped because Buddhism doesn’t believe in gods; the ‘relationship’ is that of ‘teacher-student’.  Having said that, there are followers of Gautama Buddha who do worship him, despite the fact that he was a human. 

175ft Buddha statue at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, before it was destroyed by the Taliban

Buddha statues at Gal Viharaya, Sri Lanka

I’m no expert on Buddhism, and don’t know enough to get into any sort of detailed discussion/argument about it, but one of the reasons why these two individuals became merged into one was because the 8th century Hindu philosopher, Adi Sankaracharya, spoke of them as one person, and didn’t differentiate their purposes. 

The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘enlightened one’, and there are three types of Buddha.  First, there are human Buddhas, those who come to be known as Buddha when they have achieved enlightenment, like Gautama Buddha.  Then there are the Bodhisattva Buddhas, who are committed to achieving enlightenment for the sake of others.  These can be ordinary people that have taken part in the ritual of enlightenment thought, and are considered ordinary bodhisattvas; or they can be special bodhisattvas, like Avalokiteshvara, who have progressed through a system of ten levels to achieve complete enlightenment.

Avalokitesvara (China), male form of Guan Yin

Guan Yin (Malaysia)

The third type is ‘Adi’ (‘original’) Buddha, and this is Vishnu’s Buddha avatar.  This avatar founded the philosophy of ‘Ahimsa’ or nonviolence, primarily to stop the practice of animal sacrifice, which went against Vedic customs.

The Buddha of Buddhism was born a prince in, what is now Nepal, to King Suddhodana, and his queen, Maya.  Seven days after the birth, Maya died, and the baby was raised by the queen’s sister, Mahaprajapati.  The baby was named Siddhartha, which means ‘he who has attained his goals’, with ‘Gautama’ being the Sanskrit form of the family name.

A holy man prophesied that the prince would become either a great king or a great spiritual leader.  Being a king himself, naturally Suddhodana wanted his son to become a great king, and resolved to shield the prince from anything that might lead to him wanting to take up a religious life.  As he grew to adulthood, Siddhartha was raised in palaces, surrounded by luxury, shielded from what people would consider life’s experiences. 

As a prince of the warrior caste, Siddhartha trained as a warrior.  At the age of sixteen, he won the hand of the Princess Yashodhara, whose father ruled a neighbouring kingdom.

But Siddhartha’s own curiosity was beginning to intrude on his ordered life.  Already in his late 20s, he demanded that he be allowed to see the people, and his father’s lands.  Realising he could not forbid his son from leaving the palace, Suddhodana ensured that the prince would travel along a carefully selected route that would prevent him seeing any kind of suffering, for he still feared that Siddhartha might yet choose a religious life.

As he was taken through the capital, Siddhartha happened to spy a couple of old men.  Confused at the sight, he insisted on following them to find out what they were.  Then he came across people who were ill, and finally he witnessed a funeral ceremony, seeing death for the first time.  Not understanding anything of what he’d seen, he asked his friend to explain it to him.  His friend obliged, telling him the simple truths that had been kept from Siddhartha – all of us get old, become sick, and eventually die.

Wondering at his friend’s words, the prince happened to see an ascetic, a monk who had renounced all worldly pleasures.  The monk’s peaceful countenance would stay with Siddhartha for a long time.

Returning to his life, Siddhartha no longer found any pleasure in it, not even when Yasodhara gave birth to their son, Rahula.  One night, as he wandered through the palace, he thought of the old age and death that came to all, rich and poor alike.  Realising that he could no longer be content with his life as a prince, he decided to leave.  Shaving his head, he changed his princely clothes for a beggar’s robe and began his search for enlightenment.

Siddhartha first sought out renowned teachers, who taught him religious philosophies and how to meditate, but this knowledge failed to answer his questions.  So he and five others left to find enlightenment elsewhere, through physical discipline, almost starving themselves in the process.  When this approach failed to provide any answers, Siddhartha began to consider if the path to enlightenment might lie midway between the two extremes.  When he accepted some food from a young girl, his companions, believing he had given up, left him.

The sacred fig tree that Siddhartha sat under to meditate became known as the Bodhi Tree, or Bodhi Gaya or Bodhgaya.  Interestingly, it is believed that Vishnu’s Buddha avatar had been born there; aware of the spiritual power of the place, Siddhartha chose that spot to perform his meditation.  The mental ‘battle’ that Siddhartha experienced was mythologised as a battle with Mara, which means ‘destruction’, representing the passions that trap and deceive us.  Monsters were sent to attack Siddhartha, who sat still and undistracted; a beautiful woman tried to seduce him, in vain.  Mara finally claimed that his spiritual accomplishments were greater than Siddhartha’s, and that he had his followers as witnesses.  When asked who would speak for him, Siddhartha touched the earth with his right hand, and the earth answered, “I bear witness.”  As dawn broke, Siddhartha achieved enlightenment, and became a Buddha.

At first, Gautama Buddha was reluctant to teach, because what he’d learned about enlightenment could not be taught in words.  But eventually he decided to prescribe a practice through which people could realise enlightenment for themselves; his first sermon centred on the Four Noble Truths.  He spent the rest of his life, until his death at age 80, devoting himself to teaching.  In time, he made peace with his father, Suddhodana.  His wife, Yasodhara, became a nun and disciple; his son, Rahula, became a monk and remained with him for the rest of the Buddha’s life.  Buddha’s last words to his followers were: “All component things in the world are changeable.  They are not lasting.  Work hard to gain your own salvation.”

As there aren’t many pictures to choose from for the Buddha, thought I’d include some quotes attributed to Gautama Buddha:

   ‘We carry inside us the wonders we seek outside us’

   ‘Doubt everything, find your own light’

   ‘Do not overrate what you have achieved, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind’

   ‘It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell’

   ‘There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity over it’

I’ll end this post with the last of Vishnu’s avatars, which has not happened yet – ‘Kalki’ avatar – destined to appear at the end of the age we are now in, the ‘Kali Yuga’.  Interestingly, he is depicted on a white horse, wielding a blazing sword with which he will destroy the darkness.

'Kalki' avatar

The Sunday Section: Hindu Deities - Vishnu and his Avatars Pt. 3 - Krishna

Krishna, Vishnu's eighth incarnation, is my absolute favourite.  

I make no apologies for the length of this post; in fact I’ve omitted quite a lot of the stories.  I don’t just consider Krishna a divine being, he’s also my teacher, friend and protector, which may seem blasphemous to some, but has always felt right to me.  He’s all about music, dance and having fun, and is probably the most ‘accessible’ of Vishnu’s incarnations; his story is told from birth through to his death.  Realised a similarity between Krishna and Rama – both were born as princes, but spent time living a ‘poor’, simple life.

Krishna is seen as the embodiment of love and divine joy that destroys all pain and sin.  He is sometimes called ‘Gopala Krishna’, the protector of cows, as he grew up in the cow-village of Gokul.  

Vishnu took the form of Krishna in response to the prayers of the demigods and the earth goddess to curb the power of the demons.  Having been defeated in their war with the demigods in the heavens, the demons had turned their attention to earth, and had chosen to be born as princes of powerful royal families.  To counter this, some demigods also elected to be born on earth.

The most troublesome of the demon-kings was Kamsa, who’d usurped the throne of his father and had him thrown in prison.  His sister, Devaki, married Vasudeva, who’d been a demigod.  After the wedding of Vasudeva and Devaki, an oracle predicted the death of Kamsa at the hand of Devaki’s eighth son.  Furious, Kamsa was about to kill his sister, but Vasudeva begged for his bride’s life, promising to let Kamsa kill the eighth child.  Determined to confound the prediction, Kamsa had the couple imprisoned.  But instead of only killing Devaki’s eighth son, Kamsa personally, mercilessly killed each baby that she gave birth to.

Vasudeva had another wife, Rohini, who hadn’t been imprisoned.  When Devaki fell pregnant for the seventh time, it seemed as if she’d miscarried.  But the unborn child had been miraculously transferred to the womb of Rohini, who had long been craving a child of her own.  When he was born, she named him Balarama; he grew to be a great warrior and loyal brother to Krishna.

Pregnant for the eighth time, Devaki and Vasudeva prayed for the life of their unborn child.  At the stroke of midnight, Vishnu appeared before them, telling Vasudeva to take him as a newborn babe to Vrindavan and exchange him with a baby girl that had just been born there.  Then Vishnu turned himself into a baby. 

Gathering the baby in his arms, Vasudeva wondered how he would get out of the prison, let alone all the way to Vrindavan.  As if by magic, the iron shackles fell from his legs, the guards fell asleep and the door automatically opened.  Without hesitation, Vasudeva hurriedly made his way to Vrindavan where all were asleep.  He crept into the house of Nanda, and placed his son on the bed of the sleeping Yashoda.  Picking up her newborn girl, he returned to the prison.

Vasudeva and Devaki hoped Kamsa would spare the baby because the oracle had said it would be a son that would kill him.  But, ignoring Devaki’s pleas, Kamsa pulled the baby girl from her arms and dashed her against the wall.  To his alarm, the baby didn’t hit the wall but slipped from his hands and transformed into the goddess Durga, who told him he hadn’t defeated the prophecy, and that he would be punished for killing innocent children; then she vanished.  Terrified, Kamsa begged Devaki and Vasudeva to forgive him, and had them released.  But by the next day, Kamsa seemed to have forgotten his fright, and resumed the search for the baby of the prophecy.

In Vrindavan, Krishna’s ‘new’ parents, realising they were now involved in something miraculous, had him blessed and were told to raise him with care for many demons would try to cause him harm.  Vasudeva’s first wife, Rohini, moved to the same place so Balarama and Krishna could grow up together.  As a child, Krishna had a reputation for being mischievous; both he and Balarama would steal butter and play pranks on their friends, especially the girls.

'The butter thief'

Balarama and Krishna

Krishna is always depicted with a flute; the music he played, tinged with the divine, sent those who heard it into blissful ecstasy … especially the female cow herders known as ‘gopis’.  There are many stories relating to Krishna’s youth, which tell of his divine power, and the number of demons he killed who tried to kill him … If I told them all, this post would go on forever.  Here’s one of my favourite stories, not to do with a demon but actually about Krishna putting a demigod in his place …

Every year, the residents of Vrindavan gave thanks to Lord Indra for the rain.  One year, Krishna told his father that they should worship Govardhana Hill instead, arguing that they didn’t derive any special benefit from Indra; as cow herders, they had more of a relationship with the forest of Vrindavan, and Govardhana Hill.  Eventually, Nanda agreed and they prepared to give thanks to the Hill.  Obviously, this made Lord Indra angry and, unfortunately for him, it seemed to have slipped his mind who Krishna actually was.  Raging against the impudent child who’d turned the cow herders against him, he sent a storm to devastate Vrindavan.  Scared, the people and animals turned to Krishna who lifted Govardhana Hill, turning it into an umbrella under which all could shelter until the rain stopped.  Realising his mistake, Lord Indra apologised to Krishna.

Krishna lifts Govardhana Hill

For years, Kamsa’s demons harassed the children in that region, but Krishna and Balarama killed them all.  After yet another demon had been killed, Kamsa learned that Krishna and Balarama were, in fact, the seventh and eighth sons of Vasudeva and Devaki.  Realising the prophecy might yet be fulfilled, Kamsa, once again, imprisoned his sister and her husband, and vowed to kill the two brothers.  He sent his servants to bring the boys to Mathura, to face two of his strongest wrestlers in a wrestling match.  This would be Krishna and Balarama’s transition into adulthood; they would never return to the joyful pastimes of their youth.

Krishna and Balarama defeat the wrestlers

Krishna and Balarama accepted Kamsa’s challenge, and easily bested the wrestlers.  Ignoring the people’s jubilation at the victory, Kamsa ordered that the brothers be put to death, and also ordered the death of his father and anyone who’d sided with his enemies.  Krishna seized Kamsa and dragged him to the wrestling ring where he killed him.  When Kamsa’s brothers attacked, Balarama easily defeated them.  Afterwards, meeting their parents for the first time, Krishna and Balarama accepted their roles as princes.

Krishna kills Kamsa

Krishna is the central character in the other Indian epic, ‘ Mahabharatha’, which deals with war, love, brotherhood, politics, human weaknesses, and other more down-to-earth issues.  It is basically the story of two warring groups of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas.  During the war, the Pandava prince, Arjuna, struggled to accept that his enemies were his relatives, his friends and teachers, and that he was expected to fight and kill them.  He turned to his charioteer and guide, Krishna, for advice, who explained to Arjuna his duties as a warrior and prince, and the importance of the concept of action without attachment.  This part of the ‘ Mahabharatha’ is called the ‘ Bhagavad-Gita’.  As Arjuna’s charioteer, Krishna is also known as ‘Parthasarathi’, chariot-driver of Arjuna, who was sometimes called Partha (son of Prtha)

Krishna and Arjuna

When Vishnu reincarnated as Krishna, Lakshmi, once again, chose to be born on earth, this time as Radha, the daughter of a cow herder.  Of all the ‘gopis’, Radha was the one dearest to Krishna.  Always together in childhood and as they grew up, yet they weren’t destined to remain together.  Krishna left to fulfil his purpose, to vanquish his enemies and become a king … he married, raised a family and fought in the great war of Ayodhya.  All though this, Radha waited for him.  Her love for him was so great that whenever Krishna’s name is mentioned, so is Radha’s.  Their relationship is seen as the embodiment of love and perfection, in that both partners choose not to ‘see imperfections’; instead they surrender and serve one another.

Radha-Krishna

There’s so much more to Krishna’s story – what led to the war between the cousins, and the events leading to his death.  Also, there’s more to the story f Rama and Sita.  Methinks I shall write another post or two later, to complete their stories.

(pictures from Krishna.com)