By M N Chatterjee
Oct 19, 2012
The story of Devi Durga as depicted in the Devimahatmyam or Chandi, a part of the Markandeya Purana which is recited during the Durga Puja, is a spiritual metaphor for liberation by eliminating evil forces. However, the task becomes increasingly challenging at every stage of its evolution. The narration projects a three-fold vision of the goddess as a battle-queen fighting marauding hordes of demons. At the first stage, she helps Vishnu in overcoming the dreaded demons Madhu and Kaitabha after they are deluded by her maya.
In the second major episode, which is central to her identity during the Puja celebrations, she exterminates the buffalo-demon Mahishasura after a long battle and emerges as Mahishasuramardini. As the story goes, the gods led by Indra, are vanquished by demons led by Mahishasura in the form of a buffalo and are driven away from heaven.
Parvati, the consort of Shiva, becomes Devi Durga as she is invoked and created by the combined effulgence of the assembled gods who give her their weapons and wish her victory in her battle against the demons.
The Gods Are Relieved
Generals deputed by the buffalo-demon like Ciksura, Camara and Udagra, along with thousands of their aides, fight Devi but are vanquished by her till she comes face-to-face with Mahishasura who tries to deceive her by changing his form from lion and elephant and back to buffalo. Chandika, as she is called here, finishes him off after a long battle. The gods heave a sigh of relief and hail her great victory.
In the third and final episode, the longest one, the gods are harassed by demons headed by Sumbha and Nishumbha and the Devi is invoked to come to their rescue. But, she has to first face their ferocious generals, Dhumralochana, Chanda, Munda and Raktabija. She dispatches them one after the other during a protracted and gory battle and thus becomes known as Chamunda while assuming the form of Kali.
The terrible Raktabija, whose every drop of shed blood turns into yet another demon, is found to be more deceptive than the earlier demons. Ultimately, she drinks his blood and by so doing prevents the blood from touching the ground. After slaying him, she exterminates Sumbha and Nishumbha. The gods feel relieved and cosmic balance is restored.
The demon-chiefs symbolise brute force and cruelty, unbridled greed for power and acquisitive tendency boosted by their uncontrollable ego that bulldozes the interests of others. Sumbha brazenly tries to entice the Devi with proposals for marriage, wealth and power but to no avail. Durga Puja celebrations would be meaningful only when devotees become aware of how dangerous such vices can be as they are stumbling blocks in the path to Self-realisation and devotees spare time to introspect.
A Yiddish proverb goes: ‘A mother hears what the child does not say.’ This is demonstrated by the universal Mother, Devi Durga. For instance, after the dreaded Mahishasura is felled by her, she asks the gods to tell her what they desire of her. The gods respond in gratitude that since the demons have been slain by her everything has been accomplished. ‘If a boon is to be granted to us by you, O Maheshwari, whenever we face any calamity again and think of you, do come to rid us and mortals of distress’. Bhadrakali, as she is hailed here, agrees and disappears, according to scriptural hymns.
In Aurobindo’s concept of Shakti, ‘She is the Force, the inevitable Word, the magnet of our difficult time’. As Shakti, she represents the universal principle of energy, epitomising power and action. The annual enactment of the story of her heroic exploits has two-fold significance. It finds subtle resonance with the weak and the deprived whose muted cries of despair remain ignored.
Secondly, the female victims of exploitation and humiliation find a kind of vicarious relief in the periodic enactment of the militant manifestation of the Mother Goddess destroying arrogant male demons. She is not only the archetypal mother to all her children, but also the alter ego to women in particular.
In her iconographic representation, she is flanked by Lakshmi and Saraswati and Kartikeya and Ganesha. It suggests that the pursuit of power and wealth should be tempered with wisdom and learning with divine blessings. Lion, the Devi’s vaahan or vehicle, represents strength and determination. The third eye of the Durga is foresight.
Durga Puja is heralded on the ‘Mahalaya’, in the first phase of the waxing moon, with the invocation of the Goddess before daybreak. On Maha Sashti, Devi arrives at her terrestrial home to spend time with her parents. She is welcomed with the pulsating beat of the dhak, or drum when the idol is unveiled.
Maha Saptami is the first day of the full-fledged Puja when nine types of plants, collectively called Navapatrika and a plantain tree are worshipped along with the goddess as part of an ancient ritual. This shows her close association with vegetation, food and fertility. On Maha Ashtami, Sandhi Puja is performed to mark the interlinking of this day with Maha Navami the following day, the last day of Puja. On Vijaya Dashami, the next day, a tearful farewell is accorded to Devi who leaves the terrestrial home of her parents to rejoin her consort Shiva in Kailash. The poignant human-divine interface, deeply etched in our collective consciousness, perhaps accounts for Durga Puja’s evergreen popularity.