Durga Puja, also called Navratri, is here again. This nine-day festival to welcome home goddess Durga, a powerful and militant matriarch in the Hindu pantheon, comes in the harvest month of Ashwin and is one of the most important festivals in the country.
Scriptures say Durga was created during a terrifying cosmic crisis brought on by a meltdown of the divine powers of the supreme male triad of Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the sustainer; and Mahesh (or Shiva), the destroyer. Scriptures will also confirm that disorder in the divine world is usually precipitated by one of the gods’ own spoilt and much blessed protégés getting drunk with power and threatening his mentors. Ravana, for example, empowered by Shiva, went on to create havoc in the life of (Vishnu’s incarnation) Ram. Bhasmasur, empowered with the ability to decimate an enemy merely by placing his hand on his head, held the gods to ransom till Vishnu, disguised as a winsome woman (Mohini) tricked him into touching his own head.
It was hardly surprising then that Mahishasur, the buffalo demon, who had won himself a boon of invincibility against all male warriors by flattering the gods with various penances and stutis (prayers of praise), should similarly begin to threaten the gods. What could the male gods do but call out for Mother and ask her to save their lives. Mahishasur was not alone. There were also the demon brothers Madhu and Kaitabh, who had tumbled out of Vishnu’s ear wax, brothers Shumbh and Nishumbh, and their dreaded general Raktbeej who had, likewise, using flattery and guile to please the gods, won for himself the rare capacity to be rejuvenated and to multiply with each drop of blood he shed in battle.
It was crunch time and the situation clearly called for a bailout package in the shape of a non-male deity with strategic and martial abilities far superior to those of the enemy. Since gullibility brought on by overconfidence and vanity had led the gods to grossly misjudge the greed of their erstwhile disciples, the person bailing them out had to be above vanity, flattery or coy displays of sexual charm. And so woman power in the shape of the many-armed Durga arrived. She is said to have created her own female army out of her body and together they fought the demons on the ground, in the air and on the seabed. After they had beheaded all the demons and routed their armies, Durga and her companions are said to have broken into a wild dance. They drank wine as also the blood of their enemies and kicked the decapitated heads about.
So much for traditional assumptions about the weaker sex. So much also for elaborate and abstemious fasting to please the goddess, followed by vegetarian meals. According to established tantrik lore too, Durga is neither submissive nor reconciled to the natural superiority of males. Traditional gender demarcations are not for her. Like any good fighter, she loves her drink, can share a good laugh and dance with gleeful abandon after each ruthless beheading.
Durga, most of us have forgotten, was initially the goddess of the non-Aryan tribe of the meat-eating and wine-swilling matriarchal Shabaras (a tribe of forest-dwelling hunters outside the pale of the Hindu caste system, also known as Bhils). And when she was inducted as an establishment goddess in the Hindu pantheon much later (around the 4th century), she carried her Shabara habits with her.
The question is: How do we reconcile the aboriginal Durga with the modern and much-softened version of her as a benign mother of Ganesh, Laxmi, Saraswati and Kartikeya who comes visiting her natal home during the Puja like any meek, married daughter? Actually, Durga was originally (till the 12th century at least) worshipped only as Aparajita—the invincible one—by martial clans all over India. As the cosmos stabilized, bloody wars ceased and fields began to produce crops, Durga came to be associated with the earth’s powers of fertility and regeneration. As a benign goddess of harvests, Durga’s earlier fierce contours were softened considerably and many other characteristics of ordinary women came to be applied to her.
Since north India remains primarily patrilocal and patriarchal in matters of matrimony, Durga during her home visits came to be portrayed as a married daughter who misses her family and is usually not treated too well by her hemp-smoking otherworldly husband, Shiva, and his wild family. The difficulties she faces in the mountains, and her longing for her home and kin is the dominant theme in sad songs of farewell sung by men and women from the hills of Uttarakhand to Bengal on the 10th day, the day of the immersion.
In my home town of Almora, the Raja of Almora led the procession of the departing goddess. The last male member of his clan, the Raja died intestate. But he left a large sum of money for the local goddess temple to ensure the rituals were carried out each autumn, so the goddess-daughter received a welcome and a farewell fit for a warrior princess. The Raja realized, perhaps, that gullibility or greed is a constant of power. And so wars, meltdowns and terror may occur cyclically in our world from time to time. And when the prospect of sudden failure sends the rulers into hiding and the public veering towards the abyss, federal bailouts and police crackdowns may help only so far.
What the world will need is an entirely New Deal.
So as they immerse her idols, it will be reassuring to hear the crowds chant, Esho Ma, esho (Come again, Mother).
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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