Durga worship

  • By Prabuddha Bharata
  • October 2004
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The story of how Divine Mother Durga revealed herself to human consciousness and why she is worshipped is quite interesting. This month being extremely auspicious, when Durga worship is performed all over India and in numerous countries abroad, let’s meditate on the Divine Mother for a few moments.

Introduction

Sri Ramakrishna has declared time and again: He who is Brahman is also Sakti. When thought of as inactive, He is called Brahman, and when thought of as the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer, He is called the Primordial Energy, Kali. Brahman and Sakti are identical, like fire and its power to burn…. If you accept the one you must accept the other.

From the indivisible saccidananda, Brahman, to the ever-blissful mother, Durga, the so-called ‘transformation’ reads like a story.

Mother Goddess in the Vedas

Many great scholars have traced the origins of Mother worship from the Vedas down to the modern age. We shall meditate on what great masters say about Durga.

A number of goddesses have been mentioned and worshipped in the Vedas, but Aditi owns an important place as she is considered to be the mother of all the gods. Max Muller has commented that ‘Aditi, an ancient God or Goddess, is in reality the earliest name invented to express the Infinite.’ M. Hiriyanna also says that Aditi means the Infinite. This ‘Infinite’ has gradually got transformed into the Divine Mother.

The earliest mention of Aditi is in a hymn of the first mandala of the Rg Veda (1.89.10), though her children, the Adityas, are mentioned earlier (Rg Veda, 1.14.3). Sage Gautama is the rishi of that special hymn; special because it introduces the Divine mother. Gautama prays to many deities for protection, longevity for human beings, health, wealth, etc, and finally describes Aditi in this way:

Aditi is all the heavens. Aditi is the space. Aditi is the mother, father, children. Aditi is all the gods and goddesses. Aditi is the five bases of creation. Aditi is the birth and Aditi is the source of everything.

In quite a few other mantras too has Aditi been called the mother of all the gods and goddesses. Apart from being called the mother of all the gods (devan adityan avase) Aditi is also called the mother of the Rudras (matarudranam). In the Katha Upanisad (2.1.7), Aditi has been described thus:

Aditi, who arises with life, is the soul of the gods (devatamayi). Having entered the secret chamber of the heart, she who was born with the beings remains there. She is verily That.

This shows that Aditi is both the soul of the gods, i.e., the Supreme, as well as the one who is born with the beings. ‘So she is the bridge to eternity. But how did Aditi become Durga?

From Aditi to Durga

A remarkable hymn of the Rg Veda (10.72), attributed to Sage Brhaspati, deals with the birth of the gods. In it is mystical mantra, which says that Aditi is called Daksa’s mother and, surprisingly, also his daughter :

We shall very clearly state the story of the birth of the gods… Before the birth of the gods, being came into existence from non-being…. From the creation-tree (uttanapada), came forth the earth (bhu), and the upper worlds (bhuvah) came forth from desire. Aditi gave birth to Daksa, and Aditi was born of Daksa again O Daksa! Aditi is your daughter! All the gods took birth later.

Pundits are baffled with this stanza and have explained it in several ways. Since Aditi has been called the Infinite initially, mother next, and daughter later, we can hazard a Vedantic meaning to all this: The Infinite, Brahman, is static. But when It is somehow enveloped by maya, It becomes the creator, preserve and destroyer of the universe and is called Isvara. Isvara evolves further to become Hiranyagarbha and Virat. This whole dynamic state of Brahman is termed Sakti. We saw that the name given to Sakti who created everything is Aditi. So Aditi is the mother of everything and, therefore, of Daksa also

Who is Daksa? There are several meanings to the word, like the author of Daksa-samhita’ ‘Atri’ a capable person’ etc. But the most important meaning is Prajapati, the father of creation. In the Bhagavata (4.6.17-8), Daksa, the son of Pracetasas, is called Prajapati, the creator of all living beings. Prajapati, or Brahma is the supreme creator of the gross universe. But in order to create all this, he should be there first. So he is the firstborn. The Vedantic firstborn is called Hiranyagarbha. So Daksa Prajapati is Hiranyagarbha, responsible for the grosser manifestation of the universe. Aditi became the daughter of this Daksa Prajapati.

The Nirukta says: ‘Daksa is called Aditya since he was Aditi’s son. Again, Aditi is called Daksayani since she is Daksa’s daughter. Yaska the author of Nirukta, continues, saying that the divine origins (devadharmena itaretara-janmanau) are difficult for us to understand.

So Daksa Prajapati as the creator of the gross universe is constantly engaged in the cosmic sacrifice of creation. While Daksa is associated with creation, Rudra is always associated with the terrible, destructive aspect in the Vedas. So Daksa Prajapati, Brahma, creates and Rudra, who becomes Siva in the post-Vedic age, destroys. The two powers-of creation and destruction-are like day and night. So Daksa and Rudra can never go together. The ‘sacrifice’ of Daksa, creation, and the sacrifice’ of Rudra, destruction, on endlessly.

This is jagat.

We now come to the Puranas. According to the Kalika Purana, Daksa performed a great many austerities in order to have the Divine Mother as his daughter. And Mahamaya, also called Aditi or devamata, was born as Daksa’s daughter, Sati She married Rudra. Sanskritists derive the term Sati from asti or sat, meaning ‘existence’. So the daughter of creation, or being, became the wife of destruction! We can see a link between creation, preservation or existence, and destruction here.

We know the famous Puranic story of Daksa’s sacrifice: Bhagavata (4.1-7), Kalika Purana (chapters 8-18) and other sacred works describe the sacrifice with some variations. Daksa had invited all the other gods to the sacrifice he performed; but he did not invite either Siva or Sati. Unable to bear the insult meted out to her husband, Sati went to the sacrifice uninvited, and when her father insulted her husband further, she gave up her body in anger. Supremely enraged at Sati’s death, Siva destroyed the sacrifice of Daksa, and roamed about carrying the body of Sati on his shoulders. Not knowing how to appease Siva’s terrible anger, Brahma, Vishnu (a Vedic deity who is well known as the protector of everything as the Rg Veda, 5.46 declares, for instance) and others cut Sati’s body into pieces and made them fall on different parts of the earth. This created 51 spiritual centres, which are famous and vibrant with spirituality even today.

This story tells us that after creation comes preservation, and when the preservation-power goes, there’s destruction. Thus in order for the cycle to be complete, there must be creation and then preservation and then destruction.

It will all not end with destruction; there will be creation once again. Going back to the Puranas, Menaka was Sati’s friend during her days with Siva. Menaka was deeply interested in having the Divine Mother as her daughter. So she would perform severe penances in the Himalayas. In order to fulfil her wish, the Divine Mother was born as her daughter after the Sati episode. Her name was Uma, also called Haimavati because she was Himavan’s daughter, and Gauri because of her fair complexion. So Aditi was born again!

The Vedas substantiate this Puranic story. About Uma, the Kenopanisad has a remarkable story. Once, Indra and other gods became proud that they had defeated enemies, but it was Brahman who had fought for them. In order to test their prowess, Brahman appeared before them as a yaksa. The gods Agni and Vayu went and failed not only to recognize him but also to pass the little test he put them to Finally, when the king of the gods, Indra, himself went, Brahman disappeared. Indra is known for his pride, and at least two such instances can be cited: two hymns of the Rg Veda (10.48 and 49) show how proud Indra was. But the mother is compassionate. Therefore, though Brahman did not show himself, in his place stood the brilliant (bahu-sobhamana) Uma, the mother Divine. She told Indra that it was Brahman himself who had appeared before them. Uma, therefore, revealed Brahman-knowledge for the first time to creation. So she is the personification of brahmajnana. Syana writes in his commentary on this subject: ‘Since the daughter of Himavat, Gauri, is the revealer of Brahman-knowledge, the term Gauri or Uma implies brahmavidya. It is this Uma who is worshipped as Durga! Durga worship is thus the worship of knowledge. And Durga destroys not just the demon but ignorance also!

Scholars quote the Brhad-devata, a text of supreme importance. They say there are several places in it where Aditi has been equated with Durga. Especially a verse (2.77) of the Brhad-devata clearly states that Aditi is Durga.

From Creator to Destroyer of Evil 

Thus we see that Aditi, the supreme mother of all, became Sati first, and Uma later. But how did she acquire the name Durga? By bestowing supreme knowledge, Uma destroys our misery born of ignorance. Misery is called duhkha in Sanskrit. The derivative meaning of the word Durga is, durduhkhena gamyate. And she is ‘durgart-nasin’. Therefore Uma is Durga.

There are several other reasons for her name being Durga, given in the Devi Bhagavata, Durga-saptasati, as well as in other places. The Durga-saptasati reasons are: since the Divine Mother killed the demon by name Durgama, since she is like a ship that sails us safely through the impossible-to-cross ocean of samsara (durgasi durga-bhava-sagara naurasanga); and since she rescues us from all difficulties (durgayai, durga-parayai) she is called Durga. According to the Devi Purana, she who removes fear from the heart of one who thinks of her when confronted by enemies is called Durga. Again, the commonly known idea is that since she as the destroyer of fate (durgati) is called Durga.

Aditi, we saw, is the creation of the universe, the mother of the gods. But is she known as the destroyer of evil and ignorance also, as Durga is famed to be? Oh yes, she is! The Vedas declare repeatedly that Aditi is the protector of all. Sage Vasistha prays to Aditi thus: ‘O Mother Aditi, please see that the gods Varuna, Mitra and Aryama, who hold the returns of our sacrifices in their hands, do not become hurdles to us; so protect us from sins. Again, another sage declares: ‘O Goddess Aditi You are loved in all the worlds. If you protect us, none can harm us. Please come to us along with the brilliant gods.’ And ‘Aditi knows to differentiate between friends and foes….  

May Aditi protect our wealth day and night…. May Aditi come to us. May she be stow peace and happiness to us; may she destroy our enemies. Thus Aditi becomes Durga, and her qualities of destroying enemies, creating the universe, and preserving life are all manifested fully in Durga. So Durga is very clearly a Vedic goddess and has a history of tens of thousands of years. While Vedic sages and others adored Aditi through prayers and hymns and sacrifices, Lord Krsna himself is said to be the first to worship her in the Durga form, next Brahma, next Siva, next Dharmaraja, etc! Whenever the gods had trouble, they would resort to Durga. So Durga worship has a glorious tradition.

However, there’s another difficulty While Vedic Aditi is not known to possess weapons, wherefrom did Durga get her present form? In the Puranas we have Prajapati praying fervently to the Divine Mother, who as yoganidra had put the protector of the universe, Vishnu, to sleep. The need for waking him was, two wicked demons, Madhu and Kaitabha, along with Mahisa and others of extraordinary power, had to be destroyed. Vishnu woke up and killed the first two demons after great difficulty. When he heard of the third, Mahisa, he was enraged, and out of his anger came out a great power. Similarly, powers came out of all the other gods. The powers combined to become the divine Mother (as she is their soul), and was given the best weapons by the gods. The Divine Mother routed Mahisa and his army, and disappeared. It was this Divine Mother who saved the gods as Gauri once again.

How Gauri or Uma became involved in saving the gods is told in Durga Saptasati in detail. When two other demons by name Sumbha and Nisumbha began troubling the gods, they resorted to the Himalayas and prayed to Gauri or Parvati. She killed all the demons, saved the gods, and assumed several names like Camunda (for having killed the demons Canda and Munda) etc.

This is the story of Aditi’s becoming Durga.

The Reason for Durga Worship

We saw how Aditi, the mother of all the gods and all the worlds, became transformed into Durga. We also saw that Durga destroyed the terrible enemies of the gods. But why do we worship Durga now also?

Durga is worshipped because she is the source of everything, and represents the Supreme in this divine form. Moreover, by worshipping her, all the gods and goddesses are worshipped, because, for instance, Durga is the goddess of learning. The Brhad-devata (2.76) says that Aditi, Vak and Sarasvati are one and the same. Again, Durga is the goddess of wealth, Laksmi. The Rg Vedas says that Aditi is sarvamangala; and the Atharva Vedas says that Aditi is samrddhi dayini. And Durga is Kali also. Scholars quote the Kubjika Tantra and say that even though she is fair and golden in complexion, Durga assumed the dark colour in this Kaliyuga. The Mahabharata (1.1.209-10) says that it is Kala or Time who creates, preserves and destroys everything. This Kala is the other name of Siva’s wife is Parvati or Durga. So she is called Kali, and hence the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe. In this way, Durga is the Universal mother. To worship her is to worship everything and everyone all powers. Yet we see that others deities too are worshipped along with her.

Above all, Durga is the personification of supreme knowledge. By symbolically killing the dark demon Mahisa who represents ignorance or tamas, she reveals that see is the bestower of divine knowledge that liberates. She destroys evil in us and bestows all good She is the deliverer of souls.

By worshipping her, Mother Durga bestows everything; as Laksmi she bestows wealth, prosperity, etc; as Sarasvati she bestows intelligence, spiritual brilliance, etc. As Durga herself, she bestows liberation. So by worshipping Durga, we attain everything all the four purusarthas or goals of human life religion (dharma), material prosperity (artha), enjoyment (kama) and liberation from suffering and bondage (moksa).

Such being the glory of Durga, we could worship her anytime. But why is she specially worshipped during this autumnal season? Why especially in sarat-kala or autumn?

A part from some known reasons (see p. 500, for instance). One reason given is this one:

One of the innumerable names of Durga is Ambika. The Bengali Visvakosa says that the first ever mention of Ambika is in the Taittiriya Brahmana (1.6.10.4), where Ambika is called Rudra’s sister owing to her mercilessness towards the wicked. The Visvakosa also quotes the commentator of this Brahmana Mahidhara, that Ambika assumes the form of sarat or autumn kills the enemies by way of creating diseases. The terrible forms of Ambika and Rudra, says Mahidhara, are pacified by sacrifices and offering of oblations. It implies that Durga is most active during the autumnal season, destroying evil. Her worship, done at this time, will naturally be propitious. In any case, the popular belief is that Durga is easily pleased by the devotee’s call, and she is ready to protect us always. So to worship her is our greatest good fortune. Let’s worship her to our heart’s content.

Also read

1. To know all about Durga Puja 
2. Durga Puja Kolkata 
3. Durga Puja Kulu 
4. Durga Puja Bageshwar Kumaon 
5. Mysore Dussehra 
6. Worship of God as Mother in Indian tradition 
7. Durga Saptashati (Devi Mahatmyam) by T N Sethumadhavan 
8. Shakti peeth Tripura Sundari Mandir 

This article was first published in Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata (www.advaitaashrama.org). I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. You can subscribe online at www.advaitaashrama.org. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To know more http://advaitaashrama.org/pbSubscription