|Mother of the universe, Motherland|
I remember a small terracotta image of the mother goddess Durga in her role as Mahishamardini, the slayer of the buffalo demon. I had seen this exquisite piece from Midnapur in Bengal at an exhibition on loan from somewhere else, probably the Victoria and Albert. I choose it as the starting point for this article on the role and changing perceptions of the deity in the cultural concerns of Bengali Hindus, the most persistent and ardent worshippers of the mother goddess in her several forms. She is worshipped especially as Durga Mahishamardini, who is perceived, for reasons which are not entirely clear, as the benign manifestation. Her more terrifying counterpart, Kali, the dark and naked goddess, rejoices only in wreaths of human heads. The topic, I think, might be of some interest to an international audience, not merely because there are some eighty million Bengali Hindus in this world, but because this ethnic group was probably the first non-European people in modern times to respond, often in very complex and unexpected ways, to contact with the West. The changing role of Durga and Kali in their political concerns in the course of the last two centuries is quite central to that unlikely story.
Worship of the Mother Goddess in Bengal, as elsewhere in the subcontinent, combines at least two very different traditions — the myths regarding gods and goddesses as contained in the body of sacred literature known as the Puranas and the highly abstract theological notions which merge into and explain those myths and constitute the basis for mystical regimes. I say at least, because beliefs and practices unrelated to the pantheon of Indo-Aryan deities are also believed to have contributed to these cults. The goddess Durga is known among other things as sarvasavaranam bhagavati, the goddess Bhagavati of the Savaras, a tribe of hunters. I shall ignore these ‘tribal’ influences, because this article is not meant to cover the complex history of Durga worship. I shall refer briefly to some aspects of that history only to clarify the context of my statements.
Of the two traditions I have mentioned, the one which is most evident in popular practice, especially in modern times, is traceable to the Puranas. The legend of Durga goes further back in time, in fact to the Vedic literature of pre-Christian millennia. The Aranyaka section of the Taittiriya Upanishad describes one goddess Durga who is resplendent like the raging fire. But the text which celebrates the glory of Durga as she is now worshipped is known as Devimahatmya, i.e., the glory of the goddess. It consists of thirteen chapters of the Markandeya Purana which probably dates back to the fifth century of the Christian era. In Bengal, this Puranic text, popularly known as the Chandi, describing inter alia the battle between the buffalo demon and the goddess which ends in the latter’s victory and the former’s destruction, is read out during the worship of the deity spread over three days in autumn. The goddess whose victory is thus celebrated is Mahamaya, the grand illusion which makes desire for possessions and procreation the innate quality of human beings and is thus responsible for the unsatisfactory and transient nature of this life. Her manifestation assumes many forms including that of the fierce deity, Kali. Her other name, according to the Purana, is Katyayani, Durga being an epithet: for she who delivers from misfortune. The worshipper also knows her as Bhagavati, the feminine of Bhagavan, the supreme deity.
The story of her triumph projects one particular strand in the mythology of ancient India, that of virodha bhakti, devotion manifest as its opposite, enmity. The Kalikapurana tells of an act of indiscretion by the mighty buffalo demon, Mahishasura. Dressed as a female, he seduced the disciple of a great sage who uttered an appropriate curse — that the demon would die at the hands of a female. He dreamt that the goddess Bhagavati with sixteen arms had cleft his head in two and was drinking the blood which poured forth. He considered this a great privilege and prayed to the goddess for a favour — that he should get a share of what humans offered her at the time of worship. The Devi granted her future victim’s prayer. The deity killed the buffalo demon not once but three times. On the third and last of these sacred occasions the deity appeared as Ugrachanda, the fiercely angry one with ten arms. This is the form in which she is worshipped. But the story does not end there because the demon saw her destroyer as a deity with a thousand arms. ‘Ten’, the commentators explain, is a notional figure connoting many. And a creature suffering death for the third time should of course be excused for exaggerating the number of arms possessed by his slayer. But his threefold death was well worth it. For as promised by the goddess, she secured for the poor devil a due share of her devotees’ offerings. The image of the avenging goddess as worshipped by her devotees includes that of the buffalo demon albeit at the receiving end of her ten weapons as also the claws of her mount, the lion. The demon too is an object of worship — a tribute to the principle of virodha bhakti, devotion manifest as enmity, and a characteristically Indian paradigm seeking to reconcile irreconcilables.
Two other Puranic myths are part of the belief system which sustains the worship of Durga Bhagavati, especially in Bengal. One refers to the legend of Sati, Siva’s consort and the daughter of King Daksha. Siva, anguished by her death, takes the body on his shoulders and performs his cosmic dance of destruction until Vishnu, god the preserver, cuts the body up with his chakra or wheel into fifty-two pieces. These pieces are scattered all over India and fifty-two holy sites or pithasthanas are created thereby. This legend was mobilised for purposes of political indoctrination in the nineteenth century. The other myth concerns Uma, daughter of the Himalayas who successfully performed great penance to win Siva as her husband. Bhagavati as worshipped in Bengal is also Uma. The fact, as we shall see later, had interesting implications for the emotional affects associated with Durga Puja.
The myths concerning Kali worship derive from at least three different sources. According to the Devimahatmya, she is a minor emanation from the angry third eye of the goddess during her battle with the demon hosts of Sumbha and Nisumbha. With her lolling tongue, her role was to lick up every drop of blood of the demon general Raktavija, for otherwise each drop would produce countless clones. The Kalika Purana, on the other hand, describes her as Siva’s consort and so do several other Tantric texts.
I quote Samyukta Gupta to explain the theological–mystical subtext of these myths : "Durga and Kali are two facets of the same supreme goddess,… the embodiment of the divine power, potency and dynamism. After the great dissolution of the worlds she regenerates the creation and sustains it until the time arrives when she must withdraw it into herself. She is the nurturing Mother of created beings as well as the sovereign cosmic ruler… She punishes the evil and rewards the righteous. Above all she protects all her creatures and is especially kind… to her loyal devotees, like an indulgent mother to her devoted children." In the theology of the Goddess, Kali is the supreme and absolute consciousness and her hegemony superseded the cosmic triad, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. The Tantric texts also describe the system of Tantric yoga, the esoteric regime which in one of its forms involves handling meat, blood and coitus. The practitioner secures release from the chain of rebirths by becoming one with the goddess.
Tapan Raychaudhuri is Professor Emeritus at St Anthony's College, Oxford, UK.
This article is based on a lecture delivered at the Ashmolean Musuem, Oxford.