My grandfather’s name was Durgadas. Durga means the “invincible one.” As a young child with superficial knowledge about Ma Durga, I always wondered how my Gujarati grandfather was connected to a Bengali Goddess! I partially understood that my own name, Anjali, was inspired by the poet Tagore’s work. But as any child would wonder, how did Ma Durga manage to represent Gujarati people along with Bengalis? Durga is often depicted either riding a tiger or a lion and armed with many weapons which are used to destroy evil including demons which plague the universal existence. Tigers are found in the Bengali Sundarbans (forest) but only the Asiatic lions exist in Gujarat. How did Ma Durga manage to make these magnificent animals her vehicles? This invites an exploration into what Durga represents in Sanatana Dharma philosophy.
Ma Durga is well-known in verses and hymns as having slayed the buffalo demon Mahisashaura. Ma Durga is also one of the more popular incarnations of the Goddess Shakti in the Hindu pantheon and is the primary deity in the tradition of Shaktism: where she enjoys being the Ultimate Reality, or Greater Consciousness, also known as the Brahman. Goddess Durga is the fierce incarnation of Goddess Parvati who is the better half of Bhagwan Shiva. Ma Durga is usually associated with stories revolving around destruction of evil forces which are battling the forces of dharma, or rightful moral conduct. However, what does all this rich symbolism mean for us? This brings us to understanding Navratri, or the nine nights dedicated to the feminine energy and life force – Shakti.
The Nine Days–Navratri
Navratri is an auspicious time consisting of nine days which occurs during the Fall season of each year based on the lunar calendar. These nine days are dedicated to and represent the feminine, while the rest of the days of the month are considered to be masculine in nature. The answer to understanding the feminine power and Goddesses lies in Nature. In Indian philosophy, existence occurs as an interaction of Prakriti, the nature and feminine aspects of life, which work with Purusha, the masculine and engaging aspects. Within the nine days, three main aspects of the Shakti, or the Devi, are worshiped: birth (tamas), well-being (rajas), and (sattva) transcendence. These aspects, or the gunas make up Prakriti, which again is the feminine life force within the universal existence, including the human body. Purusha, is her masculine counterpart which when engaged with Prakriti brings creation forth.
The harmony of the masculine and feminine is often portrayed as the interaction between the two aspects as below:
*M denotes Masculine principles; F denotes Feminine principles
Creation: Brahma (M) – Saraswati (F)
Maintenance: Vishnu (M) – Lakshmi (F)
Annihilation: Shiva (M) – Parvati (F)
Just as each of the masculine and feminine duo is responsible for bringing forth creation; maintaining creation; and destroying all those negative aspects in order to bring forth new creation, Purusha interacts with Prakriti to accomplish all of the above. For those inclined towards Bhakti (devotion), each of the aspects above could be either worshiped individually or can be worshipped together as creation, maintenance and annihilation; it would be then known and worshipped as Ultimate Consciousness, the One Reality, or simply put, Bhagwan, or God.
The first nine days of Navratri is dedicated to the Devi, and the gunas take turns being worshipped for the entirety of nine days. The first day represents tamas, the second day rajas, the third sattva and the cycle of three again represent fourth, fifth and sixth days, and continue until the ninth day of Navami.
The feminine nature of the divine – Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati are worshiped during Navratri. Each of them represents the three qualities of our entire existence; Durga representing tamas (birth, inertia), Lakshmi representing rajas (drive, well-being), and Saraswati representing sattva (purity, transcendence). These qualities are present in all of us, in Nature, including the sun, the moon and the earth. The earth consists of inertia, or tamas, the sun is the assertive, life-giving rajas, while the moon is the cooling and healing sattva.
Ma Durga sometimes interchanged with Ma Kali, and the aspects represent the earth and hibernation, and are associated with the ground and soil. The initial inertia in the ground leads to birth. Thus, the first, fourth, and seventh days of Navratri are dedicated to Ma Durga. In Hindu tradition, the tamasic state is filled with inertia and non-doing, but once action, or kri (Sanskrit term for ‘action’ or ‘doing’) are introduced to the tamasic state, rajasic activities can begin to form. Goddess Laxmi represents the rajas guna, which is associated with maintenance. Goddess Laxmi represents materialism and maintenance of householders and life, including the goal of earning artha or wealth for survival. The second, fifth and eighth days of Navratri are dedicated to Lakshmi. When the rajas guna of pure drive and ambition is coupled and humbled with the concept of sacrifice (tyaga), the drive to achieve any desire becomes pure, leading one to be in a sattvic or in a pure state. The sattva guna then is associated with knowledge, creative powers, wisdom, all represented by Goddess Saraswati. Thus, the third, sixth and the ninth days of Navratri are dedicated to Saraswati.
Tamas is the nature of our birth, earth, and Ma Durga; therefore, those who wish to achieve power, strength and being grounded will gravitate to worshiping Durga and at times her counterpart Bhagwan Shiva in his many forms. Those who are inclined towards passion, material possessions, aspiration for wealth will lean towards worshiping Ma Lakshmi or her counterpart Bhagwan Vishnu and their many avatars, as well as the Sun. Those who strive for knowledge, transcendence from the mortal existence will worship Saraswati, or the Moon. Most of us on earth go back and forth between the Durga-Lakshmi or the earth-sun, or tamas–rajas existence, though Saraswati, and sattva are great possibilities in terms of achievement during the time of Navratri.
Durga represents the Divine possibility, of reaching the goal of existence which is Sattva. We are composed of earth, comprising of the pancha bhuta or five elements – fire, air, ether, soil, and water – but the goal of existence is to transcend beyond the impermanent human body. Union with the Ultimate Reality is the goal and Durga is the initiation to the pathway towards potentially attaining Immortality.
According to the philosophies which originate in the Indian subcontinent, the goal of existence is not in debating how many forms the divine can take, which people believe range from none to many, but the goal of existence is liberation and transcendence. Durga makes this a possibility by guiding us so that while we may be born of earth and find pleasure in accumulating the offerings of the earth to sustain the body and survive, we should be living an active life and performing action which allows us to have rajasic desires for well-being. Then, the rajas guna coupled with the best intentions of tyaga (sacrifice) makes the goal of life of transcendence a possibility.
Ma Saraswati might seem elusive, but Ma Durga makes being touched by Saraswati and Sattva guna a possibility for humans. Symbolically, what Durga is destroying as Mahisashaura in battle is nothing other than our nay-saying, tamasic, and lethargic inclinations. The feminine shakti, Durga, is what allows us to not falsely identify with the ego or the “I” sense along with the impermanent body. Durga, also prepares us to look and go beyond the impermanent aspects of the universe.
Ma Durga, with her many sharp weapons beacons us to destroy tamasic attachments, including destroying of internal and external demons in order to become effortlessly involved, cognizant and self-accountable in our life’s journey. It seems fitting now to know that my grandfather, embodied in a male physical and cultural structure, can also have femininity in his name, as both energies, or aspects of himself work together to form one coherent whole, helping strive toward Sattva, freedom from the physical body and its desires.
The human existence is considered to be the greatest possibility according to Indian philosophical schools. The human ability to discriminate via wisdom and learning is what allows us to go beyond the commonalities we have with the animal kingdom. Existence allows us to harness the discrimination power to identify the Real from Unreal is a quality which is symbolized in Mahisashaura’s destruction. Applying learning in order to discriminate between the lower and higher aspects of life is what Ma Durga beautifully represents.
Without Durga, transcendence via Lakshmi to Saraswati would not be a possibility. Navratri therefore is a celebration of the feminine Shakti which allows us the possibility to Transcend. A few years ago, my six-year-old niece eagerly confessed that she wants to be just like Durga, but she doesn’t have all the cool weapons yet. Durga teaches us that the weapons and tools we need are already within us. Let Ma Durga guide us to be absolutely devoted to the process and the goal as well as be involved in our lives whether it be in worship or celebration this Navratri season and beyond.
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