Goddess of Strength and Protection
|Other names||Mahishasura Mardini, Bhavani, Devi Maa, Mata Rani, Adi Shakti|
|Weapon||Chakra (discus), Shankha (conch shell), Trishula (trident), Gada (mace), Bow and Arrow, Khanda (sword) and Shield, Ghanta (bell)|
|Mount||Lion and Tiger|
|Texts||Devi-Bhagavata Purana, Devi Mahatmya|
|Festivals||Durga Puja, Durga Ashtami, Navaratri, Vijayadashami|
|Glossary of Hinduism terms|
Durga (Sanskrit: दुर्गा, IAST: Durgā) is a major Hindu goddess, worshipped as a principal aspect of the mother goddess Mahadevi. She is associated with protection, strength, motherhood, destruction, and wars.
Durga's legend centres around combating evils and demonic forces that threaten peace, prosperity, and dharma, representing the power of good over evil. Durga is believed to unleash her divine wrath against the wicked for the liberation of the oppressed, and entails destruction to empower creation. Durga is seen as a motherly figure and often depicted as a beautiful woman, riding a lion or tiger, with many arms each carrying a weapon and often defeating demons. She is widely worshipped by the followers of the goddess-centric sect, Shaktism, and has importance in other denominations like Shaivism and Vaishnavism.
The most important texts of Shaktism, Devi Mahatmya, and Devi Bhagavata Purana, revere Devi (the Goddess) as the primordial creator of the universe and the Brahman (ultimate truth and reality). She is one of the five equivalent deities in Panchayatana puja of the Smarta tradition of Hinduism.
Durga has a significant following all over India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and many other countries. She is mostly worshipped after spring and autumn harvests, especially during the festivals of Durga Puja, Durga Ashtami, Vijayadashami, Deepavali, and Navaratri.
Etymology and nomenclature
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The word Durga (दुर्गा) literally means "impassable", "invincible, unassailable". It is related to the word Durg (दुर्ग) which means "fortress, something difficult to defeat or pass". According to Monier Monier-Williams, Durga is derived from the roots dur (difficult) and gam (pass, go through). According to Alain Daniélou, Durga means "beyond defeat".
The word Durga and related terms appear in the Vedic literature, such as in the Rigveda hymns 4.28, 5.34, 8.27, 8.47, 8.93 and 10.127, and in sections 10.1 and 12.4 of the Atharvaveda.[note 1] A deity named Durge appears in section 10.1.7 of the Taittiriya Aranyaka. While the Vedic literature uses the word Durga, the description therein lacks the legendary details about her that is found in later Hindu literature.
यस्याः परतरं नास्ति सैषा दुर्गा प्रकीर्तिता ॥२४॥
She who is renowned by the name "Durga" is the being superior to whom, no one exists.
Hence, Durga alone is concluded to be the supreme deity of the Vedas in Shaktism. The word is also found in ancient post-Vedic Sanskrit texts such as in section 2.451 of the Mahabharata and section 4.27.16 of the Ramayana. These usages are in different contexts. For example, Durg is the name of an Asura who had become invincible to gods, and Durga is the goddess who intervenes and slays him. Durga and its derivatives are found in sections 4.1.99 and 6.3.63 of the Ashtadhyayi by Pāṇini, the ancient Sanskrit grammarian, and in the commentary of Nirukta by Yaska. Durga as a demon-slaying goddess was likely well established by the time the classic Hindu text called Devi Mahatmya was composed, which scholars variously estimate to between 400 and 600 CE. The Devi Mahatmya and other mythologies describe the nature of demonic forces symbolised by Mahishasura as shape-shifting and adapting in nature, form and strategy to create difficulties and achieve their evil ends, while Durga calmly understands and counters the evil in order to achieve her solemn goals.[note 2]
There are many epithets for Durga in Shaktism and her nine appellations are (Navadurga): Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayini, Kalaratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidatri. A list of 108 names of the goddess is recited in order to worship her and is popularly known as the "Ashtottarshat Namavali of Goddess Durga".
One famous shloka states the definition and origin of the term 'Durga': "Durge durgati nashini", meaning Durga is the one who destroys all distress or one who eliminates suffering.
History and texts
Evidence of Durga-like images can probably be traced back to the Indus Valley civilisation. According to Asko Parpola, a cylindrical seal from Kalibangan shows "a Durgā-like goddess of war, who is associated with the tiger".
I am the Queen, the gatherer-up of treasures, most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship.
Thus gods have established me in many places with many homes to enter and abide in.
Through me alone all eat the food that feeds them, – each man who sees, breathes, hears the word outspoken.
They know it not, yet I reside in the essence of the Universe. Hear, one and all, the truth as I declare it.
I, verily, myself announce and utter the word that gods and men alike shall welcome.
I make the man I love exceedingly mighty, make him nourished, a sage, and one who knows Brahman.
I bend the bow for Rudra, that his arrow may strike, and slay the hater of devotion.
I rouse and order battle for the people, I created Earth and Heaven and reside as their Inner Controller.
On the world's summit I bring forth sky the Father: my home is in the waters, in the ocean as Mother.
Thence I pervade all existing creatures, as their Inner Supreme Self, and manifest them with my body.
I created all worlds at my will, without any higher being, and permeate and dwell within them.
The eternal and infinite consciousness is I, it is my greatness dwelling in everything.
Devi's epithets synonymous with Durga appear in Upanishadic literature, such as Kali in verse 1.2.4 of the Mundaka Upanishad dated to about the 5th century BCE. This single mention describes Kali as "terrible yet swift as thought", very red and smoky coloured manifestation of the divine with a fire-like flickering tongue, before the text begins presenting its thesis that one must seek self-knowledge and the knowledge of the eternal Brahman.
Durga, in her various forms, appears as an independent deity in the Epics period of ancient India, that is the centuries around the start of the common era. Both Yudhisthira and Arjuna characters of the Mahabharata invoke hymns to Durga. She appears in Harivamsa in the form of Vishnu's eulogy, and in Pradyumna prayer. Various Puranas from the early to late 1st millennium CE dedicate chapters of inconsistent mythologies associated with Durga. Of these, the Markandeya Purana and the Devi-Bhagavata Purana are the most significant texts on Durga. The Devi Upanishad and other Shakta Upanishads, mostly dated to have been composed in or after the 9th century, present the philosophical and mystical speculations related to Durga as Devi and other epithets, identifying her to be the same as the Brahman and Atman (self, soul).
In the Narada Purana, Durga is associated as a form of Lakshmi. In the Garuda Purana and the Vishnu Purana, Lakshmi is considered Prakriti (Mahalakshmi) and is identified with three forms — Sri, Bhu and Durga. In Pancharatra texts such as the Lakshmi Tantra, Lakshmi has Durga as one of her forms and acquires the name Durga after killing the demon Durgamasura. These texts identify Durga as Vishnu's māyā".
The historian Ramaprasad Chanda stated in 1916 that Durga evolved over time in the Indian subcontinent. A primitive form of Durga, according to Chanda, was the result of "syncretism of a mountain-goddess worshiped by the dwellers of the Himalaya and the Vindhyas", a deity of the Abhiras conceptualised as a war-goddess. In the Virata Parvan stuti and Vaishnava texts, the Goddess is called the Māhāmāyā, or the Yoganidrā of Vishnu. These further points her Abhira or Gopa origins. Durga then transformed into Kali as the personification of the all-destroying time, while aspects of her emerged as the primordial energy (Adya Sakti) integrated into the samsara (cycle of rebirths) concept and this idea was built on the foundation of the Vedic religion, mythology and philosophy. There are total of nine avatars of Goddess Durga in Hinduism.
Epigraphical evidence indicates that regardless of her origins, Durga is an ancient goddess. The 6th-century CE inscriptions in early Siddhamatrika script, such as at the Nagarjuni hill cave during the Maukhari era, already mention the legend of her victory over Mahishasura (buffalo-hybrid demon).
The most popular legend associated with the goddess is of her killing of Mahishasura. Mahishasura was a half-buffalo demon who did severe penance in order to please Brahma, the creator. After several years, Brahma, pleased with his devotion, appeared before him. The demon opened his eyes and asked the god for immortality. Brahma refused, stating that all must die one day. Mahishasura then thought for a while and asked a boon that only a woman could be able to kill him. Brahma granted the boon and disappeared. Mahishasura started to torture innocent people. He captured Svarga and was not in any kind of fear, as he thought women to be powerless and weak. The devas were worried and they went to Trimurti. The Trimurti combined their power, and gave a physical form to the sum of their divine energy, Adi Shakti, a warrior woman with many arms. Himavan, the personification of the Himalayas, gifted a lion as her mount. Durga, on her lion, appeared before Mahishasura where the demon took on different forms and attacked the goddess. Each time, Durga would destroy his forms. At last, Durga slew Mahishasura with her trident when he was transforming as a buffalo demon.
According to Vaishnava tradition, Durga is among the various epithets and avatars of Yogamaya, the personification of the illusory power of Vishnu. Vishnu offers Durga the task of transferring the seventh child of Devaki into the womb of Rohini, as well as being born on earth as the infant daughter of Yashoda and Nanda, so that she could be swapped with Krishna. When Kamsa attempted to slay her, she manifested her true form of an eighteen-armed goddess, wearing a garland of lemons. The goddess announced that Kamsa's slayer had already been born, before vanishing. Durga is often conceptualised in this role as a sister of Vishnu.
Attributes and iconography
Durga is a warrior goddess, and she is depicted to express her martial skills. Her iconography typically resonates with these attributes, where she rides a lion or a tiger, has between eight and eighteen hands, each holding a weapon to destroy and create. She is often shown in the midst of her war with Mahishasura, the buffalo demon, at the time she victoriously kills the demonic force. Her icon shows her in action, yet her face is calm and serene. In Hindu arts, this tranquil attribute of Durga's face is traditionally derived from the belief that she is protective and violent not because of her hatred, egotism or getting pleasure in violence, but because she acts out of necessity, for the love of the good, for liberation of those who depend on her, and a mark of the beginning of soul's journey to creative freedom.
Durga traditionally holds the weapons of various male gods of Hindu mythology, which they give her to fight the evil forces because they feel that she is shakti (energy, power). These include the chakra, conch, bow, arrow, sword, javelin, trishula, shield, and a noose. These weapons are considered symbolic by Shakta Hindus, representing self-discipline, selfless service to others, self-examination, prayer, devotion, remembering her mantras, cheerfulness and meditation. Durga herself is viewed as the "Self" within and the divine mother of all creation. She has been revered by warriors, blessing their new weapons. Durga iconography has been flexible in the Hindu traditions, where for example some intellectuals place a pen or other writing implements in her hand since they consider their stylus as their weapon.
Archeological discoveries suggest that these iconographic features of Durga became common throughout India by about the 4th century CE, states David Kinsley – a professor of religious studies specialising on Hindu goddesses. Durga iconography in some temples appears as part of Mahavidyas or Saptamatrkas (seven mothers considered forms of Durga). Her icons in major Hindu temples such as in Varanasi include relief artworks that show scenes from the Devi Mahatmya.
In Vaishnavism, Durga and her mount of a lion, is considered one of the three aspects or forms of Goddess Lakshmi, the other two being Sri and Bhu, in place of Niladevi. According to professor Tracy Pintchman, "When the Lord Vishnu created the gunas of prakriti, there arose Lakshmi in her three forms, Sri, Bhu and Durga. Sri consisted of sattva, Bhu as rajas and Durga as tamas".
Durga appears in Hindu mythology in numerous forms and names, but ultimately all these are different aspects and manifestations of one goddess. She is imagined to be terrifying and destructive when she has to be, but benevolent and nurturing when she needs to be. While anthropomorphic icons of her, such as those showing her riding a lion and holding weapons, are common, the Hindu traditions use aniconic forms and geometric designs (yantra) to remember and revere what she symbolises.
Worship and festivals
Durga is worshipped in Hindu temples across India and Nepal by Shakta Hindus. Her temples, worship and festivals are particularly popular in eastern and northeastern parts of Indian subcontinent during Durga puja, Dashain and Navaratri.
As per the Markandeya Purana, Durga Puja can be performed either for 9 days or 4 days (last four in sequence). The four-day-long Durga Puja is a major annual festival in Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Jharkhand and Bihar. It is scheduled per the Hindu luni-solar calendar in the month of Ashvina, and typically falls in September or October. Since it is celebrated during Sharad (literally, season of weeds), it is called as Sharadiya Durga Puja or Akal-Bodhan to differentiate it from the one celebrated originally in spring. The festival is celebrated by communities by making special colourful images of Durga out of clay, recitations of Devi Mahatmya text, prayers and revelry for nine days, after which it is taken out in procession with singing and dancing, then immersed in water. The Durga puja is an occasion of major private and public festivities in the eastern and northeastern states of India.
This festival is an old tradition of Hinduism, though it is unclear how and in which century the festival began. Surviving manuscripts from the 14th century provide guidelines for Durga puja, while historical records suggest royalty and wealthy families were sponsoring major Durga puja public festivities since at least the 16th century. The 11th or 12th century Jainism text Yasatilaka by Somadeva mentions a festival and annual dates dedicated to a warrior goddess, celebrated by the king and his armed forces, and the description mirrors attributes of a Durga puja.
The prominence of Durga puja increased during the British Raj in Bengal. After the Hindu reformists identified Durga with India, she became an icon for the Indian independence movement. The city of Kolkata is famous for Durga puja.
In Nepal, the festival dedicated to Durga is called Dashain (sometimes spelled as Dasain), which literally means "the ten". Dashain is the longest national holiday of Nepal, and is a public holiday in Sikkim and Bhutan. During Dashain, Durga is worshipped in ten forms (Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, Mahagauri, Mahakali and Durga) with one form for each day in Nepal. The festival includes animal sacrifice in some communities, as well as the purchase of new clothes and gift giving. Traditionally, the festival is celebrated over 15 days, the first nine-day are spent by the faithful by remembering Durga and her ideas, the tenth day marks Durga's victory over Mahisura, and the last five days celebrate the victory of good over evil.
During the first nine days, nine aspects of Durga known as Navadurga are meditated upon, one by one during the nine-day festival by devout Hindus. Durga is occasionally worshiped as celibate goddess, but the Shaktism traditions includes the worship of Shiva along with Durga, who consider her as his consort, in addition to Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya, who are considered to be Durga's children by Shaktas. Some Shaktas worship Durga's symbolism and presence as Mother Nature. In South India, especially Andhra Pradesh, Dussera Navaratri is also celebrated and the goddess is dressed each day as a different Devi, all considered equivalent but another aspect of Durga.
In Bangladesh, the four-day-long Sharadiya Durga Puja is the most important religious festival for the Hindus and celebrated across the country with Vijayadashami being a national holiday. In Sri Lanka, Durga in the form of Vaishnavi, bearing Vishnu's iconographic symbolism is celebrated. This tradition has been continued by Sri Lankan diaspora.
According to scholars, over its history, Buddhist Tantric traditions have adopted several Hindu deities into its fold. The Tantric traditions of Buddhism included Durga and developed the idea further. In Japanese Buddhism, she appears as Butsu-mo (sometimes called Koti-sri). In Tibet, the goddess Palden Lhamo is similar to the protective and fierce Durga. Several aspects of Tārā are believed to have originated as a form of the goddess Durga, including her fierce guardian form.
The Sacciya mata found in major medieval era Jain temples mirrors Durga, and she has been identified by Jainism scholars to be the same or sharing a more ancient common lineage. In the Ellora Caves, the Jain temples feature Durga with her lion mount. However, she is not shown as killing the buffalo demon in the Jain cave, but she is presented as a peaceful deity.
Durga is exalted as the divine in Dasam Granth, a sacred text of Sikhism that is traditionally attributed to Guru Gobind Singh. According to Eleanor Nesbitt, this view has been challenged by Sikhs who consider Sikhism to be monotheistic, who hold that a feminine form of the Supreme and a reverence for the Goddess is "unmistakably of Hindu character".
Outside Indian subcontinent
Archeological site excavations in Indonesia, particularly on the island of Java, have yielded numerous statues of Durga. These have been dated to be from 6th century onwards. Of the numerous early to mid medieval era Hindu deity stone statues uncovered on Indonesian islands, at least 135 statues are of Durga. In parts of Java, she is known as Loro Jonggrang (literally, "slender maiden").
In Cambodia, during its era of Hindu kings, Durga was popular and numerous sculptures of her have been found. However, most differ from the Indian representation in one detail. The Cambodian Durga iconography shows her standing on top of the cut buffalo demon head.
Durga as the mother goddess is the inspiration behind the song Vande Mataram, written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, during Indian independence movement, later the official national song of India. Durga is present in Indian nationalism where Bharat Mata i.e. Mother India is viewed as a form of Durga. This is completely secular and keeping in line with the ancient ideology of Durga as Mother and protector to Indians. She is present in pop culture and blockbuster Bollywood movies like Jai Santoshi Maa. The Indian Army uses Hindustani phrases like "Durga Mata ki Jai!" and "Kaali Mata ki Jai!". Any woman who takes up a cause to fight for goodness and justice is said to have the spirit of Durga in her.
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