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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

In Search of Durga --- An Article by Jawhar Sircar, CEO PB



When we look at Durga's image of her desperate battle against the ferocious Mahishasura, we also observe that her family members appear rather disinterested. Handsome Kartik does not lift his weapons; Ganesh appears almost smiling; Lakshmi holds on to her jhampi more tightly and Saraswati looks pretty with her veena. To understand this strange situation, we have to turn to history, first from other countries and then closer at home. 

The goddess who rode the lion was well known in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region for millennia, as Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Astartein Greece and Cybele in Troy. Cybele was, in fact, so powerful that she taken away to Rome in 204 BC from Turkeys' Anatolia and Roman emperors worshipped her as the "great mother of the gods", Magna Mater Deium. Till the 4th century, her temple was located where the holy Vatican stands now. It is quite interesting to note that her worship was known as “baptism in the blood of the sacred bull". She was also referred to as the “goddess of caves” which reminds us of Durga's origins from the words "inaccessible” or Durgam. According to Barbara Walker, "she personified the fighting spirit of a mother protecting her young". The Babylonian goddessIshtar riding a lionwas referred to in the Bible by Prophet Jeremiah as Esther, the Queen of Heaven. A prayer as "she who dost make the green herd to sprint up" reminds us of Shakambari or Durga as the goddess of vegetation. 

The mother goddess was also seen in Europe and Africa since times immemorial, and we see her in plenty in the Indus Valley. But she was appears less in the Vedic period, from which we get no figures or material evidence. The Satapatha and TaittiriyaUpanishads, however, refer to "Ambika" but it is only in the Sutras of the Boudhayana and Sankhayana that the name 'Durga' appears for the first time. The Epics have stray references to Devi, Sakti, etc, but the ten-armed warrior goddess was not in focus.The Bhisma Parva mentions Arjuna worshipping Durga and there are references to Skanda-Kartika killing Mahishasura. A fewPuranas mention Durga, but it was only when Devi Mahatmya of the Markendeya Purana glorified Durga's victory over Mahishasura that she is legitimately elected to the Hindu cabinet. Soon, the old Vedic triad of “Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar” gave way to “Vishnu, Siva and Devi” and Brahma was retired and sent to Pushkar. Even the great Vedic god, Indra, became just a suffix to Hindu names, like Dharmendra or Narendra and his temples disappeared. 

Sculptures depict her well before the Devi Mahatmya but not in the present Dasha-bhuja or Ashta-Bhuja forms. The earliest image is perhaps a terracotta image of the 1st century found at Nagar in Rajasthan that has the Mahisha, the lion and the trishul but Durga has only four hands. Another set of six Kushana period statues in the Mathura Museum have the trishul and the buffalo, but no lion. Jitendranath Bandyopadhyay has described in detail the mature images of Mahishasura-Mardini of the Gupta period but we wonder why the first major text on Durga came only after the the Gupta period. Texts and sculptures in Bengal portraying different images of the goddess started appearing at a little later, but it took several centuries for the resplendent image of the present day to be crafted together. Krittivasa’s Ramayana of the 15th century weaved together the disparate popular perceptions about the warrior-goddess and Rama’s Akal-bodhaninto a clear yet definitively Bengali narrative.

The timing of the Durga Puja in Ashwin-Kartik coincided with the ripening of the Aus crop that was most prevalent in this region for centuries before the Aman varieties took over. About the buffalo, my submission is that it had to be slaughtered and driven away by peasant groups from its natural habitat in the the low-lands, as they clamoured for more land for cultivation. In America, the white colonists wiped off lakhs of ‘bisons’from the Prairies to clear land for farming and also killed the bison-centric 'Red Indians’ as well. Durga as Mahishasura-Mardini may therefore have been a sacred legitimation, especially for Zamindars like Raja Krishna Chandra and Kansa Narayan who extended agriculture and their revenues.

Ramaprasad Chanda and Probodh Chandra Bagchi have argued that the Simhavahini Durga was imported into Bengal from outside after the Gupta period but others argue that she has local roots. In a sense, both are correct as there are strong Bengali elements and external components. In several images of Durga we see a strange ‘mount’ that looks more like the iguana (godhika or gosap)of Kalketu's Chandi rather than the moresanskritised lion. Even till the 19th century,patuas and chitrakars in Bengal had difficulty in depicting the lion as they had never seen one in their lives. In north India, however, she continues to ride the Royal Bengal tiger, how strange!

Durga appears with six or eight arms as part of the Shivaite religionin several places of Indoneseia like Borobudur, Surabaya, Bandung and Prambanan. An inscription in Java mentions that King Airlangga worshipped Durga to win her support before a battle. During the height of Majapahit power in Java, Durga was worshipped as the fierce protector and her cult became even stronger in the 15th and 16th centuries, But as Islam took over, Durga was relegated to cremation grounds and cemeteries and therefore moved eastward to Hindu Bali, where she got more respect. Durga is also known in some other countries where the Hindu religion was exported.

To return to Durga's children, it is clear that they were superimposed later by the ruling patriarchy in order to domesticate the independent warrior goddess and to remind her of her maternal obligations. A 12th century image from Dakshin Muhammadpur in erstwhile Comilla shows Ganesh and Kartik along with her, but no daughters. Historians like Rakhaldas Bandypadhyay, Nalinikanta Bhattasali, Jitendranath Bandyopadhyay, Sarasikumar Saraswati and Enamul Haque tried their best but could not loacte a single ancient sculpture of Durga with all her four children, though Bratindranath Mukhopadhyaya claimed there is one exception in Rajshahi. No serious religious text mentions how they came into Bengal's post-Zemindari iconography and that it can be assumed that Menaka and Giri-raj's vatsalya for thier daughter Uma that ultimately won over Durga. She is believed to pine to visit her original home just once a year and Bengalis dote over this darling daughter. But how could she leave behind her own children and also the poor bleeding Mahishasura, who is thus dragged all the way to her parents. Poets like Dasharath Ray and Rashikchandra Ray have thus described so vividly Menaka's total bewilderment at seeing her sweet daughter coming home, straight from battle, totally unrecognisable. Jay Maa Durgaa !

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