For many years I have been away from Calcutta during Durga Puja. I miss it, and I’ve never been satisfied by attenuated approximations of the pujas in foreign places. In recent years in New York the internet has enabled two rituals I cherish. I click on a website to listen to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s impassioned invocation and welcoming of Durga, although the early morning Mahalaya chants float in the autumnal glow of a New York sunset. From another website I copy that year’s daker-shaaj Durga image from my local Calcutta puja at Maddox Square and ceremoniously install it as my screensaver; the graceful departure of the previous year’s image is my version of her immersion, a year delayed.
Durga on my computer screen invariably excites the curiosity of my colleagues; invariably leads to conversations that are now also an annual ritual. What does veneration of female deities signify about a society? More particularly, are women more respected or empowered in goddess-worshipping cultures? (Sadly, as we well know, the fervent allegiance to goddesses does not prevent, or even mitigate, the oppression, exploitation, and violation of women.) Durga allows us to reflect on how female divine power has been imagined and configured in various times and places, and how it has negotiated, or submitted to, the claims of patriarchy and male dominance. And Durga? Aadi Shakti, mother and warrior, multiple-armed and incandescent-eyed, fierce “Mahisasuramardini” yet tender “Shaila-suta”, encompassing all attributes from shanti to kshudha, and in Bengali hearts, the precious daughter returned home with her children for five days of celebrating with dhup, dhuno, dhaak, pushpa, chandan and sindur-khela.
Some anthropologists insist that once, everywhere, all divinity was conceived of as goddess: embodiment of creation, procreation, natural forces (benign and destructive), the earth’s regeneration. Archaeologists have found paleolithic and neolithic figurines with prominently rounded bodies that they assume to be female fertility symbols long before other records designate specific mother goddesses. While the 25,000 BCE “Venus of Willendorf”, all tiny bulges and blobs, is the most famous, I find more compelling the 3,500 BCE Egyptian “Bird Lady”, narrow waist, long broad hips, arms swooping up into claws, and a talon-head. An earlier 7,500 BCE Anatolian “Seated Lady” with formidable, sprawling limbs is actually accompanied by two lions. From several Indus Valley sites, terracotta figurines — distinguished by fantastical headdresses, ornate jewellery, often carrying baskets — have prompted debates about whether they are goddesses, toys or even lamp holders.
Earliest goddess references in myths attest to the complex mysteries of their supreme, primordial, self-generative powers. The Egyptian Neith is credited with creating the universe and herself out of her own being: an inscription claims she “was the first to give birth to anything, and that she had done so when nothing else had been born, and that she had herself never been born”. The Greek Gaia, writes Hesiod in the Theogony, was Chaos and the Order that produced all components of the cosmos and the earth. In pre-colonial South America, Pachamama (Mother of the World) presided over planting and harvesting and also caused earthquakes. The Egyptian equivalent of the Hindu concept of Dharma, the principles that sustain harmony and justice in the world, is represented through a goddess, Maat, holding an ostrich feather to suggest the delicacy of such harmony.
Myth glorifies this female creative energy, but myth is also appalled by its abundance and seeks to contain, even destroy, it. The ancient Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, envisages the universe emerging out of the fusion of male and female principles in the primal waters, but as soon as the female force, named Tiamat, begins rampantly proliferating, the other gods (born from her) are livid. The male god, Marduk, fights and slaughters her with graphic brutality: “[W]ith his merciless club he smashed her skull… cut through the channels of her blood,” and sliced her in half. Her ribs become the sky, her “weeping eyes” the source of the Tigris and Euphrates, her tail the Milky Way, and the triumphant Marduk becomes the revered warrior-hero god of Babylon.
This episode, with notable differences, is reminiscent of Hindu myth’s dismembering and scattering of Sati’s body parts to institute holy pilgrim places. The story also, like many myths, provides supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. But the story, significantly, enacts a subduing and annihilation of female power, its mutilation and pacified reconstitution, and the concomitant elevation of male divinity. Such a process, with varied degrees of violence, occurs for most goddesses as the mythical imagination of diverse cultures conformed to the demands of patriarchy. The goddesses’ untrammelled powers that conceived and directed the universe, that vitalized life and vivified nature, are regulated into strict roles of mother, wife and daughter, all ultimately subservient to, or at best allied with, male deities.
Hera, reduced to the jealous, petulant, vengeful wife of her brother Zeus, is allowed glimpses of an earlier pre-Olympian primacy when she asserts in Homer’s Iliad, “I am Cronus’ eldest daughter,” but then acknowledges that her greatest honour resides in being Zeus’ wife. Chastity is valued in Artemis the huntress, Diana her Roman counterpart and in the Indian Kanya Kumaris, but never enjoined on gods. In Homer’s Odyssey the “nymph” Calypso complains bitterly that the male gods who relentlessly pursue women, invariably disrupt the goddesses’ affairs. Even Ishtar, a pre-eminent Mesopotamian deity of fertility and war, whose temple commanded city tops, is severely chastised for her promiscuity and subjugation of her lovers, including the god, Tammuz, in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh.
The popular Egyptian Isis contains all the mutations of the once-primal Earth Goddess to dutiful wife and devoted mother, and becomes beloved for these virtues by successive Greek and Roman conquerors. According to the myth, Isis is sister and wife of Osiris, who is killed by the evil Seth, but recovered by Isis who then conceives Horus on his dead body, in a virgin birth narrative that is argued by some to be the origin of the Christian immaculate birth. Isis is a merciful intercessor (like Mary) and assists the dead through the after-life; the customary figure of Isis nursing the child Horus was possibly adapted into the Virgin and Child icons by early Christian converts.
The Durga we worship in the Sharad-utsav puja-pandals is both warrior goddess and the nurturing, protective mother, surrounded by her four children. But this domesticated Durga isn’t evident in her many manifestations in the Devi Mahatmyam, in which 700 slokas recount her monumental battle with Mahisasura, his legions of asuras, and his “thousand million times thousand million” chariots, horses, elephants and weapons. She demolishes them all “playfully,” exult the verses, finally striding Mahisasura and impaling him with her spear.
The Devi Mahatmyam is part of the Markandeya Purana, believed to have been composed between 400-500 C.E. It presents an amalgam of several, often conflicting, notions of the devi; an attempt to absorb perhaps pre-Vedic mother goddess elements into the male deva-dominated Vedic structures. Repeatedly the verses (including the resonant “Ya devi sarvabhooteshu” incantation and the exquisite Narayani stuti) invoke her as “Srushti, sthiti, vinasanam shakti bhoote sanatani”: the eternal, omnipresent, omniscient “aadi shakti”, the power behind creation, its maintenance and dissolution (“you consume it at the end”.) She “gives life to all gods”; she is “all knowledge”, “the personification of the Vedas”’ the path to “moksha”, the alleviator of sufferings. Yet in her specific (and recurrent) role as destroyer of demons she is clearly an instrument of the male gods: conjured into form to deliver them from the asuras’ depredations, composed of their various parts and armed with their donated weapons.
However, in contrast to Mesopotamian or Greek myths, the verses unequivocally delight in her performance as the luminous, ferocious, imperious, uninhibited and utterly ruthless warrior. As she impatiently paces the battlefield, taunts her enemies, “playfully” despatches the asuras, astutely judges her choice of weapons, when to release her lion, and when to magnify or multiply herself, she so consummately demonstrates her autonomy that one forgets that she is operating with borrowed attributes and arms. In the climactic confrontation with Mahisasura, as he flings entire mountains at her and roars threateningly, she laughs flamboyantly, imbibes large quantities of wine, and thunders at Mahisasura: “You idiot, keep roaring while I drink this wine” (in pristine Sanskrit, of course).
The spear flashes, the demon dies, the rishis and devas cease trembling and effusively sing her praises in slokas that now reverberate in our puja pandals. Durga, mission accomplished, listens silently. Only in response to the devas’ final request, “…let the thought of you in us always, always destroy all dangers we may face later,” Durga acquiesces, “So be it,” and vanishes. To reappear again as Aadi Shakti, or the agent of the devas, or the daughter for whom we’ll wear new clothes and whisper into her ears, “Ma, abar esho.”