“Salutations to Thee, O giver of blessings!
Dark Virgin, observant of the vow of chastity,
Whose form is beauteous as that of the rising sun,
And Thy face as that of the full moon;
Thy body is like that of a serpent
Thou givest victory in battle;
… O Kali! O Kali! O Mahakali!
Thou art called Durga by all because Thou savest men from difficulty.
Whether in dangerous lands or sinking in the great ocean,
Thou art the sole refuge of men.
When assailed by robbers, when crossing streams and seas,
Those who remember Thee, O Mahadevi! are never lost.”
John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon), Hymns to the Goddess and Hymn to Kali; fragment of Hymn to Durga (from Mahabharata, Virata Parvan)
“We bow down to her who is at once most gentle and most fierce.”
From Devi Mahatmya
Durga, the Divine Mother Goddess, Mahadevi (the great goddess, from Sanskrit “deva” – to shine), whose name means “fortress” and “invincible,” is believed to manifest in the darkest hour of great need. In a myth of her creation, Indian male gods were not able to rid the world of demonic forces. Thus they brought Durga into manifestation “out of the fiery rays of their anger” (1):
“Her face was formed by Shiva; her hair came from Yama, the god of death; her arms were given by Vishnu. Shiva gave her his trident, Vishnu his discus, Vayu—the wind god—offered his bow and arrow. The mountain god, Himalaya, gave her the lion for her mount.“ (2)
She defeated the buffalo demon Mahisha, who could only have been vanquished by female power. She embodies the qualities of strength and protection; her role is to restore Dharma threatened by demonic forces of chaos. She guides us through times of upheaval, especially protecting “powerful leaders who take groups of people through a crisis or a war.“ (3)
Durga is often depicted with eight arms and the following attributes; eight being the number of cosmic harmony:
1) chakra (wheel) – symbolizing dharma
2) the conch – standing for water, gestation, fertility and preservation of life; also the primal sound om
3) the sword – war, liberation, discernment, discrimination, the mind; destruction of darkness and ignorance
4) bow and arrow – power, spiritual warfare, virtue, sublimation
5) lotus – creation, manifestation, death and rebirth, spiritual fulfillment (rising from darkness), cosmic harmony (eight-petaled lotus)
6) club (mace) – protection, conformity to universal law, the destructive power of time (Kali), devotion (as the weapon of Hanuman)
7) trident – the attribute of Shiva; creation, preservation, destruction; the three gunas; past, present and future
8) hand in a gesture (mudra) of forgiveness and blessing
(symbolism deepened with the help of The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier)
As the universal goddess, Durga has both benevolent and terrifying qualities. She may have many names but she is one universal great mother. The three great goddesses – Saraswati, Lakshmi and Kali are all her manifestations. As Saraswati, she brings creativity, wisdom, arts, learning, speech and music; as Lakshmi she is the life-sustaining goddess of abundance; as Kali she brings death, rebirth and empowerment. Durga can call on the power of various shaktis when she needs them.
Like Demeter in Greece, Durga is intimately connected with vegetation cults and the agricultural cycle of death, decay and rebirth:
“She is that mysterious power that transforms apparently lifeless seeds into life-giving food when they are sowed.“ (4)
The annual Durga Puja, a ten-day harvest festival held in her honour, is the biggest goddess celebration in the world. It starts on the dark moon around the Autumn Equinox with the first three days dedicated to Saraswati, the next three to Lakshmi and the final three to Kali. Day ten is the day of Durga’s victory when the seeds planted at the dark moon begin to sprout.
In his Patterns of Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade referred to Durga as “the manifestation of cosmic life in constant and violent regeneration.” In the current dark historical moment of violence and destruction, it is sometimes hard to find the strength to hope for rebirth. But we must believe that the wrathful and compassionate Durga is steering us towards a new cosmic order that will rise from the ashes.
(1) Laura Amazzone, Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power
(2) Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga
(4) Vanamali, Shakti: Realm of the Divine Mother
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