Durga Puja is an annual festival that celebrates the Great Goddess, better known as Durga. Although the true origin of the worship of Durga is still unknown, today’s form of the Durga Puja festival can be dated back to the 16th century, during the Mughal era (Banerjee 31). During this time, the mythical figure of Rama and his worship of Durga in the Ramayana were brought to the center of attention. The Ramayana says that Rama wanted to destroy the evil demon, Ravana, but needed aid because he was not strong enough to kill the demon on his own. By worshipping Durga, she provided him with the strength he needed to win against Ravana (Ghosha 14). This epic brought a large amount of influence to Raja Udaynarayan and he held the first Durga Puja to show his strength against the Mughals. Although many historians believe that he was not successful against the Mughals, the festival began to spread and quickly became one of the most important festivals (Banerjee 31-32). Many believe that the reason this epic had such a great influence was due to the resistance many kingdoms, on the Indian sub-continent, had against Mughal rule (Rodrigues 19). This epic also changed the time when the festival was to be held. It is said that Rama worshipped the Great Goddess during the autumn instead of the spring months, done by King Suratha (Banerjee 2). Therefore Raja Udaynarayan held the festival in autumn in the16th century causing the festival to be held in the autumn month of Asvina, during the nine-day Navaratri festival, today.
Puja, a form of devotional worship, is normally only performed for one or two days; the Durga Puja spans over a four-five day period (Banerjee 18). During this period, many complex rituals are held in the worship of Durga. The Great Goddess is not a particular goddess but is a single supreme form of divine femininity. This causes the Great Goddess to have many names; for example the most popular names used are Devi, Ma, or Sakti (Rodrigues 17). Therefore, all goddesses are worshipped during this time and every temple that houses a goddess is lively and closely attended too. Expensive home pujas are also put within each home for personal worship. Clay images (murti) and temporary shrines (pandals) are even more closely attended to and observed at this time because they are the focal points for worship (Rodrigues 10). Many pujas, forms of worship, are needed each day during this festival for ritual worship. Each day has a different assortment or food, cloth and puja items, such as flowers, iron, shells, or bark. These items are needed each day to invoke the Great Goddess her for aid among the people and the community.
This time is also known as an important to restore old items and relationships; it is an important time built on caring for others, sharing when one is in need, and keeping a strong bond with family members (Banerjee 61). Many married daughters are able to come home to their parents and spend time with their families; most women live with their husband’s family, once they are married, due to Hindu tradition (Rodrigues 28). Much time is spent worshipping the Great Goddess hoping to invoke her upon the things that not only a single person needs but also the things others and the community is in need of. One of the most important figures during these rituals is the purohita, the central role to the entirety of the pujas (Rodrigues 29). The purohita prepares and purifies water (jala suddhi), flowers (puspa suddhi), his seat (asana suddhi), and the elements (bhuta suddhi) as his preliminary duties in preparing for the rituals to come (Rodrigues 38). The purohita uses this purification ritual to create a link with the divine nature and enables the Great Goddess to manifest in the purohita; he then transfers her into different abodes (Rodrigues 277). This creates a strong bond between the Great Goddess and the people observing and worshipping her.
Another sacred ritual is that of an animal sacrifice in order to keep cosmic stability. This ritual is used as a re-enactment of the battle between Durga and Mahisa in which the cosmos was regulated by Durga once she slayed the beast (Kinsley 112). In today’s Durga Puja, blood sacrifice is disappearing and many communities are substituting fruits, such as melons, for animals. Even though melons are used, Hindus go to great lengths to change the melons, such as put vermilion paste and effigy on them, to ensure it represents a blood sacrifice. Blood sacrifice is also representative of the most important food offering to the Great Goddess. Even though true blood is not always spilt, it is meant to symbolically represent the beheading of Mahisa (Rodrigues 278).
As Durga Puja spans over four to five days during the Navaratri festival, it adds two very different central roles to the Great Goddess and why she is being worshipped at this time. This most popular depiction of Durga is that of a strong warrior, wielding many weapons and is victorious over evil. One of the most popular legends that this depiction arises from is of Durga battling the powerful buffalo-headed demon, Mahisa, to regulate the cosmos, which she comes out victorious by killing him. This depiction causes many people to associate the worship of Durga with military success and victory of good over evil. Military success is also attributed to the month of Asvina itself because it occurs at the end of the rainy season, in which the season of warfare begins. During this season of warfare, the worship of weapons, ayudha-puja, and the worship as Aparajita are conducted. The ayudha-puja takes place in the temples of Devi and is done by soldiers and military rulers, as it marks the beginning of military campaigns. Durga is also worshipped as Aparajita, she who is invincible, to invoke the power of Durga that cannot be conquered or controlled to ensure military success among the people (Rodrigues 290). Durga in all forms in representative of formidable power and how it is to be wielded; to battle adversity and conquer what is in the way of ones path to succession (Rodrigues 289).
Durga is symbolically represented in many different forms; the most important of these forms are the jar (ghata), the cluster of nine plants (navapatrika), the clay image, and the virgin girl (kumari). The jar (ghata) is the most recognizable of these forms and Devi’s embodiment in the jar resembles a pregnant woman. The jar is composed of two natural elements, the earth and the divine waters; these elements have been associated with the Great Goddess for a long period of time. This natural element within the jar and the representation of the pregnant woman symbolize Durga as the form of the mother of creation and she is giving birth to the cosmos. Other elements, such as flowers, earth, fruit, water, and fragrant paste, are placed around or on this form of Durga to be served as the beauty of nature that comes from creation (Rodrigues 262). Next, the cluster of nine plants (navapatrika) and a wood-apple tree branch, to serve as the breasts of the Great Goddess, are placed with the jar for worship within the house. Where as the wood-apple branch symbolizes Durga herself, the cluster of plants represents the different aspect of the Great Goddess and the feminine identity. These aspects incorporate different goddesses and their symbols as aspects of the Great Goddess such as the Nim tree and the Tulasi plant that serve as an embodiment of goddesses (Rodrigues 264).
The most striking and influential of these forms is the clay image. The clay image is the Great Goddess as a young and beautiful goddess. She has a strong and beautiful body that showcases the femininity of her character but she also wields the weapons of the male gods with her ten arms to exemplify her unconquerable power. In the clay image is also the human form of Mahisa as Durga impales him with her spear (Rodrigues 265). A large amount of blood is also portrayed in this image and shows the importance the blood sacrifice and to re-enact the spilling of the evil blood. Ganesa and Kartikeya are also presented within the clay image as aspects of the Great Goddess. Ganesa is worshipped as the Lord of Obstacles and Kartikeya is worshipped as the divine warrior. These aspects put together are representative of Durga as a strong warrior that is a great obstacle that stands in the way of her opponents (Rodrigues 266). This clay image in very complex and represents the whole of the different aspects of Durga. The last form of Durga is served as a virgin girl. Any pure, young girl can serve as this form of Durga and is used as a vehicle for the manifestation of Durga in human form. The use of a virgin girl is also linked to the blood sacrifice and gathering of women. During this time, women of all ages, including married daughters, come together to celebrate this festival. This showcases all the stages of a woman, from a virgin girl, to a young married woman, to an older mother or grandmother. The blood sacrifice is also representative of the stages in a woman’s life as well. Whereas a young virgin girl represents youth, the blood sacrifice also represents the fertility to come into the girl’s life, as she grows older. This is represented by Durga during the virgin girl embodiment as well as she is a young beautiful girl that causes the flow of blood (Rodrigues 297).
These rituals create a bond with Durga, the divine, and the people. As Durga embodies these different forms it creates a high level of devotional worship among the devotees. The embodiment of a virgin girl creates a strong link between the Great Goddess and the people because they recognize Durga as a daughter and someone they have a strong relationship with (Banerjee 87). This festival also brings families together once again to celebrate fertility, power, and success together. The Durga Puja is one of the few festivals that adjust to the changing times and but also keeps and passes down the sacred rituals to ensure the festival remains.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Banerjee, Sudeshna (2004) Durga Puja: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Rupa and Co, Calcutta.
Ghosha, Pratapachandra (1871) Durga Puja: With Notes and Illustrations. Calcutta: Hindoo Patriot Pres.
Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Rodrigues, Hilary Peter (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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Article written by: Kaitlynn Poworoznyk (March 2017) who is solely responsible for this content.