One of most widely worshiped Hindu deities is Durga. She frequently appears in household shrines where she is worshiped as having the power to create life and encourage the growth of grains.
It is said that "Ma-Durga" may have been worshiped during the Harappan period. Tribal peoples in non-Aryan areas have early myths in which Durga is associated with mountains, usually the Himalayas or the Vindhyas. By the fourth century B.C.E., images of Durga slaying a buffalo became common throughout India. She had become a warrior goddess, a many-armed battle queen who combated the demons who threatened the stability of the cosmos.
At a certain point in her history, Durga also became thought of as Shiva's wife. In this role she is often called Parvati, and is more domestic and more restrained. As the warrior goddess, however, Durga is unmarried and does not lend her power, or shakti, to any male. She is not seen as a submissive god, but one who can hold her own against any male on the battlefield. Like the god Vishnu, it is believed that she can create, maintain, and destroy the world.
The best known account of Durga is of her victory over the destructive, wicked god Mahisa (or Mahishasura). Stories from ancient India describe struggles between gods and the demons, between good and evil. In these conflicts, which have been going on since the beginning of creation, the hope is that in the long run divine forces will triumph over the forces of evil. Here is the story of Durga's victory.
The evil god Mahisa was the son of a goddess who had given him magic powers. Once she asked the Brahma, the creator, to give her son the gift of immortality. "Impossible," said Brahma. "He who is born must die!" Mahisa then said, "Grant me that a woman alone can kill me." This wish he got. Sure that now he would never be killed, Mahisa gathered up a great demon army and marched on Amarapur, the capital of heaven and home of the gods. Indra, the king of the heavens, tried to defeat the demon army. A terrible battle ensued, lasting nearly a thousand years. Finally the gods were defeated and had to flee. All was in chaos.
Helpless and afraid, the gods turned to Brahma for advice. Brahma admitted that it was he who had given Mahisa his power by letting him know that he could be slain only by a woman. "What will we do?", cried the gods. "In our tradition women will not fight!" Brahma then took them to Lord Shiva, who in turn took them to Lord Vishnu. After listening to the tales of the defeat of Indra and the gods at the hands of the demon Mahisa, all three - Brahma, Vishnu and Lord Shiva - grew red with anger. From this anger they produce a divine energy which streamed from their mouths, creating a single mass of light. Into this light a woman appeared, her body shinning with the brilliance of a thousand suns. Thus was Durga born. At once, each of the gods gave her their weapons - a trident, a disc, a sword, an axe, a conch, a mace, a discus, a rope, a bow and some arrows. They gave her too a fierce tiger to ride on. Holding the weapons in her many hands, Durga let out a terrible roar; her tiger responded with one of his own.
Armed with the strength of all the gods, the many-armed Durga went to her home in the Vindhya mountains. Mahisa, hearing of the radiating beauty of a mysterious woman who had arrived in the mountains, sent her a message. It said that as lord of the worlds, he planned to claim her for his bride. With a smile Durga responded; "I can only marry the man who can defeat me in battle." "She is only a woman," thought Mahisa, "I'll accept her challenge," and he and his demon army set off to conquer the haughty Durga. When they met, Durga called out to him, "O wicked Mahisa, I am not an ordinary woman. I am your death. Do you remember that you wished to die at the hands of a woman? Now get ready to die!"
That said, Durga lifted her weapons and mounted her tiger. Mahisa and his army advanced. Durga's weapon arms swirled. The mountains were torn in two. The clouds were scattered in the sky. Her tiger pounced upon the demon army, killing many by the thousands. Mahisa responded. Able to change shapes, he at once gave up his real form to become a maddened black buffalo. Bellowing and stamping the ground, he ran at Durga. The battle was fierce; the earth shook with their fury.
Mahisa turned himself into many forms during the battle, becoming sometimes a lion, sometimes an elephant. He uprooted rocks and hills and hurled them at Durga. She shattered them with her sword, sending them into the wind. Again, Mahisa was a buffalo, snorting a mighty wind from his broad nostrils and killing her army by the swirling of his powerful tail. Durga used her rope, throwing it around his neck. The buffalo God tried to free himself, but the more he struggled, the tighter she made the rope. Durga played with the demon; to her, fighting Mahisa was nothing more than a sport. At last she dismounted and sprang on his back. With her foot on his neck, she thrust her trident into his chest. With this final blow he fell dead. At once his armies fell senseless, defeated.
Seeing her victory, the male gods hailed Durga: "We salute you O Great Goddess! But for you, even we, who are immortals, could do nothing. But for your coming, heaven itself would fall down." By destroying evil, Durga had protected divine law, or dharma. It was understood that those who worshiped her would receive her help in times of distress. Wealth and power would be granted them as well.
Analyze this image of Durga. Her arms indicate her various powers, in this case the weapons and emblems that the gods gave her.
- Label the weapons. (You might do research to find out which weapon came from which god).
- Discuss: What make a person "powerful?" Think of a person you think of as "powerful." Is there more than one thing that makes him or her powerful, more than one attribute?
- Think of a time when you felt "powerful." Was it a time when you discovered some inner strength to reach further than you ever had? A time when you found the courage to try something new?
- In groups, make a list of six to eight kinds of power. Make sure that not all of your ideas are forms of physical power. How could you visually illustrate these kinds of power? Draw symbols that represent each of these aspects of power. Share your ideas with the rest of the class.
- Discuss: why can Durga be seen as a nurturing goddess as well as a great battle queen?
- Discuss how the concept of dharma plays a role in Durga's battle with evil.
Some question ideas taken from the lesson "Nataraj: Shiv as Lord of the Dance," Jean Johnson, New York University.
Image from Jai Maa Durga, Dreamland, New Delhi.