Wednesday 3 August 2011

The Durga Legends

There are several myths associated with Goddess Durga, represented in Hindu religion as Devi Mahamaya slaying or in the act of slaying the demon, Mahisha. A stereotyped image of the Goddess we love to worship, her importance is imperceptibly attached to this act of slaying Mahisha who embodies evil. We worship this demon, while worshipping the goddess.
But there is no denying that but for Mahisha it would not have been possible for Durga to be identified as Mahishasurmardini and rise to an exalted status in the pantheon of Hindu Goddesses. Mahisha is assigned a nondescript status in the early Puranaas except in the Matsya Purana which recognises him as an asura or demon. What is interesting is that asuras were originally deities of Iranian origin, as Nilima Chitgopekar informs us in his book ‘Durga’ (Penguin Books India).
In the early tribal context devas and asuras were not differentiated; in the epics and early Puranas they were given exalted positions. In the words of Chitgopekar, ‘the word asura meant a chosen leader of exceptional capacity.’ Later, owing in all probability to their human connexion, the importance of asura considerably diminished and the meaning of the word changed to connote evil-doer. Perhaps this justifies the worship of Mahisha alongside Durga.
In the sacred books the Goddess appears in many forms, assuming different names, as the consort of Lord Shiva. When she appears as Uma, she is said to be the daughter of Daksha, son of Brahma. Daksha was at first opposed to Uma marrying the mendicant Shiva. But Brahma persuaded him to accede to the marriage.
As Shiva is styled Mahadeva, the goddess is called simply Devi. As the consort of Shiva, she came to be called ‘Sati’ in allusion to the fact that when her father humiliated her husband, Shiva, by not inviting him to his great sacrifice, she voluntarily entered the sacrificial fire to burn herself to death in the presence of the gods and Brahmans. Thus the name ‘sati’ means ‘the true, or virtuous woman’. This name is given to widows who ascend the funeral pyre of their husbands to let the fire burn them with the corpse. The goddess appears in the Varaha Purana as Parvati, a constant companion of her husband Shiva with few independent actions ascribed to her. Parvati and Shiva are represented as making love to each other, or, rather, engaged, seated on Mount Kailash, discussing the most difficult questions of Hindu philosophy.
 The Varaha Purana describes the origin of Parvati. When Brahma pays a visit to Shiva on Mount Kailasha, Shiva asked him what made him come over. Brahma replies that a mighty asura, Andhaka (Darkness) was distressing and harassing the gods and they approached him to protect them from the asura. Hnece he came over to inform Shiva of their plight.
Hearing this, Shiva summoned Vishnu into his presence. As the three deities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva looked at one another, off their three refulgent glances there sprang into being a virgin of celestial loveliness, of hue cerulean like the pearls of a blue lotus and adorned with gems. This celestial being bowed before Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The three deities asked who she was and why she was distinguished by the three colours black, white and red.
She was produced from their glances, she said. Pleased, Brahma said, (reference Hindu Mythology by W. J. Wilkins), “Thou shalt be named the goddess of three times” (past, present and future). The preserver of the universe, and under various appellations shalt thou be worshipped, as thou shalt be the cause of accomplishing the desires of thy followers. O, goddess, divide thyself into three forms according to the colours by which thou art distinguished.”
The goddess, to comply with Brahma’s request, divided herself into three parts, one white, one red and one black. The white one was Saraswati, possessed of lovely felicitous form, and co-operated with Brahma in creation, the red one was Lakshmi, beloved of Vishnu, who co-operated with him in preserving the universe and the black one was Parvati who was endowed with many qualities and the energy of Shiva.
 The Vaivarta Purana alludes to the circumstances leading to the re-appearance on the earth of Uma under the form of Parvati On hearing of the death of his wife, Shiva went over to the bank of the river of heaven to have a look at the body of his beloved Sati arrayed in white garments, a rosary in her hand. Overwhelmed with extreme grief, he heaved the corpse onto his shoulder and, himself the preceptor of the universe, wandered like a man bereft of all senses, over the seven dwipas until he fell down in a swoon, exhausted by fatigue and anguish, at the foot of a banyan tree. Astonished at seeing Shiva in such a piteous state, the gods, accompanied by Brahma and Vishnu, rushed to the spot where lay Shiva swooning. Vishnu, placing Shiva’s head on his bosom, exhorted him to listen to what he said. He said that Shiva would certainly regain Sati, because Shiva and Sati were as inseparable as cold from water, heat from fire, smell from earth, or radiance from the sun.
His sweet words awakened Shiva. His eyes bedewed with tears, Shiva asked Vishnu who he was and who the persons that accompanied him were; who he (Shiva) was and where his attendants were; where Vishnu and his companions were going; where he (Shiva) was and where he was proceeding.
On hearing these words, Vishnu wept and his tears mingling with Shiva’s formed a lake which turned out to be a famous place of pilgrimage. Shiva, calmed by Vishnu, saw Sati sitting in a gem-adorned car, accompanied by numerous attendants, arrayed in costly garments and resplendent with ornaments. Her face irradiated with a gentle smile, she addressed Shiva: ‘Be firm, O Mahadeva! Lord of my soul ! In whatever state of my being I may exist, I shall never be separated from my lord; and now have I been born the daughter of Himavat in order to become again thy wife; therefore no longer grieve on account of our separation.’ (W. J. Wilkin, PP 249-50) Saying this, Sati disappeared.
According to Durga Saptarshi, an important sacred book of the Hindus, the sage Medha narrated the glory of Devi Durga to the king Suratha and a Vaishya
(a trader) who requested him to explain why man continues to love those kith and kin even though they ill-treat him. This was, the sage told them, the supernatural work of Mahamaya (another name of Durga), the great Goddess born of Vishnu’s body. From the wax of the ear of Vishnu were born two demons called Madhu and Kaitab. Brahma was irritated at the birth of the two demons and entreated Mahamaya to wake Vishnu up to kill the two demons. But invincible were the two demons even by Vishnu. At Mahamaya’s machination the demons challenged Vishnu to kill them where there was no water, as the earth was under deluge.. Vishnu instantly lifted them onto his thighs and killed them. Goddess Mahamaya, who had effected the victory, had ten heads and ten feet and was dark. She was therefore called Mahakali, the first incarnation of the Mahamaya.
Durga, the consort of Shiva, is known by various names, Uma and Parvati. In the forms of Uma and Parvati the goddess acted as an ordinary woman embodying womanly virtues. But in the form of Durga she embodies Cosmic Energy, Prosperity and Auspiciousness. She was created, according to Durga Saptarshi, out of the combined Cosmic Divine forces or powers of all the gods in order to kill Mahisha.
Equipped with the weapons given her by the gods, riding on a lion, she killed Mahisha and his army. The goddess came to be called ‘Durga’, the name she obtained by slaying an asura called Duga.
Article by Bhaskar Roy Barman
Source: Bhavan's Journal July 2011
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