A traditional clay idol of the Hindu Goddess Durga is placed inside a make-shift place of worship in Kolkata, on Friday, September 29, 2006.
D EVI IS the ultimate Indian paradox and many consider her the deepest reason why so many Indians exult in their religion and cling to it despite every persuasion over the centuries and even today, to switch allegiance to newer, richer and more politically powerful belief systems.
She is tenderness and ferocity, softness and strength, beautiful and frightening. Millions of miles of Sanskrit shlokas exist extolling her.
They range from the verses of the Devi Mahatmyam in the ancient Markandeya Purana that are still recited every year during Puja three millennia later to Adi Shankara’s lyrical Saundarya Lahiri and rousing Mahishasuramardini Stotram to the beautiful Chandi Charitar in the Dasam Granth.
When Indian freedom fighters were hanged by the British, many were reported to have put the noose around their own necks, defiantly shouted ‘Jai Bhavani!’ as the ultimate homage to and belief in physical and mental courage and leapt in the air, snapping life.
However, the concept of Devi is not easily understood by the modern, deracinated urban Indian, Hindu or otherwise. If she is the celebration of the sacred feminine, why, then, does so much horrendous gender inequity still prevail in Hindu society? Why does female foeticide rank highest in states like Punjab and Tamil Nadu, both with feisty Devi traditions? Isn’t it time people began respecting the right of women to live and breathe easy without constant censure and assault from the male gaze?
The answer to that is depressingly apparent: there is a huge chasm between theory and practice in traditional societies. Yet, just having the concept of the powerful sacred feminine embedded in religion and culture has helped social reformers, right from the time of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, to push for enlightened change.
The positive take on this, like on much else in India, is that it is a work in progress. Everyone can see that since the late 19th century, many Indian families have educated their daughters, who now go everywhere and do everything. The task ahead, obviously, is to colour the whole map.
That said, the unabated love and enthusiasm for Navaratri and for Devi worship, begs the question: why has she remained so dear to the people? The answer seems to go beyond the usual clinical explanations that she is part of the Hindu theogony, that her cult is historic and has always had its adherents and so everlastingly on. Yes, but why does Devi rock?
Perhaps it is because we are deeply attuned to the emotional logic of the concept of Jagadamba, the Universal Mother, the Jagatjanani who contains all life. And who needs the need for a mother explained? Those with earthly mothers may in fact find them terrible nags and control freaks, while those without, pine all their lives for one. Either way, the idealised concept of an unconditionally loving Mother, who nurtures, soothes, heals and ultimately, saves, is patently central to the human psyche.
Who can be surprised, then, that this entire civilisational weight of love and longing is emotionally transferred to the idealised personality of the Mother Goddess?
Moreover, Indian mythology firmly states that Devi is the concentrated energy of all deities, that she is in fact ‘Adi Parashakti’, the First and Supreme Power, who makes herself manifest as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as well as their consorts. So in worshipping Devi, every deity is neatly addressed.
Some refine matters further with the idea that the three Mothers, Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati, embodying valour, fortune and knowledge respectively, represent a spiritual progression from tamasik (fierce) to rajasik (worldly) to sattvik (purified) states of being. But all three are considered necessary for making life happen. That is why the traditional morning prayer before getting out of bed involves holding one’s palms up together and reciting this small but significant verse:
Karagre vasate Lakshmi, kara madhye Saraswati Kara moole sthithaye Gauri: prab haate kara darshanam ‘With luck in my fingertips, learning in the middle and valour in my palms, I look at my hands in the morning.’ (The order is mixed, but that’s poetic licence!). The purpose of the prayer is to charge oneself up mentally every day to go out and face the world and whatever challenges it has waiting to club us on the head with.
But the hard message given by looking at one’s own hands, is: “So deal with it.” Now this is bedrock Hinduism at its scariest, that one must take responsibility for one’s deeds, that our actions bind us and carry inevitable consequences. Nobody is expected to come and save a Hindu from bad karma, it is a terrifying personal responsibility, meat for strong stomachs.
Given this frightening soul scenario impassively laid out by the belief system known as Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Way, can we wonder at the deep emotional need for the Mother of the Universe?
She is a Hindu’s Jesus, going deeper it seems, than even Krishna, everybody’s darling, who dulcetly invites surrender and promises salvation in the Bhagvad Gita. But Devi has no need to say anything, or if she does, to intellectualise the argument or get into long explanations about right and wrong. She simply is.
Is that why the cry has resounded for millennia: Ya Devi sarvabhootheshu Shakti roopena samastitaha/ Namastasyai namastayai na mastasyai namonamaha?