By Swami Harshananda
Durgā literally means ‘the One who is difficult to approach’.
Images of Durgā can have four, eight, ten, eighteen or even twenty hands. Usually the number of eyes are three. The hair is dressed up as a crown (called karaṇḍa-mukuṭa). She is gorgeously dressed with red cloth and several ornaments. She may be shown as standing on a lotus or on a buffalo’s head or as riding a lion. Among the objects held in hand, the more common ones are:
Lion, the royal beast and her mount, represents the best in animal creation. It also represents the greed for food and hence the greed for other objects of enjoyment which inevitably leads to lust. To become divine (devatva), one should keep one’s animal instincts under complete control. This seems to be the lesson we can draw from the picture of Simhavāhinī which means the rider of lion.
An entire Purāna with the name 'Devībhagavata' has been dedicated to her. But a work named as Devimāhātmyam is more well-known than Devībhagavata. It consists of the same content as Devībhagavata but in a concise form. It is also known as the Durgasaptaśati or Candi. It forms a part of another well-known purāṇa, the Mārkandeyapurāna. This work is highly venerated. I It is considered to be mantra (sacred formula) of the Devī and it is believed that its repetition confers desired boons.
The hymn, well-known as the ‘Aparājitā- stotra,’ praises her as the ‘unconquered’. Her immanence in all the living beings is the main theme of this hymn. The powers and activities of all the beings are manifestations of only her power.
‘Nārāyaṇistuti’ is a prayer in the form of an enchanting poetical hymn, which is simple and elegant. It starts with a fervent appeal to the Mother by the grateful gods to be benign and gracious. The hymn describes her as the mistress and the mother of the whole creation.
- Durgā is the most widely worshiped aspect of Śakti.
- She is the personification of all the powers of the gods and tender love when supplicated.
- She is difficult to approach or know.
- She is believed to be the Mother of the universe.
- She is the inscrutable power by which the whole universe is permeated and energized.
- She is the personification of wealth, power, beauty, virtues, knowledge, wisdom and memory.
- She bestows both material and spiritual wealth.
- She dispels the difficulties and annihilates the evil ones.
- Her beauty as well as her valor is incomparable.
- She is the physical universe.
- She is the mysterious power of Viṣṇu (Vaiṣṇavīśakti), the original cause and power that deludes beings.
- By pleasing her, one can hope to get spiritual emancipation.
- All arts, science and womankind are her manifestations.
- She resides as the intellect in the hearts of human beings.
- She is ever engaged in protecting her children.
- She is the power of sleep, taking recourse during the Lord Viṣṇu's rest between two cycles of creation.
- She is assumed to be responsible for the creation, sustenance and withdrawal of the universe.
- She displays the contradicting attributes. She can be pleasant, beautiful and terrible at the same time.
- She is described as wielding several weapons like the bow, arrow, sword, discus and trident.
- She is the embodiment of:
- Yajña - sacrifice
- Parāvidyā - the highest knowledge concerning the spirit
- Aparāvidyā - knowledge of the secular sciences
Aspects of Devī
Devī's aspects mentioned in the Purāṇas and Āgamas are legion. For instance:
- Raktadantā - having red teeth
- Satākṣī - having hundred eyes
- Śākaibharī - sustainer of vegetables
- Durgā - slayer of demon Durgama
- Bhīmā - the terrible
- Bhrāmarī or Bhramarāmbā - having the form of bees
Iconographically these aspects display difference. Devotees get different types of desires fulfilled by worshiping the different aspects.
Manifestations of Durgā
The Devi has three major manifestations. These aspects are different from the pauraṇic deities, Pārvatī, Laksmī and Sarasvatī. Actually they are the major manifestations of One Supreme Power, Maheśvari, according to the three guṇas (tamas, rajas and sattva). These manifestations are:
- Kauśikī Durgā
Mahākalī has ten faces and ten feet. She is deep blue in color like the gem Nīlamaṇi. She is bedecked with ornaments and wields in her ten hands. The weapons that she holds in her hands are:
- Iron club
- Human head
She is the personification of the tāmasic aspect of the Devī known as Yoganidrā. This aspect has put Lord Viṣṇu to sleep. Brahmā prayed and requested her to leave Viṣṇu so that the latter could destroy the demons Madhu and Kaiṭabha. She is the personification of Māyā, the mysterious power of Lord Viṣṇu. Unless she is pleased and voluntarily withdraws, the Lord in us will not awake and destroy the powers of evil which are trying to destroy us. Among the several aspects of the Śakti put forward by the works, Yoganidrā comes first.
Mahālakṣmī is the rājasic aspect of the Devī. She is described as red in color like the coral. In her eighteen hands she holds:
- Discus Sudarśana
She emerges from the combined wraths and powers of all the gods. She is the personification not only of the powers but also of the will to fight the evil forces. That is why she is shown as red in color which is the color of blood and war.
Mahāsarasvatī is the third deity representing the sāttvic aspect of the Devī. She is bright like the autumn moon and has eight hands in which she holds:
She manifests herself out of the physical sheath of Pārvatī and hence is also known as Kauśikī Durgā. She is the very personification of physical perfection and beauty. She is the power of work, order and organization.
This aspect of goddess is an emanation from the body of Pārvatī. After this manifestation, Pārvatī transformed into Kāli, the dark one. The world-bewitching beauty of Durgā attracted the attention of Śumbha and Niśumbha who sent proposals of marriage through a serf. She vowed to marry the person who would vanquish her in the battle. All their attempts proved to be disaster for the demons.
Niśumbha was easily put to death after a mockery of fight. Śumbha accused her of taking the help of ‘others!’ Then Devī withdrew all her emanations and manifestations into herself, showing that she was always the One. In the ensuing battle Śumbha, the lord of the demons, was also killed. Hence the world was again freed from the terror of two ferocious demons.
The intervention of giants like Dhumralocana, Caṇḍa, Muṇḍa and Raktabija were not withstanding. Kālī, the fierce black goddess who emerged from the Devi’s forehead beheaded Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa. Hence she was named as Cāmuṇḍā.
Only the battle with Raktabīja was long-drawn and needed some special efforts. Raktabīja had the mysterious power to multiply himself through the drops of blood spilled in the battle. Even the Saptamātṛkās who came out of her body to battle with him seemed helpless. Then Kāli spread her extensive tongue and drank away all the blood gushing out of Raktabīja, thus preventing the emergence of more demons and enabling Durgā to exterminate him.
Mahiṣāsuramardinī is the deity who evolved due to amalgamation of all the powers of each god oppressed by the demon Mahiṣāsura. Viṣṇu, Śiva and Brahmā were incensed by hearing the accounts of the misdeeds of Mahiṣāsura. The Devī was born out of the wrath of the trinity and lesser divinities. The powers of these gods formed her limbs and the exact duplicates of their weapons formed her arsenal. Armed with these formidable weapons and riding on a fierce lion, she challenged Mahiṣāsura and destroyed him along with his army.
The Saptamātṛkās are her aspects. Kālī, the terrible goddess with a garland of human skulls around her neck, is also one of her aspects. When pleased, she can cure all diseases. If displeased, she can destroy all that we love and like to possess. Her votaries are always free from troubles. She is the Supreme Truth described in all the scriptural works.
Dhumralocana, Caṇḍa, Muṇḍa, Raktabīja, Niśumbha and Śumbha are the chief demons destroyed by her. All these demons, known as Asuras, are archetypes of highly egoistic people who revel in a life of the pleasures of the body and the sense-organs. Symbolically they represent various stages and states of egoism.
- Dhumralocana (‘the smoky-eyed’) stands for the grossest state of ignorance and egoism. He was destroyed by a huṅkāra, just a mere frown.
- Raktabīja represents a more subtle state which multiplies itself and our troubles. He required more skillful handling. First the source of his strength was destroyed before destroying him.
- Caṇḍa is the more horrible side of our ego (caṇḍa = fierce). Muṇḍa is the low profile state of our ego. (muṇḍa = the low). They were too mean to be handled by the Devī directly. Hence Kālī, the horrible, finished them at her behest.
- Śumbha and Niśumbha signify more enlightened aspects of egoism (Śumbh = to shine). The Devī was obliged to give Niśumbha and Sumbha a straight fight.
Lower states of ignorance and egoism as typified by Dhumralocana, Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, should be destroyed by sudden bursts of energy and rough handling. Raktabīja signifies more crafty states which result in endless multiplication of desires. It should be tactfully handled by going to the roots and suppressing them as soon as they arise. ‘Enlightened egoism,’ needs a straight fight. It may be a long drawn fight and Devi’s grace is absolutely necessary for success.
The story of Mahiṣāsura has several implications. Mahiṣāsura, the he-buffalo, represents the jungle law that might is right. He is the ruthless brute force that does not brook any opposition where selfish ends are concerned. He succeeded against the gods; but only when they were divided. But he fell before their combined powers and the will to fight. This moral is conveyed by the Devi Mahiṣāsuramardinī.
At the subjective level, Mahiṣāsura stands for ignorance and stubborn egoism. Its subjugation and conquest are possible only when the sādhaka (spiritual aspirant) pools all his energies together and fights it with a tenacious will. Since God helps him who helps himself, the intervention of the divine power in his favor is always there.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore