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Home > News > Big Story > Sunday Lounge | How the Durga cult overwhelmed the other Great Goddesses of the subcontinent

Sunday Lounge | How the Durga cult overwhelmed the other Great Goddesses of the subcontinent

When the cult of Durga burst upon India’s cultural horizon, over a thousand years ago, there were many other ‘Mahadevis’ who vied with her for prominence. On the final day of Durga Puja, we revisit their story

A miniature sculpture of Durga slaying the buffalo demon from Bengal, from the 12th century AD. Pala-Sena school of art. (Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
A miniature sculpture of Durga slaying the buffalo demon from Bengal, from the 12th century AD. Pala-Sena school of art. (Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Durga goes by many epithets. Among others, she is ‘Durgottarini’, one who delivers from dangers; she is ‘Vindhyavasini’, one who resides in the Vindhyas; she is ‘Uma’, the goddess of dawn; she is the ‘Mahavidya’ or supreme knowledge. Above all, she is the ‘Mahadevi’, or supreme goddess, who encompasses and embodies all of divinity, and therefore all other goddesses.

Durga burst upon India’s cultural horizon between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, seemingly fully-formed, with the Devi Mahatmya, a long poem of praise to the goddess, interpolated into a longer Puranic text, the Markandya Purana. There are art-historical traces of the worship of a buffalo-demon slaying goddess or mahisa-mardini, from the Gupta era, and that of a lion riding goddess from the Kushana era, between the 2nd-5th centuries AD. There is also the myth of another demon-slaying goddess, Kausiki or Vindhyavasini, in the Skanda Purana. The Devi Mahatmya merges the different myths of warrior goddesses into one superstructure, but even there, her primary name is Chandika. At that point, Durga, “hard-to-get”, is just another name for Chandika. It’s only over the centuries following the Devi Mahatmya that the cult of Durga, as we know it, truly took hold in South Asia.

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Durga slaying the buffalo demon, c. 11th century AD, Bihar, Pala-Sena school of art. (Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Durga slaying the buffalo demon, c. 11th century AD, Bihar, Pala-Sena school of art. (Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Referring to the Devi Mahatmya, scholar Wendy Doniger writes in The Hindus: An Alternate History (2009), that Chandika marks a departure from earlier Brahminical goddesses like Mohini and Tilottoma in that she killed antigods herself, rather than luring or distracting them so that the male gods can kill them. Such a goddess, she writes, “bursts onto the Sanskrit scene fully grown...in a complex myth that includes a hymn of a thousand names. Many of the names allude to entire mythological episodes that must have grown on the goddess, like barnacles on a great ship, gradually for centuries.”

It is during the rule of the imperial Kushanas that we first see the emergence of the cult of a great goddess in the region. In this case, it was Nanaia or Nana, a warrior goddess of ancient Bactria (an area in Central Asia covering parts of modern Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). Nanaia became a patron deity of the Kushanas, especially that of the dynasty’s most famous king, Kanishka.

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In his time, the second century AD, the Kushana empire was at its greatest extent, stretching from modern Uttar Pradesh to the Pamirs, and Kanishka ruled over a hugely diverse populace. As a result, Kushana coins contain images of deities of a dizzying variety: the Buddha, Oesho (Shiva), Zeus and Pallas, among others. And Nanaia. The Rabatak inscription of Kanishka from Afghanistan proclaims, “...Kanishka the Kushan, the righteous, the just, the autocrat, the god worthy of worship, who has obtained the kingship from Nana and from all the gods, who has inaugurated the year one as the gods pleased” (translated from Bactrian by Kushana scholar Nicholas Sims-Williams of the School of Oriental and African Studies).

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A Kushana-era terracotta sculpture of 'mahisa-mardini', 2nd century AD, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo courtesy the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
A Kushana-era terracotta sculpture of 'mahisa-mardini', 2nd century AD, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo courtesy the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Kanishka’s coins variously show Nanaia holding a sceptre as well as the lion, her vahana and symbol. A wooden sculpture of Nanaia from Panjakent in Tajikistan portrays her seated on a lion. A little later, from the Gupta era, we have bas relief depictions of Mahishasuramardini from the Udayagiri caves in Madhya Pradesh. From the 8th century, as her cult takes hold and receives widespread patronage, Durga’s depictions multiply, in both the great art traditions of the era—the Pala-Sena and the Chola schools.

Many Great Goddesses

At around the time of Durga’s appearance in the Devi Mahatmya, another great goddess, also bearing the epithets ‘Mahadevi’ and ‘Durgottarini’, among others, arose in India. This was Tara, Buddhism’s most popular female deity. At first as a consort to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara (mirroring the Parvati-Shiva conjugal dynamic), and later as a supreme deity in her own right, Tara became arguably as popular as Durga herself. The popularity of her cult can be attested by the fact that various epiphanies of her were absorbed into Hinduism in the late medieval era, first as a member of the dasa (ten) mahavidyas, and then as the fierce goddess Ugra Tara.

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A wooden shrine relief of Ashtamahabhaya Tara surrounded by depictions of her delivering people from the eight great terrors. Himachal Pradesh, c. 10th-11th century AD. (Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
A wooden shrine relief of Ashtamahabhaya Tara surrounded by depictions of her delivering people from the eight great terrors. Himachal Pradesh, c. 10th-11th century AD. (Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

One of Tara’s most popular epiphanies was Ashtamahabhaya Tara, she who delivers from the eight great terrors. These are lions, elephants, fire, snakes, thieves, drowning, captivity and evil spirits. Scholar Miranda Shaw writes in Buddhist Goddesses Of India (2006), “Most notably, the Devi Mahatmya celebrates Durga as a protector from a virtually identical range of terrors…” Tara, too, is a supreme deity, all-encompassing, infinite, a goddess who liberates. Both Tara and Durga have poems of praise composed in the form of 108 names, both bear the epithets Tarini (she who carries across), Devi Bhagavati and Durgottarini. Tara’s popularity, especially in eastern India can be gauged by her countless artistic depictions, hyms and other liturgical material, as well as the fact that she was depicted on the imperial flag of the Buddhist Pala dynasty of Bihar and Bengal.

Also read How a pandemic revived the spirit of Durga Puja

Another popular rival to Durga was Marichi, the Buddhist goddess of dawn. Depictions of her warrior-like manifestation abound from Bihar, Bengal and Odisha from the 8th-12th centuries. One of her emanations has her riding on a chariot driven by seven pigs, with three faces (including one of a boar), in a warrior-like alidha stance, brandishing a sword, a vajra (thunderbolt), a needle and thread, a goad and a branch from the Ashoka tree. In the Buddhist tantric hymn compendia, the Sadhanamala from around the 11th century AD, she is described as, “She sews up the eyes and mouths of the wicked with the needle and secures them with the string. She strikes their heart with the Ankusa (goad), draws them by the neck with the noose, pierces them with the bow and the arrow, and shatters their hearts to pieces with the Vajra, and then sprinkles water with the leaves of Ashoka…” The translation is by scholar Benoytosh Bhattacharyya in An Introduction To Buddhist Esotericism (1931).

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An 10th-11th century AD image of Marichi being worshipped as Jaya Durga at the Marichi temple in Ayodhya, Odisha. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Subhasisa Panigahi)
An 10th-11th century AD image of Marichi being worshipped as Jaya Durga at the Marichi temple in Ayodhya, Odisha. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Subhasisa Panigahi)

Marichi was especially popular in Odisha. Art historian TE Donaldson, in his Iconography Of The Buddhist Sculpture Of Orissa (2001), notes that in Ayodhya village in Odisha’s Balasore district, a major site of Marichi and Tara worship in the 11th century, a statue of Marichi is worshipped today as Jaya Durga, a form of Durga, while there are the ruins of a temple nearby dedicated to ‘Marichi Thakurani’. In Cuttack district, in an open-air shrine in Odisoandeigoda, an image of Marichi is worshipped as Moudei (Mahadevi), while in the village of Marichipur, where the river Devi debouches into the Bay of Bengal, a thousand-year-old image of Marichi is worshipped in a modern temple. In Himachal Pradesh, Markula Devi in Udaipur in Chamba is worshipped by Hindus as Mahishasuramardini, and Buddhists as Marichi Vajravarahi. Clearly, the other Great Goddesses more than held their own for a long time, before being subsumed in the all-encompassing cult of Durga.

Durga Puja as Carnival

There aren’t many extant records of what the autumn festival of Durga was like in the early medieval era. One of the earliest depictions of the Durga Puja comes from the Kalika Purana, composed sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries CE. In it appears a curious passage about the festivities of the last, tenth day of Durga Puja, just before the immersion of the idol of Mahishasuramardini:

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“The goddess who has been worshipped on the day of the maha Ashtami and Navami by offering sacrifices is to be immersed on Dasami by observing the Sabarotsava. The place is to be decorated with varieties of flags and festoons of coloured cloth and strewn with rice and flowers; well-dressed maids and prostitutes and dancers, dancing to the tune of the loud noise caused by the blowing of conch and horn-like instruments, by the beating of mridanga should indulge in the festivity without limit by throwing dust and mud on each other, by constantly singing lewd songs with an abundance of words denoting the bhaga and the linga (female and male genitals) and also uttering the words themselves. The goddess becomes angry with that person and curses him with a terrible curse, who does not participate…prior to this, on the sixth day (Shashthi) the goddess is to be awakened by the devotees by keeping a night vigil in the company of dancers and singers, musicians and actors, maids and prostitutes; thereafter the goddess is to be worshipped.” -quoted from the translation of the Kalika Purana published by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

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As is quite clear from the quote, the one trope running through the pujavithi or rituals of worship are the twin essentials of sacrifices and festivities. The later compendia of puja rituals like the Kala Viveka echoed this. Nor could the influence of indigenous tribal goddess worship be ignored by a text like the Kalika Purana. The erotic dance and musical performance of the tenth day was called the Sabarotsava for a reason. The Sabara tribe had long been a stand in for the tribal ‘other’ to the Sanskritized mainstream in early medieval India. In the personal and cultural traits of the tribal ‘Sabara’ was located the Brahminical constructs of ‘natural’ man, who was both naturally sacred and naturally profane. Thus, when the Sabarotsava expects worshippers to behave in a wild and free manner, it invokes this supposed tribal trope of worshipping nature and dressed in leaves and barks. The Sabaras were often located in literature in central and eastern India, and Vindhyavasini, is believed by many scholars to be a tribal goddess that was appropriated into the cult of Durga.

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The Sabara figure appears not just in Hindu puranas and tantras but in Buddhist texts as well—one very popular Buddhist goddess was Parnashabari, ‘she who wears leaves’, and Sabara women and men are often the heroes of the erotic poetry of the Buddhist tantric Charyagiti composed in Old Bengali (c. 9th-11th centuries AD) by Buddhist tantric siddhacharyas. One of Durga’s names in the Devi Mahatmya, incidentally, is Aparna: ‘without the covering of leaves’.

Marichi, 9th century AD, Bihar, Pala-Sena school. (Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya)
Marichi, 9th century AD, Bihar, Pala-Sena school. (Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya)

When the history of Durga and her rivals is explored, what becomes clear is the strong need felt by a large chunk of South Asia for an all-powerful goddess around the middle of the first millennium AD. This was perhaps to balance out the countless male deities who dominated mainstream religion at the time, both in Hinduism and Buddhism. In the Sakta tantras and the Buddhist Vajrayana, this urge became even stronger, till, by the 12th century, goddesses ruled both exoteric and esoteric religious practice in India. The irony is that while goddesses grew in might, with the eventual disappearance of Buddhism as a counterweight to the dominance of Brahminical caste strictures, the status of actual women nosedived. As Doniger writes in The Hindus, powerful goddesses did not necessarily encourage men to allow women political and economic powers. “Indeed we can see the logic in the fact that it often works the other way around (the more powerful the goddess, the less power for real women), however much we may deplore it.”

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