Navratri literally means ‘nine nights’ – a festival of nine nights. Navratri is the festival of the feminine power, Shakti, the fountainhead of all creation and energy on the earth. This Shakti is worshipped in the form of goddess Durga, who in turn is referred by different regional names, like Sherawali, Vaishno devi, Amba mata or simply Mataji.
In Hinduism, Adi Shakti is the ultimate Shakti, the final feminine power inherent in all creations. Shakti is seen as a sign of protection of the country, the punisher of evil people, the curer of diseases and the one who gives happiness to the village or community at large.
Goddess worship has often taken different forms during this period. One of the main and prominent form of worship is the goddess as a warrior, as we have seen in Durga and her important form as Mahishasura Mardini, where she is seen single-handedly vanquishing the buffalo-demon, Mahishasura. A classic case of gods giving boons to demons, which when backfires, the task of eliminating him, is left to another god, and in this case a goddess. The ferocious Durga is the warrior goddess who eliminates this demon who takes different forms before being killed by Durga.
Interestingly, Durga is a contradiction to the ideal concept of a woman in popular perception. She is aggressive; she does not fulfil household duties, rather strays into the male domain of wars and battles. As David Kinsley writes, ‘As an independent warrior who can hold her own against any male in the battlefield, she reverses the normal role for females and therefore stands outside the normal society.’ This is also evident in her habitat, nearly all the myths of Durga; associate her with mountains, a place which is considered to be spaces outside the order of civilisation, in short, definitely not a space for women. She doesn’t even take the help of males in vanquishing the demon; she creates her own female supporters to aid her in the battle. Quite clearly we find Durga challenging every popular aspect of the feminine. Interestingly, she is beautiful and seductive, but that is not for attracting the gods or to get her a husband, ‘it serves to entice her victims into a fatal battle.’ She rides a lion or a tiger, both ferocious animals, on which she has total control, again a shade far from feminine and most significantly, seldom depicted along with a male consort.
Nearly all the myths of Durga; associate her with mountains, a place which is considered to be spaces outside the order of civilisation, in short, definitely not a space for women.
But then this ferocious free-spirited goddess gets tamed. While her contribution as the strong feminine principle and the role of vanquishing the demons, remains; her socialisation, the taming of the wanton ways of the goddess gets highlighted in the treatment that she gets when she is worshipped as a goddess, who is in an annual visit to her parents home with her children, the famous Durga Puja in the East. Many a folk song’s theme is about the tough life of Durga at her husband’s home with so much work, four children and an inattentive husband who seldom comes home, and who is engrossed in meditation or smoking hemp. Besides all this, Shiva’s lack of confirmation to social norms is another sore point in the marital life of the goddess. From a tough cold life of her husband’s house, she comes to the warm climates of her parent’s home to all the attention and love that parents shower on their daughters and her children. At her parents’ home, she gets all the warmth and comfort that is missing at her husband’s home and even if it is for a few days, she enjoys the attention and love. Quite clearly, this was a reflection of the society and the treatment of women in the ancient times.
Finally, in both the forms, i.e. as a warrior goddess as well as the mother, who cares and nurtures, she performs as per the expectations of patriarchy. She kills at the behest of the gods but is left to fend for her children, on her own, often without the help or support from her husband. A contradiction, which is inherent in the society we live in – while the woman goes out of the home to work and earn, the home and the children are still the responsibly of the woman.
So is Durga a contradiction or a norm? In our country, she sure is. Except for a minuscule population, and limited to large cities, the celebration is very peripheral, to say the least. The worship of the mother goddess, an embodiment of feminine power is limited to rituals and that too on these select days. Six days of lip service follows by three hundred days of subjugation and exploitation. If the ancient folks added these to the scriptures with a purpose, that purpose has definitely been lost. A society, which doesn’t stop their men to behave like stray dogs and is not ashamed to ask the women to cover themselves, since the salivating strays cannot be controlled, then stop worshipping the feminine principle – it’s a sham, if not shame!
This Navratri, let the woman be what she is and not what she is expected by the world to be. Don’t worship her for nine days, respect her for the year round. This Durga Puja empower your daughters to go back with a confidence to stand up to the ills and atrocities that she might be facing and stand shoulder to shoulder with the men in her home.
Let us recognise the shakti in women, and not just in goddesses.
Image Credit: Bharat Kumar / Unsplash
Utkarsh Patel is a known Mythologist, Author, and Speaker. He has published three books in the genre of Mythological fiction, Shakuntala, Satyavati and Kanaki’s anklet. He has been TEDx speaker and Guest speaker for various events across India. The views expressed are the author’s own.