We are nearing the conclusion of the nine day Navratri or Durga Puja festival, a very special celebration of Devi Durga, in all her forms, with many meanings attached to her invocation and worship. Although associated with Bengal, Durga is invoked in myriad ways across India and beyond in the South Asian neighbourhood, in South East Asia and countries where Indian immigrants settled as part of plantation economies during the colonial period. The celebration of Goddess forms is also part of many indigenous communities such as the Samiis in the Nordic region, or closer home among the different tribes of Jharkhand and Odisha.
Devimargis in the Shakt tradition believe that a single feminine force is the source, preservation and destruction of all life and they celebrate countless divine manifestations of the female form. The text, Devi Mahatmya provides a full description of the Goddess as Durga, the warrior, Kali the ferocious one and the Matrikas as protective Mother Goddesses. The Mahatmya itself is part of the larger text of Markandeya Purana but we all know, the worship of the feminine form existed in pre Vedic times (mother Goddess of the Indus) and even in other civilisations such as Greek, Mesopotamian, Roman etc. While human existence is filled with the mundane and banal, the desire for an elevated consciousness is an abiding quest in all civilisational histories. In festivals such as Durga Puja, it is the capacity for creativity and spirituality that is elevated as a worthy quest both for fostering community and for aesthetic perfection.
In these extraordinary times of the Corona pandemic, Goddess Durga is here to offer some comfort, compassion and wisdom through community life and celebrations, however subdued.
As the fragility of life and human suffering becomes so visible, for the faithful, religious celebrations and divine invocations offer some respite from the everyday and courage to deal with the inexplicable. Additionally, the nine day festival is a wonderful act of story-telling about the powerful goddesses who can achieve all that humans can only aspire to. Also important to acknowledge the informal political economy of these kinds of festivals, as they create jobs and opportunities for various kinds of traditional arts and crafts to flourish.
It is something of a parallel ritual performed in the social media every year wherein those observing the Navratri and the celebration of the goddess are chided for not being sensitive enough to the plight of women and girls in society. The incidents of rape and domestic violence are particularly brought to the notice of the religious, through images of bruised goddesses and call for a pledge to end gender violence. The assumption is that those indulging in this activity (sitting on a moral high ground?) are holding a mirror to the larger Hindu society worshipping the goddess and calling out its hypocrisy. It is clearly nobody’s argument that only women in one community get raped or that only Hindu men commit rape. However, this ‘reminder’ to very diverse goddess worshippers is facetiously political at best and disingenuous at worst.
This response to Navratri and numerous traditions of goddess worship that accompanies it, reflects a poor or limited understanding of the entire festival and its iconography. First, it is problematic to assume that women need to be protected and revered because they can be elevated to a Devi like status. Should we not push for a discourse against violence irrespective of women possessing goddess like qualities and aura? It is disrespectful to thrust bruised images of the goddesses, when many women are trying to seek refuge from the violence they experience by participating in Puja rituals, and invoking the compassion of goddess Durga. We had similar reservations about the bruised goddesses campaign, launched in 2013.
Moreover, while it is the female deity being invoked, it is not a celebration of femininity alone. If anything, the goddess iconography is indicative of a desire to break free from binaries, from linearity and from uniform patriarchal interpretations of rituals, practices and origin stories. There are fascinating stories that involve the goddesses taking charge where male gods have messed up, unleashing anger and rage, embracing the good and the unholy and extending benign protection and compassion towards the most vulnerable of beings. One story suggests that Goddess Kushmanda creates the universe and also brings into existence the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. There are others where the traditional forms of creation myths are replaced by new stories in which the goddesses play important roles.
The entire festival is a celebration, reiteration and reaffirmation of the values that the society lives by. The festival in common parlance, recognises all human faculties as divine in origin and quality.
In the form of goddess Durga, courage, righteousness and valour are elevated as desirable qualities. In various forms of this goddess, protection of the vulnerable and various non-human lives, compassionate living and an end to strife are put forth as ideals for human co-existence and co-dependence on nature. In goddess Saraswati we have the embodiment of the power of speech, hearing, knowledge and aesthetics. The nature of human existence, filled with knowledge, music, literature and an abiding quest for the finest in human sensibilities, is embodied in the iconography of goddess Saraswati. It is for this reason that children learn their first letter on the tenth day of Durga Puja. Lakshmi, as the presiding goddess of wealth is a reminder of shared prosperity and wealth for a fruitful mortal journey in this world.
Can it be anyone’s argument that Krishna Janmashtami should not be observed or the life of baby Krishna shouldn’t be celebrated because atrocities against children happen in society? Can we talk similarly about other religious traditions, cultures and celebrations?
That everything stop, because violence continues in many forms, or that we sermonise those celebrating religious festivals each time that the burden to fix social ills is theirs and theirs alone? It is certainly worth thinking why, despite the extraordinary spiritual heritage, reform movements, complex gender norms and androgyny celebrating popular culture and religious traditions, we seem to experience so much moral depletion, masculine violence and social unrest. Among other reasons, also because we have erased many progressive traditions and adopted or assumed patriarchal interpretations of religion and spirituality.
Durga Puja is certainly an opportunity to reflect on how we treat women and girls and why the most genuine offering to our divine deities would be to work towards ending gender based violence in our societies. However this reflection cannot be for this festival alone, nor for those times when the faithful retreat to other kinds of reflections and joys. People need to be left alone to derive whatever gaiety and joy they can, or piety and spirituality they desire, without being sent on a guilt trip every time about everything that is wrong in their societies and cultures.
Swati Parashar is Associate Professor at the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden. She tweets @swatipash. Prabha Rani is Associate Professor, Department of History, Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi. She tweets @PrabhaRani59.