Goddess Durga, the majestic form of the Devi—tranquil yet formidable—is an embodiment of the supreme power within and without. Just as water when it flows down a mountain may take the form of a raging river, a tributary, or a gentle stream, in the same way Mahadevi, the supreme Goddess, manifests in many forms all of the same essence. When the cosmic balance of this world is at risk, when dharma is under threat, the Goddess takes the saguna, the manifest form of Durga Devi. In this manifestation, the Devi is the bestower of strength and protection. Mahadurga is strong of will and the exemplar of determination, compassion, and righteousness.
In the Markandeya Purana, there is a beautiful text known as the Devi Mahatmya, or the Durga Saptashati (“The Seven Hundred Verses in Praise of Durga”), which extols the greatness of Mahadurga as she battles with and slays the demon Mahishasura.
The legend begins when, after a long period of penance, Mahishasura is granted a boon by Lord Brahma. The demon asks for the gift of invincibility, requesting that he be unable to be killed by man, animal, or god and that only a woman would be able to defeat him. Since Mahishasura didn’t feel that women were especially strong, he thought he was ensuring his own immortality.
After receiving this boon, Mahishasura was overcome with greed, pride, and selfishness and went about creating havoc in all the realms. He was brewing a cosmic crisis as he relentlessly threatened the peace and order of the universe.
The gods prayed to Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva for protection. It is said that when the gods gathered together in prayer, there came forth from all of them a burst of tejas, energy, in the form of a bright light. As their tejas radiated out as an orb of light, it merged into the form of the most brilliant, strong, and fierce goddess, Durga Devi. She came into being as a warrior Goddess to preserve dharma and moral order and to destroy the demons of greed, pride, selfishness, resistance, hesitation, jealousy, laziness, and so on, thereby uplifting humanity.
When Mahadurga was bedecked with her accoutrements—mighty weapons, and jewels from all the gods—her lustrous and formidable form is said to have shaken the whole universe. Seeing and hearing this, the vain Mahishasura charged toward her, and a mighty battle ensued. The description in the Devi Mahatmya tells us: “Making the earth bend with her footstep, scraping the sky with her diadem, shaking the nether worlds with the twang of the bowstring, then began a battle between that Devi and the enemies of the devas.” For nine days and nights, Durga Devi fiercely battled Mahishasura before defeating him on the tenth day.
As we behold the magnificence of the victorious Mahadurga—seated on a tiger, radiating saumyata, “serenity”; her eight arms wielding her powerful implements—we gain from her a measure of strength and dignity for our own lives, and we are reassured of the protection of this force of incomparable strength manifested as Mahadurga.
Symbols of Mahadurga
For those following the spiritual path, this warrior goddess’s accoutrements symbolize the tools we can use to observe, face, and combat our own inner enemies.
- The sher, “tiger,” symbolizes power, will, and determination. Seated on this magnificent animal as her vehicle, Mahadurga symbolizes mastery of these qualities. The will and determination of a seeker is imperative for sustaining progress on the spiritual path.
- The sudarshana chakra, Lord Vishnu’s discus, in Mahadurga’s uppermost right hand, symbolizes righteousness. It is a reminder to always uphold dharma in any situation in life and to discard, disempower, or destroy anything that keeps us from righteous action.
- The talvar, “sword,” held in the Goddess’s upper-middle right hand, signifies sharpness of intellect and is an encouragement to seekers to use their sense of discernment and discrimination to overcome negative tendencies.
- The gada, “mace,” held in Mahadurga’s lower-middle right hand, represents the power of knowledge. Seekers who harness the power of knowledge are able to dispel illusion by seeking clarity, validity, and authenticity.
- The abhaya mudra, “the gesture of fearlessness,” in which Mahadurga holds her lowest right hand, bestows the Devi’s blessings, benevolence, and constant protection.
- The shankha, “conch,” which Mahadurga holds in her uppermost left hand, signifies the dispelling of that which is impure and inauspicious. It emanates the primordial sound AUM, the sound of creation, and its vibrations fill the one who hears it with peace and tranquility.
- The trishul, “trident,” which the Goddess holds in her upper-middle left hand, is from Lord Shiva and signifies rising beyond the three gunas, “qualities,” that are inherent in all human beings. These are: tamas (dullness, inertia, and ignorance), rajas (activity and passion), and sattva (purity, light, harmony, and intelligence). Just as the trident can pierce and destroy anything it encounters, the compassion of Mother Durga can confer the wisdom necessary to subdue the three qualities and go beyond their limitations.
- The dhanush, “bow,” held in Mahadurga’s lower-middle left hand, symbolizes energy. Sometimes Mahadurga is depicted holding both a bow and an arrow in this hand, which represent her control over both potential and kinetic energy. As seekers we can be aware of cultivating our potential energy and putting it to use for the best possible outcomes.
- The kamal, “lotus flower,” held in the Goddess’s lowest left hand symbolizes detachment. This pristine flower grows in a muddy pond yet rises above the murky bottom to rest in its natural purity on the surface. In the same way, we may be born into this world and live within it while, at the same time, rising with dispassion above tainting entanglements.
Goddess Durga’s name tells us much about her qualities as well. Durga means “invincible,” “impassable,” and “unassailable.” It is derived from the Sanskrit root durg, which means “fortress” or “difficult to defeat.” Many other names are traditionally used to honor the Devi in the form of Durga. The Devi Mahatmya, for example, glorifies Mahadurga with 108 names. As seekers chant these names, they summon and enliven those aspects within themselves.
Some of the names by which Mahadurga is celebrated are Buddhi, the embodiment of intelligence; Mahishasuramardini, the destroyer of the proud and selfish demon Mahishasura; Shailaputri, the proponent of action and vigor; Buddhida, the one who bestows wisdom; and Siddhidhatri, the embodiment of nature’s beauty.
Worship of Mahadurga
In India, Devi Durga is worshipped as the Mother, as one who protects, as one who upholds dharma. When people are faced with calamity or crisis, they set time aside to read the seven hundred verses of the Durga Saptashati. The faith that Devi Durga will protect them is very strong among the Devi bhaktas, devotees of Mahadurga.
Also, in India, the festival of nine days and nights known as Navaratri is dedicated to the worship of the Devi. It commemorates Mahadurga’s nine-day battle with the demon Mahishasura, and it culminates on Dasera, or Mahal, which is celebrated in the lunar month of Ashvin, during the Gregorian months of September and October, and it takes place in the beautiful Sharad Ritu—the autumn season, after the monsoon rains have cooled the land, and India comes alive with gaiety. Murtis of Mahadurga are constructed and adorned, and people gather to honor the Devi through music and dance. The sound of the dhol, a resonant drum, reverberates through towns. Intricate rangolis are fashioned, and the fragrances of incense, flowers, and freshly cooked sweets pervade the streets. Towns are decorated with colorful banners, mango leaves, and aromatic flowers like jasmine, marigolds, and tuberoses. People open their hearts to the Devi and make offerings of dakshina.
The air is buoyant with love, devotion, and feelings of veneration to the Devi. People chant “Jai devi di,” “hail to the Goddess,” as they make their way to pilgrimage sites like the Vaishnodevi temple in Northern India. Cries of “Durga devi ki Jai,” “hail to Goddess Durga,” resound in the streets of the northern and eastern parts of India. India is a widely diverse country, and the ways of worshipping the Devi differ from state to state. Nonetheless, the goal of the Navaratri celebration throughout the land is uniform: to invoke the presence of the Devi and celebrate the victory of dharma over adharma, righteousness over unrighteousness. These festivals are a celebration of life, of beauty, of goodness, and of smarana—of “remembrance” of the Devi, unbroken for nine days and nights.
Over the years in Shree Muktananda Ashram and Gurudev Siddha Peeth, Durga Devi, along with Shri Mahalakshmi and Mahasarasvati, has often been honored during Navaratri with pujas and other offerings. In Gurudev Siddha Peeth, the Siddha Yoga Ashram in India, a magnificent and towering statue of Mahadurga stands next to the ajana vriksha, a tree that is said to grow only in the abode of spiritual Masters. The path to her temple is lined with coconut trees and surrounded by the bounty of nature all around. The setting in nature of Mahadurga’s resplendent form is a reminder that the Durga Devi is a manifestation of the cosmic energy that pervades every plant, every tree, the entire earth, every particle of this universe.
During Navaratri, Durga Devi is adorned in beautiful red or green attire and bedecked in jewels and garlands of flowers. Rows of toranas, “garlands,” made of orange marigolds and mango leaves, decorate the pedestal. She is worshipped with great devotion in the morning and evening.
This year, 2021, the festivities and pujas for Navaratri in India, and in other parts of the world where people are celebrating, will likely be smaller than usual—more intimate, conducted with family, or by oneself. As we navigate a time when the balance of the world has been shaken and upset, we are all the more impelled to keep the qualities of Mahadurga in the forefront of our minds, to find these qualities—strength, calm, enduring faith, indomitable will—within ourselves. In this way, we better equip ourselves to uphold dharma in any situation, and we can discard anything that keeps us from righteous action. And as we worship the Goddess with love and devotion, as we recognize and cultivate her qualities within ourselves, we can be assured we are protected.
As Mahadurga manifests in our hearts and minds, in our lives, in the transformation that we seek, in the freedom that we long for when we remember and invoke her, may we experience her attributes as the upholder of dharma, as the redeemer, and as the undeniable protector. May Mahadurga, the bestower of strength, shine her serene gaze upon us.
Jai mata di! Dharma ki Vijaya! Durga devi ki Jai!
The depiction of the Goddess Durga above by S.S. Brijbasi & Sons, Mathura, India.