Any woman who displays extraordinary strength and is totally unafraid of men begins to be treated as a manifestation of goddess Durga. Indira Gandhi and Kiran Bedi have been referred to as Durga at some point of time, writes
Anael from Israel is amazed at the scene in front of her—men, women and children bow before a goddess while a priest chants prayers. As a teacher who has served in the Israeli army, she is familiar with women power. But the divine as a female? As Anael, on a visit to Kolkata, witnesses the proceedings of Durga Puja—the grandest festival in Bengal—she is mesmerised by the life-sized deity of lotus-eyed, long-haired Durga, astride a lion, her multiple arms holding different weapons, piercing Mahishasura (a demon) with her lance. It is a new concept for Anael, though she points out that Judaism has some revered female figures such as Sara and Rachel.
Dan Brown's bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, has popularised the concept of the "sacred feminine" only recently. But in India it is a living tradition dating back many millennia, to the Indus Valley civilisation. The Rig Veda is the first known Hindu text to acknowledge the female embodiment of the divine. Devi or Shakti worship has continued to be an integral part of Hindu tradition down the ages.
Durga is the slayer of Mahishasura, the demon epitomising all evils, or, in other words, our inner demons—anger, fear, hate, lust. She is also the supreme mother goddess, protecting all those who seek her protection. In totality, she embodies Shakti—the female force, latent in each human being, which manifests itself variously—as the slayer of evil. It is she to whom the male god turns to vanquish evil. So, while Bengalis first pay homage to her valour in ridding the world of evil, they then welcome her as a daughter visiting her natal family. They essentially seek her blessings as the supreme mother.
Over the years, however, Durga's symbolism for women in India has been undergoing a change. Increasingly, women are looking upon her as a symbol of feminine power, rather than a divine mother, an inspiration to reclaim rights that society has, over the centuries, deprived them of.
professor, Centre for the Study of
Indira Gandhi and Kiran Bedi have been referred to as Durga at some point of time. This imagery of a strong woman invoking her own Shakti (power) has also been made use of not only in Bollywood but also in films by intellectuals like Satyajit Ray and Rituparno Ghosh.
Increasingly, women are turning to this incarnation for inspiration. At a recent convention on women's empowerment in Delhi, Girija Vyas, chairperson, National Commission for Women, made an interesting comparison. She likened contemporary Indian women to Durga, and the various legislations ensuring gender equality to the different weapons carried by the goddess.
Indians and Hindu women are not the only ones who seem to resonate to this theme. It is finding cross-cultural legitimacy, too. Asra Q. Nomani, an Indian-born American journalist who takes pride in her Muslim identity, writes in her book, Standing Alone in Mecca, that while riding a motor cycle on a visit to north India she was inspired by the image of Durga to continue her struggle for women's rights in Islam.
Viktoria Lyssenko, academician, Moscow Institute of Philosophy, says that as a woman she finds the image of Shakti in Indian religious tradition encouraging. Russian orthodox Christianity also liberally uses the concept of the divine mother in Mary. Therefore, her students, mostly women, find the concept of Shakti easy to relate to. Many have been encouraged by this aspect of Indian tradition to take up Indology and travel to India to delve deeper into it.
Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase, an anthropologist and convener, Asia Pacific Studies, University of Wollongong, Australia, has a framed poster in her office depicting a stylised Durga. It shows one side of Durga's body where her arms are empty and on the other she possesses multiple weapons. It is meant to depict the dualistic nature of womanhood in India—power and its absence. It was a poster Ganguly-Scrase picked up many years ago in Kolkata. "It certainly inspires me," she says. Her students, colleagues and acquaintances are "immediately struck by it".
As if in fulfilment of her words, miles away in a shanty settlement in Kolkata, Parvati Deori, 36,seeks inspiration from the goddess in the festive season. Parvati and other women in her basti had to face the menace of drunken youth harassing them and their daughters on every festive occasion. During Durga Puja it got particularly worse as the festivities stretched over four consecutive days.
This year Parvati decided to take some concrete steps to check the menace. She mobilised the women of her locality, using the image of Durga, to ward off the drunken youth. These "mini-Durgas" drew up a simple plan—they armed themselves with simple weapons ranging from chilli-powder to cricket bats and sticks, and formed five groups of six each. Each group kept watch every night of the Puja. No ‘demon’ dared to bother them.
"The great thing about Hindu tradition is that we can personalise the divine to suit our needs," says Payal Kumar of Sage Publications India, who did her masters in world religions. The image of Shakti can be used as a great inspiration for women to fight for their rights as Durga did. — WFS