As the ‘mother slot’ was occupied by Kali, Durga was fitted in as the ‘daughter’ of the Bengali Hindus. She visited her parents, Giriraj and Menaka, just for four days a year when they poured all their love on their darling daughter, Uma. It made more sense for Durga/ Uma to take her young children to her parent’s home, as she would not leave them alone. Writes Jawhar Sircar
People often wonder why Bengalis worship Durga on the grandest scale possible during Navaratri and why they do not observe the mandatory fasts or rituals — instead gorging on non-vegetarian food. And, this propensity is not limited to any class or caste because Brahmans and so-called upper castes lead the way to celebrate with the best of fish and mutton dishes. The other question is why is it that only Bengal’s image of Ma Durga is so completely different from the rest of India? Bengalis must have her four children— Kartik, Ganesh, Saraswati and Lakshmi, in addition to the prime actors, Durga, the demon Mahishasura and the lion.
But isn’t Saraswati the daughter of Brahma who created her? Lakshmi is even older than Durga and she appeared in Hindu iconography in the first century before the Current Era while the earliest image of Durga is seen in Nagaur some two centuries later. Bengalis, however, insist that these two devis are really the offspring of Durga, though there is no Purana to substantiate this non-negotiable demand.
Equally strange is the fact that none of these children step forward to help the mother in her grim battle against the deadly Mahishasura. The entire brood appears rather disinterested — Kartik, the commander of the army of the gods, does not use his weapons; rotund Ganesh looks contented and not very bothered; Lakshmi is benignly uninvolved and Saraswati just looks pretty with her veena.
Regional deities actually personify the ‘collective consciousness’ of the people concerned, that took centuries to arrive at and is largely frozen as the ‘magna carta’ of the people. Each central image is a product of its own historical and cultural evolution and meets the requirements of the people of that region — whether it be Mahabali in Kerala, NandaSunanda in Kumaon or the mighty triad of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra in Puri.
The goddess riding a lion was quite common in the ancient world, especially in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. She was worshipped as Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Astarte in Greece, Cybele in Troy and transplanted in Rome in 204 BC as the “great mother of the gods”, Magna Mater Deium. Her temple was, in fact, located where the holy Vatican stands now.
It is quite interesting to note that in the Bible, Prophet Jeremiah calls her Esther, the Queen of Heaven and prays to her as one “who dost make the green herd to sprint up”. It reminds us of the Shakambhari form or Durga as the goddess of vegetation. We get traces of the mother goddess in other parts of Europe and Africa since times immemorial, and she is also evident in the Indus Valley.
The Satapatha and Taittiriya Upanishads, however, refer to Ambika but it is only in the Sutras of Boudhayana and Sankhayana that the name ‘Durga’ appears for the first time. The epics have stray references to Devi, Sakti, etc. and some Puranas do mention a Durga. But it was only when the Devi Mahamaya section of the Markandeya Purana glorified Durga’s victory over Mahishasura that she was legitimately inducted into the Hindu pantheon.
Iconographer JN Banerjea traced the mature images of Mahishasura-Mardini to the Gupta period but texts and sculptures portraying different images of the goddess started appearing in Bengal somewhat later. None, however, represented or spoke of Durga’s entire family.
Vernacular Ramayans like Kamban’s Tamil classic of the 12th century and Krittibasa’s Bengali version in the 15th century wove disparate popular perceptions about the warrior-goddess. The latter, in fact, introduced the concept of Rama’s ‘untimely invocation’ or Akal-bodhana during Navaratri -quite clearly established in post-16th Bengal — as a defining regional narrative.
Bengal’s Durga Puja in Ashwin-Kartik coincided with the ripening of the traditional Aus paddy crop that was most prevalent in the medieval period and required less water. As the people moved towards more productive varieties of Aman paddy, they needed lowlands with standing water, i.e, more marshy lands. These wetlands were mostly occupied by the buffalo and the zamindars or pioneering farming communities had to drive them away from this natural habitat.
My submission is that the slaughter of buffaloes not only freed up more productive low-lands for cultivation but the resultant meat was certainly a bonus for certain non-Sanskritised classes that assisted the march of agriculture. We may recall that in America, white colonists had wiped off lakhs of ‘bisons’ from the Prairies to clear the land for farming and also killed countless bison-centric ‘Red Indians’ as well. Durga as Mahishasura-Mardini may therefore have been a form of sacred legitimization for upper caste zamindars of Bengal who extended agriculture and increased their own revenue.
To return to Durga’s children, it is clear that they were superimposed later on in Bengal. One can decipher two reasons. An independent warrior goddess was not viewed kindly by any patriarchy and the best way to domesticate her was to thrust her with children and remind her of her maternal obligations.
A 12th century image from Dakshin Muhammadpur in erstwhile Comilla in eastern Bengal shows Ganesha and Kartikeya along with the devi, but the daughters are not there. Historians like RD Bandyopadhyay, NK Bhattasali, JN Banerjea, S K Saraswati and Enamul Haque tried their best, but could not locate a single ancient sculpture of Durga with all her four children. We find this ‘Durga with full family’ theme, however, in the powerful folk literature of medieval Bengal — called the Chandi Mangal Kavyas.
The second reason was that Kali was already installed as the ‘mother’ in Bengal since the 8th century because of its strong Tantric tradition. This protective mother could terrify all those who threatened her children. Durga was popularized later, from the 17th and 18th centuries, by the zamindar class for agricultural prosperity and to display their pomp and power — in late Mughal and post Mughal Bengal.
As the ‘mother slot’ was occupied by Kali, Durga was fitted in as the ‘daughter’ of the Bengali Hindus. She visited her parents, Giriraj and Menaka, just for four days a year when they poured all their love on their darling daughter, Uma. It made more sense for Durga/ Uma to take her young children to her parent’s home, as she would not leave them alone.
Thus, Bengal transformed the belligerent goddess into a loving daughter that everyone simply dotes over — by feasting on as many types of fish, delicious meat and mind-boggling varieties of sweets as possible. Yet, to be recognized as Devi Durga, she needed her motifs and had to be fully armed and in battle regalia, riding her lion, even on a sentimental visit home.
To cap it all, she even needed to drag her trophy, the poor bleeding Mahishasura, all the way.
Jawhar Sircar is a former IAS officer and was Secretary, Culture to the Government of India