Durgā Hinduism

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DURGĀ HINDUISM . In classical Hindu mythology the goddess Durgā is one of the principal forms of the wife of the great god Śiva. She is particularly celebrated for her victory over the buffalo demon Mahiāsura. At a higher level of abstraction she is considered to be the energy (śakti ) of Śiva. Ultimately she is Devī, the Goddess, whose myriad names and forms are merely transient and adventitious disguises that overlay a unitary spiritual reality.

Most modern scholars have sought to find the ultimate origin of the goddess worship of Hinduism in the prehistoric Indus Valley civilization centered in what is now Pakistan. This theory is plausible, but the evidence for an important goddess cult in the Indus civilization is inconclusive, and the historical links of such a cult with classical Hinduism are impossible to document. Preclassical Vedic literature mentions numerous goddesses, but they are clearly of secondary importance. The earliest Vedic text, the gveda, praises several river goddesses, most notably Sarasvatī; the goddess Uas, the Dawn; Aditi, a rather vague mother of several gods; and the goddess Vāc, Speech. An ancillary Vedic text, the Bhaddevatā (2.77), includes Durgā among the many names of Vāc, but this is considered to be a late interpolation. The Taittirīya Sahitā ( of the Yajurveda mentions Ambikā, laterone of the common alternate names of Durgā, as the sister of Śiva. In the later Taittirīya Ārayaka (10.18), Śiva is said to be "the husband of Ambikā, the husband of Umā." Umā appears in the Kena Upaniad (3.12) as Haimavatī, the daughter of Himavat, the Himalaya.

It is not until the early centuries of the Christian era, however, that either Durgā in particular or the Goddess as a unitary concept become important figures in Hindu religious texts. Hymns in praise of Durgā as the Goddess appear in the Virāaparvan (6) and the Bhīmaparvan (23) of the epic Mahābhārata, the critical edition of which considers them to be late interpolations. In the Harivaśa, the "appendix" to the Mahābhārata, the Goddess consents to be born as Yaśodā's child, who is exchanged for Ka and killed by Kasa. There follows another long hymn dedicated to her, but the critical edition considers this also to be an interpolation. The three hymns provide lists of her names and forms and praises of her greatness, but they do not narrate her mythological exploits. These appear in great detail in the classical texts known as the Purāas, dated between the third and fifteenth centuries ce.

Most important in this context is the section of the Mārkaeya Purāa known as the Devīmāhātmya, also called the Caīmāhātmya and Durgāsaptaśatī. This text celebrates the Goddess's victory over the buffalo demon Mahiāsura and over the demons Śumbha and Niśumbha. The great prevalence of Durgā's buffalo-killer form, known as Mahiamardinī, in iconography shows this to be her most important exploit. The Devīmāhātmya tells how the gods are oppressed for a century by the demons led by Mahiāsura. Finally they appeal to the great gods Viu and Śiva to rescue them. The anger of Viu and Śiva, joined with the anger of all the other gods, produces a mass of luminous energy. This then takes the form of a woman, the Goddess. Each god gives her his principal weapon. The god Himavat gives her the lion, which becomes her "vehicle." During a great battle she destroys the armies of Mahiāsura and finally beheads the demon himself.

In classical mythology many of the forms assumed by the wife of Śiva can be divided into those that are terrifying and those that are benevolent. Durgā Mahiamardinī belongs among the former, together with Caikā, Kālī, Vindhyavāsinī, Cāmuā, and many others. Her benevolent forms include Satī, Umā, Pārvatī, Śiva, and Gaurī. These benevolent forms have their own distinct cycle of myths, recorded in the Purāas and other works, such as Kālidāsa's Kumāra-sabhava. She also appears as Yoganidrā ("cosmic sleep"); as Viumāyā ("world illusion"); as Ambikā ("the mother"); as Śakti ("divine energy"); and as simply Devī ("the goddess"). Since she is Śakti, those who worship her above all other gods are frequently called Śāktas. Śākta worship tends to blend into the somewhat heterodox current of Hinduism known as Tantrism, after the religious texts called the Tantras. Durgā as the one Devī, on the other hand, is one of the five great gods of the nonsectarian, orthodox Brahmanic cult known as Pañcāyatana.

As Hindu thinkers tend to conflate all her forms into a single great goddess, many modern scholars similarly consider these forms to be manifestations of a single archetypal mother-goddess concept. However this may be, it is also clear that most of these forms have distinct historical origins. They derive from a variety of goddesses from specific regions and localities, each associated with specific social or ethnic groups and fulfilling specific cultural functions. Many of the major terrifying forms of the Goddess, such as Durgā, seem to have arisen among semi-hinduized tribes such as the Śabaras and Pulindas and retain these associations in classical texts. Local forms of goddesses of disease, such as the goddesses of smallpox, may also have contributed to the evolution of these terrifying forms.

Durgā Mahiamardinī is popular especially in Bengal and Bihar in the east and in Tamil Nadu in the south. Her great festival is the Durgotsava, or Durgā Pūjā, also called Navarātri, celebrated during the first ten days of the waxing fortnight of the autumn month Āśvina. Clay images of Durgā are made and presented with varied offerings. Formerly many buffalo and goats were sacrificed to her, but this practice has been gradually dying out. Recitations of the Devīmāhātmya also play an important part in the festival. On the "Victorious Tenth Day" (Vijayadaśami) the images are paraded to a river or tank. Now considered lifeless, they are deposited in the water.

See Also

Goddess Worship, article on The Hindu Goddess.


The best work on the historical evolution of the Goddess is J. N. Tiwari's Studies in Goddess Cults in Northern India (Canberra, 1971). Also useful is M. C. P. Srivastava's Mother Goddess in Indian Art, Archaeology and Literature (Delhi, 1979). Translations of the basic myths from Sanskrit sources are easily found in Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook (Baltimore, 1975). Tamil myths are discussed in David Shulman's "The Murderous Bride: Tamil Versions of the Myth of Devī and the Buffalo-Demon," History of Religions 16 (1976): 120146. A detailed description of the Durgā Pūjā festival appears in P. V. Kane's History of Dharmaśāstra, 2d ed., rev. & enl., vol. 5 (Poona, 1975).

New Sources

Sharma, Bulbul. The Book of Devi. New Delhi; New York, 2001.

David N. Lorenzen (1987)

Revised Bibliography