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Re-inking our cultural heritage
Durga: Crossing Traditional Bounds within Tradition
By Shreyoshi Roy

Despite being a Goddess identified with war, the Goddess Durga possesses qualities that make her endearing rather than formidable to the Indian collective. Like the Goddess Kali, she is a popular form of the Hindu deity Parvati. She is both an obedient wife to her consort Shiva as well as the Warrior Goddess, whose mythology centers around destroying demonic forces that threaten peace. According to legend, Durga took birth for the slaying of the buffalo demon Mahishasura. When the Asura king wreaked havoc over all the three loks, undefeated by all the Gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva came together to create Durga with their collective energies to destroy the demon. Despite her emergence from male collective power, she is recognized as a symbol of feminine power, and her worship is referred to as Shaktism.

What makes Durga, the epitome of Nari Shakti, a celebration of all that is female, so popular?

Durga is considered the ultimate female power by Bengali women. Her victory over Mahishasura is commemorated as a ten-day event in West Bengal as Durga Puja. In Bengali tradition, Durga puja begins with Durga’s visit to her natal home with her children – the deities Kartik, Saraswati, Ganesha, and Laxmi. It will be of little surprise that the Goddess Durga’s portrayal in popular culture, especially in cinema, has been expressed in the form of her connection to Bengal.

The Goddess Durga is also worshipped as the protectress of the Earth who gives courage to her people. In her traditional form, she is depicted as a warrior woman with eight hands carrying weapons of different kinds, symbolizing she is always ready for war. Navadurga is the nine manifestations of the goddess Durga in Hinduism, especially worshipped during the festival of Navratri (meaning nine nights). Each of these nine manifested forms is venerated respectively for each night and show the preparedness of the Mother Goddess in an act of war against the evil.

However, despite being an embodiment of a warrior spirit, riding atop a lion with deadly weapons of war, Durga isn’t only that. She is lovingly referred to as “Mother” or “Ma Durga” by us all. The traditional narrative, the one that celebrates the Durga of the Pujo Pandals, finds the divinity within her as she performs the roles of the female prototype. She is the daughter of the hills, wife of Shiva, and mother of her four celestial children – this image celebrates her demure qualifies and dilutes the blood-thirstiness of her aggressive warrior personality. In this role, she is a housewife visiting her childhood home and her people, the same people who will weep after her as she bids them farewell after nine days. She is also a mother, taking care of her children and this is what makes her endearing to the Indian collective, making her the universal “Ma” at the heart of the Indian family. And this dichotomous nature of the Goddess, that she is as much a warrior as she is a mother, that makes her existence palatable to the Indian patriarchy. She crosses traditional bounds while remaining within the tradition.

In the feminist movement also, the Goddess Durga’s popular is celebrated. The reason for such easy acceptance of the Goddess into the feminist movement has every right to be questioned - the creation and function of Durga ultimately give agency to male gods, so how does Durga function as a symbol of feminist power? The answer to this question is also based on Durga's dichotomous nature.

Feminism is for women from all aspects of society. Durga, thus, represents women who might exist within patriarchal struggles but don’t let that limit them. She allows women to become a part of the feminist movement from the comfort of their homes, without the fear of disapproval from the patriarchal society. The religious spaces where they conduct the worship of the Goddess become spaces for the propagation of feminism, making empowerment possible within the worship of the Goddess.

Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani is a perfect representation of Durga’s fierce, indomitable spirit disguised in the veil of traditional gender roles.

In Bengal and all over India, women now celebrate Durga as a manifestation of their will and power, the source of ultimate feminine power. She is called upon for strength in order to solve the everyday problems for women because she has become a personal as well as a collective Goddess. That Durga is a loving wife and mother while being a warrior is what makes Durga so relatable for the Indian woman who often must remain within the bounds of traditionalism but also wishes to explore her inner strength. Maa Durga, thus, exists as a dichotomy that the society approves and ascribes to.

Durga might not be an out-and-out figure of feministic victory over patriarchy, but she gives hope that structures of patriarchy are not enough to keep you from being the goddess that you are.

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