D is for Durga

It’s hard to write a blog entry about the Mother of the Universe. It’s a lot like reducing God to two paragraphs. In thinking about an entry for Durga Puja, I quickly realized the genius of Judaism, which allows no one to even utter the name of G _ _.  It’s an indefinable subject, after all, and best to keep quiet about it.

Except that I have this blog entry, and I’ve begun with this gimmick, and everyone thinks that because I live with an Indian I know all about Diwali. I had to clear things up. Today, D is for Durga.

Durga isn’t quite the equivalent of God in Hinduism – that would be reserved for Brahman, the transcendent and omniscient consciousness. But Hinduism’s other gods exist to reflect an aspect of Brahman, making it a little easier for us mortals to feel connected to and worship a consciousness that isn’t a being at all. Durga is one such god.

Durga’s story begins with a demon named Mahishasura. Mahishasura had been born to the power-hungry clan of the Asura gods. His father, Rambhasura, one day fell in love with a water buffalo, and Mahishasura was the result. Mahishasura had the gift of changing between human and buffalo at will, a talent I’m sure we all envy. But Mahishasura was a bit of a cad. Perhaps he became a little full of himself because of this talent, or, more likely, he wasn’t popular with the ladies. No goddess wants a date who attracts horseflies. In any case, Mahishasura thought it would be fun to terrorize heaven and earth. First he invaded heaven and threw out all the other gods. How rude!

No man or lesser god was able to defeat him, and they were becoming concerned. So they sought the sage advice of Brahma, god of creation. But it turned out Brahman wasn’t quite the clairvoyant they had assumed. It was Brahma who gave Mahishasura the power of near invincibility. Doh!

You see, despite his evilness, Mahishasura was Brahma’s biggest devotee, and even gods can let adoration get to their heads.  For several consecutive years Mahishasura had stood on one leg. All for Brahma. Who does that? There had to be something honorable about this Mahishasura guy. As a gift of appreciation Brahma offered him a wish. Mahishasura asked for immortality, but Brahma couldn’t offer that. “Whoever is born must die,” Brahma reminded Mahishasura. Still, the wily buffalo thought he’d found a way around that archaic rule. He asked for invincibility from attacks by men or animals. It wasn’t a request for immortality, per se. But who else was going to kill him? A woman? Please. Given his background, who wouldn’t have guessed he’d wind up a chauvinist? His father did, after all, fall for a buffalo.

Back at his compound, Brahma’s hands were tied. He couldn’t take back a power he’d already bestowed. He’d be labeled an Indian giver. Humanity was thus in a bind. Earth was next on Mahishasura’s hit list.

Brahma called a meeting with his cohorts, Vishnu and Shiva. I’m sure that Vishnu and Shiva were incensed and Brahma issued several apologies before he could calm the other two down. Eventually, they managed to use their collective anger to release a radiant light from their bodies. From the glow emerged a goddess with ten arms riding a tiger. She was a force of both compassion and strength. Fearless but also patient. She always kept her good humor whatever the circumstances. With a few less arms, she’d have been the perfect woman.

Durga was confident going into battle. She’d just been born, and the battle for earth was her first. She strode down from the heavens onto the earth, a goblet of wine in one of her hands. Refreshments were always a boon at long events. Something to take the edge off.

You could see how Mahishasura might underestimate her. Assuming that Durga had been well informed about his buffalo maneuvers, he decided to trick her by morphing into, first, an elephant.  For Durga, it was a bit of surprise. Everyone had thought Mahishasura was just a simple buffalo. Perhaps there was more to this god than everyone thought. Perhaps Brahma had been right after all. The thought didn’t last long because she quickly found his blind spot right between the eyes, and sliced his trunk off in one clean movement.

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Doh! Mahishasura kicked himself for choosing such a slow animal. He quickly changed to a lion. Durga paused, took a sip from her heavenly goblet, and punctured him with a devastating wound. She dispatched his man form after that.

At this point you almost feel sorry for Mahishasura. Who gets the luck to be not only a buffalo, but also a poor swordsman and arrogant to the point of ignorance? Did I mention that he may also have been illiterate? The gods needed to reconsider their tolerance for incest.

Mahishasura tried one more trick, returning to his favorite buffalo form. Durga was getting a little bored of the charades. It wasn’t too easy to drink with a sword in your hand even when you had ten of them. So when Mahishasura morphed a fourth time Durga quickly drove her sword down on his head. Then she wiped her brow and chuckled. Really, what’s more fun than defeating evil, especially when you can do it with a choice glass of wine? Divine wine, actually.

Durga Puja is the festival that celebrates this event, and the biggest Durga Puja festival occurs over six days each September in Kolkata. It is the most important event in the Bengali calendar.

Although Durga is a city-wide festival, it’s really a neighborhood event. Each year an organizing team collects donations from neighbors, building a temporary shrine, or pandal, to commemorate the goddess. Months in advance they consult with an artisan in the famous Kumartali district to build a unique clay statue that will represent the neighborhood in a city-wide contest for the best idol. The presentations come in all sizes. Some idols can be as much as fifteen feet tall. Most of the images show Durga riding atop her lion and waving multiple arms, but recently themed Durgas have caught on, and you can now see Durgas with Inca or Egyptian themes. Even Harry Potter was used once as theme for the idol; however, that won’t be happening again, as Penguin India took legal action against copyright infringement. The organizers were ordered to pay around forty thousand dollars.

Durga Puja is a social festival, and millions come out onto the streets, moving neighborhood to neighborhood to check out the idol creations and sample food stalls. The puja is also a time when many movies, books and music are released. Durga Puja is not only a commemoration of the goddess, but it is also a Bengali harvest festival and a celebration of the arts.

While growing up in America, I always wondered what happened to the floats that came out once a year to parade on the Fourth of July. Were they destroyed? Tucked away to collect dust until the next year? The question of what to do with Durga statues could easily become a dilemma for a city with thousands of neighborhoods. Kolkata’s answer, a common one in India, is the Ganges. Amid drumbeats and shouts of, “Aashchhe bochhor abar hobe!” (It will happen again next year!), organizers proceed to the banks of the Hooghly, a distributary of the Ganges that winds through the city. On their way revelers often drink bhang, a concoction made with cannabis and perhaps a symbol of Durga’s own divine wine. There, at the edge of the Hooghly, they drop her – all one thousand or more of her. The simultaneous discarding of Durga statues represents her symbolic departure to reunite with her husband, Shiva, who waits somewhere in the peaks of the Himalayas. I don’t think Durga realizes that she’s sinking below the earth instead. Navigation is not one of her strong suits.

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