Worship of Durga: Is message lost in the rituals? (Book Review)

Title: Shakti: The Feminine Divine; Author: Anuja Chandramouli; Publisher: Rupa Publishers India; Pages: 289; Price: Rs.299

This week, with the advent of Navratra and the beginning of Durga Puja in one form or another all over the country, sees the beginning of the religious festivities commemorating the goddess’s battle and eventual triumph over obnoxious buffalo demon Mahishasura and his hordes. Tradition holds that the devas (gods) unable to face him pleaded for help from the Hindu Trinity, from whose combined will emanated the goddess, and was armed for her fight by the gods. But what if this was just one version of what happened?

For another, more compassionate and understanding and above all, creative account, of this and some other familiar but dimly-remembered incidents of Hindu theogony, pick up Anuja Chandramouli’s third book, which seeks to reclaim the role of the mother goddess, or the sacred feminine principle, in Hinduism – but to balance, not supplant.

Almost all old societies created their gods in their own images (and frequently imbued them with their own hopes, fears and motivations) and most religions had a mother goddess, symbolising nature and its bounty, motherhood, and creation. Of all these, it is only Hinduism that survives as a significant, living faith (save the religious cult of Pachamama or the Earth Mother among indigenous Andean tribes of Quechua and Aymara straddling five South American countries from Ecuador to Argentina).

But this vital element of the primordial Hindu religion seems to have been subsumed under later syncretions – as a character in this book observes that there is “little in the existing records to show the tremendous role the goddess played in shaping everything we hold dear today, despite the the fact that she is the active force behind creation, who has taken it upon herself to look out for every one of her children…” (The less said the better about how some adherents confine veneration for the goddess to the prayer room but flagrantly disregard in real life the principle she embodies – as a cursory glance in the crime news and demographic statistics indicates.)

Old beliefs can however be surprisingly resilient and find a gifted storyteller to re-emerge before us – in this case, Chandramouli, who has earlier profiled the best-known of the Pandavas and the Hindu god of love, uses her imagination and a rare sensibility to spin a gently-provocative but more importantly, a considerably thought-provoking account of Shakti, and her manifestations as Usas, Durga and Kali.

The story is not always pretty – it includes incest, bestiality, gratuitous violence, and considerable amount of pride and jealousy – and sometimes the little too earthy and graphic language is a tad jarring.

What keeps it from being just another re-telling of mythology is the author’s deft use of contemporary idiom and the parallels with our present it spontaneously evokes – what befell Usas is a stark example – the vicious judgment of society (with women no less vicious), the role of “interpreters” and “guardians” of religion in determining its contours and in reshaping history for their own ends – that can even bewilder the gods (“the guardians of the universe glanced at each other surreptitiously…… they were wondering the same thing. How was it that the members of the Vedic brotherhood alone were so certain about events for which there had purportedly been no eyewitnesses?”) – and undue emphasis on means with no regard to ends.

As the goddess observes after vanquishing Mahishasura: “It is to be wondered if they will remember the actual lesson to be learned here. I am getting the bad feeling that the devas and humans alike will get carried away with the elaborate rituals they have devised so lovingly in Durga’s honour and devote their lives to them, conveniently ignoring the rest of the factors..”

It is no one’s case that this version trumps others but Hinduism’s defining strength has always been (and always will) its ability to easily accommodate a wide diversity of beliefs, interpretations and customs – which have caused irreparable rifts in other extant religions. There could be no better example than this book.

(13.12.2015 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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