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A Brief History of Durga Puja in the Context of Hindu Mythology and its Continuing Relevance.

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Every year, we celebrate Durga Puja but very few of us, having spent a greater part of our lives outside India, remember the context and significance of the Durga Puja festivities. Especially for our children, the condensed (one to two day) Durga Puja celebrations do not communicate much of their historical, religious or cultural significance to them. For most of us, the social aspects of the Pujas have now become more important. In addition, for the most part, we have become apathetic toward the actual worship and its rituals. Many of the rituals are relatively incomprehensible to the lay public. I will try to convey the significance of this important festival through both the relevant Hindu mythologies, and its continuing modern relevance. For the sake of our children, several of whom have been born in the Indian Diaspora, I hope that this article will serve as a useful resource for the parents. What is Durga Puja? Durga Puja is an annual Hindu festival in South Asia that celebrates worship of the Hindu Goddess Durga. Most importantly, the Durga Puja festival epitomizes the victory of Good over Evil. The Goddess Durga is both the beloved mother and the fiercest warrior – people pray for her to come and cleanse the earth of all evils. During Durga Puja, God is adored as the Mother. Hinduism is the only religion in the world that has emphasized to such an extent the motherhood of God. Durga is the most complete being in the universe: she comes to the mortal realm to punish evil and protect the innocent. Durga is praised as a symbol of all divine forces - Durga is omnipresent as the embodiment of motherhood, power, intelligence, peace, wealth, and morality. One can see from the lines below the qualities used in the worship: “The Goddess who is omnipresent as the personification of universal mother, The Goddess who is omnipresent as the embodiment of power, The Goddess who is omnipresent as the symbol of peace, I bow to her, I bow to her, I bow to her” When is Durga Puja celebrated? The Durga Puja festival is widely celebrated in autumn/fall, during the months of either late September or early to middle October. It is important to remember that the actual worship of the Goddess Durga, as originally stipulated by the Hindu scriptures, is in the month of March or April (spring), thus known as the Basanta Durga Puja. This ceremony is not widely observed and is restricted to a handful in India. According to the ancient Hindu epics and sacred scriptures known as the Puranas, King Suratha, in Kalinga (now the state of Odisha), started the rituals of Durga Puja in spring. This dates back to 300 B.C. Therefore, this particular Durga Puja came to be known as Basanta Puja (Basanta being spring). While the spring worship of Durga still goes on, it is the Durga Puja festival during the autumn that came to be a most widely accepted practice. Bengali Hindus celebrate this festival as Sharodotsav (autumn festival) or Sharadiya Durga Puja. This is the more popular form celebrated later in the year with the dates falling in either September or October. The fall or autumn equinox was traditionally not favored for religious rituals due to the belief that Gods and Goddesses usually rest during this period, marked by longer nights and shorter days. Durga Puja is also known as Akal Bodhan ("untimely awakening of Durga"), a worship (Bodhan) in an unconventional time (Akal). Historically, when did Durga Puja begin as a celebration? The Goddess Durga has been worshiped from about 400 A.D., or even earlier - references to the Goddess Durga can be found in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and other Vedic literature. Since the medieval period, Durga Puja has evolved and adapted to the world as time passed. In Bengal and Odisha, early forms of Durga Pujas were primarily private worship in personal residences. The first grand and community-based worship of Goddess Durga in recorded history, similar to its current form, was celebrated in the late 1500s. Where is Durga Puja celebrated? Durga Puja is widely celebrated in several northeastern states of India where it is a five-day annual holiday. In West Bengal, not only is it the biggest Hindu festival celebrated throughout the state, it is also the most significant socio-cultural event in Bengali Hindu society. Bengalis everywhere celebrate this puja – it is said that if there are two Bengalis, there will be one puja, but if there are three then there will be two pujas! Being able to celebrate the occasion is a matter of personal pride and honor. Nowadays, many diaspora Bengali cultural organizations arrange for Durga Puja in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Singapore and Kuwait, among others. Social Aspects of Durga Puja Today, the celebration of Durga Puja has evolved more into the popular culture of Bengal. It is a special occasion for family reunions, social gatherings, and celebrations with new clothes and delicious food. In India, the celebration of the puja is a huge opportunity to demonstrate artistic abilities, talents and imagination in decoration of the venues of the puja and designing of the idol that we in the Indian diaspora sorely miss! Finally, the festival and celebration of Durga Puja is also seen as a significant economic activity, in terms of both revenue and tourism in Bengal. Durga Puja in the Context of Hindu Mythology There are two distinct legends in Hindu mythology celebrated during Durga Puja. 1)Mahishasur, the Demon King, and the Creation of the Goddess Durga. The first legend establishes the supremacy of Durga. Many eons ago, there was a powerful asura (demon) king called Mahishasur who lived in the lower realms of the universe, also known as hell (or Narak in Bengali). According to Hindu mythology, Mahishasur earned the favor of Lord Shiva after a long and hard penance. Lord Shiva, impressed with his devotion, blessed him with the boon that no mortal man or deity would be able to kill him and that only a woman with divine powers could destroy or kill him. Mahishasur was very pleased with this boon as he thought that such a woman would never be born and that he would become immortal. Arrogant Mahishasur started his reign of terror over the Universe and people were killed mercilessly. He even attacked the abode of the Gods. The war between gods and demons lasted a hundred years and in this contest, the army of the gods was defeated by the more powerful demons. After their defeat and humiliation at the hands of Mahishasur, the Gods took refuge under Lord Brahma, who took them to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. Their collective appeal and prayers culminated in all the Gods coming together with their individual qualities, creating the power for the destruction of Mahishasur or the ultimate evil. This power was embodied in the creation of the Goddess Durga who was endowed with all the powers of the individual Gods represented in one body. Pure energy blazed forth from Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - the trinity forming the pure energy of Godhood. From the energy of these Gods, as well as from many other Gods, was formed the Goddess Durga. Amongst the most important of these are the following traits: Her face reflected the light of Shiva, her ten arms were from Lord Vishnu, Her feet were from Lord Brahma; her tresses were formed from the light of Yama, the God of Death; the Triad of her eyes was born from the light of Agni, the Fire God. Durga was also given a garland of immortal lotuses for her head and breasts. The Gods then gifted the Goddess with their weapons and other divine objects to help her in her battle with the demon Mahishasur. Each arm held a special weapon: Lord Shiva gave her a trident; Lord Vishnu gave her a disc; Varuna, the God of the water and of the celestial ocean, gave her a conch and noose; Agni, the God of Fire, gave her a spear; Vayu, the Lord of the Winds, gave her arrows; Indra, the Lord of the heavens, gave her a thunderbolt; Yama, the God of Death, gave her a sword and shield; and Himavat, the God of the mountains, gifted her with jewels and a lion to ride on. Durga transformed into Devi Chandika, the most ferocious form of the Goddess. She fought against Mahishasur for 9 days (Navaratri) and finally killed him on the 10th day called Vijaya Dashami. In the image of Durga we worship, we see Shiva’s trident piercing the breast of Mahishasur; the prayer incantations tell us how the other weapons, both powerful and benign, were used in the battle. Thus, with their collective powers, the Gods redeemed their pledge to humanity to protect and nurture them in bad times. It also reaffirmed the faith that united we can deal with any evil that destroys the social order. 2) Ramayana. The present day celebration of Durga Puja is intimately associated with Lord Rama's life, as told in the epic Ramayana. The Ramayana is undoubtedly the most popular and timeless Indian epic read and loved by all. The term 'Ramayana', literally means "the march (ayana) of Rama" in search of human values. As part of Hindu mythology, Durga Puja commemorates Prince Rama's invocation of the Goddess before going to war with the demon king Ravana. Lord Rama went to Lanka (Sri Lanka or formerly known as Ceylon), the kingdom of Ravana, the demon king, to rescue his abducted wife, Sita. Before starting for his battle with Ravana, Rama wanted the blessings of Goddess Durga. However, he did not want to wait for another six months, when the traditional spring Durga Puja would be held. He came to know that the Goddess Durga would be pleased only if she was worshipped with one hundred and eight (108) 'Neel Kamal' or blue lotuses. Rama, after travelling the whole world, could gather only one hundred and seven (107) of them. He finally decided to offer one of his eyes, which resembled a blue lotus. Durga, being pleased with the devotion of Rama, appeared before him and blessed him with divine powers in his battle against Ravana and victory of good over evil. Distinct Phases of Durga Puja Traditionally, Durga Puja used to be performed in the spring, which is why it is also known as Basanta Puja. However, because Lord Rama worshipped and awakened the Goddess Durga in the autumn (fall) or the wrong time, Durga Puja is also known as the Untimely Worshipping or Akal Bodhan. In Bengal, Mahalaya marks the beginning of Durga Puja celebrations. It is an invocation or invitation to the mother goddess to descend on earth and represents humankind’s supplication before the Goddess Durga. They believe that Goddess Durga descended to the Earth on this auspicious day. Mahalaya is an auspicious occasion observed seven days before the Durga Puja and heralds the advent of Durga, the Goddess of Supreme Power. Time line of 2015 Durga Puja in the Context of the Ramayana Mahalaya (September 19,2017) "Jago Tumi Jago". Observed seven days before the Durga Puja, and heralds the advent of Durga, the Goddess of supreme power. It is an invitation to the mother Goddess to descend on earth. Bengalis traditionally wake up at 4:00 AM in the morning on Mahalaya day to listen to hymns from the scriptures recited in the voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra and Pankaj Kumar Mullick on All India Radio, a tradition since 1932. In the context of the Ramayana, on this day, Lord Rama invoked the Goddess Durga in his epic battle against Ravana. Shashthi (September 26, 2017) On this day, the Divine Mother arrives to the mortal world from her heavenly abode this is the eve of the Puja, accompanied by her children. Unveiling the face of the idol is the main ritual. Saptami (September 27, 2017) Saptami is the first day of Durga Puja. In the context of Ramayana, the battle with Ravana started on the 'Saptami‘. Ashtami (September 28, 2017) All nine forms of Goddess Durga are worshipped during Maha Ashtami Puja. Nine small pots are installed, and the nine Shaktis (forces) of Durga are invoked in them. In the context of the Ramayana, Rama received the divine powers and weapons from Goddess Durga. Navami (September 29, 2017) This is the final day of worship - the concluding day of Durga Puja. Durga triumphs over Mahishasur, the demon. In the context of the Ramayana, Rama prevails upon the demon God Ravana. VijayaDashami (September 30, 2017) On the last day, farewell is offered to the Goddess. In the context of the Ramayana, Ravana was cremated on Dashami. This day is also known as Dusshera. Kali Puja/Diwali (October 18, 2017) Kali is another manifestation of Durga. The worship of Goddess Kali coincides with Diwali, the Festival of Lights, which is celebrated 20 days after Dusshera. In the context of the Ramayana, this day marks the long return or journey back for Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshmana from exile of 14 years. Everybody lit oil lamps to guide them on their way and welcome them back - light triumphs over dark and good triumphs over evil. Durga’s Family: Durga has two daughters: Lakshmi, who is the source of all Beauty and Opulence in this universe, and Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge and Arts. Lord Kartika and Lord Ganesha are her sons: Lord Kartika is a great warrior, and Lord Ganesha is the ultimate source of success and wisdom. It is said that it was to Lord Ganesha that the great epic Mahabharata was dictated. Religious Origins of Durga The Trinity of Hindu Gods: Very simply put, most Hindus believe in an all pervasive Divine Reality or Supreme Being that has no form. This formless Supreme Being is manifested in all that exists within the universe, and is responsible for its creation, sustenance, and dissolution. However, because this Supreme Being has no form, the three functions of creation, sustenance, and dissolution can be manifested and worshipped through the Hindu Trimurti (trinity) of the Gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively. These three principal Gods are manifestations of the same Supreme Being. Hindus believe that time is cyclical - everything in the universe is created, maintained for a certain amount of time, and then destroyed for renewal in an ideal form again. Brahma is “the Creator” because he periodically creates everything in the universe; Vishnu preserves the universe; Shiva destroys the universe: Durga is the dynamic form of the wife (also known as Parvati) of Lord Shiva. The Sanskrit word Durga means a “fort” or “a place that is protected and thus difficult to reach.” She is a multi-dimensional Goddess, with many names (108), many personas, and many facets: as Shakti, she is the destroyer of evil - with her ten mighty arms carrying lethal weapons she triumphantly slays the demon Mahishasur. As Kali, Durga represents destruction and helps devotees come to terms with the cycle of birth and death. As Parvati, Durga is the serene wife/consort of Lord Shiva. In Hindu belief, she is the recreative energy and power of Shiva. The Continuing Relevance of Durga The Goddess Durga represents all aspects of humanity, compassion, and divinity – she is the protector, the preserver, the warrior, and the divine mother. The Goddess Durga represents strength, courage, fearlessness, the mother of bounty & wealth, beauty, knowledge and is the embodiment of self-realization. Durga is the guardian of cosmic order - when the balance of the universe is disturbed, she assumes various forms to restore order and balance. By praying to the Goddess Durga, we symbolically seek to destroy the negative forces within us, and through a spiritual reawakening, we seek to restore both our inner peace and the natural harmony of humankind.