The origin of goddess worship in India was both non-Aryan and non-Sanskritic. 1 Worship of the goddess was not originally characterized by the feminine brahman conception. Vedic scriptures mentioned a number of goddesses. 2 Some traditions do assert quite clearly that all forms of the goddess are merely different faces of Mahadevi, the one Great Goddess, 3 yet originally each goddess was most likely an individual who was worshipped by a particular tribe in a specific geographical region. 4
Confusion arises when trying to determine if Hindu goddesses are many individual goddesses or many different faces of Mahadevi. As Hawley and Wulff suggest when referring to the goddess, "Sometimes the singular feels more accurate, sometimes the plural." 5 Hindu goddesses were originally separate from each other. In actuality the convergence of the individual goddesses did not occur until approximately the sixth century when the variety of goddess conceptions were combined into the Mahadevi tradition as presented in the Devi-Mahatmya . 6 This text is characterized by the interchangeability of names, epithets, and forms of the goddess. 7 There is one goddess who exhibits many forms according to need. Agrawala describes Mahadevi as "like the center and all Her forms are the points of the compass corresponding to a particular view of the seer." 8
Of all forms of Mahadevi, the form of Durga is the most popular. 9 Although in Bengal she is conceived of as a village housewife, 10 her primary conceptions are more fierce and independent. Durga is a warrior. When demons threaten to disrupt the stability of the universe, Durga steps in to battle the demons, preserving the cosmic order. 11 The universe has a specific balance which needs to be maintained. Durga acts to ensure this balance is maintained.
The origin of her worship can be traced back to tribal cultures. 12 Her origin, however, was likely to come far later than Vedic times. Vedic literature does mention the name Durga, but Durga in the form of the demon slayer is not to be found in Vedic texts. 13 Many centuries after the Vedas, during approximately the first century BCE to the first century CE, was the first reference to any form resembling the warrior Durga found. Her most prominent form as Mahishamardini Durga, the slayer of Mahisha (discussed below), began to appear in art at this time. 14 Artistic representations of Mahishamardini Durga became more common during the fourth century CE. Then with the introduction of the Devi-mahatmya in the sixth century, Durga became both well-known and popularly worshipped in India. 15
Durga is a fascinating and complex goddess to decipher. She is described as beautiful. Great beauty is normally ascribed to the intent of acquiring a husband. This is not the case with Durga. She uses her beauty to seduce her opponents into battle where inevitably they die at her hands. 16 Iconographically she has four, eight, or more hands 17 although her most popular form tends to have ten hands holding ten weapons. 18 Her representations are also often characterized with three eyes, a dark complexion, full breasts bound with a snake, strong thighs, and big hips. She wears yellow garments but the bodice of her upper body is usually red. 19 Alternatively her body color is described as the color of heated gold. She is also most commonly shown riding a lion with one foot resting on Mahisha. 20 The above description marks the most common iconographic representation of Durga. The Agamas mention nine other forms of Durga: Nilakanthi, Kshemankari, Harasiddhi, Rudramsa-Durga, Vana-Durga, Agni-Durga, Jaya-Durga, Vindhyavasi-Durga, and Ripumari-Durga. 21 Each of these nine forms has her own unique iconography varying from approachable to highly terrifying in appearance.
Several myths exist explaining Durga's origin. The best known myth of her origin relates to her form as Mahishamardini Durga. Mahisha, the Buffalo Demon, performed great austerities. For this practice he was granted a boon of invincibility save from a woman. Mahisha then battled the gods who were incapable of defeating him which gave Mahisha the reward of taking over the positions of the gods. The gods banded together, gave up their shaktis , or power, which assembled into the form of the goddess Durga. Each of the gods provided her with a weapon. She was also given a lion as her vehicle. Durga easily defeated Mahisha whose invincibility was no match for women. 22
Symbolically, her lion vehicle has important connotations. Lions often are associated with the rising sun which reflects the assertion of feminine energies and power. Also significant is the fact that in lion prides, the females do most of the work, hunting in a cooperative effort. 23 The gods in the myth released their shaktis . Shakti is power. Specifically, it is female power. Durga represents, like the lion, the assertion of feminine power. 24 The cooperative effort of female lions on the hunt is also reflected by one of Durga's characteristic aspects. When in battle, should she need assistance, she creates female helpers from herself. A particularly fierce group of helpers Durga creates is the Matrikas. They are the wild, bloodthirsty, embodied fury of Durga usually seven in number. 25 Another helper Durga creates when she loses control or is confronted with a formidable task is Kali who springs from Durga's brow. 26 Durga's vehicle is also sometimes said to be the tiger. 27 Although the lion is her more common vehicle, the tiger has a significant connotation as well. Like Durga, tigers are known for their ferocity and power. 28 The tiger again connects Durga to her nature as personified shakti and warrior.
Typically shakti is the power that a goddess loans to her male consort. Durga differs from this usual pattern. She takes back her shakti from the gods in order to become the warrior goddess. As a warrior Durga is a liminal figure. She is not subordinate to a male deity and her role in myth is that of a normally male activity. 29 Durga is described as a "goddess ever virgin and lonely in her power." 30
Another assertion of her liminal nature is the connection of Durga with inauspicious qualities such as sleep, hunger, and delusion, or maya . 31 Maya functions as an illusional force which allows Durga to embody and display herself. At the same time maya functions as a delusional force to beings in the world to prevent them from seeing things as they really exist. Both aspects of maya are involved with Durga as she creates the world then deludes the beings within it for her own amusement. 32
Durga's worship by tribal groups exhibits another aspect of her liminal nature. She is given offerings of meat and blood with the final scene of the Devi-mahatmya instructing devotees to give her offerings of their own flesh. 33 Sacrifice is a common practice in the worship of Durga. The most often sacrificed animal is the buffalo which relates to her identity as Mahishamardini Durga. 34 Sheep and oxen are also sacrificed to her. Generally the sacrifices are performed by low caste Hindus. 35 It was also not unusual until the past century for humans to be sacrificed on occassion to Durga. 36
The blood sacrifice to Durga is based on the notion that in her role as the power that underlies all life, sometimes she needs to be refreshed. Tribal groups and texts both served to establish Durga's need for blood. During her worhsip at her annual festival, Durga Puja, blood plays a central role and perpetuates the conception of her need for blood. 37 Durga Puja, also called Navaratri, occurs after the autumnal equinox 38 commencing for nine nights at the first sunset after the full moon in the Hindu lunar month Purattasi (September-October). 39 It is one of the most important festivals in India, especially in North India. 40
Generally the festival is for Devi, yet is regarded as especially sacred to Durga. Each night of Navaratri is marked by worship to the goddess under a different name. The form of Durga as Mahakali, the Dark Mother, is the first night with each succeeding night having puja for a secondary form of Durga. The last night of the festival is for puja of Mahishamardini Durga which commemorates the defeat of the Buffalo Demon. 41
The nine forms of Durga and the nine nights of the festival suggest the nature of the goddess to contain the universe within her while having no finite form or that limited form can contain the goddess who is essentially without limitation. Nine contains all other one digit numbers but at the same time nine cannot be found in any of these numbers. 42 The aim of Navaratri is to worship the goddess symbolizing every possible energy in the universe in return for perpetual happiness and prosperity. 43
The central image of Durga Puja is the slaying of Mahisha, celebrating Durga's victory and the rebalancing of the cosmic order. 44 In South India puja focuses on her liminal nature while in North India puja stresses her nature as a wife. 45 As a wife Durga is identified with Parvati, the consort of Shiva. In this role she is also the mother of Ganesha, Karttikeya, Sarasvati, and Lakshmi. As Shiva's wife, Durga is viewed as a dhiyani , an outmarried woman, who returns home to her mait , or natal village, to attend the festival. 46
Another aspect of Durga brought out during the festival is her connection to agricultural fertility. Navaratri is also a harvest festival in addition to its celebration of the goddess. In the form of a pot Durga is invoked as the power underlying the growth of agricultural grains. 47 Another form of Durga worshipped during the festival is the navapattrika , a bundle of nine plants. This bundle again suggests a reference to the number nine as mentioned above. But the inclusion of paddy and plantain in the bundle definitely connotes an agricultural connection for Durga although not all plants in the bundle are agricultural in nature. 48 As mentioned previously, blood sacrifices are offered to Durga as a way to reenergize the goddess who underlies all life, including agricultural produce. One other aspect of Durga's nature which is characteristic of the festival is ribald behavior which is also thought to stimulate fertility in crops. 49 Durga is said to be pleased by obscene gestures and comments during her festival which serves to promote agricultural fertility. 50
On the ninth night of Navaratri an animal offering symbolizing Mahisha is thrown into a sacred fire. 51 This night of the festival also has importance in another sense. On this night the tools of laborers and books of the educated are consecrated. 52 This puja is not to Durga, however. The consecration of the tools to one's trade is performed in puja to Sarasvati. 53 As the goddess of wisdom and learning, Sarasvati is thought to grant success to philosophers, scholars, and artists. 54 She is believed to manifest herself in schools or anywhere learning occurs and is especially revered in these locations. 55 Worship of Sarasvati is said to give eloquence, wisdom, poetic inspiration, and artistic skill. She grants charming speech and a musical voice while removing speech defects and dumbness. 56 In short, Sarasvati represents the entirety and diversity of human civilization. 57
Sarasvati is one of the preservative and creative shaktis who is generally worshipped by higher classes of society. 58 However, her worship by the higher classes was not always the case. During Vedic times Sarasvati was far more popular among peasants and the mercantile class. 59 Also during Vedic times the warrior class worshipped her as a goddess of battle. Warriors saw Sarasvati as holding similar qualities to the god of thunder and lightning, Indra, who was also the god of battle. Sarasvati was seen as both valiant and one who brought rain just as Indra was. 60 During puja to Sarasvati the tools for one's profession are worshipped and even today it is common to still see weapons worshipped during her puja . 61
In many myths Sarasvati is the co-wife of Lakshmi, both being the consort of Vishnu. In this context Lakshmi represents material goals while Sarasvati represents spiritual goals. 62 As a mother, though, her children are not the typical conception. She provides inspiration for artistic creations spawning art in diverse forms. She is also said to have given birth to the Vedas since she is considered to be wisdom personified. 63 In short, Sarasvati is the inspiration behind the arts and sciences, the mother of culture. 64
For the arts she is the inspiration to all artists whether they are poets, dancers, musicians, or any other producer of a particular art form. In relation to the sciences Sarasvati is the preservation of human thought in its many products. 65 Sarasvati is identified with thought, representing the human ability to design and create products of culture. in this capacity, thought is also what separates humans from other species because it allows reasoning ability. Another important aspect of Sarasvati's identification with thought is that thought is what makes speech possible. 66 Sarasvati is also believed to be the embodiment of speech. Her nature as a goddess of speech and thought is reinforced by her connection to science and learning. 67
Iconographically Sarasvati's association with culture is presented while connections to growth, fertility, and blood are all absent. 68 Usually she is shown seated on a white lotus wearing white clothes and having a white complexion. 69 In her four hands she holds a book, a lute, a rosary, and a water pot connecting her to the arts and sciences as well as spiritual practices. 70 She is also sometimes described as being smeared with sandalwood paste. 71 The lotus she sits on flowers into beauty above the mud its roots are tied to. This reflects the inspiration Sarasvati gives to people to blossom their culture above the roots of physical limitations. 72
Her vehicle is the swan which offers significance to the meanings Sarasvati embodies. In Hinduism the swan is a symbol of spiritual transcendence and perfection, reflecting the inspiration Sarasvati offers for humans to rise above physical limitations in the creation of culture. 73 The long neck of the swan symbolizes the reach from lower worlds (the body) to higher worlds (the head), 74 a reach from physical limitation to an intellectual world of cultural creation. In addition, the swan is often connected to children, mystics, poets, and dreamers. In legend the swan is said to sing its most beautiful song just before it dies linking it to poetic inspiration and musical beauty. 75 The swan is significant of the arts and intellectual capacity which are the very things Sarasvati embodies.
Although Sarasvati is today seen as a goddess of culture, originally her conception was far different. Her initial conception as a goddess was as the embodiment of the Sarasvati River. 76 The Rig Veda describes Sarasvati as a great and mighty flood. What distinguishes Sarasvati from all other rivers is her splendor, majesty, greatness, glory and sublimity. In addition, all other rivers were pushed forward by the greatness of Sarasvati. 77 It is from the time of the Rig Veda that Sarasvati is already thought of as a goddess worthy of worship. 78
The Sarasvati River is said to originate in heaven. Connection with the transcendent dimension of the goddess can be attained by physical contact with her manifestation on earth. 79 In her form as the river, Sarasvati also has a connection with fertility. Her waters are said to be life-giving. All food is dependent on the river. Out of her waters grows the life on her banks and she is necessary for crops to grow by her irrigation. 80
Over time Sarasvati began to be identified not so much specifically as a river goddess but rather as a goddess manifesting through all waters as a life-giving and purifying essence. 81 The purifying power of Sarasvati was attested as far back as the Vedas. Vedic literature connected her with healing and medicine. She was petitioned to help cleanse her worshipper from disease. 82 In the Atharva Veda she was specifically invoked to kill worms, promote the general welfare of infants, to induce an antidote for poisons, to restore manly vigor, and to grant longevity. 83
During her early history, devotion from the warrior class probably caused the growth of Vedic rituals dedicated to Sarasvati. The fecund power of the goddess and the prowess and agility of her current allowed the warriors to thrive. 84 Warriors invoked Sarasvati for a number of reasons. They prayed to her for protection from enemies and success in conquering them. Her protection was also asked for at the beginning of battles which were waged specifically for the attainment of wealth. Another reason Sarasvati was invoked at the beginning of a battle was because among celestial beings her strength on the battlefield was well attested. 85
Another reason Sarasvati was invoked was for the slaying of Vrtra. 86 An epithet of Sarasvati in the Rig Veda is Vrtaghni, the destroyer of Vrtra. The Devi-mahatmya gives another epithet as Vrtra-pranahara, the stealer of life of Vrtra. 87 Vrtra is better known as the demon of drought. In the myth of his death, Vrtra was said to have obstructed rivers, blocking their flow. Sarasvati came to the aid of Indra to kill the demon. She prepared for the conflict by granting a space for the battle and was herself said to be fierce in the task of battle. With the death of Vrtra rain began to fall, restoring the rivers. 88 This myth further illustrates the association of Sarasvati and Indra held among the warrior class. It also demonstrates her ancient aspect as a goddess of battle. In fact, in ancient times Sarasvati was even offered animal sacrifices, especially the ram and ewe, 89 although this form of offering would be alien to her today in her form as the goddess of culture.
In later Hinduism Sarasvati does maintain some of her characteristics from Vedic times. She still retains her association with clouds, thunder, and rain. More generally she retains her connection to water as a fertilizing force and an essence necessary for all life. 90 Yet there is an element in later Hinduism that becomes more characteristic of Sarasvati than her connection to water. This new aspect of Sarasvati is her connection to speech. Although mention can be found in the Rig Veda of Sarasvati as the "impeller of true and sweet speech," 91 that was not her common identity in Vedic times. Sarasvati was not the goddess of speech and knowledge until later in her history when she began to be identified with Vak, the goddess of speech. 92 The identification of these two goddesses developed through Vedic times. At times they are interchangeable, but at other times they are two entirely separate individuals. 93 By the time of the Atharva Veda , the association of Sarasvati and Vak is well developed. 94 Once this association was well formed, Vak eventually became subsumed by Sarasvati who became the goddess of speech.
Speech is important as a means of communication between people to share ideas, wisdom, and culture. It sets people apart from other living things. It has association to reasoning ability. 95 It is easy to see the importance of speech and its connection to culture. Once Sarasvati became identified with Vak, her evolution into the goddess of culture was not a difficult one. A few myths of her origin show her association with speech after her connection to water declined. She is said to be the tongue of Vishnu and held in his mouth. Another myth of her origin declares she lives in the mouths on the tongues of the god Brahma who has four or five heads. Sarasvati is born in the mouths of Brahma when he uses creative speech to create the world. The myth of her origin in the Puranas says that Sarasvati came from the tip of Krishna's shakti's tongue dressed in yellow holding a book and a lute. 96 In later Hinduism it is difficult to find any connection from the goddess of speech and culture to the great and mighty river goddess of Vedic times. 97
Sarasvati and Durga do have a few similarities. At one time far in her past, Sarasvati was thought of by some as a goddess of battle and received offerings of animal sacrifices just as Durga does. Both are demon slayers. Again, in her past, Sarasvati was once associated with fertility just as Durga still receives worship as a goddess of fertility. especially for crops, during Navaratri.
Yet these goddesses are more different than they are similar. It is only Sarasvati's ancient beginnings which bear similarities to the far younger Durga. The Sarasvati of today would not receive animal sacrifice. She would not ride off into battle slaying demons. Durga maintains these roles. Sarasvati is conceived of as a sattvic goddess while Durga is associated with tamasic elements. 98 Sattva represents goodness, or more pure and spiritual elements. Tamas is thought of as darkness, 99 or the deluding negative qualities of maya .
A common motif of the Hindu tradition is the creation, maintenance, and destruction of the universe. Sarasvati is a goddess more closely resembling the creative. Her conception today is as a mother of human culture in every respect. Durga, on the other hand, serves to maintain balance in the universe, destroying the cause of imbalance. Durga is connected to maintenance and destructive functions rather than creative.
These differences in function also reflect the sattvic and tamasic natures of the goddesses. The intellectual nature which leads subsequently to cultural development is sattvic while the destructive nature would be tamasic . The sattvic nature of Sarasvati and the tamasic nature of Durga also explain the offerings they receive. Blood offerings are wholly appropriate for the destructive Durga while fruits or other such sattvic offerings are far more appropriate to Sarasvati today. Even the clothing of the two goddesses reflects their different natures. Sarasvati's white clothing symbolizes her sattvic nature. The red clothing of Durga, likewise, reflects her tamasic nature.
Although there are a few similarities between the two goddesses, Durga and Sarasvati are more different than similar. Durga is best viewed as a liminal goddess. Sarasvati, however, is fully entrenched in society. Given the tendency of many texts and myths to unify all the goddesses under the one Mahadevi, 100 after looking in detail at Durga and Sarasvati, what can be said about these two in relation to Mahadevi?
The Devi-mahatmya does address the paradoxical nature of Devi as both auspicious and terrible. 101 Sarasvati is easily more auspicious than the form of Durga who is obviously a more terrible form of Devi. The underlying power which unifies all the goddesses is said to display itself in a number of forms for a variety of reasons. 102 The Devi-mahatmya explains that Devi is "eternal, having as her form the world. By her is all this pervaded. Also, her birth is in many forms." 103 Basically, the ability to appear in a multiplicity of forms is related to her nature as maya . 104
It is from the time of the Devi-mahatmya that the unity of all goddesses becomes prevalent. All goddesses, therefore, can be said to be simply different forms of the one Devi. In another sense, though, it must be said that all of the goddesses are not merely different forms of the one Great Goddess. It must be remembered that the goddesses had their origins in specific geographical regions within specific tribes. Each tribe had its own unique goddess. Sarasvati originated in Vedic times. Durga did not actually arrive until approximately 1500 years later.
Generally what can be said about the Hindu goddesses is that they are manifold forms of Mahadevi. In essence there is only one goddess. She just happens to be called by different names. At the same time, though, the goddesses are all separate individual beings with their own unique fingerprints. Each goddess such as Sarasvati and Durga should be examined for themselves. As David Kinsley states,
...to assume that every Hindu goddess in every situation is a manifestation of one great goddess prevents us from viewing such goddesses as Lakshmi, Parvati, and Radha as deities containing individually coherent mythologies, theologies, and meanings of their own. 105
The goddesses are a united one, but also individuals in their own right.
1 John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India (Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union, 1982) 163.
2 David R. Kinsley. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition (Berkeley: Uni of Cal Press, 1986) 1.
3 Kinsley 4.
4 D. C. Sircar. Studies in the Religious Life of Ancient and Medieval India (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1971) 103.
5 John Sratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. Devi: Goddesses of India (Berkeley: Uni of Cal Press, 1996) 8.
6 C. Mackenzie Brown. The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana (Albany: State Uni of NY Press, 1990) ix.
7 Brown 142.
8 Vasudeva S. Agrawala. The Glorification of the Great Goddess (Ramagar: All-India Kashiraj Trust, 1963) 24.
9 Maheswar Neog. Religions of the North-East: Studies in the Formal Religions of North-Eastern India (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1984) 106.
10 Sircar 229.
11 Kinsley 95.
12 Kinsley 96.
13 Kinsley 95.
14 Sircar 232.
15 Kinsley 96.
16 Kinsley 99.
17 T. A. Gopinatha Rao. Elements of Hindu Iconography , Vol. I. Part II. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1985) 341.
18 Neog 106.
19 Gopinatha Rao 341.
20 Neog 106.
21 Gopinatha Rao 342-5.
22 Kinsley 96-7.
23 Ted Andrews. Animal-Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1995) 283-4.
24 Kinsley 104.
25 Kinsley 97.
26 Hawley, Divine Consort 145.
27 Sir Monier Monier-Williams. Indian Wisdom (London: Luzac and Co., 1893) 430.
28 Andrews 318.
29 Kinsley 97.
30 Hawley, Divine Consort 120.
31 Kinsley 100.
32 Kinsley 104.
33 Kinsley 99-100.
34 P. V. Jagadisa Ayyar. South Indian Festivities (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1982) 136.
35 Jagadisa Ayyar 138.
36 J. Estlin Carpenter. Theism in Medieval India (New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp., 1921) 345.
37 Kinsley 112-3.
38 Guy R. Welbon and Glenn E. Yokum, eds. Religious Festivities in South India and Sri Lanka (New Delhi: Manohar, 1982) 17.
39 Jagadisa Ayyar 135.
40 Kinsley 106.
41 Hawley, Divine Consort 5.
42 Jagadisa Ayyar 135-6.
43 Jagadisa Ayyar 135-6.
44 Kinsley 106.
45 Kinsley 115.
46 Kinsley 113-4.
47 Kinsley 111-2.
48 Kinsley 111.
49 Kinsley 112.
50 Kinsley 113.
51 Hawley, Divine Consort 5.
52 Welbon 164.
53 Welbon 167.
54 Kinsley 62.
55 Kinsley 60.
56 Kinsley 62.
57 Kinsley 60.
58 Jagadisa Ayyar 139.
59 Raghunath Airi. Concept of Sarasvati (Rohtak: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1977) 64.
60 Airi 14-5.
61 Airi 65.
62 Kinsley 58.
63 Kinsley 63.
64 Kinsley 60.
65 Kinsley 60.
66 Kinsley 59.
67 Kinsley 59.
68 Kinsley 60.
69 Gopinatha Rao 377.
70 Kinsley 60.
71 Kinsley 62.
72 Kinsley 62.
73 Kinsley 62.
74 Andrews 195.
75 Andrews 196.
76 Kinsley 55.
77 J. Gonda. Pushan and Sarasvati (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1985) 7-8.
78 Gonda 15.
79 Kinsley 57.
80 Airi 6.
81 Kinsley 58.
82 Kinsley 56.
83 Airi 72-3.
84 Airi 17.
85 Airi 15.
86 Airi 15.
87 Brown 64.
88 Airi 11-2.
89 Airi 8.
90 Kinsley 58.
91 Kinsley 59.
92 Airi 66.
93 Gonda 30.
94 Airi 81.
95 Kinsley 59.
96 Kinsley 58.
97 Kinsley 57.
98 Gopinatha Rao 334-5.
99 Brown 134.
100 Kinsley 132.
101 Brown 123.
102 Kinsley 133.
103 Thomas B. Coburn. Encountering the Goddess: The Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation (Albany: State Uni of NY Press, 1991) 36.
104 Willaim S. Sax. Mountain Goddess: Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 28.
105 Kinsley 4.
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