Thursday 26 May 2022
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Durga Puja: Faith, History, Ritual

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[dropcap]D[/dropcap]uring the period of the Sharadiya (Autumnal) Navaratris, Durga Puja starts from the sixth tithi, Shasthi, known as Mahashasti and continues up to Vijaya Dashami with the ritualistic immersion of the murtis. There are many interesting elements in the Durga Puja, which are essentially tantric in nature. For example, the use of mud from the house of 5 different kinds of women, including a prostitute, to create the murti/pratima; the importance of a sacrifice to be offered to the goddess, or specific grains and cereals appropriately used, or the sound of the dhak and ulu etc.

In strict tantric parlance, it is believed when a Mahashakti is worshipped, the quality of the worship is determined by external signs that would be manifest as the ritual progresses. One typical sign was considered the arrival of a certain kind of animals — often jackals or wolves. There is a certain line in the Chandipath, a text from the Markandeya Purana, describing the battle of the goddess with various asuric forces, which states – Chandika shakti atyugra shivasata ninadini — the Chandika shakti is extremely fierce, and creates a ferocious sound of a 100 jackals (as it enters the battle). To recreate the same auditory effect, since the prospect of a pack of wolves or jackals arriving would be difficult and disturbing if it were to happen, the innovative method of ulu-dhwani (aka jokar in Bengali) was introduced!

To be clear, the actual Chandi sadhana — the process of attaining communion with the deity — was always encouraged to be performed away from human settlements, in remote hills, or near deserted temples, lonely cremation grounds, near river banks etc. Thus, the occult and supernatural signs of the process would be digested by the practitioner without causing disturbance to others who may find it unnerving. However, with the formalised development of the Durga Puja, many such ritualistic elements were integrated with some substitutions, at a time of the year considered opportune for Shakti puja.

Tantras, which have inspired the Durga worship of today, many believe, have been a long-standing tradition in India, which ran parallel to the Veda-inspired traditions. It had key philosophical as well as ritualistic differences with other schools of worship. Without getting into the details of various schools and subdivisions within, the fundamental idea of the tantra was the experience of the world as Shakti here and now. Hence the dictum that without Shakti, Shiva becomes Shava (dead-body)! Or, in other words, the transcendental divine was not their concern, the immanent power of the divine was what the tantrics were eager to tap into and utilise for a fulfilling life. In the northern sect of Shakta, at times referred to as Uttara Kaulas, only the goddess was considered the supreme divinity worthy of worship.

Iconography of Goddess Durga in Bengali tradition, followed by Hindus across eastern India
10-armed, lion-riding iconography of Goddess Durga in Bengali tradition, followed by Hindus across eastern India

In the Chandipath we find the story of how the goddess was created out of the combined power of all the Hindu deities in order to defeat Mahishasura. Krishna gave his Sudarshana Chakra, Shiva gave the Trishula, Kala gave the Khadga, Agni fashioned her eyes etc. Thus armed with every kind of celestial weapons, this Mahashakti rode into the battle and waged a 100-year war with Mahishasura and his army of asuras, decimating them and liberating the gods from the tyranny of all that is anti-divine.

The 700 verses of the Chandipath are read with devotion during the Durga Puja along with a homa. The Goddess is believed to be pleased with the recital and homa along with appropriate sacrifices. Even if these are done without ritual accuracy but with clear faith, the prayers are accepted by the goddess as mentioned in the holy text.

History of Durga Puja

Lord Clive [Portrait by Nathaniel Dance]
Lord Clive
[Portrait by Nathaniel Dance]
Lore has it that the first Durga Puja (Durga means invincible) was performed by a king named Kamsa Narayan of Taherpur, Rajshahi district, somewhere in the mid-1500s. Kamsa Narayan was keen on performing a tantric equivalent of the Vedic ashwamedha yajna; so he invited scholars and practitioners from various parts of India to deliberate on this proposal. Eventually, so goes the lore, under the aegis of an expert tantric pundit, the current format of worship of Durga Dasapraharanadharini was created. Maithili poet Vidyapati’s Durga Bhakti Tarangini and Durgotsava Nirnaya by Jimutavahana are some texts that describe the ritual method of Durga Puja in details.

Around the same time, Krittibas Oza composed a version of the Ramayana in Bengali where he projected the idea that Rama had awakened Goddess Durga during Dakshinayana and sought her blessing to defeat Ravana, since the later was a worshipper of Chandika. This was known as Akal Bodhan — invoking the goddess out of turn in the month of Ashwin; She is supposed to be invoked in Baisakh — and this version of the story soon gained popularity across Bengal, Bihar, Assam.

In the year 1757, after defeating Siraj ud daula in the Battle of Plassey, Lord Robert Clive mentioned to Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabazar Rajbari that he wanted to organise a thanksgiving function. The raja suggested organising a Durga Puja to which Clive agreed. In order to circumvent the technical problem of a Christian being allowed to attend a Durga Puja, Nabakrishna Deb got a bidhan from one of the most respected shastra scholars of Bengal on this matter. It is said that the British officials and soldiers would participate in these Durga Puja celebrations, salute the idol and have bhog or prasad. Soon it became fashionable for rich landlords to organise Durga Pujas and invite British officials as guests. There were even reports that John Chips, the auditor-general of British East India Company, observed Durga Puja at his Birbhum office. However, this kind of large-scale participation by British officers ended in 1840 due to official orders prohibiting the same.

Meanwhile, separate from the puja done by landlords, it is said 12 friends from Guptipara of Bengal came together to organise a collective Puja known as or Baroyari Puja in 1790. This collective form of celebrating Durga Puja was first initiated, according to some accounts, by Raja Harinath of Cossimbazar in 1832. Gradually by 1910, this evolved into what we know today as Sarbajanin Durga Puja.

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[in order of the terms’ appearance in the article]

tithi: date as per any Hindu calendar

murti: idol

pratima: idol after enlivening it with mantras

"Dhak 2010 Arnab Dutta" by Jonoikobangali - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
A dhaki with his dhak [Wikipedia]
dhak: a huge membranophone instrument played by beating sticks on one of the two surfaces while, generally, hanging the drum from a shoulder of the player called dhaki

ulu/jokar (video link): a sound produced by devotees (mostly women) by vibrating their tongues inside the mouth (tongue trill) with a rounded lip posture

tantra: beliefs, meditation and rituals meant to channel divine energy into the human microcosm in order to attain siddhis (spiritual accomplishment) and moksha (salvation)

tantric: a practitioner of tantra; in English, the adjective form of tantra

sadhana: a means of accomplishing something, an ego-transcending spiritual practice

asuras: lords of demons among the progeny of Diti called daityas and the progeny of Danu called danavas; Diti and Danu were among 13 sisters born to Daksha and married to Kashyapa; the other sisters were Aditi, Arisjhtha, Surasha, Surabhi, Vinata, Tamra, Krodhavasha, Ida, Khasha, Kadru and Muni; Aditi’s progeny were devas (gods)

homa: ritual of making offerings into a consecrated fire

bhog: a special type of prasada (the state of food offered to gods after the completion of worship) made of rice, moong dal (Vigna radiata), vegetables and condiments; an ordinary, routine form of this dish is called khichdi in Hindi

baroyari: literally, of 12 friends

sarbajanin: of/for the masses


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Rajarshi Nandy
Rajarshi Nandy
He is a practising spiritualist, eternal pilgrim and, by profession, a technical writer. He does not belong or subscribe to a particular sect of Hinduism; he is open to the idea of exploring all of them.

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