Anael, from Israel, is amazed at the scene in front of her: men, women and children bow before a Goddess while a priest chants prayers. As a teacher who has served in the Israeli army, she is familiar with women power. But, the divine as a female? As Anael, on a visit to Kolkata, witnesses the proceedings of Durga Puja - the grandest festival in Bengal - she is mesmerized by the life-sized deity of lotus-eyed, long-haired Durga, astride a lion, her multiple arms holding different weapons, piercing Mahishasura (a demon) with her lance. It is a new concept for Anael, though she points out that Judaism has some revered female figures such as Sara and Rachel.
Dan Brown's bestseller, 'The Da Vinci Code', has popularized the concept of the "Sacred Feminine" only recently; but in India, it is a living tradition dating back many millennia, to the Indus Valley civilization. The Rig Veda is the first known Hindu text to acknowledge the female embodiment of the Divine. Devi or Shakti worship has continued to be an integral part of Hindu tradition down the ages.
Durga is the slayer of Mahishasura, the demon epitomizing all evils, hence our inner demons: anger, fear, hate, lust; she is also Supreme Mother Goddess, protecting all those who seek Her protection. In totality, she embodies Shakti - the female force, latent in each human being, which manifests itself variously - as the slayer of evil, the creative force (together with her male complement, Shiva) and tender mother - in short, roles a woman usually plays. It is she to whom the male God turns to vanquish evil. So, while Bengalis first pay homage to her valor in ridding the world of evil, and then welcome her as a daughter visiting her natal family, they essentially seek her blessing as the Supreme Mother.
Over the years, however, Durga's symbolism for women in India has been undergoing a change. Increasingly, women are looking upon her as a symbol of feminine power, rather than a divine mother, an inspiration to reclaim rights that society has, over the centuries, deprived them of.
Madhu Kishwar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Founder-editor, 'Manushi', points out, "Any woman who manifests extraordinary
strength and is totally unafraid of men begins to be treated as a manifestation of Goddess Durga. There are many such mini-Durgas everywhere." Indira Gandhi and Kiran Bedi have been referred to as Durga at some point of time. This imagery of a strong woman invoking her own 'Shakti' (power) has also been made use of not only in Bollywood but also in films by intellectuals like Satyajit Ray and Rituparno Ghosh.
And, increasingly, women are turning to this incarnation for inspiration. At a recent convention on women's empowerment in Delhi, Girija Vyas, Chairperson, National Commission for Women, made an interesting comparison - she likened contemporary Indian women to Durga, and the various legislations ensuring gender equality to the different weapons carried by the Goddess.
And Indians and Hindu women are not the only ones who seem to resonate to this theme. It is finding cross-cultural legitimacy, too. Asra Q. Nomani, an Indian-born American journalist who takes pride in her Muslim identity, writes in her book, 'Standing Alone in Mecca', that while riding a motorbike on a visit to North India she was inspired by the image of Durga to continue her struggle for women's rights in Islam.
Viktoria Lyssenko, academician, Moscow Institute of Philosophy, says that as a woman she finds the image of Shakti in Indian religious tradition very encouraging. Russian Orthodox Christianity also liberally uses the concept of the "Divine Mother" in Mary. Therefore, her students, mostly women, find the concept of Shakti easy to relate to. Many have been encouraged by this aspect of Indian tradition to take up Indology and travel to India to delve deeper into it.
Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase, an anthropologist and Convener, Asia Pacific Studies, University of Wollongong, Australia, has a framed poster in her office depicting a stylized Durga. "It shows one side of Durga's body where her arms are empty and on the other she possesses multiple weapons. It is meant to depict the dualistic nature of womanhood in India - power and its absence." It was a poster Ganguly-Scrase picked up many years ago in Kolkata. "It certainly inspires me!" she says. And, her students, colleagues and acquaintances, especially of the "feminist persuasion" are "immediately struck by it".
But her words also strike a chord: the huge gulf between what is worshipped and believed in and the reality in India - the deprivation of millions of Indian women of even basic rights. And it is precisely here that image can be so powerful. "The concept of Shakti implicit in the female divinity such as Durga can be a very useful device for mobilizing women because women can identify with something familiar to them, rather than some abstract intellectualist feminism," believes Ganguly-Scrase.
As if in fulfillment of her words, miles away in a 'basti' (shanty settlement) in Kolkata, Parvati Deori, 36, seeks inspiration from the Goddess in the festive season. Parvati and other women in her 'basti' have had to face the menace of drunken youth harassing them and their daughters on every festive occasion. During Durga Puja it gets particularly worse as the festivities stretch over four consecutive days.
This year, Parvati decided to take some concrete steps to check the menace. She mobilized the women of her 'basti', using the image of Durga, to ward off the drunken youth. These "mini-Durgas" drew up a simple plan: they armed themselves with simple weapons ranging from chillie-powder to cricket bats and sticks, and formed five groups of six each. Each group kept watch every night of the Puja. No 'ashura' (demon) dared bother them this year.
And in North Kolkata, it is this symbol of Durga, resolute and benign, that has inspired a group of sex workers to pledge their eyes to the blind this year. According to the Durbar Mahila Samanvaya Committee, 54 sex workers have pledged their eyes to Durga, emulating the act of Lord Ram, who had offered to pluck one of his eyes as offering to the Goddess.
"The great thing about Hindu tradition is that we can personalize the Divine to suit our needs," says Payal Kumar of Sage Publications India, who did her Masters in world religions. "The image of Shakti can be used as a great inspiration for women to fight for their rights as Durga did."