Today is Panchami, another day and the long awaited festivities begin. As Kolkata, my beloved city, gears up all adorned for the worship of Durga, Goddess, Mother, Mother-Goddess or simply a divine daughter, the complexities of the relationships of the Bengalis with Durga crowd the mind. The greatest festival for the Bengalis world over, the five days of Durga puja are awaited the whole year by all and sundry. More than religious, it is social and cultural in its flavour and as such rather secular in its feel. But this is not the only aspect of difference that the autumnal festival of the Bengalis shares with its pan Indian counterparts like Navaratri. But the iconography of Durga in Bengal differs vastly too.
Durga in Bengal is not only a Goddess or a Mother-Goddess—rather she is a married daughter who comes to visit her parental home with her children. Thus, interestingly, the idol of Durga that is worshipped by Bengalis has a single image representing dual personalities. On one hand, she is worshipped as a benign mother and a beautiful daughter who has come to visit her paternal home along with her four children while her husband, Shiva stays at home in the Kailasha mountains in the Himalayas. On the other hand, she is seen as Mahishashura Mardini Chandi - the all powerful female warrior created from the combined powers of three supreme male principles - Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver and Shiva, the Destroyer - to defeat the powerful male incarnation of evil, Mahishashura.
Like the worship of Devi Durga and the worship of Maa Kali too occupies a central position in the Bengali religious landscape. The idol of Kali, in contrast to the idol of Durga, is conceptualized as a ferocious, bloodthirsty naked woman dancing on the chest of her husband, Shiva. Her idol is besmeared with blood, with huge fang-like teeth and protruding tongue that drips blood. She wears a garland of male skulls and her companions are terrible demonic female creatures and cunning wild scavengers. Significantly, Kali is sometimes associated with carnal lust. She depicts the negative, and seductive as well as destructive side of women. She is the powerful destructive temptress who kills men, drinks their blood and wears their skulls, while Durga is the symbol of the unwavering assurance of motherly love, protection, strength and nurturance. (M. Roy, 1972: 120).
In the Hindu tradition, the feminine divinity is dichotomized as Devi, the benign wife and mother and Shakti, the fearsome female warrior. Beyond this dichotomy, the feminine essence as mother goddess is worshipped in a variety of divine roles: She is Gauri, the docile daughter of the mountains; Uma, the pretty potential wife; Parvati, the young bride of Shiva and the potential mother; Sati, the dismembered beloved of Shiva; Kali, the mother in her most terrible and fearsome aspect who can take as well as give life and Durga, the all powerful yet benevolent divine protectress and slayer of demons. Though in Hinduism the feminine is conceptualized as the source of all power, this power is not always considered positive. The goddess as Devi becomes benevolent only when she shares or surrenders her power voluntarily to her male consort. Interestingly, most of the female divinity in Hindu tradition is conceptualized as wife or consort and thus secondary to some superior male god or having been derived from a male source of power.
Durga is created from the need of the Gods to protect themselves from Ashura (literally meaning non-gods), the mighty protectress takes form from the combined forces of the Hindu holy trinity—Brahma, Vishnu, Maheswara. The purpose of her life, therefore, is solely to protect the male gods in their war against those who are ‘not’ gods. She functions merely as an agent of the patriarchal divine system that stabilizes her as an object - a property to be created as Durga or dismembered as Sati, completely subjected to the male God’s will and uses her for its own purposes—as a tool or strategy needed to win the war.
In the Bengali religious landscape, Durga is worshipped as the sahadharmini and ardhangini, the spiritual helpmate of her husband, Shiva who belongs to her husband’s body. She is an exemplary archetypal Bengali wife, a patibrata ramani - a woman completely devoted to her husband—an exemplar of the ever sacrificing, ever solicitous wife who gains self-actualization by catering to her husband’s every need and worshipping her husband as God, thus affirming her status as a property of her husband. Durga is also the mother of four children—Ganesha, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Thus Durga is associated with the central issues in traditional Bengali women’s lives - marriage, childbirth, motherly nurturance, obedience, self-sacrifice, kindness to others, taking care of the sick and the elderly, housewifely duties, household chores and various other domestic concerns of everyday life.
In her four day visit to her father’s home from Kailasha, the home where her husband awaits her return, she is accompanied by all four of her children as well as, seemingly, the ‘wife’ of Ganesha—the Nabapatrika or Kalabou in familial terms. Laksmi too is the consort of Vishnu while Saraswati, though thought of as a virgin in Bengal, is believed to be the consort of Brahma in the rest of India; Kartikeya with his peacock is the divine ‘eternally eligible’ bachelor, handsome and womanizing. Thus Durga represents the middle aged homemaker—the archetypal housewife—grihakatri or ginnima in familial terms—who arrives as a visiting daughter every year in Bengal, her paternal home, her baaperbari, — for a few days respite from her household chores with her own daughters, sons and daughter-in-law in tow. As her family is full and demanding, her responsibilities too would be the same—making her literally Dasabhuja—a woman with ten arms—a woman who simultaneous looks after the welfare and upkeep of the male patriarchal hegemony by slaying the mighty Mahisashura, the buffalo demon as well as takes great care of the patriarchal household by looking after the wellbeing of her own husband, children, family—succinctly and seamlessly amalgamating the male defined roles of wife, mother and the divine slayer of demons.
So far so good—but the question arises how does Durga relate to the daughters of Bengal today? How powerful are the women and girls in a culture that celebrates the apparent power of a woman in the form of the mother goddess with such exuberance? Or how powerful is Durga herself?
Can the mighty Mother Goddess who is also a mother and a daughter of Bengal save her own kin — her own daughters who suffer foeticide, ripped from their mother’s womb or struggle in the throes of death becoming only a case unidentified in hundreds of unreported/ reported cases of female infanticide, or are raped, molested, sexually harassed, beaten up in domestic violence, given away in child marriage, forced to leave their chosen husbands/lifestyles, or burnt for dowry? Women who are prostituted against their will, sold away as brides to different states, who are tortured bodily and mentally for not bearing a male child, stuck in abusive broken marriages day in and day out—can the Mighty mother, the slayer of demons protect these innocent victims?
Does she have the power to protect the puny girl child in her perilous path from conception of the female foetus to her birth (i.e. if she is allowed to be born at all) and then onwards from infancy to adolescence to womanhood, wifehood, motherhood and finally to old age? Does she herself have power over her own self—the power to choose her own life? Can she even save herself from patriarchal norms that confine her on a pedestal of glory, delimiting her potentials, denying her choices in life, forcing her to live a life constricted?
As her iconography in Bengal pandals suggests, Durga is forever transfixed in a pose, fated to bear out the values of others for all eternity. With only a limiting choice in life—to be a mother and a demon slayer—Durga, the Mighty Mother of us all, lives on as a life denied ‘token’ woman, as it were—a model of divine womanhood, purposely perpetuated by patriarchy for all its daughters to emulate and model their lives on.
The irony of Durga lies in the fact that in a culture that venerates the Devi as an all powerful goddess of superhuman powers capable of creating and destroying the world, many parts of the country suffer from not only a negative sex ratio, or a higher female child mortality rate, but also a lesser access to food, health, education and care, connotating extreme indifference, neglect and utter lack of concern for the well being of the girl child. The vigorously prevalent disregard for the girl child remains largely invisible/overlooked or condoned as an age old custom in a culture in which multitudes of women are still the silent, and anonymous victims of male oppression.
References: 1. Roy, Manisha Bengali Women, Chicago University Press, Chicago,1972.
2. Chaudhuri, Sutapa Devi / Rakshashi: Representations of Women in Bengali Rupkatha, in Shifting Identities: Constructions and Re-constructions of the Feminine in Indian Literatures, an anthology of Critical Essays, Ed. Sutapa Chaudhuri, Booksway, Kolkata, 2011.
3. Kinsley, David Hindu Goddesses, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. Delhi, 2005.