SAFDURJUNG ENCLAVE, NEW DELHI, INDIA.
Festivals of India: The origin of Durgostava.
For eons now, Bengal’s most popular festival has been repeatedly celebrated during the wrong time of the year. Spring not autumn is the historical season for invoking the goddess Durga. Yet, both priestly class and devotees hardly give a hoot.
Hindus believe, the custom was started by none other than Rama – the hero of the epic Ramayana – who invoked the all powerful goddess in the off season by taking the extreme step of offering one of his own eyes as a sacrifice to prove his devotion. But if you pick up a copy of the original Ramayana (speculated to have been written somewhere around 500 BCE) you will not chance upon the story in there. Not that, Valmiki, its author failed to mention it.
Fact is, the goddess Durga did not exist during his time. At least not in her present day form. It was only in later years the warrior goddess found herself on an evolution escalator that eventually elevated her from a two armed demon slaying tribal deity to an all powerful ten armed goddess in line with the Vedic scriptures.
So where does the story come from?
The first mention of Rama worshiping the goddess Durga comes from the quill of the 15th century Bengali poet, Krittibas Ohja. Roughly 18 centuries after Valmiki’s Ramayana. A learned scholar and a great contributor, Krittibas did not just translate the original Valmiki Ramayana for the benefit of Bengali readers of his time. He expanded it and colored it with a detailed description of the society and culture of Bengal. In Krittibas’s expanded version of the Ramayana, Rama, although seen as the avatar of the supreme god Vishnu, is unable to defeat his arch rival Ravana (the chief antagonist of the epic) owing to a boon granted by Durga – a passage that hints at the power of the protector goddess.
The age of Krittibas.
Like many Indians today, the ancient forefathers cared little for historical evidence and factual information. During the age of Krittibas, myths, legends and folklore were always more interesting, more than human and more inspiring. The supernatural was a reality that could not be explained by human reasoning. And no one dared to question the authors who composed literary works describing the exploits of the immortals. It was pure sacrilege and could in all probability earn them eternal misfortune. They were, after all, instruments of divine beings, if not divine beings themselves.
With enough emphasis on divinity, the literary works could be instant best sellers upon completion – and as it was the original Ramayana written centuries before had by this time attained celestial status. People had heard about it but never read it. They were in awe of it but could never fully understand it. The learned were few and even fewer were skilled in translating it into a different language. Poets like Krittibas and Tulsidas (author of the Tulsikrit Ramayan) capitalized on the advantage.
The Kritivasi Ramayana was instrumental in many ways.
Chiefly, it popularized the epic in the region of Bengal and introduced the concept of Akaal Bodhan, the untimely worship of the goddess Durga with far reaching results. Kritibas’s inclusion was a major step in the development of the Ramayana. Treading sensitively to avoid altering the story line drastically he skilfully weaved in new tales within the original framework of the epic, improved interpretations and added in relationships between the existing characters and emerging deities.
His introduced concept of Akaal Bodhan (untimely awakening) proved a perfect fit in the great Indian literary masterpiece. Inspiring even the 17th century landlords of Bengal to promote the autumn ceremony as a communal festival during the rising power of the British East India Company rather than the traditional one in Spring – and in the process sow in the seeds for the present day Durgotsav.
Timing of festivals.
The autumn Bengali celebration doesn’t coincide with the other North Indian festival of Sharad Navratri by mere chance. The festivals are deliberately timed to establish a logical link and reveal connections between the prominent characters of Hindu mythology. In Navratri, Rama worships the Goddess Durga in her nine forms. The six day Durgotsav, held in Autumn, runs parallel to the last six days of the Sharad Navratri. Both unite Rama and Durga in one theme.
Dasami the last day of the festival, when the goddess returns to her heavenly home after her brief stay on earth, overlaps with the celebration of Dusshera, the final day in which Rama wins a decisive victory and effectively brings his war to an end. Some scholars interpret this as Durga’s departure from earth after siding with Rama in his victory. However, unlike Navratri – that occurs five times within a year – Durgostav happens only once a year and retains its own distinct identity.
The six days of Durgostava.
Mahalaya, Shasti, Saptami, Ashtami and Navami make up the other five days of the festival, omitting the last day of Dasami – separate episodes venerating the goddess Durga, yet smoothly tied together to form a complete whole.
Mahalaya celebrates the creation of the goddess Durga by the holy trinity Bhrama, Shiva and Vishnu to combat the buffalo demon king Mahiasura. A powerful goddess was required for the task since a boon protected the demon from being killed by a man or male god.
The ten armed goddess mounted on a lion achieved the task after a one on one fierce battle earning herself the title of Mahisamardini or the slayer of the buffalo demon. Mahalaya is also the day for Hindus to pay homage to departed ancestors – usually by reciting a short verse of appropriate mantras and making an offering.
Shasti celebrates the goddess’s descent from her heavenly abode for her short stay in the mortal world. Saptami, acknowledges her nine forms by worshipping her in nine different plants. Ashtami, commemorates her victory over the buffalo demon king. Navami celebrates the end of evil and the return of the good, traditionally calling for an end to the rituals.
A celebration of the power of Durga.
In its unchanging essence the Bengali Durgotsav is a celebration of the power of the goddess Durga. Yet, there is also a message tucked within its fabric that is larger than its entertainment, art and religious aspects – one that is largely overlooked in the revelry.
The festival serves to remind newer generations of their country’s rich cultural past, the imaginative brilliance of its poets, the bhakti (devotion) of its ancient people and history that eclipses some of the oldest western civilizations. All brought to fruition by the untimely worship or Akaal Bodhan of one lord Rama – who historians claim was a minor chieftain in the early Vedic age before expanded versions of the epic turned him into a god.