Mahishasurmardini: A celebration of feminine power

Beyond music, dance, food and ritual, Navaratri is also about exploring the symbolism behind this imagery of the goddess

October 18, 2023 03:14 pm | Updated October 21, 2023 03:23 pm IST

Devi as Mahishasuramardini

Devi as Mahishasuramardini | Photo Credit: Keshav

Most of the modern Indians look at the allegorical ancient scriptures as mere stories. The antecedents of Mahishasur becomes irrelevant to them when they learn that the mighty demon king to whom Brahma grants the boon of immortality eventually turns so powerful that he threatens divine forces that are unable to stop him, and is finally vanquished by the goddess. For them, the most astonishing aspect is a warrior woman finding acceptance in that era.

The feminine gender of the word ‘mardan’ (in Sanskrit it means destroy) is ‘mardini’, hence the one who destroyed the evil spirit is called ‘Mahishasur-Mardini’. According to folklore, Mahishasur is half-man and half-buffalo, which indicates the animalistic nature in man. But when the feminine power comes into play, the bestiality gets crushed.

Watch | Kamakoti Sisters sing Mahishasurmardini
Artistes Kamakoti Sisters ( Sreenithi and Harini); Song: Mahishasurmardini 

Since the Vedic era down to the times of Upanishads and Puranas, goddesses such as Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga were worshipped for their exceptional virtues, firmly establishing that shava (inert body) comes to life when its ichha-shakti (mental power) is awakened. This Aadi Shakti (libido) transforms the body into Shiva. Unitedly both Shiva and Shakti begin to create, protect and, if necessary, destroy to start the process of the creation afresh.

This mythological divine concept or macrocosmic union is represented in this mortal world at microcosmic level. That is why creation of a new life springs out from ‘Anand’. According to our seers we are ‘Amritasya Putrah’, we are not born out of any sin committed by our parents. The omnipotent Purush, as described in the Vedas, and his consort Prakriti (Mother Nature) bear the testimony to this fact. According to modern science, we get half of molecular DNA from the mother and the rest from the father. But we get mitochondrial DNA from the mother. Mitochondria produce ATP, the source of energy. Evidently, it’s a mother who transmits energy in her baby, both mental and physical.

How the sages of ancient India developed this scientific understanding is a mystery, but Vedic rituals , handed down by gurus to their disciples, establish the supremacy of Devi or women-power. Amongst them Chandi-puja, replete with oration of ‘Durga Saptashati’ from Markandeya Purana, is for every seeker who wish to possess good health (roopam dehi), wealth/success (dhanam/jayam dehi) and honours (yasho dehi), and that too without the prickly thorns of jealousy of fellow beings (dwisho jahi)!

Women balance kalash on their heads and perform the Garba dance for the goddess  during Navratri at Umiyadham in Surat

Women balance kalash on their heads and perform the Garba dance for the goddess during Navratri at Umiyadham in Surat | Photo Credit: ANI

A compilation of 700 shlokas spread over 13 chapters, ‘Durga Saptashati’ is as invaluable as the Gita. Myth has it that if a critically ill person listens to Chandi-paath, he gets cured or else gets released from his decaying body and worldly bondages. The mantras of ‘Devi-Mahatmyam’ exalting Maa Durga, work on a subtle level to inspire and empower. This divine energy principle of the universe is said to have nine manifestations, namely Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayini, Kalratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidatri. Each are worshipped in every nook and corner of this subcontinent in different ways.

The Mahishasura Mardini panel at Mamallapuram near Chennai.

The Mahishasura Mardini panel at Mamallapuram near Chennai. | Photo Credit: KARUNAKARAN M

Chandi or Devi-Mahatmyam establishes that Durga resides in every living being as energy (Shakti), illusion (Maya), motherly instinct (Matri), compassion (kshama) and peace (Shanti) among many other valued virtues respected by the mankind in general. Entire Bharat, therefore, reverberates with mantras beseeching Maa ‘Sarvasyaarti harey Devi, Naraayani namostute’ (we salute you O goddess, the beloved of Narayana, the protector, for eradicating everyone’s misery).’ Intriguingly, Durga is also hailed as Brahmani and Rudrani, the reason being, she was blessed with the powers of Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh and many other divinities who wished to see her win the battle against Mahishasur.

This shows the advantages of community-living or the rewards of joint family system which believed in assisting a deserving member to tide over dangerous situations and inspired its members to celebrate life at every given opportunity. Autumn represents respite period after a harvest season and also the change in weather conditions that ushers in fresh arrival of winter fruits, vegetables and grains.

Kamakoti Sisters (Sreenithi and Harini); Song: Dharma Samvardhini

The northern part of the country enjoys the nine days listening to kirtans and observing fast during Navaratri at home-grown small temples.

Conversely in the grand, ancient temples of southern region, through the nine days, the goddess sports various alankarams (special decoration). People here earmark the best part of their homes to set up kolu dolls and keep their books and musical instruments in the ‘custody’ of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, music and culture. On Vijayadashami, they worship Saraswati seeking enlightenment while chanting the same mantras from ‘Durga Saptashati’. The western region of the country worships the warrior goddess in the same exalted spirit.

In West Bengal, Kolkata, women perform Sindur Khela, a ritual to mark the end of the Durga Puja festival. The idols are taken out for immersion after the rituals.

In West Bengal, Kolkata, women perform Sindur Khela, a ritual to mark the end of the Durga Puja festival. The idols are taken out for immersion after the rituals. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

However, in the East, Bengal welcomes Uma as its daughter, who after one whole year visits her Baper bari (parental home) only for four days. She arrives with her four children and ‘Navapatrika’ (representing newly grown, tender leaves), her daughter-in-law, on the sixth day after Mahalaya, the moonless night after the Pitru-Paksha (the fortnight of oblations to ancestors). Mahalaya reverberates with Chandi-paath extoling their daughter’s bravery and generosity. Despite her delicate beauty, she had to fight Mahishasur to protect the world; because her husband is an ascetic with least interest even in his family with children — Ganesh, Lakshmi, Kartik and Saraswati. After the four days of bonhomie with umpteen goodies relished by all with fun and frolic in between the earnest prayers and rituals, alas, she must leave for Kailash on Vijayadasami. When the entire country celebrates the victory of good over evil, Bengal sheds tears of joy at its darling daughter’s reunion with her husband.

Durga puja performed on the occasion on maha saptami in Visakhapatnam.

Durga puja performed on the occasion on maha saptami in Visakhapatnam. | Photo Credit: V RAJU

Thus, unity in diversity is an important aspect of the Navaratri celebrations. And the message of quelling evil forces to save mankind is more relevant than ever.

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