It is that time of year again, when over a billion people across the world celebrate Shakti, the female creative power. It is a time of phenomenal creativity, when building-sized temples, called pandals, are erected from sustainable, recycled, and biodegradable materials in almost every neighborhood in Kolkata, and many other villages, towns, and cities throughout India and the world. For each pandal, its architectural structure and decorations within, including the larger-than-life clay manifestations of Shakti, are crafted by talented artists, artisans, sculptors, weavers, and potters. Each pandal is unique, a marvel of human ingenuity and a work of loving dedication. And remarkably, each pandal’s material existence is temporary, to be dismantled, recycled and re-absorbed at the end of the celebrations. Even the clay manifestations of Shakti are immersed with great fanfare in the River Ganges to underscore the ephemeral nature of all that exists.
Wherever there are Hindus, these ten days and Navaratri (nine nights) of Durga puja (the reverence of the Warrior Goddess Durga, a manifestation of Shakti) are when women wrap themselves with great care in their finest hand-crafted saris and men in their crispest dhotis. This year Durga puja or Navaratri falls on the dates of October 17th– 26th of the Christian Gregorian calendar. This is a time of great joy and reverence, a time when families and friends gather in great crowds in public spaces outdoors and indoors. They marvel at the pandals together, pay their respects to the manifestations of Shakti, eat mouth-watering multi-course meals, and savor entertaining cultural programs, all while animatedly exchanging well wishes and reminiscences. This is a time of music, dances, and plays, performed with special gusto by professionals and amateurs alike. But above all, this is a time when the power of the female is revered and praised. And that is a unique phenomenon indeed.
In 2010, The Pew Research Center compiled data on the major religious groups in the world. About 2.2 billion people were found to be Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.0 billion Hindus, 410 million adherents of indigenous religions, 490 million Buddhists, 25 million Sikhs, and 14 million Jews. Other religions with less than 10 million adherents each included Taoism, Jainism, Baha’i, Shintoism, and Zoroastrianism. What these numbers translate to is that of 7 billion people, earth’s total human population in 2010, the adherents of essentially all major religions believes in a male or neutral omnipotence. All major religions, with the exception of Hinduism and many indigenous religions, that is.
As an Indian woman, I have cultivated more than a passing interest in what sets us and other indigenous peoples apart, especially with respect to how the female is regarded. This is what I have learned so far.
Since a little over ten thousand years ago, upon the advent of settlements, most metropolitan societies became increasingly disconnected from the ecosystems with which they used to exist in harmonious symbiosis. They transitioned away from taking only what they needed to satisfying their ever-expanding wants. The latter required an unending supply of natural resources, and of human labor to exploit this supply. As a result, it became necessary to dominate and harness the creative power of nature, including that which is held by the female of the human species. This battle to dominate transformed into a battle of bourgeoisie controlling proletariat and one of men controlling women. And so we find ourselves now in an era in which at least one out of every three women in the world is raped or beaten or both, women are paid less than men for the same work, and women’s reproductive freedoms are constricted by governments directed by men. We now live in a male-dominated era in which women are generally valued less than men and treated accordingly.
I consider myself lucky to have been born a woman, and luckier still to belong to an ancient people from the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, the land of Bengal. It is a land, which since before the dawn of cities, recognized and celebrated the female creative power, and still does to this day. It is a land that taught the rest of India and the world to understand and honor Shakti. At no time during the year, and no place other than Bengal, is the magnificence of the female aspect of Shakti as joyously celebrated as during Durga puja, the annual ten-day commemoration of Goddess Durga’s victory over the male oppressor of entire populations, Mahishasura. Whether the warrior Durga actually lived and breathed millennia ago, or is a legendary figure based on a kernel of historical truth, the particular tale of Durga single-handedly vanquishing Mahishasura, thought to be the most invincible man of that time, is one of my favorite tales. It is a story that inspires me as one of billions of women facing misogyny and disparagement on a regular basis in a world controlled mostly by men.
My own interpretation of the tale of Durga’s prowess is one I have distilled over the span of my life.
Many thousands of years ago, a man called Mahishasura had ambitions of global conquest and amassing immense wealth, not unlike the imperialists of the past few centuries. His physical strength was colossal and his avarice even more so. He laid siege to entire societies. But that was not enough for him: Mahishasura wished to be omnipotent. So he isolated himself for many months and performed physical austerities to strengthen his body, while focusing his mind on one of the most powerful men of his time, Brahma. Brahma had telepathic abilities and knew when others were thinking of him. Mahishasura’s constant one-pointed focus on Brahma for such a long period of time flattered the latter, and so one day he spoke telepathically to Mahishasura.
“Ask anything of me,” Brahma beamed, “for you have pleased me with your unswerving devotion.”
Mahishasura was not bashful, “Then grant me immortality.”
Brahma laughed, “I have many magnificent abilities, but I do not have the ability to make men live forever.”
Mahishasura pondered for but a second before speaking with confidence, “Then endow me with such awesome potency that no man will be able to kill me.”
Brahma smiled and happily fulfilled Mahishasura’s wish.
Armed with this carelessly granted and overly broad license, much like the charters granted by European monarchs to stockholder companies centuries ago, so they could plunder entire continents unopposed, Mahishasura set out to ravage and loot kingdom after kingdom. The rulers of these lands attempted to stop the oppressor, but in vain. As Mahishasura’s tyranny spread, the once mighty kings began to lose hope. The forlorn rulers approached the three most powerful men in the world: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. All three were helpless because they were all men and thus did not have sufficient strength to overcome Mahishasura. Feeling utterly helpless, all of the men assembled lowered their heads in gloom.
“Who is more powerful than we are?” Shiva asked Brahma and Vishnu.
“Shakti,” responded Vishnu calmly.
“We must beseech her to rescue us then,” Brahma said anxiously.
A brief lexigraphic detour follows.
Shakti is a Sanskrit word, whose meaning is challenging to pin down, let alone translate into English. A scientific interpretation of Shakti is: ‘the infinite energy that existed as infinite potential in a singularity just before the manifestation of the physical universe upon the occurrence of the Big Bang.’ A metaphysical or transcendental interpretation of Shakti is: ‘the female creative energy that underlies all manifestations, tangible and intangible, in existence.’ A practical interpretation of Shakti is: ‘the creative force that drives all actions and reactions.’ And a religious interpretation of Shakti is: ‘the omnipotent female entity or Goddess who is the creator and protector of all.’ The beauty of sanātana dharma, labeled recently as Hinduism to those who found it necessary to name this ancient way of life of the Indian subcontinent, is that it encompasses all four of these interpretations of Shakti.
Let us return to the story of the warrior Durga.
All of the kings, along with Brahma-Shiva-Vishnu, the near-omnipotent male trinity, closed their eyes and concentrated fervently on Shakti. Soon she appeared in the form of Durga, a beautiful and muscular woman, her eyes radiating with omniscience, her demeanor serene yet firm.
“Durga, please save us from Mahishasura,” Brahma beseeched the magnificent woman.
“Wasn’t it you who fueled his arrogance by granting him a boon that none of you would be able to kill him?” Durga asked without a smile. “He pandered to your ego and so you gave away all of your power without contemplating the consequences.”
Brahma hung his head.
“As Shakti, I brought the universe and all of you into being,” Durga shook her head. “Yet you lay waste to my efforts by acting foolishly.”
All of the men assembled looked away in shame.
“I will help you because innocent women, children, and men are being harmed as a result of your thoughtlessness,” Durga’s tone of voice brooked no nonsense.
“We are grateful to you, Durga,” Vishnu, the calmest of them all, bowed his head in humility.
So Durga mounted a magnificent lion and went in search of Mahishasura. When the haughty man learned that she had come to kill him, he laughed and dispatched his male minions to confront her. A short while later, their corpses were sent back to him. Enraged, Mahishasura summoned his entire army of men soldiers and commanded them to kill the woman. Durga single-handedly beat them as well. In the end, the tyrant had no choice but to face her himself. And so he did. But because he did not have the physical strength to overpower her, he attempted to confound her through illusion by taking on different forms so as to elude her. For nine days and nights, Mahishasura fought Durga, before finally, as he took on the form of a buffalo, Durga slayed him with decisiveness. Having regained control of their kingdoms, all of the kings rejoiced, together with the people of earth, for tyranny had been vanquished at last.
Durga puja is a celebration of Shakti — the female creative power. It is also an acknowledgement of the struggle to restore balance to human society that has been dominated by men — and occasionally women — seeking to exploit nature and people for their own gain. But most importantly, Durga puja is an honoring of a woman’s extraordinary ability to overcome any odds. Durga puja is a celebration of our power to fulfill our individual potential by choosing wisely the path that is most suited to each of us. And for me, Durga puja is also a time when I celebrate my own Shakti-based interpretation of sanātana dharma, the way of life into which I was born.
A person who lives according to sanātana dharma, namely a person who may be called a Hindu, is free to choose which path she or he wishes to follow to attain moksha, or freedom from this physical world plagued by the duality of pain and pleasure. In technical terms, as explained by Swami Vivekananda over a century ago, a person may choose to practice one or more paths to achieve union with the essence of existence, namely one or more yoga.
These four paths are: the path of knowledge (gyāna yoga), the path of meditation (dhyāna yoga), the path of action (karma yoga), and the path of devotion (bhakti yoga).
Introspection is a seminal aspect of living according to sanātana dharma, as it is crucial to understanding one’s natural proclivities in order to know which path would be most effective in one’s journey toward interconnected balance. An intellectual person is thus likely to choose the path of knowledge upon internalizing the scientific interpretation of Shakti and thinking and acting accordingly. A contemplative person may choose the path of meditation upon internalizing the metaphysical or transcendental interpretation of Shakti. An service-oriented person may tend to adopt the path of action upon internalizing the practical interpretation of Shakti. And a devout person may be drawn to the path of devotion upon internalizing the religious interpretation of Shakti. These four paths to peace and wellbeing are symbolized by the svastika, one of the most ancient symbols of sanātana dharma.
The story of the great woman warrior Durga vanquishing the male tyrant Mahishasura is sadly one of very few tales celebrating the strength, fortitude, and power of the female. Non-indigenous mainstream religions, legends, and mythologies are dominated by valiant male protagonists, omnipotence personified as men, and heroes rescuing helpless women and children. Generally, women — if mentioned at all — are portrayed as supporting characters: as wives, second- and third-class citizens, pining lovers, concubines, objects of desire and conquest, and weak victims.
Whether revitalized from long-neglected ancient cultures or created anew, we need more tales of fierce and intelligent women saving men from themselves and the earth from the rapaciousness of men. We need more stories featuring heroines from a dizzying spectrum of women of different personalities, quirks, sizes, skin colors, cultural backgrounds, and proclivities. The only trait these stories need have in common is that they inspire girls and women, boys and men, and all humans to believe that a just and egalitarian world is possible and that each of us can help achieve such a world.
I wish everyone a most joyous Durga puja and Navaratri. May you discover the best in yourself and fulfill your potential.