Devi, Mother and Protector of the World, is one of the most loved figures of Hindu iconography. Her essence encompasses the ferocity of Durga, the compassion of Lakshmi, the erudition of Saraswati and the terrible thirst for battle of Kalika. In her various incarnations Devi is warrior, mother, faithful wife and the fount of knowledge, delivering all that her devotees ask of her.
Bulbul Sharma tells the fascinating story of Devi in this book, drawing upon the many strands of myth and legend contained in ancient scriptures and also in folklore. She looks at how these stories were created, how they changed down the ages, and the vision of the world they uphold. Rich in drama and symbolism, these stories live today with the same intensity as when they were first told.
About the Author
Bulbul Sharma is a painter, short-story writer and novelist based in Delhi. Her books include My Sainted Aunts, The Anger of Aubergines and Banna-Flower Dreams.
My search for the Devi began when I was six years old. my grandmother, chanting would wake me up at dawn and I would crawl out of the mosquito net, walking blindly towards the sound of that faint voice. The pooja room was always slit up by an ancient bedside lamp which cast a rosy glow on the faces of the deities. Everyone was here. A gleaming, bejeweled Kali carved out of granite, a pristine white Shiva, a fiery-eyed Durga, a baby Krishna asleep in his cradle and various other gods and goddesses whom my grandmother wanted to please with her prayers. The pooja room with its collection of tiny silver plates and glasses, miniature beds and lace pillows, sparkling at dawn with jasmine buds which had just been plucked, fascinated me as a child. I would sit outside at the door, since I had not yet bathed, and watch her movements as she did aarti and laid out the bhog. The fragrance of incense would make my head swim and I would inch closer to the marble statue of Radha, hoping my grandmother would give the first Prasad to me.
Later as an adult when I began to be interested in mythology, those images lit by the first rays of dawn would repeatedly appear in front of my eyes: Kali's flashing eyes above the delicate nose glittering with a diamond nose-ring, Durga's red silk saree with a thin border of gold, Krishna's plump little hands curled into a first. They would come into my thoughts not like deities but like living people, with likes and dislikes, complaining of hunger, fatigue and boredom and sharing their everyday joys. I regret not paying more attention to what my grandmother was chanting, not remembering each word of the stories she told me at night. Then came Durga with her four children. Kartika was crying and Ganesha was hungry as usual. Lakshmi sat quietly but Saraswati was grumbling away angrily. What could Ma do? Shiva had, once again, not brought anything to eat today,' she would say as if it had happened just yesterday and these were not words from a mythical legend centuries old.
Maybe if I had listened more carefully, I would now understand the Devi more. I would not be so confused about the goddess as she changes her forms, the colour of her skin, the expression of her eye. Uma, Durga, Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati, are they one or are they different? When do they separate and when do they merge? Is Saraswati Vishnu's wife or Brahma's consort? When does Durga change into Kali?
If I had listened more carefully, I would have known from childhood the Devi's 1008 names which my grandmother chanted effortlessly each morning, in between giving instruction to the cook. As I read the Devi Bhagavata Purana, make notes from the Devimahatmyam, search for the real Radha and Sita in the epics, I wish I could go back in time to that dimly lit
Pooja room and listen once more to the chanting. Then I would know why Durga is also called Katyayani; how she turned into Kaushiki in just a fleeting moment; how she slayed the demon Mahishasura. Why was Shiva not invited to Daksha's great sacrifice? Why did Saraswati leave Vaikunth? These myths were retold over and over again as my grandmother chanted her prayers and sang to herself in that lonely hour of the morning. Her voice was jagged with age and sometimes she just hummed to herself, reciting the verses in her mind, or she would place her spectacles on the tip of her nose and read aloud from a heavy red cloth-bound book. Now, after four decades, I know it was the Bhagavata Purana, a treasure trove of mythological stories.
The two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Puranas have been the source of most of the stories in this collection though I have included some popular folk myths too which are not found in the Puranas. The main Puranas like the Devi Bhagavata Purana sing the praises of the particular god but they also contain stories associated with other gods and goddesses. Many of the legends, like Sati's sacrifice, are repeated in many of the Puranas but each one has a different ending to it. The lead role is always played by the god in whose praise the Purana has been compiled, while the other gods and goddesses are given minor parts to play. A detailed account of planets, sacred rivers and trees, divine birds and animals associated with the god is also given in the Puranas. The Devi Bhagavata Purana deals mostly with Durga's powerful image but we meet many other goddesses in the legends. Are they one or are they different? Are they different manifestations of the same goddess? Has their original Vedic image been confused by the later Puranas which abound in extravagant imagery much more suited to popular literature ?,p>
The goddesses mentioned in Vedic literature were never as powerful as the gods. For instance Usha, a popular goddess who has been mentioned repeatedly in the Vedas and has many hymns addressed to her, still does not rank as a superior deity. Many of the goddesses like Usha, Aditi and Prithvi from Vedic literature did not survive or were reduced in stature by the time the Puranas were compiled. Saraswati is one of the few goddesses who is mentioned in both Vedic and Puranic traditions as the goddess of learning and wisdom and retains that position even today. Important goddesses like Parvati, Durga, Kali, Radha and Sita are not mentioned in early Vedic literature though they assumed powerful forms later and are worshipped inv various temples and other sacred places all over India today.
Durga is the most popular goddess in Bengal and is worshipped annually with great fanfare, while in the north there are shrines in almost every village dedicated to Parvati. Lakshmi reigns in the south as a benevolent goddess and Radha and Sita have a comparatively small but devoted band of followers. Popular tales about these goddesses are recited almost daily in many households, and children get to know them from an early age. Which child would not be fascinated by the wonderful imagery? Fiery-eyed Durga astride a golden lion; Saraswati resplendent in white along with her swan; a glowing Lakshmi seated on a lotus in bloom; and Kali with her frightening garland of skulls. The legends that surround them are told over and over again and soon the children know them by heart. For them, as it is for me, these beautiful lotus-eyed goddesses are not just religious icons but part of one's family. They laugh and cry, quarrel with each other over petty things, they have fragile natures despite their powerful forms. They are often jealous, angry, greedy and plot deviously against their enemies but still they need to be loved by their devotees. Then they appear, splendid, glorious and benevolent, to dazzle us with their all-pervading light.
Of Related Interest:
Devi The Mother-Goddess An Introduction
Every Woman a Goddess: The Ideals of Indian Art
Parvati the Love Goddess: Tales of Marriage and Devotion in Art and Mythology
Durga : Narrative Art of an 'Independent' Warrior Goddess
Green Tara and White Tara - Feminist Ideals in Buddhist Art
Wisdom Goddesses : Mahavidyas and the Assertion of Femininity in Indian Thought
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