Durga is a Hindu goddess whose name means ‘difficult to attain,’ or ‘distant.’ She is known as both nurturing mother, and vengeful warrior. Although the Hindu pantheon includes a number of goddesses, Durga is particularly popular, and holds special importance for many Hindus. In discussing Durga, it is necessary to make mention of the nature of goddesses within Hindu theology.
Hindu goddess theology is never monistic. Goddesses are all about duality. The nature of the Hindu goddess is both one and many. That is to say, each goddess has her own iconographic identity, yet they are all simultaneously considered to be one goddess, Maha Devi, which simply means Great Goddess. That said, each Hindu goddess including Durga, may be referred to by name, or as Maha Devi.
This can certainly be confusing, but one way to understand this concept is to consider each individual goddess as a manifestation of the Great Goddess, Maha Devi. Each manifestation of Maha Devi has her own name, form, function, and anecdotal identity within Hindu religious literature. Another example of the dualistic nature of Hindu goddesses is the seemingly conflicting aspects of their character. All Hindu goddesses are motherly, and yet many of them, including Durga, engage in battle as warriors, and thereby cause suffering. The goddess is both intimate and transcendent.
Durga is a particularly important goddess. She is the star of a major religious text of praise called the Devi Mahatmya, which dates back to the 5th century. The Devi Mahatmya is very important because it is the first crystallized text devoted to a goddess. The Devi Mahatmya is also known as the Durgasaptasati, or ‘Durga 700,’ since there are 700 verses in the text, most of which refer to her by the name, Durga. The Devi Mahatmya is part of a larger text called the Murkandeya Purana. Puranas are a group of texts that tell about Hindu Gods.
Although goddess worship was practiced in India long before the crystallization of the Puranas, the Devi Mahatmya is the earliest mention of goddesses in Sanskrit, the language of the elite. Sanskritization, also known as Brahminization, is the recognition of an idea or concept by the Brahmins, the most elite group within the traditional Indian caste system. Brahmins were priests, the keepers of knowledge and religious sanctity. Sanskrit was their sacred language. Thus, the idea of the Great Goddess Maha Devi was not canonized until the Devi Mahatmya.
The Devi Mahatmya tells the story of a time when the world was overrun by asuras, or demons. Unable to fight off the evil asuras on their own, all the male gods concentrated their energies and powers into a ball of light, from whence sprang Maha Devi. Ideas about Maha Devi, Durga, and goddesses in general, are expounded through a number of battle stories in which the goddess defeats an evil asura.
For example, in the first section of the Devi Mahatmya, Maha Devi takes the form of Yoganidra, or sleep yoga. The goddess as Yoganidra is the force keeping Vishnu asleep, as Brahma is preparing to create the universe. Two asuras named Madhu and Kaitabha arise out of the sleeping Vishnu’s earwax, and attempt to attack Brahma. Brahma sings to Yoganidra, asking her to allow Vishnu to wake up, and defeat the demons. This story demonstrates the goddess’ power of Maya, or illusion, since she is the force that controls the mind of Vishnu.
In the second section of the Devi Mahatmya, the buffalo demon Mahishasura engages in battle with Durga. As Durga is defeating him, Mahishasura continues to change form, representing all his evil personae. His true and final form is that of a human. When Durga sees this, she cuts off his head, his sense of self-importance and ego. In this way, Durga is both fearsome and kind because she frees the evil demon by killing him. This demonstrates both the shakti, or power, of the goddess and also her duslistic nature as mother/warrior.
In the third section of the Devi Mahatmya, Durga is having trouble defeating the demon Raktabija. Every time Durga slices Raktabija with her sword, his blood droplets hit the ground and turn into another Raktabija. Thus Durga calls upon another of Maha Devi’s manifestations, Kali. Kali is a fearsome goddess with a long tongue and an emaciated body. With her long tongue, the hungry Kali catches all the blood spilled by Durga’s sword. This section of the Devi Mahatmya demonstrates the aspect of the goddess known as Prakrti, or form/nature, since the form taken by the goddess allows her to carry out the function of defeating Raktabija.