Worshipping Mother Goddess Durga: Theory or Love Affair?
Worshipping the Mother Goddess Durga<br />Theory or Love Affair?<br />GK Chesterton once famously remarked, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Is Durga Pujo less a theory and more a love affair?<br />The Mother Goddess, with her family, visits Mother Earth in nature’s unification of a child returning to its mother - the inviolable Earth that we inhabit. Hence Durga is the vanquisher of evil as she slays Mahisasura. Yet Durga is not just a preserver. Her protective shadow is delivered by her ten hands that represent eight quadrants or ten directions in Hinduism, suggesting freedom from fear for her devotees. Her left eye represents desire (the moon), the right eye represents action (the sun), and the central eye, knowledge (fire). She rides a lion that represents power, will and determination. She is Aadi Shakti, the female half of divinity, who delivers humans from spiritual, mental and physical miseries. Along with her family - Kartik, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Ganesha - they embody the fundamental bases of human civilization – food, royal power, universal sovereignty, knowledge, authority, holy luster, kingdom, fortune, bounteousness and beauty, and the entrepreneurial spirit. Such a wide array of qualities provides ample reason for masses revering them as Bengal’s First Family. This then, briefly and most simplistically narrated, is the theory of Durga Pujo.<br />Harking back to ancient and not-so-ancient times, this theory has been applied for or in support of entertaining rulers, colonizers and commoners’ alike, opposing claims to suzerainty, clarion call for nationalism, promoting handicrafts and handlooms or simply for showing off one’s affluence or even building or pandering to contemporary political constituencies. Social science requires theories that can withstand empirical testing in a variety of environments and environments with changing cultures. To the extent Durga Pujo has lent itself admirably to all situations over several centuries, it remains an empirically and eternally valid theory, replete with its bewildering array of variables and context. Needless to add, even Robert Clive had a Durga Pujo dedicated to him by Raja Nanda Kumar in the late-1750s while a leading politician is the current patron of an innovative South Kolkata community Pujo.<br />Do all empirically valid theories survive centuries of paradigmatic shifts? Durga Pujo is one such theory that has survived centuries notwithstanding major paradigmatic shifts from individual patronage to nationalistic centrism and community endeavor. Starting as the Divine Mother of the Indus Valley Civilization to Devi Mahatmya in the Markandeya Purana and similar mentions in the Taitriya-aranyaka, Yajur Veda and Vajasaneyi Samhita, Durga has graduated to a community, even family and personal, deity in modern times. Is Durga Pujo just a theory then?<br />Durga Pujo transcends the bounds of theory in various ways. While theory tries to explain allied events in a finite time span, Pujo does the polar opposite. Pujo is timeless, all-encompassing and infinite. Yet it is also contemporary. Picture the Mother Goddess housed in a Kolkata pandal based on the Baha’i Lotus Temple in New Delhi. In times of religious discord what better picture of religious integration than such an integrative abode for Durga? Or the Mother Goddess standing tall amid a pandal based on Mumbai 26/11. Does this furtive appeal to a supernatural against violence and destruction not cut across all religious divides? A pandal in CR Park (Delhi) uses natural substances only or one in Beliaghata (Kolkata) uses grass and shrubbery to drive home the need for preserving the environment. Similarly, another pandal in CR Park this year recreates the pristine environment of a village in rural Bengal complete with an artificial banyan tree, the tree of fertility and life. Yet another Central Delhi Pujo highlights the plight of Bengal’s impoverished taant weavers by draping the Mother Goddess in a taant saree and the pandal in taant cloth. And no, I have not heard of any government agency doing a fraction of this publicity. No other religious, even within Hinduism, imbues its Pujo with such stellar examples of secularism and national integration even, as HL Mencken said, “For centuries, theologians have been explaining the unknowable in terms of the-not-worth-knowing.”<br />Pujo is also easily the most egalitarian religious festival. It does not distinguish between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, professional athletes and laggards, social climbers and non-entities, my maid’s family and my own, Bengali and the ubiquitous non-Bengali. The images of the Mother Goddess are made by male and female Pal artisans in Nadia, Kumartuli, CR Park and elsewhere, unsung and unwept artistes with unparallelable skills. Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid businessmen contribute as generously as do many others who are not Bengalis, not even Hindus, to Delhi Pujos as they similarly do in many Kolkata Pujos. Shanti jal is freely sprinkled on all those present after the immersion. People of all faiths are welcome to visit a Pujo. They are not required to adorn any Hindu accessories before they enter a pandal, nor discard their own, if their faith requires them to keep a religious accessory on. There are no bans on sharing bhog and prasad and all are welcome to savor the divine culinary delights. Pujo organizers have no reservation about allowing hitherto mlechha foreigners to pose for a pretty photo with the Mother Goddess and share bhog and prasad with all others present. Rather they take pains to explain the various facets of the Mother’s image to foreigners and even allow them to participate in prayers and making floral offerings to the deity. Evidently, the Mother Goddess belongs to the world of humanity, not just Bengali Hindus. Obviously, as Matthew Arnold said, “The true meaning of religion is thus not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion.”<br />Pujo also spawns a frenetic buying spree. Achkans and galabands vie with gorgeous Benarasi silks and avant garde chiffon skirts and blouses on variegated human anatomies. Chingri maachher malai curry and mutton rogan josh with pulao and roomali rotis are the staple on a Pujo plate at the pandal food kiosk. Both fish and meat vendors for delectable chops and cutlets may not be Hindus or Bengali or both but have the loyalty of a Bengali Hindu customer, often for over a quarter century. The culinary Anandamela on Mahasasthi in Delhi Pujos attracts more non-believers than they do believers in the Mother Goddess. The evening culture shows similarly have a cosmopolitan flavor when Bhoomi plays, Alka Yagnik sings Tagore, Mithun Chakraborty comes visiting or Rituparna Sengupta inaugurates the first day of a Pujo. Rabbi Sher Gill, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Suchitra Mitra and Yesudas play from the same chonga (loudspeaker). Indeed, as Albert Einstein aptly commented, “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” This is therefore one theory that is the mother of all speculative theories of secularism, indeed of humanism.<br />Is the Pujo theory valid only in Bengal? Starting from the family Pujo of the Subarna Chaudhurys of Barisha in 1610 to the first community Pujo in Kolkata at Balaram Bose Ghat Road in 1910, Durga Pujo is a global phenomenon. During my recent three-year residence in the US, I had occasion to visit Pujos in universities, community halls and private residences. People from various states, not all of whom were always Hindus, even foreigners, participated, often to the online chanting of hymns and recorded dhaak and ghanta playing, even virtual floral offerings projected on an LCD screen. Dhokla, chholey bhaturey, pulao, chhanaar dalna and labra jostled for space on the dinner plate. Music of the Garba, Tagore and Nazrul, Bhoomi, Amjad Ali Khan and many others soothed the ears. Pujo was compressed into a weekend, not necessarily during the Navaratra season in India. Yet no one lost out on the fun, none complained. They looked forward to it and prepared months in advance. Pujo then violates another fundamental base of theory – it is not caught in a time, ideological and procedural warp.<br />Is Durga Pujo then all about a theory of secularism or a love affair? It is both. Indeed, it is a unique theory of secularism and humanism, bereft of any bigoted religio-ideological conviction, but with a heart-warming core of an unstated unity of Godhead. Pujo represents the religion of oneness with the Almighty, an egalitarian and Universalist desire for protection from evil and prayer for divine benediction so that humankind may prosper – its USP over centuries. As DH Lawrence rightly stated, “It is a fine thing to establish one’s own religion in one’s heart, not to be dependent on tradition and second-hand ideals. Life will seem to you, later, not a lesser, but a greater thing.” Pujo lives up to the fundamental desires of the human heart and limitlessly touches even a non-believer like me.<br />The author is Director General of Audit under the Comptroller & Auditor General of India. The views are personal.<br />