All over India the holy month of Ashwin (October-November) is dedicated to the worship of Goddess Durga. Many devotees fast during this period and offer sacrifices, give charities and exchange gifts.

Durga is the multifaceted avatar of shakti (power). She has many forms and goes by many names; Sati, Parvati, Uma, Durga, Kali, Gauri, Tripura Sundari, Shivangi, Mahadevi and many others. The Mahishasur Mardini Stotra mentions her as Vishnu Vilasini. She functions as the primal power (adi shakti) of the Lord. It is said that the lord creates, sustains and also destroys only through her. She is the (shrishti shakti) creative power of Brahma, the (paalan shakti) sustaining power of Vishnu, and the (samhaar shakti) the destruction force of lord Shiva. She is looked upon as mother in Hindu thought. As the benevolent form of a mother, Durga has a mother’s heart of gold to protect her children and bestow abundance. Her benign power as mother grants nourishment, devotion, fertility, and motherhood to the barren. She is also credited as a great bestower of harmony and peace on those who seek her blessings as Parvati. Parvati is her name as she was born to the Mountain king Himavan. Parvati just means hill born.
All over India the holy month of Ashwin (October- November) is dedicated to the worship of Devi. All kinds of dance dramas depicting her various forms, benevolent and destructive are staged. Many pujas and offerings are made to her. Many devotees fast during this period and offer sacrifices, give charities and exchange gifts. Skanda purana advises you to sacrifice the animaI in you at her feet so that your mind is purified of low animal like passions and acts. This slowly degenerated over a time into sacrificing a poor animal! This horrendous practise is still prevalent in some parts of India. How can you propitiate a goddess with animal sacrifice? She needs it not. Slowly it became just an excuse for feeding on animal flesh in the name of the Goddess! Durga Pooja is celebration time, considered as auspicious in every way. Durga is also worshipped as (kamarupa shakti) the power that gives shape or form to your desire. Another form worshipped is that of (Kameshwari) one who fulfills desires.
Skanda purana relates how the devatas pleaded with Parvati to destroy a demon called Durg, she took the form of a warrior, descended on the earth and killed the demon Durg, and hence was named Durga. Durga means that which protects. That’s the reason why protective and secure forts are called Durg. Durg was later born as Mahishasura, who had the body and mind of a wild buffalo, as this demonic form’s mother was Mahishi, a buffalo. This demon was a very powerful rakshasa. Buffalo like in his lethargy and animalistic passions, he was full of gross negativity, ugliness and crude behaviour. Skanda Purana as well as Devi Mahatmya has this story in great detail as he fell in love with the beauteous form of Durga when she came to destroy him. After much advising by his ministers against the action, he still decided to propose to her. She challenged him to fight like a man but he kept on relating his love for her beautiful form and pleading with her to marry him. The story goes that the Aryans then played a trick on him. They hired a prostitute called Durga, who was made to resemble the goddess and who agreed to marry him. Mahishasura was elated. After the marriage he was killed by the Goddess in his drugged sleep. This episode is symbolised in an interesting fashion when the idols of Durga are made during the festival of Durga Puja. The clay for the idols is picked up from the bed of the holy river Ganges to depict the purity, but since Mahishasura was killed by a prostitute form of Durga, a handful of mud is then collected from any prostitute’s dwelling to form the image of the goddess, without which it is not considered complete! What a beautiful way to respect and recognise the contribution of even the lowest rung of the social ladder! The destruction of Mahishasura depicts the victory of good over evil, the cleansing of negativity, sloth and animal like desires from the minds of mankind and replacing them with divine positivity.
Durga’s most terrible and ferocious form is that of Kali. There are as many Kali temples as there are of Durga. Devi Mahatmya records the legend of the destruction of the demons Daruka and Rakta Beej (blood seed). Durga fought Rakta Beej for long, but as soon as her sword wounded him and spilled his blood to the ground, all the drops of blood turned to new demons. Every drop of his blood turned into a clone of Rakta Beej, somewhat like our stem cell cloning therapy. Thus the demons kept multiplying and it became a hopeless situation. Durga then had to assume her most terrifying form, that of Kali. This is a form of ruthless destruction. Kali is depicted with a garland of skulls, also wearing a skirt of torn limbs, blood shot eyes and sword in hand. She is ever ready to kill and drink up the blood of her victim. So she finally cut up Rakta Beej and swallowed up all his blood, not allowing it to fall on the pious earth, thereby becoming the saviour of mankind and (Prithvi) Earth, from this terrible demon of evil design. Kali by then was so possessed that she couldn’t stop the destruction, till Shiva took on the form of a handsome young man and lay down in her path. As soon as she recognised her husband she was shocked and embarrassed and that is the image of Kali with her tongue out as she stopped suddenly in her track. There are many interpretations to the tongue story. It seems this is a post pauranic add on to the Rakta Beej story later sometime. There are as many temples of Kali where she is not depicted with her tongue out. These images are known as ‘Bhadra Kali’, the benign forgiving protective form of the mother Goddess.
Shakti is depicted as a very powerful force in the lord’s design of creation. She is Mother Nature. She can create, nurture as well as destroy if you play with her infallible laws, and if you respect her and her laws she can look after and nourish you as a mother does. She provides for all your needs, she feeds and clothes you, she supplies the essentials of food, air and water for you to live well and healthy. But treating her with disrespect brings about the terrible destructive forces like climate change. These are her ferocious Kali avatars! Let us worship Mother Nature.

The writer is President Chinmaya Mission Delhi.