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The Significance of Durga Püjá
Swami Harshanandaji Maharaj, President, Ramakrishna Matt, Bangalore

Durgápüjá or Durgotsava (‘worship of Durgá’, ‘festival of Durgá’)

The worship of God as Shakti (Supreme Power) and as Devi (Divine Mother, Mother of the Universe) is as old as the Øgveda itself. Over the centuries it has grown into a formidable cult with its own philosophy, myths and rituals. The Durgápüjá is undoubtedly the most important festival of this religious tradition.

As in the case of many other important vratas and utsavas, the Durgotsava is both nitya (compulsory) and kámya (optional). It may be performed for nine days or just three days (from Áshvayuja shukla saptami to navami). Those who want to celebrate it just for a day, can do so either on the ashtami or on the navami day.

It is interesting to note that the various gods of the Hindu pantheon, including Vishnu, are described as going to sleep for a period of four months (Áshádha to Kárttika). That the rainy season spread over this four-month period gave little scope to movement and activity or that the sun gave very little light to the Vedic Áryans living the northern latitudes, may have been the origin of this myth.

Be that as it may, since Mother Durgá who goes to bed on Áshádha shukla ashtami, is still sleeping at the time the Durgotsava is planned to be celebrated, she has to be woken up first! This is called ‘bodhana’ and is done on the evening of Áshvayuja shukla shashthi. A ghata or kalasha (a pot with water containing sandalwood paste, dürvá grass, leaves of five trees like mango, clay from seven places, fruit etc.) is established under a bilva tree (Aegle marmelos), the mantras of bodhana or awakening are uttered, and the bilva tree itself is worshipped as Mother Durgá. A second ghata is also established there itself. Next morning (i.e., on the saptami day), a small branch of that bilva tree is cut, placed in the second ghata and ceremonially carried to the hall of worship where the clay image has already been established, and kept at its feet. After pránapratishthá, a detailed worship is done to the ghata (in the presence of the image) with sixteen upácáras, followed by homa (sacrifice in a duly consecrated fire).

The story goes that when Durgá (or Párvati) came to her mother’s house from her husband’s home, it was late evening. So, she decided not to disturb her parents and spent the whole night under a bilva tree near the house. The ritual described above is symbolic of this.

The püjás done on the ashtami and navami days are practically identical with the saptami püjá. On all the days, snána or bath is given to the sword or the mirror kept in front of the image reflecting it. Again, on all the days, ceremonial recitation of the famous work Devimáhátmya (also known as Shri Candi and Durgá- saptashati) is arranged at a suitable place in the worship hall. This recitation, especially on such holy days, is considered to confer great benefits on the performer of the püjá.

Part of the ashtami püjá is the Kumáripüjá, worship of a girl-child in the age-group of 2 to 10. She should be a healthy child unblemished in body and appearance. She is to be worshipped as the embodiment of the Devi or goddess herself.

Another important ritual is the Sandhipüjá, performed at the junction of the two tithis, ashtami and navami. The Devi along with the Yoginis (various emanations of the Devi, 64 in all) is to be worshipped then. A bali (sacrifice) is also to be given.

Though animal sacrifice has existed as part of Durgápüjá, it is relegated as támasic (bad or evil), fit for people of lower culture and evolution.

On the early morning of dashami, the tenth day, the visarjanapüjá (worship signifying a send-off to the goddess) is done, symbolically withdrawing the deity from the image into one’s own heart. In the evening, after a simple árati (waving of light) the image is taken in a grand procession and immersed in a tank or a river or the sea. Much revelry is seen during the procession and afterwards, in the manner of the festivities of Shabaras (mountain tribes or barbarian tribes). In this Shabarotsava, as it is called, all people irrespective of their social status, were expected to join, probably emphasizing that all were equal before the Mother of all.

The evening of Vijayadashami, after the immersion of the Durgá image, is an occasion of great joy for the people who meet their friends and relatives and warmly greet them.

The Durgotsava described till now as the biggest festival, is mainly celebrated in Bengal, Bihar and Assam. However, now-a-days, it is being celebrated in the urban areas of almost all parts of the country, thanks to the concentration of the Bengali population there.

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