In This Article Durgā

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Durgā in Vedic Literature
  • Liturgical Traditions
  • Iconography
  • The Rite of Durgā (Durgā Pūjā/Navarātra/Dasain)

Hinduism Durgā
by
Bihani Sarkar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0219

Introduction

Durgā—goddess of war; slayer of demons; bestower of victory; savior in dangers; keeper of sacred Order; guardian of fortresses; dispeller of inauspiciousness; deity of possession; dweller of the wilderness; nourished by warriors’ blood; “fond of alcohol, flesh, and marrow.” Innately kaleidoscopic, known by many names, and paradoxical in nature, the goddess is difficult to define, being a symbol of both the benevolent and the dangerous in Indian tradition. She is most renowned for killing the buffalo demon Mahiṣa, though her other famous demon-victims include Śumbha, Niśumbha, Madhu, Kaiṭabha, Ruru, and Ghora. Durgā’s history is marked by her absorption of and by other deities and traditions, so that she has been continuously in transformation. Her presence in the Vedas, the earliest Hindu texts, is threadbare, leading to speculation among scholars that she was a goddess first and foremost of non-Indo-Aryan communities. She appears most fully in Sanskrit literature beginning with the Indian epic the Mahābhārata as Kālī or Kālarātri, the black-hued salvific goddess of the night of cosmic Destruction, and Nidrā, the eternal sleep of Death, the beauteous yet fierce sister of the hero Kṛṣṇa, and the inner active power (śakti) of his higher counterpart the great god Viṣṇu. She then appears as the fiery Caṇḍikā-Bhavānī, the rejected bodily half of Pārvatī, the consort of the high Hindu god Śiva, who as an autonomous warrior carries out the martial acts that Pārvatī, as devoted wife, cannot. From the 7th century CE, she began to absorb local goddesses, many from non-Hindu locales whose liminality found a parallel with her own ambiguous, outsider status within the Hindu tradition. Often, she is said to be the outcaste’s beloved deity. Exalted by becoming the most concentrated archetype for indigenous goddesses, she is understood as an all-powerful, ubiquitous, omniscient entity. In this respect she transcends Viṣṇu, Śiva, and Brahmā, the triad of divine power within Hindu thought. She is identified as the principle of universal creation māyā (magic), the cause of perceptible manifestation, Primordial Nature (prakṛti), and the source of liberation (mokṣa). As granter of sovereignty and heroic power, her worship became particularly important for rulers and heroes in the Indic world. Her annual festival, held first during the monsoon, the season of her birth in older beliefs, and later in the autumn the season of battle, became the time when sovereignty and community were reborn and reconstituted through her puissance. In this article, the Sanskrit originals are indicated only in the absence of an English translation.

General Overviews

There are few sociohistorical overviews of Durgā, and even fewer that use multiple sources to place her mythology, rituals, and iconography within a wider historical narrative of the rise of the Goddess in Indian religion. Detailed studies on local embodiments, on Śakti, the broader theological idea of the Goddess, on power and the worship of the Goddess, and on the autumnal ritual through the foci of its richly diverse regional spectrum are plentiful but rarely have they been integrated into an overarching narrative about theological vision and historical process. Gupta and Gombrich 1986 provides an overall assessment of the ritual context of royal sanctification in which Durgā’s worship was embedded. The most thorough and up-to-date overviews are Yokochi 2004 and Sarkar 2017. Hazra 1963 is still a valuable resource. Kinsley 1987, the standard starting point, puts together the main issues in a neat and accessible manner. Pal 2010 provides a range of essays on mainly contemporary traditions of Durgā, including little known traditions such as that of the shrine of Hinglaj in Baluchistan.

  • Gupta, Sanjukta, and Richard Gombrich. “Kings, Power and the Goddess.” South Asia Research 6.2 (1986): 123–138.

    DOI: 10.1177/026272808600600203E-mail Citation »

    The first broad historical reflection on the relation between the goddess, her rituals, and political power, though not strictly an overview of Durgā as a theological figure.

  • Hazra, Rajendra C. Studies in the Upapurāṇas. Vol. 2, Śākta and Non-Sectarian Upapurāṇas. Calcutta, India: Sanskrit College, 1963.

    E-mail Citation »

    A text-historical study of the Goddess and her ritual in autumn, containing a detailed chapter by chapter synopsis of the contents of the major Purāṇic sources for the goddess’s legends. On Durgā’s historical development, see pp. 1–35, though this is now to be considered speculative and outdated.

  • Kinsley, David. “Durgā.” In Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu. By David Kinsley, 95–115. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contained in a source-book of Hindu goddesses, a good scholarly overview of Durgā’s mythologies, theologies, and forms of worship (pp. 95–115).

  • Pal, Pratapaditya. Goddess Durgā: The Power and the Glory. Mumbai: Marg, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Edited volume of essays on Durgā as she is worshipped in Bengal, Nepal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Baluchistan, with an exhaustive range of spectacular photographs.

  • Sarkar, Bihani. Heroic Shāktism: The Cult of Durgā in Ancient Indian Kingship. British Academy Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266106.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A sociohistorical study assessing Durgā’s importance for the constitution of political power in the Indic world, from the Kuṣāṇa to the medieval period, using wide-ranging sources. Contains a history of the goddess’s festival in the final chapter.

  • Yokochi, Yuko. “The Rise of the Warrior-Goddess in Ancient India: A Study of the Myth of Kauśikī-Vindhyavāsinī in the Skanda-Purāṇa.” PhD diss., University of Groningen, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    A landmark work in two parts, the first containing a study of the early history of Durgā, with focus on a heroic form called Kauśikī, the dweller of the Vindhya mountains, as found in a Śaiva scripture, the original Skandapurāṇa; the second containing a critical edition and detailed synopsis of the myth of the goddess in that work. Available online.

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