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Who does goddess Durga actually belong to?
As her history shows, anybody who wants to worship and in any which way.
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A vicious war has broken out on social media. It started last fortnight (strangely) over the humble egg roll. It was a video on a much-loved Kolkata street food, an egg roll recipe, and how Bengalis feast on it as they hop around pandals during Durga Puja.
For a few days, it was appreciated on social media. Then the hate messages started, escalating into racist comments on “godless,” non-vegetarian Bengali Hindus. Soon the comments became so vile that they had to be deleted, wrote the author of a piece in Scroll.in.
That again brought down angry invectives on him. A piece in The Quint did not just target the “trolled-for-the-egg-roll blogger”, but “many other Bengalis (from Kolkata)” for their audacity of arrogance about being "different", reminding all that Durga belonged to everyone.
Beyond all the verbal tit-for-tat, here are some pointers on the goddess and that one question: who does Durga belong to?
By region, race, history and culture, Bengalis have been distinguished from the rest of India by their unorthodoxy, say scholars. Why? Because, their cultural roots are pre-vedic and not non-vedic, writes Indologist and Sanskrit scholar Sukumari Bhattacharji.
Bengalis came primarily from a different ethnic stock (proto Australoid) and not Nordic like the vedic Aryans; they were pastoral and not agricultural; they accepted not so much the authority of the vedas, but more the influence of Buddhism and Jainism (as recorded by Hiuen Tsang and Fa Hien).
And until 12th century, Bengali society was pretty much casteless. Even when Brahmanical systems were imposed, they revolted - either through acceptance of Buddhism, mystic Vaishnavism or by converting to Islam.
Goddess and fish
At the root of this difference lay the fact that Bengalis pursued tantrism, a distinct socio-religious tradition originating from the Atharva Veda, says Haraprasad Shastri, sanskritist, archivist and scholar known for discovering the Charyapada.
A significant aspect of tantrism is the role and importance ascribed to women in society and the dominance of mother goddesses (who occupied a subordinate position in vedic belief and worship). Major Bengali deities were always Devi and Shakti, not Rama, Ganesha or even Hanuman.
Tantrism and rise of Shakti cults also led to the preference for fish and meat as articles of food, apart from different forms of local governance and laws of inheritance. Under the Dayabhaga school of law (observed only in Bengal and Assam, as against the Mitakshara school of law in all other parts of India) a woman, even a widow, could have right to property. (Do read RC Majumdar’s History of Ancient Bengal, if you want to know more.)
Not one Durga
So, if, there is something to the argument that Bengalis are different, can they stake some special claim to Durga?
The history of the Devi is far too complex to allow such simple equations. Durga goes back a long time. She was there long before the Devi Mahatmya of the 1500-year-old Markandeya Purana created her dominant narrative - as a creation of energy of various male gods, that kills a buffalo-demon in an epic battle.
She was probably there in the Harappan tiger-woman seals. And as the Kushana martial, lion-escorted goddess Nana of 1st century BC. Her growth in stature happened across centuries, as she absorbed the traits of all regional mother goddesses, say scholars, into one supreme goddess: Durga. From the obscure Nirrti of Rig Veda to Mata Rani, Tara, Uma, Parvati, Chamundeswari to Chandi, Kali and so on.
In Bengal, Durga is not only seen as the mother, she is also the daughter of the household, visiting her parents. On the day of visarjan, she is given farewell by the women in the family, as if she is going back to her husband’s home.
Durga, a vegetarian?
That’s why it’s impossible to say whether the Durga tradition should be called vegetarian or non-vegetarian.
While many across India fast, avoid onions and garlic, or become completely vegetarian during Navratri and Dussehra, Bengalis feast and revel in food: egg rolls to shukto (traditional vegetarian curry made during Durga Puja) to “ilish maach bhaja”, or perfectly fried hilsa fish.
Durga’s thirst for blood has been established in many texts. The goddess has been called Raktapriya, because she drank the blood of Mahishasura, after slaying him. At the same time, she is called Shakambhari (herb-nourishing) and must be offered all kinds of vegetables and fruits.
The conventional Durga Puja is typically celebrated in spring. The out-of-season autumnal worship of Durga, typically, comes from the east. It is said to coincide with Rama’s adoration of the goddess with 108 blue lotuses and 108 lamps, before his last encounter with Ravana. But it’s a reference that is not there in the Ramayana of Valmiki, where Rama simply worshipped Surya, the Sun god, and not Durga.
Who performed the first autumnal (or “sharadiya”) Durga Puja and when? The first grand worship in recorded history took place in the 16th century, by the zamindars of Dinajpur and Malda, now central districts of West Bengal. From home, Durga Puja moved to the community in the late 18th century, becoming a mass celebration, the hallmark of Durga Puja now, in Hoogly district, very close to Kolkata.
From 1832, “sarbojanin” Durga Puja started in the city, with full public contribution, public control and public participation - democratising right to worship to the common man. The first Durga Puja in Delhi took place in 1910, the Kashmere Gate Durga Puja.
So, who does Devi Durga belong to? As her history shows, anybody who wants to worship and in any which way.