Let us return to the story of the warrior Durga.
All of the kings, along with Brahma-Shiva-Vishnu, the near-omnipotent male trinity, closed their eyes and concentrated fervently on Shakti. Soon she appeared in the form of Durga, a beautiful and muscular woman, her eyes radiating with omniscience, her demeanor serene yet firm.
“Durga, please save us from Mahishasura,”
Brahma beseeched the magnificent woman.
“Wasn’t it you who fueled his arrogance by granting him a boon that none of you would be able to kill him?” Durga asked without a smile. “He pandered to your ego and so you gave away all of your power without contemplating the consequences.” Brahma hung his head.
“As Shakti, I brought the universe and all of you into being,” Durga shook her head. “Yet you lay waste to my efforts by acting foolishly.”
All of the men assembled looked away in shame.
“I will help you because innocent women, children, and men are being harmed as a result of your thoughtlessness,” Durga’s tone of voice brooked no nonsense.
“We are grateful to you, Durga,” Vishnu, the calmest of them all, bowed his head in humility.
So Durga mounted a magnificent lion and went in search of Mahishasura. When the haughty man learned that she had come to kill him, he laughed and dispatched his male minions to confront her. A short while later, their corpses were sent back to him. Enraged, Mahishasura summoned his entire army of men soldiers and commanded them to kill the woman. Durga single-handedly beat them as well. In the end, the tyrant had no choice but to face her himself. And so he did. But because he did not have the physical strength to overpower her, he attempted to confound her through illusion by taking on different forms so as to elude her. For nine days and nights, Mahishasura fought Durga, before finally, as he took on the form of a buffalo, Durga slayed him with decisiveness. Having regained control of their kingdoms, all of the kings rejoiced, together with the people of earth, for tyranny had been vanquished at last.
Durga puja is a celebration of Shakti – the female creative power. It is also an acknowledgement of the struggle to restore balance to human society that has been dominated by men – and occasionally women – seeking to exploit nature and people for their own gain. But most importantly, Durga puja is an honoring of a woman’s extraordinary ability to overcome any odds. Durga puja is a celebration of our power to fulfill our individual potential by choosing wisely the path that is most suited to each of us. And for me, Durga puja is also a time when I celebrate my own Shakti-based interpretation of sanātana dharma, the way of life into which I was born.
A person who lives according to sanātana dharma, namely a person who may be called a Hindu, is free to choose which path she or he wishes to follow to attain moksha, or freedom from this physical world plagued by the duality of pain and pleasure. In technical terms, as explained by Swami Vivekananda over a century ago, a person may choose to practice one or more paths to achieve union with the essence of existence, namely one or more yoga.
These four paths are: the path of knowledge (gyāna yoga), the path of meditation (dhyāna yoga), the path of action (karma yoga), and the path of devotion (bhakti yoga).
Introspection is a seminal aspect of living according to sanātana dharma, as it is crucial to understanding one’s natural proclivities in order to know which path would be most effective in one’s journey toward interconnected balance. An intellectual person is thus likely to choose the path of knowledge upon internalizing the scientific interpretation of Shakti and thinking and acting accordingly. A contemplative person may choose the path of meditation upon internalizing the metaphysical or transcendental interpretation of Shakti. An service-oriented person may tend to adopt the path of action upon internalizing the practical interpretation of Shakti. And a devout person may be drawn to the path of devotion upon internalizing the religious interpretation of Shakti. These four paths to peace and wellbeing are symbolized by the svastika, one of the most ancient symbols of sanātana dharma.
The story of the great woman warrior Durga vanquishing the male tyrant Mahishasura is sadly one of very few tales celebrating the strength, fortitude, and power of the female. Non-indigenous mainstream religions, legends, and mythologies are dominated by valiant male protagonists, omnipotence personified as men, and heroes rescuing helpless women and children. Generally, women – if mentioned at all – are portrayed as supporting characters: as wives, second- and third-class citizens, pining lovers, concubines, objects of desire and conquest, and weak victims.
Whether revitalized from long-neglected ancient cultures or created anew, we need more tales of fierce and intelligent women saving men from themselves and the earth from the rapaciousness of men. We need more stories featuring heroines from a dizzying spectrum of women of different personalities, quirks, sizes, skin colors, cultural backgrounds, and proclivities. The only trait these stories need have in common is that they inspire girls and women, boys and men, and all humans to believe that a just and egalitarian world is possible and that each of us can help achieve such a world.
I wish everyone a most joyous Durga puja and Navaratri. May you discover the best in yourself and fulfill your potential.