The consort of Siva now assumes a very different character from that in which she has so far been represented. In those incarnations, though the wife of Siva, she acted as an ordinary woman, and manifested womanly virtues; as Durgā she was a most powerful warrior, and appeared on earth, under many names, for the destruction of demons who were obnoxious to gods and men.
She obtained the name Durgā because she slew an asura named Durgā, the name of the goddess being the feminine form of the demon’s name. The “ Skanda Purāna” * gives the following account of this occurrence. Kartikeya, being asked by Agastya, the sage, why his mother was called Durgā, says: “A giant named Durgā, the son of Ruru, having performed penance in favour of Brahmā, obtained his blessing, and grew so mighty that he conquered the three worlds, and dethroned Indra and the other gods. He compelled the wives of the Rishis to sing his praise, and sent the gods from heaven to dwell in the forests, and by a mere nod summoned them to reverence him. He abolished religious ceremonies;
Brāhmans through fear of him gave up the reading of the Vedas; rivers changed their course; fire lost its energy, and the terrified stars retired from sight. He assumed the shape of the clouds, and gave rain whenever he pleased; the earth, through fear, yielded an abundant harvest, and the trees flowered and gave fruit out of the proper season.”
The gods in their distress appealed to Siva. Indra, their king, said, “He has dethroned me!” Surya said, “He has taken my kingdom!” Siva, pitying them, desired Pārvati to go and destroy this giant. She, accepting the commission willingly, calmed the fears of the gods, and first sent Kālarātri (Dark Night), a female whose beauty bewitched the inhabitants of the three worlds, to order the demon to restore things to their ancient order. He, however, full of fury, sent his soldiers to lay hold of Kālarātri; but by the breath of her mouth she reduced them to ashes. Durgā then sent 30,000 other giants, who were such monsters in size that they covered the surface of the earth. At the sight of these giants, Kālarātri fled to Pārvati, followed by the giants. Durgā, with 100,000,000 chariots, 120,000,000,000 elephants, 10,000,000 swift-footed horses, and innumerable soldiers, went to fight Pārvati, on the Vindhya mountain. As soon as he drew near, Pārvati assumed 1000 arms, called to her assistance different beings, and produced a number of weapons from her body (a long list of these is given in the Purāna). The troops of the giant poured their arrows on Pārvati as she sat on the mountain Vindhya, thick as the drops of rain in a storm; they even tore up trees, mountains, etc., and hurled them at her; in return she threw a weapon which carried away the arms of many of the giants. Durgā himself then hurled a flaming dart at the goddess, which she turned aside; another being sent, she stopped it by a hundred arrows. He next aimed an arrow at Pārvati’s breast; this too she repelled, and two other weapons, a club and a pike. At last coming to close quarters, Pārvati seized Durgā and set her left foot on his breast, but he, managing to disengage himself, renewed the fight.
Pārvati then caused a number of helpers to issue from her body, which destroyed the soldiers of the giants. In return, Durgā sent a dreadful shower of hail, the effect of which Pārvati counteracted by an instrument called Sosuna. The demon now assumed the shape of an elephant as large as a mountain, and approached the goddess; but she tied his legs, and, with her nails, which were like scimitars, tore him to pieces. He rose again in the form of a buffalo, and with his horns cast stones, trees, and mountains, tearing up the trees by the breath of his nostrils. Pārvati then pierced him with her trident; he reeled to and fro, and, renouncing the form of a buffalo, assumed his original body as a giant, with a thousand arms, having a weapon in each. Approaching Pārvati, she seized him by his arms, and carried him into the air, whence she threw him to the ground with fearful force. Seeing that the fall had not destroyed him, she pierced him in the breast with an arrow, whereupon blood issued from his mouth in streams, and he died. The gods were delighted at the result, and soon regained their former splendour. Still another account of the origin of Durgā is found in the Chandi, a part of the “Mārkandeya Purāna.” * Mahisha, king of the giants, at one time overcame the gods in war, and reduced them to such a state of want that they wandered through the earth as beggars. Indra first conducted them to Brahmā, and then to Siva; but as these gods could render no assistance, they turned to Vishnu, who was so grieved at the sight of their wretchedness, that streams of glory issued from his face, whence came a female figure named Mahāmāya (another name of Durgā). Streams of glory issued from the faces of the other gods also, which in like manner entered Mahāmāya; in consequence of which she became a body of glory, like a mountain of fire. The gods then handed their weapons to this dreadful being, who with a frightful scream ascended into the air, slew the giant, and gave redress to the gods.
The account, as found in the “Vāmana Purāna,” differs in some details. When the gods had sought Vishnu in their distress, he, and at his command Sankara (Siva), Brahmā, and the other gods, emitted such flames from their eyes and countenances that a mountain of effulgence was formed, from which became manifest Katyayini, refulgent as a thousand suns, having three eyes, black hair, and eighteen arms. Siva gave her his trident, Vishnu a discus, Varuna a conch-shell, Agni a dart, Vāyu a bow, Surya a quiver full of arrows, Indra a thunderbolt, Kuvera a mace, Brahmā a rosary and water-pot, Kala a shield and sword, Visvakarma a battle-axe and other weapons. Thus armed, and adored by the gods, Katyayini proceeded to the Vindhya hills. Whilst there, the asuras Chanda and Manda saw her, and being captivated by her beauty they so described her to Mahisha, their king, that he was anxious to obtain her. On asking for her hand, she told him she must be won in fight. He came, and fought; at length Durgā dismounted from her lion, and sprang upon the back of Mahisha, who was in the form of a buffalo, and with her tender feet so smote him on the head that he fell to the ground senseless, when she cut off his head with her sword.
In pictures and images Durgā is represented as a golden-coloured woman, with a gentle and beautiful countenance. She has ten arms; in one hand she holds a spear, with which she is piercing the giant Mahisha; with one of her left hands she holds the tail of a serpent, with another the hair of the giant whose breast the snake is biting; her other hands are filled with various weapons. Her lion leans against her right leg, and the giant against her left. The images of Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Kartikeya, and Ganesa are frequently made and worshipped with that of Durgā. The frontispiece is a representation of Durgā and the other goddesses and gods, as they are made in Bengal at the time of the great autumnal festival.
In Bengal the worship of this goddess forms the most popular of all the Hindu festivals; it continues for three days, and is the great holiday of the year. At this season, as at Christmas in England, the members of the family whom business detains from home during the year return; and with the worship of Durgā is associated all that is bright and cheerful. Sacrifices of buffaloes and goats are made to her; feasting, singing, and dancing are continued through the greater part of the night. Though her chief festival is in the autumn, she is also worshipped, though not so generally, in the spring. The reason of this as taught in a Bengali account is as follows: — Rāvana was a devout worshipper of Durgā, and had the Chandi (an extract from one of the Purānas) read daily. When, therefore, Rāma attacked him, the goddess assisted her servant. It was in the spring that Rāvana observed her festival. Rāma, seeing the help his enemy received from this goddess, began himself to worship her. This was in the autumn. Durgā was delighted with the devotion of Rāma, and at once transferred her aid to him.
Durgā is said to have assumed ten forms for the destruction of two giants, Sumbha and Nisumbha; the “Mārkandeya Purāna” describes these incarnations in the following order: — (1) As Durgā she received the message of the giants; (2) As Dasabhujā (the ten-armed) she slew part of their army; (3) As Singhavāhini (seated on a lion) she fought with Raktavija; (4) As Mahishāmardini (destroyer of a buffalo) she slew Sumbha in the form of a buffalo; (5) As Jagaddhātri (the mother of the world) she overcame the army of the giants; (6) As Kāli (the black woman) she slew Raktavija; (7) As Muktakesi (with flowing hair) she overcame another of the armies of the giants; (8) As Tāra (the saviour) she slew Sumbha in his own proper shape; (9) As Chinnamustaka (the headless) she killed Nisumbha; (10) As Jagadgauri (the golden-coloured lady renowned through the world) she received the praises and thanks of the gods.
The great conflict for success in which Durgā assumed so many forms is described as follows in the “Mārkandeya Purāna.” At the close of the Treta Age, two giants, named Sumbha and Nisumbha, performed religious austerities for 10,000 years, the merit of which brought Siva from heaven, who discovered that by this extraordinary devotion, they sought to obtain the blessing of immortality. He reasoned long with them, and vainly endeavoured to persuade them to ask for any other gift. Being denied what they specially wanted, they entered upon still more severe austerities, for another thousand years, when Siva again appeared, but still refused to grant what they asked. They now suspended themselves with their heads downwards over a slow fire, till the blood streamed from their necks: they continued thus for 800 years. The gods began to tremble, lest, by performing such rigid acts of holiness, these demons should supplant them on their thrones. The king of the gods thereupon called a council, and imparted to them his fears. They admitted that there was ground for anxiety, but asked what was the remedy.
“Acting upon the advice of Indra, Kandarpa (the god of love), with Rambhā and Tilatamā, the most beautiful of the celestial nymphs, were sent to fill the minds of the giants with sensual desires. Kandarpa with his arrow wounded both; upon which, awaking from their absorption, and seeing two beautiful women, they were taken in the snare, and abandoned their devotions. With these women they lived for 5000 years; after which they saw the folly of renouncing their hopes of immortality for the sake of sensual gratifications. They suspected this snare must have been a contrivance of Indra; so, driving back the nymphs to heaven, they renewed their devotions, cutting the flesh off their bones, and making burnt offerings of it to Siva. They continued in this way for 1000 years, till at last they became mere skeletons; Siva again appeared and bestowed upon them his blessing — that in riches and strength they should excel the gods.
“Being exalted above the gods, they began to make war upon them. After various successes on both sides, the giants became everywhere victorious; when Indra and the gods, reduced to a most deplorable state of wretchedness, solicited the interference of Brahmā and Vishnu. They referred them to Siva, who declared that he could do nothing for them. When, however, they reminded him that it was through his blessing they had been ruined, he advised them to perform religious austerities to Durgā. They did so; and after some time the goddess appeared, and gave them her blessing; then disguising herself as a common female carrying a pitcher of water, she passed through the assembly of the gods. She then assumed her proper form, and said, ‘They are celebrating my praise.’
“This new goddess now ascended Mount Himālaya, where Chanda and Manda, two of Sumbha and Nisumbha’s messengers, resided. As these demons wandered over the mountain, they saw the goddess; and being exceedingly struck with her charms, which they described to their masters, advised them to engage her affections, even if they gave her all the glorious things which they had obtained in plundering the heavens of the gods.
“Sumbha sent Sugriva as messenger to the goddess, to inform her that the riches of the three worlds were in his palace; that all the offerings which used to be presented to the gods were now offered to him, and that all these offerings, riches, etc., would be hers, if she would come to him. The goddess replied that the offer was very liberal, but that she had resolved that the person she married must first conquer her in war, and destroy her pride. Sugriva, unwilling to return unsuccessful, pressed for a favourable answer, promising that he would conquer her in war, and subdue her pride; and asked in an authoritative strain: ‘Did she know his master, before whom none of the inhabitants of the worlds had been able to stand, whether gods, demons, or men? How then could she, a female, think of resisting his offers? If his master had ordered him, he would have compelled her to go into his presence immediately.’ She agreed that this was very correct, but that she had taken her resolution, and exhorted him, therefore, to persuade his master to come and try his strength with her.
“The messenger went and related what he had heard. On hearing his account, Sumbha was filled with rage, and, without making any reply, called for Dhumlochana his commander-in-chief, and gave him orders to go to Himālaya and seize the goddess and bring her to him, and, if any attempted a rescue, utterly to destroy them.
“The commander went to Himālaya, and acquainted the goddess with his master’s orders. She, smiling, invited him to execute them. On the approach of this hero, she set up a dreadful roar, by which he was reduced to ashes. After which she destroyed the army of the giant, leaving only a few fugitives to communicate the tidings. Sumbha and Nisumbha, infuriated, sent Chanda and Manda, who, on ascending the mountain, perceived a female sitting on an ass, laughing. On seeing them she became enraged, and drew to her ten, twenty, or thirty of their army at a time, devouring them like fruit. She next seized Manda by the hair, cut off his head, and holding it over her mouth, drank the blood. Chanda, on seeing the other commander slain in this manner, himself came to close quarters with the goddess. But she, mounted on a lion, sprang on him, and, despatching him as she had done Manda, devoured part of his army, and drank the blood of the slain.
“The giants no sooner heard this alarming news than they resolved to go themselves, and collecting their forces, an infinite number of giants, marched to Himālaya. The gods looked down with astonishment on this vast army, and the goddesses descended to help Mahāmāya (Durgā), who, however, soon destroyed her foes. Raktavija, the principal commander under Sumbha, and Nisumbha, seeing all his men destroyed, encountered the goddess in person. But though she covered him with wounds, from every drop of blood which fell to the ground a thousand giants arose equal in strength to Raktavija himself. Hence innumerable enemies surrounded Durgā, and the gods were filled with alarm at the amazing sight. At length Chandi, a goddess who had assisted Kāli (Durgā) in the engagement, promised that if she would drink the giant’s blood before it fell to the ground, she (Chandi) would engage him and destroy the whole of his strangely-formed offspring. Kāli consented, and the commander and his army were soon despatched.
“Sumbha and Nisumbha, in a state of desperation, next engaged the goddess in single combat, Sumbha making the first onset. The battle was inconceivably dreadful on both sides, till at last both the giants were slain, and Kāli sat down to feed on the carnage she had made. The gods and goddesses chanted the praises of the celestial heroine, who in return bestowed a blessing on each.”
It seems scarcely correct to speak of these forms of Durgā as incarnations; they are rather epithets descriptive of her appearance or method of fighting at different times during the great conflict. There is, however, so great a difference in appearance and character between Pārvati and Kāli that it is not easy to regard them as the same being; yet Durgā, whilst represented as a warrior fully armed, has the calm features and golden colour of the goddess in her earlier manifestation. It appears a reasonable hypothesis that Kāli was originally altogether distinct from Umā or Pārvati.
In the following hymn of Arjuna to Durgā in the Mahābhārata, her many names are mentioned: — “Reverence be to thee, Siddha-Senāni (generaless of the Siddhas), the noble, the dweller on Mandara, Kumāri (Princess), Kāli, Kapāli, Kapilā, Krishnapingalā. Reverence to thee, Bhadrakāli; reverence to thee, Mahā Kāli, Chandi, Chandā, Tārini (deliveress), Varavarini (beautiful-coloured). O fortunate Kālyāyani, O Karāli, O Vijayā, O Jayā (victory), younger sister of the chief of cowherds (Krishna), delighting always in Mahisha’s blood! O Umā, Sakambhari, thou white one, thou black one! O destroyer of Kaitabha! Of sciences, thou art the science of Brahma (or of the Vedas), the great sleep of embodied beings. O mother of Skanda (Kartikeya), divine Durgā, dweller in wildernesses! Thou, great goddess, art praised with a pure heart. By thy favour let me ever be victorious in battle.” In another verse of this same book she is said to dwell perpetually in the Vindhya hills, and “to delight in spirituous liquors, flesh, and sacrificial victims.”
The statement that Durgā was the younger sister of Krishna refers to the fact that it was she who took Krishna’s place in Devaki’s womb after Vasudeva had carried the infant Krishna to Nanda, and whom Kansa attempted to destroy by dashing her against a stone immediately after her birth. Krishna promised, if she would take his place as Devaki’s child, “becoming assimilated to him in glory, she would obtain an eternal place in the sky, be installed by Indra amongst the gods, obtain a perpetual abode on the Vindhya mountains, where meditating upon him (Vishnu) she would kill two demons, Sumbha and Nisumbha, and would be worshipped with animal sacrifices.”