There are ancient references to female deities and many figurines are found depicting them. Mother earth was known as ‘Bhoo-Devi’ and was the original Goddess to the natives who lived in this sub-continent. But she became associated with agriculture and growing of food and became known as ‘Shakambhari’ — as vegetables and plants grew from her body.
The concept of the ‘Mother Goddess’ was used in tantrik ritual. This concept existed as far back as the Stone Age but the benevolent face of the mother Goddess seems to have come later. Durga, who was a fearsome deity, became soft and loving and was soon, absorbed in Parvati — the eternal partner of Lord Shiva.
There are many other stories as to how the Devi was created. In one story she took form when from the filth of Vishnu’s ears two demons took form while Vishnu was sleeping, they wanted to destroy Lord Brahma. Brahma sang the praise of Vishnu to wake Him from his slumber and get these pests killed. Brahma prayed to the ‘Shakti’ of Vishnu which took form as ‘Bhagwati’ and woke Him up to kill the two demons named ‘Madhu and Kaitab’.
Another story is that once there was a great demon named Mahesha and he wanted to remove all the demi- Gods from their kingdoms and take over as the sole ruler of the three worlds. He succeeded in his nefarious designs and threw Indra — Agni — Vayu — Yam — Varun and the others out of their realms and they had to roam on ‘Earth’ without any power left in them. The demi-Gods then went to Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.
The three Gods emitted — each a great brilliance from their mouths, which formed itself into a body and the great Goddess was born. The three Gods then gave her their weapons and the Goddess blocked all the paths by her thousand arms and Mahesha could not enter anywhere.
The Goddess was on a lion and she destroyed the entire army of Mahesha-sur. She destroyed many others like Udagra, Valkala, Tamira, Chikshini, Chamar, Andhak, Atilam, Ugaamya, Ugraveerya, Mahakanu, Vidaalasya, Durdhas and Durmukhi. The human beings and Gods all praised the Goddess and asked her to come to their help whenever disaster struck them and she promised to do so.
Then there is the story of Shambhu and Nishambhu who wanted the earth dwellers to worship them and started to take away the portion reserved for the Gods during a ‘yagna’. Soon they became so strong that they threw all the demi Gods from their seat in heaven. The demi Gods entreated the great rishis who advised them to pray to ‘Durgama’ as she had previously promised to come to their rescue whenever they were in trouble.
She appeared on the banks of the Ganga. At that moment she was very beautiful. The servants of Shambhu and Nishambhu named Chanda and Munda saw her, and went to their Lords and Masters and described her beauty. The demons both wanted her brought to them and ordered Chanda and Munda to get her. Kali declared that she had taken a vow that only if anyone could get the better of her in battle she would be his.
Sugreev, another of the henchmen of Shambhu and Nishambhu, told her about the fate of all the demi Gods at the hands of the demons but she refused to break her pledge. The two demons were very angry and sent another demon named Dhoomirlochan to bring her to them by force. The Devi came into her own and tore up the entire army of the demons with the help of her lion.
Another army was sent to surround the Himalayas where she was stationed, the Goddess got mad with rage and from her forehead appeared a jet black form which was the other form of Durga — Kali and she destroyed every demon. On her destroying Chanda and Munda she became known as ‘Chamunda’.
As Kali when the Goddess destroyed Shambhu and Nishambhu she became overjoyed and started her dance of death wearing a garland of skulls and having all the weapons in her hands and even though the demi Gods prayed to her to stop.
She would not, and then Lord Shiva threw himself on the bodies of the dead demons, whereas Kali Parvati saw that she was nearly dancing on her husband’s body — she took out her tongue in great anguish and surprise and stopped her ‘Tandav’. Her tongue was red in colour and that is the image of Kali accepted by her worshippers especially in the eastern parts of India. In most parts of the North Mother Goddess is worshipped as ‘Durga’ on her vehicle the lion. She has four, eight or ten hands. One hand is always raised in a blessing.
Still Shambhu and Nishambhu did not heed the warnings of Lord Shiva and Lord Kartikeya who headed the army of the demi-Gods. There began a great battle. A demon named Raktabeeja began to fight with great force and each drop of blood that fell from his body became another demon. The Goddess in her Chamunda form swallowed Raktabeeja.
Then came Shambhu and Nishambhu but the Goddess declared that she was the ‘Ultimate Form’ and all beings shall go into her at the time of Pralaya — hence she cannot be killed by anyone and soon she killed the two demons. She took nine forms in the whole battle, but promised all the demi-Gods and the earth kings that she will come to them whenever they wanted her and thus she did in the form of Durga.
Durga got her names from destroying a demon named Durg. Shiva asked his consort Parvati to do the needful and she accepted and assumed a thousand arms with a number of weapons in them. The demon made himself into buffalo and there was a long battle in which she killed the demon with her trident and the Gods gave her the name Durga.
The names of the Goddess which springs from the fountainhead Parvati are numerous as she takes different forms and is called by a different name each time.
She is Parvati in her child form — Uma — the beauty known as Gauri-Hemavati — daughter of the Himalayas, Jagat Mata — Bhawani — the Goddess of the Universe. In her terrible form — she is Durga — the inaccessible Kali or Shyama — the dark complexioned one.
Chandika or Chandi — the fearful one — Kapila — Bhairavi — the terrible. Ishani — the Consort of Shiva (Ishan). Tara as Bhuvanshvari —Tarini — Dhumavati — Chhinmasta — Shodashi complete with all her sixteen Kalas. Bahala — Kamala — Matangi is another name given to her as Shakti — Chandi she is also called — but she is the Mahadevi or ‘Durga’.
Temples of the mother Goddess are now in every hills side on the Himalayas and Vaishnav Devi has become a very sought after pilgrimage spot. Jwalamukhi is in Himachal Pradesh. Kheer Bhawani is in Jammu and Kashmir. In the south the most famous are the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu and Kanya Kumari at the land’s end at Cape Comorin in the southernmost end of India.
All over in every city and village there are temples. In Rajasthan there is Jagat Mata temple in Udaipur. In UP near Allahabad there is a Tantrik temple known as Vindhya Wasini Devi temple. In Amritsar, Punjab, there is the Durgiani temple. Dakshveshwar is a Kali temple at Calcutta and so is the Kalighat temple at Calcutta. Every place has a new name for the Goddess and no other power of Gods has so many.
All the Gods pray to the Goddess and the demi-Gods ever wanting her protection. She was worshipped by Ram before he took on Ravan in the great battle at Sri Lanka and the Pandavs prayed to her whenever they found themselves in difficulty.
Special nine days are set aside for ‘Durga Puja’ twice a year and are known as the ‘Navratra’, the main being celebrated in the month of Ashwin (September-October) when huge pandals are decorated in community centres.
Especially in Bengal puja is done with great pomp and show. Most households in India celebrate this in their homes just the nine days before Dessara. The other ‘Navratri’ is in Chait (March-April). This one is more or less a private homely affair.
The Goddess alongwith Hanumanji and Ganeshji have become the most worshipped deities of today. They bestow boons and remove obstacles. The Holy Trinity looks on benevolently.