October is always a busy month for us, dominated by the festival of Durga, the biggest Puja of them all. Perhaps in western countries it is most closely comparable to Christmas, and all of India celebrates the occasion. Durga Puja starts at the first full moon of the autumnal equinox and lasts for four days, this year starting on 19th October.
However, the preparations begin two months beforehand, people flooding into the markets to buy food and everybody expecting to wear new clothes. Artists create ornate sculptures and edifices just for the occasion. Bright and colourful lights are hung everywhere. Spectacular fireworks and deafening music carry on every night until late.
The Puja honours Goddess Durga, who embodies the power women possess to do Good. In whatever form she takes, in every story Goddess Durga will personify how, through the power of woman, Good can triumph over Evil.
There are several accounts of how we came to celebrate Durga Puja. According to one, in ancient times, having been betrayed by his own people, the great King Suratha lost his Kingdom to his enemies. He and his family were forced to wander far and wide for many years. Time after time he tried to reconquer his lands and win back his family’s heritage, but he always failed. In a similar way, merchant Samadhi had also been betrayed by his own family and lost everything. Feeling near to desperation, they both approached the rishi Medha for guidance. The wise and saintly monk advised them both that they must pay homage to Durga, Goddess of Power, to which they agreed. When the King approached Durga to pay homage to her she granted him a boon, that he could defeat his enemies and win back his Kingdom for his family. With his family restored to their proper place, King Suratha decided to set aside a day every autumn to express his gratitude and we have continued to mark the occasion at this time of the year ever since.
Another, differing account can be found in the great epic story Ramayan, surely the most popular of all Indian stories. The hero Rama pays homage to the Goddess Durga and by virtue of her boon is able to defeat the King Ravan. Both versions recount how great men have been willing to pay homage to a woman and, through her grace, the forces of Good are able to overcome Evil.
A third, strikingly different, account of the acts of Durga is told by the Asur, the aboriginal people. They see this story from their own unique perspective. For them, Mahisasur was no Demon but rather the King of the Asur people. Mahis, which means buffalo (He was head of the buffalo clan), conquered many lands all over India. He continued to rule over these lands even during the period of Vedic expansion. For, whenever the Aryans attacked his lands, King Mahisasur found a way somehow to defeat the much stronger invaders. However, the respect that he shared with aboriginal people for women came to be his undoing. For aboriginal men treat women with the greatest honour and would certainly never consider going into battle against them. Realizing this, the Aryans conspired to send a woman to confront King Mahisasur. By playing on his respect for women, she was able to slay him in battle. So, although for other peoples the days of Durga Puja have traditionally been painted with a spiritual gloss, as being a celebration of Good overcoming Evil, for the Asur people these five days are ones of sadness. They display their regret and sorrow through the song and dance of Dansai.
Goddess Durga was originally created by all the Gods in order to defeat the great Demon Mahisasur. Mahisasur wished to become immortal. So, in order to be allowed to approach God Brahma the Creator, he undertook a fast of 1,000 years. God Brahma was so moved that he invited Mahisasur tell him what wished for as a reward for his devotion. To become immortal, Mahisasur replied. Brahma answered that such a wish could not be bestowed on anyone, but that he would allow him to request a different boon that could be granted. So Mahisasur instead asked Brahma to prescribe that, if he were to be killed, it could only be at the hands of a woman. Brahma agreed to grant this wish. After Mahisasur had returned to his Kingdom, ambitious to use his new invincibility, and knowing that no woman could kill a warrior as great as him, he immediately struck out and conquered the earth. He then even attacked and conquered Heaven itself, expelling all the Gods and Goddesses from there. Filled arrogance, Mahisasur began cruelly to torment the whole of the world.
In desperation all the Gods approached Brahma to ask what they could do to free themselves from the cruelty of the evil Demon Mahisasur. So the three greatest Gods, Shiba (The Destroyer), Bishnu (The Giver of Life), Brahma (The Creator) and all the other lessor Gods joined their powers together to created Durga, a woman of great beauty with ten hands who came to possess the unique powers of each one of the other Gods. Using the weapons the Gods presented to her, she fought and killed the great Demon Mahisasur. Thanks to Goddess Durga, the Gods were able to return to Heaven and the whole world was freed from the tyranny of Mahisasur.
The spiritual meaning of Durga Puja is that on these days we must look to overcome the Evil in our hearts and begin the journey towards Virtue.
Paddle Boarding Comes to Purulia
Elena Perez has come from Spain to visit us at our school. She teaches Yoga and Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP). She has been introducing the kids in the village to this SUP Yoga. Because in Purulia we have no water for swimming, nobody had ever heard of SUP. So kids really wanted to learn something new. Elena also made SUP lessons a part of her awareness programme. She stressed how very important it is to have clean water. We should care for it and, for example, avoid dropping plastic into the water.
A local Purulia television station came to film her at work and you can see their report at this URL:
Next week we celebrate Kali Puja, a particularly special festival for our local people.
Sanjay Kumar Mahato