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Goddess Durga: A Divine Female Role Model for Our Times?

Posted: 01/21/11 02:52 PM ET

We are at a global crossroads. Environmental devastation, economic upheaval, political corruption and unconscionable acts of man-made violence threaten the precious equilibrium of our planet. Racism, sexism, homophobia, war, violence, genocide, human trafficking -- it is hard not to feel overwhelmed by the massive injustice perpetuated by humans against our own species and ultimately the fragile web of all life on this planet. How do we make sense of the destruction? When all seems futile, how do we approach formidable life experiences from a place of compassion for both self and other? To whom do we turn for guidance?

To many in the West, the orthodox religious traditions we grew up within have failed to provide solace. Many of us are looking for a spiritual model that addresses the needs of the tumultuous 21st century and yet is grounded in respect for the interconnectedness of all life. While some have found guidance in indigenous beliefs, western mystical traditions or eastern philosophy, the ululating call of the divine feminine seems to be making itself heard across the board.

Most of us are familiar with Greek mythology and its pantheon of goddesses and gods; however, fewer are aware that there is a thriving tradition of goddess worship in South Asia where devotion to the divine as Compassionate Mother and Fiercely Protective Female Warrior has existed for millennia. In fact, there is not one, but thousands of manifestations of goddess in South Asia. In Hinduism human diversity is expressed by this vast pantheon of deities; and yet, as one of the most popular goddess myths reminds us, despite our differences, we are indeed all One.

The Devi Mahatmya or the Great Glory of the Goddess is a 5th century myth that offers potent teachings relevant to this day and age. The heroine of this story about the victory of good over evil is Durga, Goddess of Divine Justice, Invincible Power, and Impenetrable Compassion. Her name, Durga, means fortress, and speaks to the unassailable essence of our inherent nature. Durga is also known as the Remover of Fear and Difficulty for she always comes to the aid of any who call on her in distress.

According to the myth, demonic forces are threatening to conquer the world and take down any who do not agree with their agenda. Despite the gods' intentions to stop the demons, the methods they use only perpetuate the violence. Moreover, this demon king has received a boon from the creator God Brahma, which makes him undefeatable by any man, god or demon. When Brahma asks the demon if he wants to be exempt from defeat by a female as well, the demon's inflated ego puffs up with pride. To the demon, battling a woman is an easy win -- he declines.

After eons of senseless violence, the male gods convene and call forth the Supreme Mother Goddess behind all existence. Only she is powerful enough to stop the bloodshed. The initial chapter of Durga's mythic journey of restoring harmony to the world tells how the demon king learns a beautiful female is waiting to engage in battle with him. He orders his two favorite demon generals to bring her to him so he can force her into wedlock. However, the generals do not have a chance against the all-powerful goddess. As they approach her, the composed goddess emits a flame from her finger that restores them to a state of tranquility and compassion. Outraged, the demon demands that the goddess engage directly with him in battle. She does.

The demon becomes more and more furious as he faces the great goddess. He hurls mountains, uproots forests and causes earthquakes with his all-consuming anger against the possible loss of power and control. Every time one of Durga's arrows flies at him, the demon changes form from water buffalo, to tiger, to man until finally she grabs him, pins his neck down with her foot and sends a spear through his heart.

Metaphorically, we can consider Durga as the wisdom of the heart, untainted by cultural, religious and societal conditioning. The buffalo demon symbolizes our ignorance, reactions and ego attachments. The constantly shifting appearance of the demon speaks to our irrational behavior and the need to pin down the destructive causes of our negative emotions: anger, jealousy, pride, greed and delusion. His shape shifting is symbolic of the grasping ignorant mind that continuously jumps from one desire to another. The demon's uncontrollable rage, destroying everything in its path without regard for the consequences, is a fitting analogy for the violence we face today. This myth asks us to consider how we choose to express our anger -- whether we will use our rage against injustice in constructive ways, or if we will be divisive, fearful and blaming, thereby poisoning our environment. The fiercely compassionate divine feminine nature will help free us from the afflicted ego and return to the penetrating wisdom of divine love. Goddess Durga may not solve all the world's problems at the moment, but as this ancient scripture teaches, she is the impenetrable place of calm within our hearts from which we can choose actions that promote harmony and unity rather than selfish harmful acts.

In the myth, after the demon has finally been defeated and the gods gather to celebrate, Mother Durga promises to return whenever any of her children are in distress. As we face crises on both a personal and planetary level, might we call on this ancient divine female force of compassion and courage to help us confront and transform that which threatens the well being and contentment of all beings on this planet?

The Devi Mahatmya teaches that the grace of goddess is unconditional and will never be withheld from anyone -- ego demon or not. Through her fierce love toward self and other, harmony will be restored within and around us. We need only invoke Durga to help us remember our true nature and that divine love conquers all.