Durga Saptashati (Devi Mahatmyam)

 

INTRODUCTION

The worship of Shakti dates back to the Rig Veda where she is praised as ‘the supporter of the earth living in heaven’. Worship of Shakti in the form of Durga is mentioned in the Mahabharata at the beginning of Bhishma Parva where Krishna advises Arjuna to offer worship to Durga before starting for the battle and pray for success in the war. There is a hymn in the Virata Parva sung byYudhishthira in praise of Durga. In the Kena Upanishad we have an instance where Devi brought the Devas to their senses when they became arrogant by their victory over Asuras.

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Many names are given to Shakti each indicating her characteristics like Kumari – maiden, Kali – black in complexion or time as destroyer, Kapali – the wearer of the garland of skulls, Mahakali – the great destroyer, Chandi – the fierce. Some of the other names by which she is referred are Devi, Chamunda, Durga, Uma and Mahamaya etc.

PHILOSOPHICAL VIEW

The word ‘Shakti’ has got several philosophical connotations. The Supreme Spirit cannot perform the three functions of creating, preserving and destroying without the help of energy. Shakti is that primordial energy. When Ishwara creates He is dominated by the energy known as Vak or speech, when He preserves, by that of Sri or Lakshmi and when He dissolves, by that of Durga. Shakti is the Ishwari, the source, support and end of all existence and life.

Shiva is the pure indeterminate Brahman. while Shakti, the power of Maya. makes Him determinate, endowed with the attributes of knowledge, will and action. Saundaryalahari says : ‘Shiva, when He is united with Shakti, is able to create; otherwise He is unable even to move’. Devi Suktam, which is in honour of Shakti, the primeval energy of life, tells that she stretches the bow of Rudra to kill the hater of the Brahman and that she pervades the heaven and earth. She is the original power ever at play. Vedanta asserts that the acts of creation, preservation and destruction, the Universe itself and all its living beings are the manifestations of Shakti, the Divine Power known as Maya.

Thus Sri Ramakrishna says : ‘Brahman and Shakti are identical and inseparable. If you accept the one you must accept the other. It is like fire and its power to burn. If you see the fire, you must recognize its power to bum also. We cannot even imagine the one without the other. Similarly we cannot think of Brahman without Shakti or Shakti without Brahman. The world stands solid because the Primordial Energy stands behind it. If there is no supporting pole no frame-work can be made.’ (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna).

SHAKTI WORSHIP

Such a sum total of Universal Energy is worshipped as Mother. Mother is the first manifestation of power which is considered as a higher concept than the father. She is life, intelligence and love. To call on God as Mother is the most characteristic feature of Hinduism.

While Mother worshippers are common all over India, their hold over Bengal and other eastern parts of our country is unique especially in the Navaratri festivals. During these festivities Durga Saptashati which is also known as Devi Mahatmyam or more popularly as Chandi is recited by reverent devotees as a part of regular worship. This is a very sacred text used by the Hindus for daily chanting like the Gita.


The recitation of Devi Mahatmya is done during the Sharad Navaratri (Oct. – Nov.) in India, other countries in Indian Subcontinent and all over the world where Hindus are settled. The text is also recited during the Vasantha Navaratri (March – April) in Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and other states of north India, where Devi temples occupy a prominent place like Vaishno Devi, Kangra, Chamunda, Naina Devi, Jwala Devi etc.
Devi Mahatmya is the ritual text for performing Chandi Yajna . This is one of the most popular Yagnas conducted throughout India. This is performed for the general welfare of the people.

By far the most important text of Shaktism, the text has a central place in Shakta ritual. Devi Mahatmyam is seen as an attempt to unify the Vedic male pantheon with the pre-existing mother goddess cult possibly dating back to the 9th millennium BC, and an attempt to define divinity as a female principle

DURGA SAPTASHATI

Durga Saptashati or Chandi is from Markandeya Purana. It is a composition of Slokas or verses on the glory of the Divine Mother. Hence it is also called Devi Mahatmyam.The whole text is divided into 13 chapters consisting of 700 Slokas. Therefore its title is Saptashati. The entire text is considered by some as one single Mantra. There is another opinion that the name should be Saptaśati as it deals with the story of seven Satis or “pious persons”. The seven mothers are Brāhmi, Māheśwari, Kaumāri, Vaisnavi, Vārāhi, Indrāni, and Cāmunda. Three aspects of the Divine Mother have been depicted in this work. They are

  • Mahakali (Chapter 1)

  • Mahalakshrni (Chapters II to IV) and

  • Mahasarasvati (Chapters V to XIII). These aspects are narrated briefly as follows.

  1. Mahakali (ChapterI)

Chapter I starts with the meditation of the Divine Mother giving a brief description of her form and points out that Brahma extolled her in order to destroy the two Asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha, when Vishnu was in mystic sleep.

It then narrates the story of a king, who lost his every thing like kingdom, name and fame due to his evil-minded ministers and other enemies and that of a wealthy merchant who was thrown out of his house by his own wife and sons due to their greed for his wealth. Both of them took shelter in the hermitage of the sage Medhas. Despite the peaceful environment of the hermitage, both the king and the merchant remained always dejected thinking about their worldly belongings left behind and the very same persons who were ungrateful, unloving and who caused them wrong not knowing the reasons for their attachment to them.

Sage Medhas explains to them that this attachment is due to Mahamaya who makes the existence of the world possible with all its dualities. Mother Bhagavati, Mahamaya, forcibly drawing the minds of the even wise, throws them into delusion. This Mahamaya is also the Yoganidra of Vishnu, the Lord of the world.

In this context the sage Medhas recalls the tale of destruction of the two Asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha, by the Lord Vishnu with the help of Shakti, the Mahamaya. During the mystic slumber of the Lord two Asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha sprang up and threatened to kill Brahma. Seeing these two fierce Asuras and Vishnu in slumber, Brahma worshipped Yoganidra to awaken Him

.

He described her in several wonderful terms such as incomparable Goddess of Vishnu, Yoganidra; the queen of cosmos; the cause of the origin, sustenance and dissolution of the Universe in the forms of creative, protective and destructive powers etc. She was referred to as Qmkara, Savitri and the source of three gunas, having a form more pleasing than all the pleasing things and the Supreme Ishwari. After eulogising her thus, Brahma implored the Mother to charm the two Asuras with her superior powers and let Vishnu. awakening from His sleep and rising up to his true nature, slay them.

To awaken Vishnu, the Dcvi of destruction drew herself out from 1otus eyes. Vishnu got up from His Yoganidra on the Universal Ocean and started to fight with Madhu and Kaitabha. While the fight between Vishnu and the two Asuras was going on, deluded by Mahamaya, the Asuras told Vishnu to ask a boon from them. Vishnu replied that if they were satisfied with Him, they should be slained by Him then and there. The Asuras replied that they were prepared to be killed by Vishnu ‘where the earth is not flooded with water’. Vishnu took them on His loins which were above the water and severed their heads with His discus. Thus Mahamaya herself appeared when praised by Brahma to become an instrument for the killing of the two Asuras.

  1. Mahalakshmi (Chapters II to IV)

Chapter II starts with the meditation of Mahalakshini as a destroyer of the demon Mahisasura giving a picture of her beautiful form.

The legend of the killing of Mahisasura is then described. In a war between Devas and Asuras, the latter defeated the former and their Lord Mahisasura became the Lord of Heaven in place of Indra. The Devas led by Brahma went to Shiva and Vishnu and complained about the atrocities being perpetrated by the Asuras under their master Mahisasura.

Having heard the misdeeds of the Asuras, a great stream of light issued out of Vishnu. So also from Shiva, Brahma, Indra and other Devas. All this light came to be concentrated into one huge mountain of flames permeating all the three worlds with its luster and then it assumed a female form. Looking at her the immortals who were oppressed by Mahisasura experienced joy unending. All the Devas gave her several martial weapons as offerings.

Mahisasura responded to this situation with wonder and rushed towards that female form.

He saw Dcvi pervading the three worlds with her radiance. In the battle that followed between Dcvi and the army of Mahisasura, the latter was completely wiped out. Here Dcvi is referred to as Chandika, Ishwari and Ambika.

Chapter III describes the intense fight between Chandika and Mahisasura. The Chandi says ‘Chandika jumped and landed herself on that great Asura, who assumed the form of a buffalo and pressed him on the neck with her foot and struck him with her spear. Thereupon, caught up under foot, Mahisasura partially resumed his real form. Fighting thus with a half—revealed form the Asura was killed when Dcvi struck off  his head with her sword.

Chapter IV contains the propitiation of Devi by the Devas in the most flowery terms. This Chapter in the original Sanskrit text is very sweet in language and highly sublime in content. Here Dcvi is referred to as Bhadrakali and Gauri. She is Mahisasuramardhini,

3. Mahasarasvati (Chapter V to XIII)

Chapter V starts with the meditation of Mahasarasvati praising her incomparable form and alluding her as the substratum of the three worlds and the destroyer of Asuras like Sambha and others. The two Asuras, Sumbha and Nisumbha defeated the Devas like Indra. Vayu. Agni etc. and took away their authority and functions.

The Devas, hailing the Divine Mother lavishly, begged her to destroy the Asuras who were the source of their calamities. Hearing the glorious hymns addressed to her, Ambika came out of Parvati’s physical sheath. Hence she is called Kausiki and Parvati is called Kalika.

Chanda and Munda who are the servants of the two Asuras happened to see Ambika’s beautiful form. They requested their masters also to see her. Acceding to their request, the two Asuras sent a messenger to Ambika for fetching her to their court. Ambika reacted to the messenger saying that whoever conquers her in the battle would be her husband. Then followed the battle between Ambika and the Asuras.

Chapter VI deals with the slaying of the Asuras Chieftain. Chapter VII describes the killing of Chanda and Munda by Ambika. Her name Chamunda is derived from this incident. Chapter VIII details the killing of another Asura by name Raktabija by Ambika. Here she is called Kali. Chapter IX explains the slaying of Nisumbha by Kali while Chapter X portrays the slaughter of Sumbha. Chapter XI contains the eulogy of Devi by all the Devas on her victory over the Asuras. Here She is referred as Narayani. Gauri, Durga, Brahmani. Her various attributes are then expounded. This Chapter is of very high lyrical excellence. It is really a pleasure to chant these verses. Chapter XII presents us with the merits that will go to anyone on reciting the hymns of Devi Mahatmyam. Chapter XIII concludes the Saptashati saying that Devi disappeared after granting boons to the king and the merchant who started the dialogue with the sage Medhas which resulted in the exposition of Durgasaptashati.

CONCLUSION


An English Commentator,Cobum, says: “The sage’s three tales are allegories of outer and inner experience, symbolized by the fierce battles the all-powerful Devi wages against throngs of demonic foes. Her adversaries represent the all-too-human impulses arising from the pursuit of power, possessions and pleasure, and from illusions of self-importance. Like the battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita, the Devi Mahatmya’s killing grounds represent the field of human consciousness. The Devi, personified as one supreme Goddess and many goddesses, confronts the demons of ego and dispels our mistaken idea of who we are, for – paradoxically – it is she who creates the misunderstanding in the first place, and she alone who awakens us to our true being.”

Such is the eternal glory of the Universal Mother Divine. Let Her abundant blessings be showered on all of us, particularly during these auspicious days of  Navaratri.

ADDENDUM

Compostions on Devi Worship

Devi worship or worship of God as the Divine Mother, as the Mother of the Universe, is as old as the human civilization. There are many literary compositions in India dealing with the subject. As the names of these works are more or less similar there is some lack of clarity among the devotees. Hence this brief clarification.

  1. Devi Mahatmyam or Durga Saptashati is the most popular. It is found in Markandeya Purana. The authorship of this work is ascribed to Sage Markandeya.

  1. Devi Bhagavata Purana, also known as Srimad Devi Bhagvatam or Devi  Bhagavatam, is one of the most important works on Shaktism next only to Devi Mahatmyam. Devi-Bhagavatam consists of 12 skandhas (books), 318 adhyayas (chapters) and 18,457 verses and its author is considered as sage Krishna Dvaipayana Veda Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata.

Although the Devi Bhagavata Purana is considered as an Upapurana (Secondary Purana) by many, some claim it to be a Maha Purana (Great Purana). In fact there is a controversy whether Srimad Devi Bhagavatam or Srimad Bhagavatam (devoted to Lord Krishna) comes under the category of Mahapurana. Like the other Puranas, the Devi Bhagavatam contains narratives and sections praising the Devi as supreme, and instructions in various types of Sadhana.  Parts of it also contain narratives described in the Devi Mahatmya.

  1. Devi Gita : The last nine chapters (31-40) of the seventh skandha of Devi Bhagavatam  is known as the Devi Gita. It is a dialogue between Parvati and her father Himavat. It deals with the universal form of the Devi, meditations on the major texts of Upanishads, ashtanga-yoga, the yogas of jnana, karma and bhakti, locations of the temples dedicated to the Devi and the rituals pertaining to her worship. Some consider this as an independent work.

  1. Devi Sukta : It is in the Rig Veda (10.125.1-8)

  1. Devi Upanishad: This is a small Upanishad of 32 mantras assigned to the AtharvaVeda.

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