The most important force we have to unleash in Hindu society is our women as Hinduism has never seen women as weak.
That Goddess became very angry with her enemies and her face became as black as Indian ink. From her broad forehead, bent by her curved eyebrows, emerged Kali, armed with sword and a rope. She was holding a very peculiar sword, wearing a garland of human skulls, dressed in the hide of a tiger, with no flesh in her body, with very terrible looks, with a broad face, who looked very fearsome moving her tongue, with sunken red eyes, filling all the directions with roars from her throat. That goddess went straight and fast, warning the great asuras, and started eating the enemies of devas whom were part of the army.
She caught hold of huge elephants along with the trainer with his long spear and the hero riding on it and crushed them and put in her mouth. Similarly she started chewing the charioteer along with horses terribly with her teeth. She killed one Asura catching hold of his hair, another catching his throat, another by kicking with her leg and another by pressing his chest. She caught hold of the arrows as well as weapons sent against her by those asuras (Chanda and Munda) and broke them to pieces by her teeth.
She beat the entire Asura army consisting of big and strong-bodied asuras. She ate some of them and severely others. Some of the asuras were punished by sword, some by Gadgayudha (sword with curved end) and some by her teeth and all of them were destroyed. – Description of Manifestation of Ma Kali from Devi Mahatamyam (adapted from here)
The twin strengths of Hinduism through millennia have been its sublime philosophy and its multiplicity of worship—the worship of multiple deities through multiple paths and methods of worship. The Hindu pantheon is vast, stretching up to 33 crores of devas. The benefits of polytheism (not an exact descriptor for Hindu worship, but close enough for this purpose) are manifold. Multiplicity of worship in the Hindu tradition recognizes that individuals are different and allows them to worship those devas that are most suitable for their spiritual evolution in accordance with their personality and psychological needs. Worship is customized for the individual and is not a one-size-fits-all imposition.
The Hindu way promotes diversity and inclusiveness; heterogeneity of worship promotes heterogeneity of mind and philosophy. It teaches us to see beauty and divinity in all forms, even those that may not readily appear beautiful or divine to us. It teaches us unity through diversity. It also helps us reach balance, by cultivating various good qualities through worship of different forms. All of the powers and forces in the cosmos become accessible to us when we worship them. Unfortunately, the breadth and depth of the Hindu pantheon is under attack. There is a concerted effort to sanitize the Hindu pantheon, to reduce its size and diversity, to prize the saumya (gentle) over the ugra (fierce), to falsely equate spirituality with sattva only.
There is too strong a desire to Westernize, to conform to a monotheistic worldview, driven by our own inferiority complex. There is a visceral discomfort with the idea of being idol worshippers and polytheists, perhaps out of a fear of being seen as heathen and kafir in Western eyes. There is thus a compulsion to pretend that we are monotheist, and in so claiming, a lot of confusion and misconceptions about Hinduism are created. We are not worshippers of one true God in the Abrahamic sense; to pretend otherwise is to distort our tradition.
In the process, we are destroying that which makes us unique, strong and resilient, that which makes ours the longest continuously surviving religious tradition in the history of the world, the greatest and last of the truly pagan traditions to survive. One of the latest trends in this direction is the makeover of our devas, to make them more peaceful and politically correct. Recently, in Bengal, there has been a push to create more ‘peaceful’ Durga vigrahas for the annual Durga Puja, replacing her traditional weapons with flowers and jewels. Connected to such moves is the selective outrage over bali or animal sacrifice that takes place on some days in some places of Hindu worship—in very limited numbers.
An assortment of environmental activists, secularists and would-be Hindu reformists, who dare not call out for bans on slaughter during Eid, who vociferously promote the basic human right of people in India to eat beef, who see non-vegetarianism as ultra-progressive, but who, in the peculiar double standard that applies to Hindus, are morally outraged if Hindus simply follow their ancestral ways of worship and offer bali. Apparently, it is okay to senselessly slaughter animals for our sensory gratification—for hunting and eating—but haram to do it for sacred purposes. This unwarranted interference in the private religious affairs of Hindus has resulted in the disruption of the ways of worship in many Hindu temples.
This movement to make over Hinduism undermines that which makes Hinduism beautiful, which distinguishes it from other religions, like Jainism and Buddhism. It is an injustice to the oldest living religion in the world to confine it to what we find politically correct and palatable today from a Western perspective. The fierce, the bloodthirsty, the weapon-brandishing, the bloodcurdling forms of our devas are a core part of the Hindu pantheon. The paths of the Tantras and the Natha sampradayas are a vital part of Hinduism and must not be whitewashed away. Animal sacrifice is as important a part of Hindu worship as Satyanaryana puja.
The onset of Navaratri is an auspicious time to remind ourselves of the hallowed place of ugra devatas (fierce/tough deities) and their modes of worship in our sacred traditions. While most devatas have both saumya (gentle) and ugra (fierce) rupas, it is especially in the representation of the various forms of Devi that some of the most prominent ugra forms are found. Navaratri celebrates the worship of the Nava Durga (nine forms of Ma Durga), some of which are exceptionally fierce. For example, the seventh form of Ma Durga, worshipped on the seventh day of Navaratri, is Kaal Ratri. She is dark with dishevelled hair and an expression of utter fearlessness. Her necklace flashes with lightning, and her breath emanates terrible flames.
Similarly, among the Dasha Maha Vidya (the 10 Devis of Wisdom), there is Chinnamasta, the self-decapitated Devi who holds her own severed head in one hand and a scimitar in the other. Three streams of blood spurt out of her bleeding neck and are drunk by her own head as well as her two female attendants. She stands on a copulating couple. She is depicted naked with disheveled hair.
Then there is Dhumavati, depicted as an old widow who is always hungry and thirsty. She is prone to starting quarrels. She is depicted as old and ugly, thin and emaciated, with a pale complexion. She wears no jewellery but only dirty, old clothes. Her hands tremble, and she rides a horseless chariot.
The iconography of each of these devis is extraordinarily intricate and rich with many layers of meaning. Each and every detail carries meaning and power. These forms have not been created wily nily; they are revealed through the Agamas, Puranas and Tantras with very specific visualizations, iconography and procedures for worship. Changing the iconography of these Devis to suit our aesthetics or whims is especially dangerous—it detracts from the underlying divinity of the nama and rupa and also is a violation of the traditions we have inherited by which we are to worship them.
This is especially dangerous when it comes to worship of the ugra forms, because it is held that the consequences of mistakes in worship of these fierce deities are especially dire. It is therefore even more important that our shastras and traditions of worship not be tampered with, as one must not play lightly with the devas, especially the ugra devatas. To imagine one can remove the weapons from Devi’s hand and replace it with something of one’s fancy, be it a flower or a flag or a gemstone, is to corrupt and violate the Hindu tradition of worship. It breaks the continuity of tradition from our ancestors thousands of years ago, as passed down generation to generation, linking us to our ancient rishis and forefathers who first had revelation of these divine forms. It turns what is sacred into mere art. It turns vigrahas into mere statutes.
It denigrates our devas into dolls we dress up per our fancy. We must respect our time-hallowed traditions, the injunctions of the shastras as to the specifications of worship, the methods and procedures laid down by our sampradayas and acharyas. That is what gives our worshiped images their power, sanctity and auspiciousness. It is not for everyone to worship the ugra devatas. It depends on adhikara, personal inclination, one’s samskaras and inner qualities. But as Hindus, we must have respect and honour for all aspects and paths within our tradition.
We must not shy away from the fierce, from what appears shocking or ugly or even frightening. We must learn to see the beauty beyond the superficial appearance. It is a mistake to equate spirituality only with sattva. As Sri Krishna instructs Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita,
“Traigunyavishayaa vedaa nistraigunyo bhavaarjuna,” (The Vedas deal with the three attributes (of Nature) (tamas, rajas, sattva); be thou above these three attributes, O Arjuna!) (Bhagavad Gita, 2:45).
In other words, one should not become too attached to the quality of sattva—all the three modes of nature are all to be transcended. This is especially important in the situation in which we find ourselves today. What Sri Aurobindo once so eloquently and passionately proclaimed in 1907 still holds true today:
What India needs especially at this moment is the aggressive virtues, the spirit of soaring idealism, bold creation, fearless resistance, courageous attack; of the passive tamasic spirit of inertia we have already too much.
We find ourselves today mired in inertia and passivity, in ignorance and apathy. In such a state, it is not possible to transition to sattva directly. One must go from tamas to rajas to sattva. What is needed now is the passion and energetic activity of rajas, to rouse us from our collective deep tamas. Upasana awakens in the upasaka the vrttis (vibrations, waves) and lakshanas (qualities) meditated upon in the object of upasana.
In other words, we manifest that which we worship. In the current state of affairs for Hindus today, worship of that which is fierce and rajasic will help awaken the qualities in the collective consciousness that are needed for Hindu society today. We need assertiveness, bravery, valour, the strength of conviction, confidence and, as Swami Vivekananda so eloquently said-
vigour in the blood, strength in the nerves, iron muscles and nerves of steel.
For this, we need deities who inspire us to stand our ground and fight when needed, to promote within us the noble values that will make us Kshatriyas who will defend and propagate Dharma. Right now, Hindus are mired in shame and self-hate. Just see what is happening in front of our eyes today. What was an unfortunate incident in Dadri has become a convenient whip with which to beat up Hindus for the crime of being Hindu. Now Hindus are fascists for honoring the cow.
Now Hindus are fundamentalists for wanting to ban cow slaughter. It is okay when secularists protest against dog or horse or polar bear killing–that is lovable and enlightened but we Hindus are primitive barbarians when we seek to protect the cow. We tolerate others’ religious observances without complaint, but we dare not light a cracker on Deepavali or follow the ancient rites of bali that are part of our sacred tradition. The rest of the world is shedding the disease of Western modernism–they are looking to the East for answers, to their own native and pagan traditions for meaning. And we are throwing away the greatest spiritual and civilizational heritage the world has ever seen.
The other day, I saw a fairly recent South Indian film where the hero was dressed in traditional clothes, and in a song, the heroine crooned about how much better he would look in modem dress. Is this what we have come to, to prize jeans and t-shirts over the traditional sari and dhoti, to see beef-eating as secular and progressive, to feel shame at the beauty and power of our ways of worship, to esteem ourselves based on how well we mimic the norms and customs of alien lands? There is nothing more pathetic than self-hate.
In this scenario, where Hindus are mired in this spiral of shame and self-hate, where tamas reigns supreme, too much focus on sattva without an appropriate dose of rajas ends up being nothing more than escapism. The stillness and serenity of sattva is all too easy to confuse with the lazy inertia of tamas. This is where remembrance and honor of the rajasic deities is so important to provide the right balance, to awaken us from the slumber of tamas. This operates both on the collective and individual consciousness.
The darker, deeper aspects of our nature are not to be shunned or suppressed. These recesses of our personalities are storehouses of immense amounts of energy that can be conducive and important to our spiritual and psychological development when appropriately channeled. That which is represented by the ugrata devas and their worship can be instrumental in balancing our personalities and psyches. The most important force we have to unleash in Hindu society is our women. It is a lie to say that our women need to be ‘empowered’. Only the weak need to be empowered. How can our women ever be considered to be weak? Hinduism has never seen women as weak or meek and these ugrata forms of Devi remind us of this truth, that women are the very embodiment of Shakti, that which is the greatest force in all the worlds, that power that is behind all energies, all activities in the cosmos, without which Shiva is but a corpse, without which there is no life, no creation, no leela.
How can we empower that which is power itself? Woman is not to be adored for her beauty alone, for her feminine charms. She is to be revered in all forms, from the most sublimely beautiful to the frightening, from the young girl child to the old crone, from the bloodthirsty to the motherly, from the gentle to the fierce. That is what Hinduism teaches us; Hinduism is itself the best form of feminism. There is something so beautiful and captivating about worshiping Ma in her fierce rupa that can only be understood and felt through experience. Most of the time, I am a Vaishnava, but in every Bengali runs the blood of Ma Durga, and during Navaratri, only Devi exists for me. When we worship Ma Durga during these nine days and nights, it is no dry ritual, no symbolic offering.
When we bow before Her, when the conch sounds, when the drums beat, when the ululating reaches its fevered pitch, when we look upon Her golden countenance, the radiance emanating from Her every pore, the sword and all Her weapons poised to vanquish all of our enemies, external and within; when we worship Ma Kali, with Her hair unbound and loose, Her tongue hanging out, the garland of skulls hanging from Her neck, Her foot resting on the chest of the supine Shiva, the blue-black of Her complexion shining brighter than a million moons—there is awe, there may even be a frisson of fear, but most of all, beyond the weapons, beyond the fierce expression, beyond the warrior pose, beyond the fearsome aspects of their visages, is that softness in the eyes, that small smile, that tenderness beyond the fierceness, that fierce compassion of which only Ma is capable, She who slays with a smile.
With this, the beginning of Navaratri, may we remember that fierce is beautiful, that the ugra forms of our devatas are as important a part of our tradition as the saumya forms, that we must never shy away from the ferocious and warrior-like aspects of our deities and our traditions, that we must never compromise on or apologize for the paths and methods of worship that have been entrusted to us by our forefathers, that constitute a core part of our sacred heritage, that our pantheon is not to be compromised or corrupted, that ours is a tradition
By Aditi Banerjee ( Swarajya Magazine )
Aditi Banerjee is a practicing attorney at a Fortune 500 financial services company in the greater New York area. She is on the Board of Directors of the World Association for Vedic Studies (WAVES) and has organized and presented at global conferences on matters related to Dharma. She co-edited the book, Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America, and has written widely on Hinduism and the Hindu-American experience.