The significance of Durga in the Hindu cultural and religious tradition has been ingrained since Vedic times. For most Hindus, the idol of Durga killing the demon Mahisasura with a lance, after he appears from the slain body of the buffalo in which he had been hiding, is ingrained into the Bengali psyche and of most Hindus as well. By this slaying, Durga personifies the victory of good over evil, something that all spiritually inclined persons would seek and cherish.
The mother goddess Durga is thus portrayed as the most powerful ‘mother’ who protects her children. Durga protects, Durga provides, and Durga punishes. When children are beaten or chastised by their mother, all of them invariably think that they are ‘innocent’ and that they have been unjustly punished. Durga is the personification of the material forces that govern all processes in the material world.
Material life is invariably full of happiness and distress which come and go on their own, without our even having to make an effort for them, The Srimad Bhagavad Gita warns ( 2.14 ) : “O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of the winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.”
Material nature is very powerful. At every moment of our lives we are under its influence. The circumstances and situations through which each of us passes are all determined by the various actions and interactions of material nature. Since mother Durga represents the full force and fury of material nature, Hindus generally worship devi Durga for protection and succour.
Each jiva or atma is a separate and independent fragmental part of the Lord, Who is also known as paramatma, similar to Him in quality, just as a drop of water is similar in quality to the vast ocean. At some point in time, each jiva desired to ‘enjoy’ matter separately from the Lord. It is immaterial to know at which point in time the individual jiva desired to enjoy separately from the Lord. In response, the Lord, who grants everyone his wishes, put the countless jivas into play by injecting them into material nature. “It should be understood that all species of life, O son of Kunti, are made possible by birth in this material nature, and that I am the seed-giving father .” ( Srimad Bhagavad Gita 14.4 ).
Once the jiva or atma or the living entity is injected into material nature into any one of the 84,00,000 species of wombs, he has to act under the overall jurisdiction and superintendence of the material energy, also known as maya, and personified by the goddess Durga. And so, as individual living entities, even though we feel that we are moving and acting independently, we are all under the strict rules and regulations imposed by material nature, which includes the processes of birth, ageing, disease and death. Hence Durga, also known as Mayadevi or just maya, is the personification of the material creative forces.
Since all manifestations and energies in the whole of creation are emanations from the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the power of devi Durga is also a part of the Lord’s inconceivably tremendous power and potency. The Lord is full of various potencies. The individual jiva or atma is a fragment of His internal spiritual potency ( just as a drop of water is of the same quality as the vast ocean ). On the other hand, the material energy which manifests and transforms the whole of the material creation, and keeps it in a constant state of flux, is also a marginal potency of the Lord, and is called bahirangi maya, which is the sum total of all material creations and processes.
Where does devi Durga stand in the Lord’s overall scheme of things ?
The Srimad Bhagavatam states ( 1.3.2 purport ) : “Material nature has no power to create without the power of the purusa, just as prakriti, or woman, cannot produce a child without the touch or connection of a purusa, the man. The purusa impregnates while the prakriti delivers. We should not expect any independent creative powers from prakriti, or the material ingredients. We must believe in the power of the purusa, who impregnates prakriti or material nature.”
It is advised by scriptures such as the Srimad Bhagavad Gita as well as the Srimad Bhagavatam that we should be less obsessed with the material condition and be more concerned for the journey of our soul, which is eternal. Our material concerns in this life will end with this body. Yet we are obsessed with this body and its attainments, its successes, its honour, its glory, its material possessions, bank balance, familial connections, etc; instead of being periodically punished and thrashed by maya, we should strive to come out of her clutches, since we are just her playthings, like a doll in the hands of a child.
The Srimad Bhagavatam states ( 1.2.29 purport ) : “Therefore, all culture of knowledge, austerities, sacrifices, and activities should be aimed at changing the quality of the influence that is acting upon us, the living entities. For the present, we are all being controlled by the external energy of the Lord ( apara prakriti ), and just to change the quality of the influence to the internal superior energy of the Lord ( para prakriti ), we must endeavour to cultivate spiritual energy. In the Bhagavad Gita (9.13-14), it is said that those who are mahatmas, or those whose minds have been so broadened as to be engaged in the service of Lord Krishna, are under the influence of the internal potency, and the effect is that such broad minded living beings are constantly engaged in the service of the Lord without deviation.”
In our desire to lord it over material nature, we, as individual living entities, think that we are masters of all we survey and that we shall achieve this and we shall achieve that. But each achievement is also attended by countless anxieties, frustrations, sufferings, and sometimes, complete reversals. Each individual has strong aspirations to enjoy, and there is competition among living beings as to who will be able to garner the maximum enjoyment. But ultimately all our efforts are thwarted by death, and sometimes much earlier too. In the material world, every individual is given the chance to enjoy, and side by side, also the chance to understand his true constitutional position as an eternal servitor of the Lord. Those fortunate living entities who catch the truth and surrender unto the lotus feet of Lord Krishna after many, many births in the material world, join the eternally liberated souls and are thus allowed to enter the spiritual kingdom.
Hence the worship of mother Durga is just a preliminary or intermediate stage in our journey to develop lasting love for the Supreme Lord Krishna. In our attempt to progress toward the eternal and ultimate Truth, the Supreme Lord, we are dazzled, intimidated and foxed by His variegated displays in the form of natural phenomena and the powerful interplays of material nature ( His external marginal potency ). In the process, we tend to forget or overlook the Lord Himself and His eternal spiritual form in Vaikuntha, where He resides in His satchitananda vigraha form ( eternally full of knowledge and bliss ), surrounded and lovingly served by His pure devotees and associates. As we progress steadily in our spiritual path, we begin to realize that maya can no longer have any effect on us and that we come directly under the Lord’s personal protection, and we begin to reestablish our broken relationship with Him, which is a result of our past foolishness and desire for independence from Him.