Parvati or Durga or Shakti, the consort of Shiva, is perhaps the most important goddess of Hindus. She is a multi-dimensional goddess. She has so many names, so many personalities and so many facets. She is worshipped by millions of people allover India and a sizeable number of them give her an importance more than god Shiva himself.

Durga has a variety of forms with different attributes. In her milder form she is PARVATI (the mountain-girl), UMA (the light), GAURI (the yellow-complexioned beauty), HIMAVATI (daughter of Himalaya), JAGATMATA (mother of the world) and BHAVANI (the goddess of the universe); in her terrible form she is DURGA (the inaccessible), KALI or SHYAMA (the black complexioned), CHANDIKA or CHANDI (the fearful one) and BHAIRAVI (the terrible). All these are broadly included under the name of DEVI or MAHADEVI (the great goddess).

Shakti’s various names have a special significance. Since Ishwara or Shiva is also called ‘BHAVA’ his wife is known as ‘BHAVANI’. She is ‘PARVATI’, being the daughter of the king of mountains, PARVATARAJA. With the same connotation she has two other names, ‘GIRIJA’ and ‘SHAILAJA’. As she is the source of all good things to all those who have faith and follow the path of virtue, she is ‘SARVAMANGALA’. Since her childhood days she was a devotee of Lord Shiva. She would constantly engage herself in meditation and worship of Shiva, without even changing the posture. So her mother Mena would out of exasperation say “Parvati, don’t do this tapas (meditation).” In Sanskrit ‘u’ is a word of address and ‘ma’ means ‘don’t’ or ‘not wanted’. Hence she got the name ‘UMA’.

She was first born in the house of DAKSHA, one of the progenitors of mankind and was named as SATEE. She was married to Shiva but sacrificed her life by self-immolation on a pyre. The story says that Daksha instituted a massive sacrifice and in the ceremonies apportioned no share to Shiva. Satee, his daughter, had come to this ceremony against the advice other husband, Shiva, who was not invited by the latter’s father-in-Law. Satee could not bear this insult and entered the sacrificial fire. Hearing the news Shiva flew in a rage and reached there with his blazing trident. He pierced the sacrificial altar with great violence. He ran up to the gods sitting there and knocked out all things at the spot. Many powerful demi-gods in attendance to Shiva attacked the place together with their lord. The mountains tottered, the earth shook, the winds roared and the depths of the sea were disturbed.

The catastrophe is thus described in Purana, “Indra is knocked down and trampled on, Yama has his staff broken, Saraswati and Matris have their noses wounded, Bhag has his eyes pulled out, Pushan has his teeth knocked down his throat, Chandra (the moon) is pummeled, Agni‘ s hands are broken, Bhragu’s beard is crushed, Prajapatis are beaten and the gods are running around scared.” In the end Vishnu intervened and propitiated the wrath of Shiva. Daksha acknowledged Shiva’s supremacy and apportioned a due share to this god.

In her second appearance Durga came to the world as Parvati, the daughter of Himalaya. As she was Satee, the daughter of Daksha married to Shiva in her previous birth, in the second life too she wanted to be the consort of Shiva. But after the sacrifice of his first wife Shiva had lost all interest in marriage. Parvati now realized that there was only one way of attracting his attention and winning his affection. She undertook ascetic rites and recited praying hymns for one thousand years to please god Shiva. Only then Shiva was convinced that Parvati was worthy of being accepted as a wife. The wedding of Shiva and Parvati is described in a very colorful manner in Puranic literature and so many songs have been composed how the marriage procession of Shiva is composed of beggars, mendicants and wanderers.

How Parvati came to have the name of Durga is an interesting narration. On one occasion the sage AGASTYA asked Kartikeya why Parvati, his mother was called Durga. Kartikeya replied that once there was a demon, named DURGA, the son of RURU. He with his austerities pleased Brahma and by his blessings became very powerful. He conquered the three worlds and even dethroned lNDRA, the king of gods. He abolished all religious ceremonies so that Brahmans were terrified and stopped reading Vedas. All the gods assembled and prayed to god Shiva to protect them from the tyranny of this demon. Shiva took pity on them and asked Parvati to go and destroy the evil demon. She calmed the gods and agreed to rescue them from the evil Durga. There was long and fierce battle. As soon as the giant came near with his evil followers Parvati assumed 1000 arms and also brought out a number of weapons out of her body.

She repelled every attack and in the end the demon assumed the shape of a fearful buffalo and with his horns cast trees, rocks and mountains on the goddess, who cut everything into pieces. The goddess Parvati pierced him with her trident and subdued him. The gods with this deliverance praised the goddess and honored PARVATI with the name of DURGA. Another legend connected with Durga is that Mahishasura a king of the demons, at a certain period overcame all the gods and reduced them all to the state of incompetence. Indra together with all gods approached Shiva and Vishnu. These two great gods became very angry at the misdeeds of this demon and at the request of the suffering gods produced from their energy a goddess named Mahamaya or Durga. Streams of glory emanated from all gods and entered Mahamaya, who now resembled a mountain of fire and strength. This goddess killed the demon Mahishasura and delivered the gods from the distress. Hence she is also called as Mahisamardinee (Slayer of Mahisha).

According to Markendaya Purana the goddess Durga has assumed ten different forms in order to destroy two great demons, Shambhu and Nishambhu. It is said that at the close of the Tretayuga, these two giants by their austerities had obtained great powers. Being exalted above the gods they began to fight against them. They achieved many victories and gods were reduced to the deplorable state of helplessness. They solicited the help of Brahma and Vishnu, who referred them to go to Shiva. Shiva advised them to pray to Durga, who could be able to defeat the two demons. Finally when gods appealed to Durga for ending their troubles, she agreed.

Durga assumed the form of a beautiful woman and first enticed the minds of the two demons. Both of them sought to capture her and sent his best generals with a huge army to capture this female. These two generals named Chundu and Mundu went to the Himalayas but were defeated and killed by the goddess Durga and her mount, the divine lion.

Now the two giants, Shambhu and Nishambhu, themselves marched to the Himalayas to capture Durga. These two demons had a general who had a blessing that the drops of blood falling on the ground from his body would create thousands of demons. At last Durga could annihilate him only when Durga’s two forms namely Chandee and Kali both combined to neutralize this blessing. In the fierce engagement the goddess opened her mouth and drank every drop of blood before it fell on the ground while the other counterpart fought the demons and that general together. Eventually both the giants were killed.

Markandeya Purana places the ten forms of Durga in the following order:

DURGA – the goddess who first received and showed her beautiful face to entice the demons
DASHBHOOJA – in this form she destroyed a part of the army of demons
SINGH-VAHINEE – in this form she fought with Rakta-Vijay, the general whose drops of blood created thousands of demons
MAHISHA-MARDINEE – in this form she slew Shambhu, the demon, who had taken the form of a buffalo
JAGDHATREE – in this form she overcame the army of demons
KALI – in this form she destroyed Rakta-Vijay by drinking the drops of blood and not allowing them to fall on the ground
MUKT-KESHEE – in this form with flowing hair she again overcame another army of the demons
TARA – in this form she killed Sambhu
CHINNAMUSHTIKA – in this form she killed Nishambhu
JAGADGUREE – in this form she was worshipped by all the gods on their salvation

In the form of Singh-Vahinee, Durga is benign as well as belligerent. She is represented as the goddess with yellow garments and a glittering crown. She is sitting on a lion with four, eight or ten hands. One hand is always shown bestowing a blessing on the worshippers.

In the shape of Tara, the goddess is shown as a fierce black woman with four arms with one foot on the breast of Shiva, her consort. In one hand she holds a sword covered with blood; in another she has a demon’s head while the remaining two are holding other lethal weapons. The foot on Lord Shiva’s breast denotes a story that when bloodthirsty Durga’ s anger against the demons could not be controlled and she continued destruction, Lord Shiva squatted on her path. When she put her foot on him, she immediately realized that she was treading upon her consort and her anger subsided.

Kali is the ferocious aspect of Durga perfectly personified. According to the Purana, this image of Durga as Kali, so widely worshipped in eastern parts of India, owes its origin to the battle of Durga with Sambhu and Nishambhu. She after her victory over these demons was so overjoyed that she started the dance of death. Here the story resembles that of Tara. In her great ecstasy Kali continued the destruction. As the prayers of all gods could not calm her, Lord Shiva had to intervene. Seeing no other way of dissuading her the god threw himself amongst the bodies of slain demons. When Durga saw that she was dancing over the body of her husband, she put her tongue out of her mouth in sorrow and surprise. She remained stunned in this posture and this is how Kali is shown in images with the red tongue protruding from her mouth.

Adhyatma Ramayana gives another story of the origin of Kali. It says that when Rama returned home with Sita after destroying Ravana, he was boastfully narrated the stories of his victories to Sita. She smiled and said, “You rejoice because you have killed a Ravana with ten hands. But what shall you do with a Ravana with one thousands hands?'” Ram very proudly boasted that he would destroy that demon too. At this challenge of his wife Rama collected his whole army and the army of all his allies and started for Shatdweep, the abode of this new demon with one thousand hands. This new Ravana was a powerful demon. When attacked he discharged three magic arrows from his bow. One of these sent all the monkeys to Kishkindha, their place of residence; another sent the army of Vibhishana, who was an ally of Rama and the ruler of Lanka after Ravana’s death, back to their region beyond seashore; while the third arrow sent all soldiers of Rama back to Ayodhya, Rama’s capital.

Rama felt humiliated and then Sita laughingly assumed the form of terrific Kali; she attacked this new Ravana with one thousand heads. After a long fight she killed the demon, drank his blood and began to dance and toss about the limbs of his body. Shiva calmed her. However, this story has not received popular approval.

In the images commonly worshipped Kali is shown as a very black female with four arms. In one hand she has a scimitar, in another the head of a demon which she holds by his hair, the third hand is spread flatly open bestowing a blessing and in the fourth she holds another weapon, usually a spear. She wears two heads of demons in place of earrings and has a necklace of skulls. Her tongue is blood red and hangs down upon her chin. Blood is also seen streaming from her tongue and upon her body. She is shown standing with one foot on the breast of Shiva and the other rests on his thigh.

At Kali Ghat near Calcutta is the most celebrated image of Kali. Other forms of Kali are CHAMUNDI, SHAMSHAN KALI (goddess of the cremation ground), BHADRA KALI, UGRA CHANDI, BHEEM CHANDI, SIDDHESHWARI, and SHEETLA (the goddess of small-pox). People also worship her to protect their children from dreaded diseases and their homes from ill omens.

In the form of Chamundi, Durga, as the name implies killed two demons, Chanda and Munda. From the forehead of Durga sprang a goddess of jet-black complexion, robed in the hide of an elephant, with a garland of dead corpses. With red-hot eyes and a long tongue she uttered a big shout and jumped upon the two demons. After this, the goddess Durga was also named as Chamunda or Chamundi.

Durga, in fact, is the goddess most widely worshipped throughout India in various ways and under various names. The goddess Durga has nine important forms called the Nava-Durga. During the Navaratri festival (October), each of the goddesses is worshipped on a particular night for the destruction of evil and for the preservation of Dharma (religion).

The nine Durgas are:
SHAILPUTRI: She is worshipped on the first night and is the daughter of Himavan. She has two hands, one holding a trident and the other a lotus. She rides a bull.

BRAHMACHARINI: The second Durga-Shakti has two hands. One holds a water-pot and the other a rosary. She symbolizes devotion.

CHANDRAGHANTA: The third Durga-Shakti is golden complexioned, rides a tiger and has ten hands and three eyes. The hands hold various types of weapons with two in a boon-giving and protective mode.

KUSHMANDA: The fourth Durga-Shakti has eight arms, holding various types of weapons and a rosary. She rides a tiger and has a presence like that of the Sun.

SKANDAMATA: Riding a lion, she is the mother of Skanda who is shown sitting on her lap. She has three eyes and four arms with two holding lotus flowers and two in a blessing and protective mode.

KATYAYANI: The sixth Durga-Shakti is the daughter of the sage Katya. Riding a lion, she has three eyes and eight arms holding various weapons. She is golden colored.

KALARATRI: She is black colored with flowing hair, has three eyes and rides a donkey. She has four hands with two holding a cleaver and a torch.

MAHAGAURI: She is fair complexioned with four arms and wearing white clothes. She holds a drum and a trident and rides a bull. She has a peaceful expression on her face.

SIDDHIDHATRI: This form is shown seated on a lotus or a tiger. She has four arms and has the ability to bless her devotees with twenty-six different boons.

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