Durga is a prominent goddess within the vast Hindu pantheon, as one of the aspects of the great Mother Goddess or Mahadevi .
The very name “Durga” derives from the Sanskrit word “Durg“, meaning fortress or place difficult to invade. Another interpretation of her name is “the one who eliminates sufferings“. Thus, already from her name, the symbolism of the goddess as protector, invincible force and eliminator of anguish is evident.
In this article we will explore in depth the meaning and teachings behind the symbolism and mythology of Durga, the warrior goddess.
Brief History and Origin of Durga
The best known account of Durga, and the one that consolidated her position and importance, comes from Puranic literature, specifically from the Devi Mahatmya or Chandi’s Path of the Markandeya Purana. This text, dated between the 4th and 6th centuries AD, presents Durga as the main force of the universe, created from the combined energy of all the gods.
When the buffalo demon Mahishasura terrorized the heavens and defeated the gods, it became clear that none of the male deities could defeat him because of a blessing he received whereby he could not be killed by any man or god. In this dire situation, the energies of the gods – Vishnu, Shiva and others – merged, giving rise to a blinding light from which emerged Durga, a goddess with ten arms, each holding a weapon gifted by the various gods. Mounted on a lion, she fought a fierce battle against Mahishasura, killing him and restoring peace.
Navadurga: The 9 Aspects of Goddess Durga
The nine forms of Goddess Durga, collectively known as Navadurga, are worshipped during the nine nights of the Hindu festival Navaratri, which we will discuss later. Each form represents a different facet of the Goddess and has its own significance. We will give a brief description of each of these aspects:
- Shailaputri (Daughter of the Mountain) – She is the first form of Durga and is worshipped on the first day of Navaratri. She is considered the embodiment of the collective power of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Shailaputri is depicted riding a bull and holding a trishula (trident) and a lotus flower in her hands.
- Brahmacharini – Venerated on the second day, she represents the ascetic form of Durga, symbol of purity and austerity. She carries a rosary and a pot in her hands.
- Chandraghanta – Worshipped on the third day, she symbolizes peace and tranquility. However, she is also prepared for war against demons. She has a bell-shaped mark (ghanta) on her forehead and ten hands holding different weapons.
- Kushmanda – The fourth form of Durga, worshipped on the fourth day. He is believed to have created the universe with his divine smile. She has eight hands holding weapons and a rosary, and rides a lion.
- Skandamata – The fifth manifestation, worshipped on the fifth day. She is the mother of Lord Skanda (or Kartikeya). She carries the baby Skanda on her lap and has four hands.
- Kalaratri – The seventh form, worshipped on the seventh day. As the darkest form of the goddess Durga, she represents the fiercest form that destroys evil. She has a dark complexion, disheveled hair and a fearless posture. Her mount or vahana is a donkey.
- Mahagauri – The eighth aspect, worshipped on the eighth day. She symbolizes intelligence, peace and prosperity. She is usually depicted with a trident, a drum and a lotus.
- Siddhidatri – Ninth form of Durga, worshipped on the ninth day. She is known to bestow all kinds of siddhis or supernatural powers. She is seated on a lotus and rides on a lion, holding a mace, disc, lotus and book.
Symbology of Goddess Durga
Objects and Weapons in the Hands
One of the most striking features of Durga is the number of arms, which usually varies between 8 and 18, depending on the representation, the most common being 8 or 10.
Each weapon or item in the hands of the goddess Durga is not only a tool in the cosmic battle against evil, but embodies a deeper philosophical or spiritual principle. These symbols combined represent the complex nature of life: the need for action and reflection, strength and compassion, knowledge and humility.
To the casual observer, the image of Durga might be that of a fierce warrior, a destroyer of evil. Upon closer reflection, however, the arsenal of weapons and items she carries invites deep understanding. They call to harness inner strength, to discern truth from illusion, to act righteously, to be untouched by worldly impurities, to understand the cyclical nature of time, and to always strive for spiritual growth and connection.
Let us briefly describe some of the elements that usually appear in the iconography of the goddess. It should be noted that not all of these objects always appear in Durga images.
The trident is one of the most prominent elements of the goddess. Symbolically, the trishula represents the trinity of creation, preservation and destruction, which corresponds to the three deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It is a reminder of the cyclical nature of life. The trident also signifies the balance of the three gunas (qualities) – Sattva (goodness), Rajas (passion) and Tamas (darkness) that are inherent in all beings.
The sword wielded by Durga symbolizes discernment or viveka. Just as a sword cuts through all things, revealing their inner nature, the spiritual seeker uses discernment to cut through illusion and realize the truth. It represents sharpness of intellect and the courage to act with wisdom.
The bow and arrow
They represent energy in both potential and kinetic form. The bow signifies potential energy, latent but powerful, while the arrow is the kinetic energy which, when released, moves with purpose and precision toward its target. On the spiritual plane, it indicates the importance of balance between potential and action in life.
The conch shell is a symbol of the primordial sound of“Om” from which creation arose. It is a call to awaken, to be alert and to align oneself with one’s dharma or duty. It also represents the victory of righteousness over evil.
Referred to as Sudarshana Chakra, this spinning wheel represents the wheel of time and the cyclic nature of the universe. Everything in the universe is bounded by time and experiences birth, growth and ultimate dissolution. The disc is a reminder of this cosmic order and the impermanence of all things.
The lotus, often seen in one of Durga’s hands, is a symbol of purity, beauty and divine truth. Despite growing in muddy waters, the lotus remains clean in the midst of the mud, symbolizing spiritual emergence and purity of spirit in the midst of worldly mire.
The mace symbolizes the divine power of Durga and the punishment meted out to those who oppose the Dharma. It represents the force of righteousness and the need to act decisively and sometimes forcefully to defend moral principles.
Often associated with Indra, the king of the gods, the thunderbolt is a symbol of steadfastness of spirit, determination and supreme power. Just as lightning can shatter anything it is hurled against, the force of conviction shatters obstacles.
The ringing of the bell symbolizes the call for attention, both external and internal. It is an invitation to focus on the present moment, on the here and now, dispelling the distractions of the mind and entering a state of heightened spiritual awareness.
The shield held by Durga is a symbol of protection. It signifies her role as protector of the universe, shielding her devotees from harm and ensuring the maintenance of cosmic order.
The rosary, or japamala, represents concentration, meditation and connection with the divine. Each bead can be seen as a spiritual teaching, and the act of walking each bead is a symbolic journey through the various aspects of life and self-awareness.
The lion is a symbol of brute strength, courage and authority. In the animal kingdom, the lion’s presence commands respect, and its roar can both paralyze its prey with fear and resonate as an assertion of its territorial dominance. When Durga is depicted astride a lion, it is a visual representation of her supreme power and bravery. Just as no one can challenge the authority of the lion in the animal kingdom, Durga’s power is unrivaled in the cosmic hierarchy.
Durga’s association with the lion also has an intriguing history behind it. According to some myths, the goddess acquired her lion after defeating the buffalo demon Mahishasura. On a symbolic level, Durga riding the lion can be seen as embodying the combined energies of all the major deities, harnessing the raw, untamed power of the wild lion. This combination can be interpreted as the supreme force of good, using its strength and courage to fight and defeat evil. It also symbolizes Dharma, or cosmic order, and the fact that Durga mounts it indicates that she is the protector of dharma and justice in the universe.
In addition, Durga’s lion also represents the animalistic tendencies and base instincts inherent in human beings. When the goddess tames the lion and uses it as her vahana, she symbolizes the idea that, with divine grace and inner strength, humans can also conquer and channel their primal instincts towards a righteous and purposeful life.
The Demon Mahishaura
The depiction of the demon Mahishasura in Durga iconography stands out as one of the most revealing. His presence and the narrative associated with him are more than simple accounts of a battle. They embody profound philosophical truths and cultural insights that form the core of many Indian spiritual traditions.
Mahishasura is derived from two Sanskrit words: “Mahisha,” meaning buffalo, and “Asura,” meaning demon. According to legend, Mahishasura was a demon with the ability to change form, but often took the form of a buffalo. After pleasing the creator god Brahma with his intense penance, he was granted the blessing of not being able to be defeated by any man or god. Emboldened by this new invincibility, Mahishasura wreaked havoc, causing distress in the earthly and heavenly realms. Unable to tolerate his tyranny, the gods conjured Durga, a divine female force, who put an end to him.
The choice of a buffalo as the main form of Mahishasura is not arbitrary. In many cultures, the buffalo is considered a symbol of ignorance, death and inertia. Its large size and slowness are a good representation of our own ignorance: vast and often slow to change. When this ignorance takes over, symbolized by the tyranny of Mahishasura, it overpowers the virtues and breaks the cosmic balance.
The battle between Durga and Mahishasura is not just a physical altercation, but a cosmic dance between knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, good and evil. This dance underlines most Eastern philosophies, in which the world is seen as a play of dualities.
Durga’s triumph over Mahishasura is significant. As a feminine energy, she breaks the stereotype that femininity is only nurturing and passive. She is Shakti – raw, untamed energy – and represents the transformative power within us all. Her victory is a reminder that, when we harness our inner energies, we can overcome any form of ignorance, however vast or formidable.
In spiritual traditions, the ego is not only arrogance or pride, but also represents our identification with the physical and transient world, often at the expense of our spiritual essence. Like Mahishasura, who was blinded by his blessing and powers, we too are blinded by our achievements, status and material possessions. The ego deceives, always promising happiness and fulfillment, but invariably leading to suffering. Durga’s struggle against this demon is a metaphorical lesson about the need to transcend the ego to attain true wisdom and peace.
The Third Eye
Like many other deities in the Hindu pantheon, the goddess Durga is depicted with a third eye on her forehead. This eye symbolizes spiritual knowledge and power. Through it she perceives truth, beyond the physical realm. The opening of the third eye also represents enlightenment and awakening of consciousness.
Durga’s traditional attire is red, a color associated with vigor, passion, dynamism and activity. In many Eastern traditions, red also symbolizes auspiciousness and is a color of celebration. This is consistent with its role as an active force that fights evil and encourages the growth of positive virtues.
Durga and Shaktism
Shaktism is based on the belief that the feminine aspect of the divine is the driving force behind all creation, preservation and destruction. It is a universe energized and sustained by the Goddess. The Goddess is worshipped primarily in her forms of Durga, Kali and Parvati, among others.
Durga, in this tradition, embodies “sattvic” (pure) energy. It is both the dynamic energy (Prakriti) that animates life and the transcendent power (Purusha) that is beyond it. This duality, in which Durga is both immanent and transcendent, is the cornerstone of Shakta philosophy.
Followers of Shaktism, known as “Shaktas,” regard the Goddess (Devi) as the Ultimate Reality, Brahman itself. Although there are other goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, in Shaktism she is most important, the supreme deity and the source of all creation.
The Navaratri Festival
Navaratri, a word derived from Sanskrit, literally means “nine nights“. Celebrated mainly in India, it is a festival that venerates the female deity, Goddess Durga, in her various forms. Lasting nine nights and ten days, Navaratri is a festival of dance, music, color and spirituality that is celebrated with fervor throughout the Indian subcontinent and in Indian communities around the world.
The legend of Navaratri has its roots in Hindu mythology. It revolves around the battle between the goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. The demon, whom no man or god could defeat, became arrogant and spread chaos in the heavens. Unable to bear his tyranny, the gods created the goddess Durga, who fought Mahishasura for nine days and nine nights and finally defeated him on the tenth day, known as Vijayadashami.
The festival symbolizes the victory of good over evil. Each day of Navaratri is dedicated to a different avatar of the goddess Durga, celebrating her various facets and powers.
Many devotees fast during Navaratri. It is believed that fasting purifies the body and mind, bringing the devotee closer to the divine. During this period certain foods are avoided and special dishes are prepared. Sabudana khichdi, kuttu ka atta (buckwheat flour) and fruit dishes are common among fasters.
Mantras of Goddess Durga
Mantras are not mere combinations of syllables, but powerful tools of transformation. When one delves into the meaning of the goddess Durga, the embodiment of power, courage and compassion, the importance of mantras is even greater. Through Durga’s mantras, devotees seek her blessing, protection and guidance.
Om Dum Durgayei Namaha
It means “Om and Salutations to that feminine energy that protects from all kinds of negative influences“. This mantra invokes the protective energy of Goddess Durga. It is particularly beneficial for those seeking physical, emotional or spiritual protection. Chanting this mantra can protect one from negativity and harm.
Sarva Mangala Mangalye Mangalye Shive Sarvartha Sadhike, Sharanye Tryambake Gauri Narayani Namostute
It translates as “To the auspicious of all auspicious, to the good, to the fulfiller of all goals, to the source of refuge, to the mother of the three worlds, to the Goddess who is rays of light, I bow to you.” This mantra celebrates Durga as the embodiment of purity, auspiciousness and light. It recognizes her as the mother of the universe and pays respect to her benevolent ways.
Ya Devi Sarva Bhuteshu, Shakti Rupena Samsthita
Its meaning is “To that goddess who dwells in all beings as power: Salutations to You“. This mantra emphasizes the omnipresent nature of Durga. It acknowledges the presence of the goddess in all living beings in the form of innate power and strength.