Today is Masik Durgashtami – a monthly (Masik) High Holy Day to the Goddess Durga, celebrated on the 8th (Ashtami).
The observance itself entails a fast during the day (with such self-imposed conditions upon one’s behavior known as a ‘Vrat’ – a ‘Vow’, and from the same PIE etymological root as modern English ‘Word’ (as in ‘I Give You My Word’)), and ritual offerings of song, sustenance, and flame (inter many alia).
The reason for this is quite simple. As we discussed in our last week’s piece upon the subject – Durga is significantly worshipped for Victory, the strength to overcome foes or obstacles in one’s path, and the Divine assistance of Devi to remove or even obliterate barriers and enemies that may threaten and imperil us.
Our performance of these pious undertakings is, in essence, a situation of Eliadian ‘Eternal Return’ or mythic resonancy – we carry out our actions in emulation of similar efforts which had been engaged in within the realms of myth.
Now, as is often the case with Hindu devotional occurrences, there are quite the plethora of origin-myths for the observance in question. Some say that it is in commemoration of Her Vanquishing of this demon, others that demon, and still others that it is in fact in recognition of Her bestowing significant empowerment to pious figures which enabled them to take on seeming insurmountable odds and win.
In truth, given the circumstances which tend to accompany Durga’s appearance in demon-smiting capacity, there is an essential coterminity here. In all cases, it is Devi being called upon (and ‘God’, as we know, has two not-necessarily-exclusive potential etymological derivations – either ‘That Which Is Called Upon’ (from PIE: *Ghewh), and/or ‘That Which Libations Are Poured For’ (from PIE *Ghew)).
But ‘called upon’ to do what? Well, in some cases it is to do what The Gods, even in assemblage, cannot – fight some otherwise utterly implacable foe. The combats ‘gainst Mahishasura and Durgamasur spring instantly to mind in this regard, although there are a significant number of others. In other cases, it is to make The Gods (or one or more chosen Champions from amidst Their Number) capable of doing what would otherwise be impossible – ‘augmentation’, we may suggest, rather than ‘obliteration’.
One instance which handily evocates both typologies – whilst also being cross-applicable to at least one non-Vedic Indo-European mytho-religious sphere – concerns the Slaying of Vritra.
In RV VI 61, we find Saraswati hailed as a War Goddess par excellence – ‘riverine’, but in the sense of an unstoppable torrent : capable, certainly, of the nourishment of water (and, indeed, milk), but here annihilating various groups of enemies including opponents of the religion and sorcerers; as well as protecting Her People against other dire threats – causing poison to flow away in the other direction as if downstream. ‘Hailed’ is most certainly the operative word, the Hymnal is not only itself a Hailing of Her – but also depicts the invocation of Saraswati through proper, pious rites as leading to Her Intervention. It is, in other words, a ‘Hailing of Hailing’ – given the meaning of ‘Saraswati’ as such High Speech. And more upon that dimension in a moment.
RV VI 61 is also of interest to us here for its accordance of Saraswati with the epithet of Vritraghni – the Destroyer of Vritra. Now there is some debate as to which of a number of senses the term is actually to be understood as here. Some say that it is intended merely figuratively and in a comparative nature – that is to say, indicating that Saraswati’s awesome power is such that She is capable of smiting a foe even as dire as Vritra (and therefore placing Her (at least) on par with Lord Indra). Others suggest that it is ‘figurative-literal’ – Vritra, here, standing in a generalized sense not so much for that Vritra, but rather for ‘obstructions’, ‘barriers’, ‘enemies’ and their fortifications. A third rendering simply takes the statement at face-value – and has Saraswati actually being (a) Slayer of Vritra. I, personally, if asked which of these three prospects I should believe to be accurate would respond simply: “Yes.”
This leads us to the next Vedic expression of this occurrence – another favourite hymnal of mine, RV VIII 100. Here, we find Vak Devi (Goddess of Speech – ‘Vak’, like ‘Voice’ or ‘Vox’) being invoked in order to enable Indra to be able to slay Vritra. This, She does in several senses – Her propitiation being prerequisite for the Soma to be made available to Him, and for the Vajra to become ‘unlocked’ so that He might be granted that too. And ultimately, therefore, granted Victory.
As Lord Indra Himself puts it: “Thou on My right shalt be My friend and comrade: then shall We Two smite dead full many a foeman.”
Now, I had said that the effort of Devi against Vritra was one which also encompassed another Indo-European mytho-religious sphere – and that is the Greek. For as I have earlier demonstrated, the saliency of Athena in the combat of Herakles against the Hydra is a direct resonancy upon various key points for this encounter. Further, as we briefly alluded to in last week’s Devi-otional commentary, there exists good reason to view Athena’s dispatch of Enceladus as similarly resonating with the Vedic Demon-Dragon slaying. And we likewise possess direct Ancient Greek statement upon the fact of Athena “alone of the Gods know[ing] the keys to the house where His Thunderbolt is sealed”, to quote Aeschylus’ Eumenides.
Meanwhile, the annals of the Iliad and other grand texts depict Athena acting to empower certain of Her Chosen to truly superhuman feats of bravery and martial vigour – Diomedes, for instance, is able even to fight off multiple of the Olympian Gods under Her guidance and inspiration; Achilles, empowered via Athena’s bestowal of ‘Nectar and Ambrosia’ (and, to be sure, a similarly superhuman grief-wrought anguish) likewise wreaks an undying toll upon the ranks of the enemy.
This, too, forms part of a general typology of such instances – and that justly-famed DeviSukta which comprises the 125th Hymnal of the Tenth Mandala of the RigVeda sets it out in quite clear terms. Indeed, it is not only men who can benefit from Her Empowering attention, but even that most mighty of The Gods – Rudra Himself. In Line 6, we hear that it is She Who enables the Bow of Rudra to smite the “hater of devotion”, building from the preceding line’s expression that She grants the ‘Ugra’ potency to the males whom (and Whom) She Chooses. I have also personally connected this understanding to the situation we see in the Ynglinga Saga, wherein it is Freyja Who teaches and imparts the knowledge of magic to the Aesir – and therefore, we may infer, Odin Himself. And for a further, beautiful exemplar of Devi’s essence-tial contribution to Lord Shiva, Adi Shankara’s Saundarya Lahari (‘Waves of Beauty’) pointedly observes that in Her Absence, He would be unable to accomplish His vital actions of overlordship of the universe. Adi Shankaracharya then follows this up by observing that a similar situation (on an understandably closer to ‘human’ scale) plays out for the man who does not carry out good deeds.
We are, therefore, Armed by Aramaiti (that is to say, “Devotion”, ours, to Her : the Ultimate Power in and even beyond this Universe of ours) – yet we are also Armoured, with repeated invocations to Mother Aditi for protection and salvation (a situation which, again, we can easily compare with the Soteria and other such theonyms and epithets accorded to various Greek Goddess expressions – as we have considered at greater length elsewhere), whether upon the battlefield of the body – or another kind of battlefield .. that of the mind, soul, and spirit.
The power of conquering that which imperils and impedes us, therefore, is not merely restricted to exterior adversaries or tangible obstacles – yet also pertains most directly to those internal barriers and obstructions we might be burdened with.
Most will think instantly of the straightforward impediments of sin – impurities previously committed which thusly weigh heavily upon us either morally or metaphysically. As I have often observed, in cases of this kind, ‘specific restitution’ is the best remedy – healing whatever it is which has been broken or injured in the process of transgression. Where the immanency of Rta, Cosmic Order, in this universe of ours has been harmed via such conduct, then the appropriate remedy is to help to re-connect one’s self with this Order, and to re-immanentize the light of Law likewise. As Devi is Cosmic Order and is the most direct in-universe expression and expressor of same (indeed – Sam, in Sanskrit), propitiation of Devi is, therefore, entirely logical as a pathway toward atonement in these regards.
In other cases, the impediments may not necessarily be resultant of ‘sin’, but simply ‘ignorance’ – and it is again Devi Who is turned to. Her Divine Grace may bestow Enlightenment(s), Siddhis [‘Empowerments’, ‘Powers’] that enable the pious and blessed Devotee to perceive reality (including themselves) more as it really is – and in relation to this, also, to overcome their ‘merely human’ limitations. A situation which, again, may sound like it is a more exclusively Hindu (and broader Dharmosphere) perception – yet which is also directly engaged in by Athena and other such figures in other Indo-European mythic spheres. The ‘overcoming of barriers’ is most certainly that which Athena does for Diomedes when She ‘clears his eyes’ so that He may behold the true state of the battlefield at Ilium, and the Gods contending thereupon.
There is much more which can and should be said upon all of these matters (Maters) – but it is Dusk, here, and I have rites to perform : to Her and for Her !
Jai Mata Di !
वर्त्रघ्नी वष्टि सुष्टुतिम
Vrtraghni Vasti Sustutim
‘Foe-Slayer Claims Our Eulogy’
जय जय हे महिषासुरमर्दिनि रम्यकपर्दिनि शैलसुते ॥