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There are four major denominations of Hinduism - Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism. Vaishanavites are worshippers of Lord Vishnu, one of the Gods of the Hindu triumvirate responsible for the preservation of the universe and balance in the world and all creation. Shaivites are worshippers of Lord Shiva, another God of the triumvirate, the destroyer of all evil. These are the two strongest traditions of Hindusim. Smartists, though lesser known, follow the Vedas and worship many Gods and not just one deity. The Shaktas worship the Mother Goddess as a form of Shakti or strength. Followers of Shaktism recognise Shakti as the supreme power of the universe. The feminine power is worshipped as Durga or Parvati.
The word 'Durga' in Sanskrit means a fort, an embodiment of security, strength and protection. Durga is also called Durgatinashini, which means 'she who eliminates suffering'. Her name thus embodies her role as the protector of the universe and remover of evil from the three worlds.
Nine Forms of Goddess Durga
Durga takes many forms. The most common are the nine forms of Durga, popularly known as Nav Durga. They are: Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kaalratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidatri.
According to Hindu legend, Durga was created for slaying Mahishasura or the buffalo demon. Neither the triumvirate - Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh (Shiva) - nor the lesser Gods of the Hindu pantheon were capable of overcoming Mahishasura. Thus, a new deity embodying the strength and energy of all the gods was born. She is Shakti, the true source of the inner power of all the deities. She is power, greater than any other God. Born fully grown and divinely beautiful, Maa Durga is usually depicted riding a lion and having 10 arms. In each of her arms, she holds a weapon gifted to her by the male Gods who created her, for her battle against the buffalo demon.
The Creation of the Divine Feminine
The trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh came together to create a powerful female form with 10 arms. The spirit of Durga emerged from the waters of the holy Ganga river. All the Gods united to give a form to her spirit. Lord Shiva created her face and Lord Indra created her torse. Her breasts were made by Chandra and her teeth by Lord Brahma. The lower part of her body was crafted by Bhudevi, while Varuna sculpted her legs. The Goddess' fiery eyes were created by the God of fire, Agni himself. Thus emerged a supreme feminine power embodying the energy of all the other Gods. Durga is the Great Mother of the Universe.
Meaning Behind The Arms and Weapons of Goddess Durga
Traditionally, Durga is depicted as having 10 arms. This is why is she also called Dashabhuja or 'the one with 10 arms'. These represent the 10 directions in Hinduism; she protects all directions of the universe. In each of her hands, the Goddess wields a weapon given to her by the Gods for her to fight Mahishasura. In one hand, Durga holds the conch-shell gifted to her by Varuna, the God of Water. In two other hands, she holds the bow and the arrow given to her by Vayu, the God of the Wind. In her fourth hand she holds the thunderbolt of Indra.
In yet another hand, she holds the lotus, a gift from Lord Bramha, the creator God of the Hindu triumvirate. The lotus is a symbol of spirituality and steadfastness. In another hand, she holds the Ssudarshan Chakra of Lord Vishnu, which can destroy all evil. In her other hands, she carries a long sword. In her forearms, she carries Shiva's all-powerful trident. Durga is depicted with the trident delivering the death blow to Mahishasura who is cowering at her feet.
It is to be noted that other depictions vary in their representation of the weapons in Durga's arms. In some depictions, she carries a spear, which is a gift from the fire god Agni. She sometimes also carries a club or axe from the God Vishwakarma. Some depictions show her carrying a snake, which is supposed to be the energy of Lord Shiva. Instead of the lotus, she is sometimes seen carrying Lord Brahma's kamandalu or pot that is used to carry holy water.
The Mount of Goddess Durga
The mount or vahana of Durga is a lion. In other legends, Durga is said to be born into the home of the mountain God Himalaya. In this form of Parvati, the daughter of the mountains or Parvat and his wife Menaka, she is raised with loving care by her parents and married off to Lord Shiva as a young girl. When Durga is adorned for her battle with Mahishasura and is equipped with 10 weapons from 10 powerful Gods, it is her father Himalaya who gives her the lion. In scenes of battle, the lion is shown to be ripping open the chest of the mahisa or buffalo from whose insides the demon emerges only to be killed by Durga's trident.
The lion is thus the perfect vehicle for the all-powerful Goddess. Durga stands on her lion in a fearless pose called the Abhaya Mudra or 'gesture of fearlessness', which is a sight that can fill any demon with utmost dread.
The Three Eyes of Durga Maa
Like Lord Shiva who is referred to as Triyambak, Goddess Durga is also referred to as Triyambake, meaning the three-eyed Goddess. Her left eye represents the peace and calm of the Moon; the right eye represents the power of the Sun; and the central eye is the all-knowing eye which represents Knowledge and has the ability to burn with fiery power.
In other interpretations, Durga's three eyes are said to be protecting the three worlds of the universe - the Earth, consisting of man and animals; the Underworld, peopled by demons, and the Heavens, where the Gods lived. The three kaals or time periods of past, present and future are said to be under the watch of Durga's three eyes.
Thus, Goddess Durga is the all-seeing and all-protecting mother of the universe, the destroyer of evil and the protector of the three worlds. Such a fascinating legend indeed!