Shubho Mahalaya!  As a child growing up with Bengali grandparents, this day meant about waking up to the sound of a booming voice on the radio, narrating a story I couldn’t particularly understand; it also meant, a celebration was coming and that there would be lots of delicious food. As we inch closer to the 9 days of pure fun,  I find that strange connect with the Goddess brewing up again and that’s the most special thing about Durga – she’s so human, yet divine; so heroic, terrifying and yet loving; she makes you want to be like her! Around this time (Mahalaya), I also find myself re-telling the stories I’ve grown up on to my non-Bengali husband (and the nephews) and they get just as excited.  Since I was 4 or 5, I’ve heard the Mahalaya every year – but it is much later that I realised the significance of it  :

Mahalaya is a reminder to prepare oneself for the subjugation of the ego (ahamkara) during Durga Puja. It instills the spirit of surrender: to offer oneself to Maa Durga for the final destruction of the ego. She simply strikes the ego of the surrendered soul to bless with the bounty of eternal bliss of self-realization…

The Visual Mahalaya : The Glory of the Goddess

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From the Devi Mahatmya manuscript at National Museum New Delhi

But what has this got to do with my fascination for Museums? As usual, I found a manifestation of all those childhood-stories in a visual form – right there at the National Museum & later at the Govt. Museum Chandigarh. At first I was a little confused about what “Devi Mahatmyam” was about. Those museum labels don’t tell you much anyway! It was only after I saw the Chandigarh Museum’s collection that I was so blown over that I decided to dig deeper – and there it was, Mahalaya’s essence captured visually!  The Mahalaya we hear on the radio is actually the narration of Devi Mahatyam – a sanskrit text composed by the rishi Markandeya.  The narrative combines the oral and written traditions in a beautiful way, mixing a little of storytelling with a little of devotion (vedas, shlokas etc).  Chances are, if you’ve heard any hymn / chant / mantra / or fun battle-story pertaining to the Goddess, it comes from the Devi Mahatyam – the definitive text on the “Glory of the Goddess”  which is 700 verses long, arranged into 13 chapters.

The Origin & Significance of the Mahalaya Story

200 years after Buddha died, there was a surge in the practice owing to Emperor Ashoka. Alongside, Jainism flourished too;  and Hinduism wasn’t to be left very far behind. During the Gupta rule, at a time when the Hindus were trying to create that personal-relationship with their Gods,  the “Devi Mahatyam” was composed and written by the rishi Markandeya. He basically summed up elements of all Goddesses (Matrikas) in the subcontinent in one narrative, terming it to be “Mahadevi”, the Great Goddess who was greater than the sum of all her avatars. When you hear the story, it comes across as a simple tale of the battles between the Goddess and the Demons. But there are many layers of philosophy and hidden messages – that two lifetimes probably wouldn’t be enough, to decode.

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The merchant Samadhi & King Suratha at the hermitage of Sage Medhas

The story is narrated by Sage Markandeya to his students, about the time when a merchant and a King visited Sage Medhas.  Before we get into the narrative, here’s a character sketch:

The great King Suratha, beaten by enemies, robbed by his ministers and dispossessed of his Kingdom seeks refuge at the peaceful ashram of Sage Medhas but is unable to let of of the thoughts of his kingdom. He continues to wonder if it is being governed properly.

Samadhi, the merchant has been ruined by his wife and sons who have seized his wealth and cast him out. However, he still worries about their well-being and is consumed by thoughts of them, wanting to go back.

In despair and anguish the two turn to the Sage for solace and for answers. They ask why they seem to be attached to the people who harmed them and why they cannot seem to find the strength to cut the bonds that cause such unhappiness.

The rishi moved by their plight replies :

It is not your fault. Men, birds and beasts alike are hurled into a whirlpool of attachment by the great Goddess Mahamaya. It is she who pulls a veil of delusion on all that lives so the cycle of life and birth may continue.

Curious, the Merchant and the King enquire about the Devi called “Mahamaya” – they express their wish to know about her. The sage obliges by recounting three different epic battles between the Devi and various demonic adversaries.  The three tales are governed by the  Tridevi :  Mahakali (Chapter 1) – the Destroyer, Mahalakshmi (Chapters 2-4) – the Sustainer, and Mahasaraswati (Chapters 5-13) – the Creator ; the most famous being, the story of Mahishasura Mardini – Devi as “Slayer of the Buffalo Demon” – one of the most commonly found images in Hindu art and sculpture, and a tale known almost universally.

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Granting a boon to the Merchant & the King

At the end of the narration, Sage Medhas tells the Merchant and the King that it is the Goddess  who is the cause of their illusion to attachment, and that they must worship her to free themselves of the cycle.  After 3 years of meditation, the Goddess finally appears granting them both their wish .

While the King asks for an imperishable Kingdom (again!!!!) and victory over his enemies; the merchant (who  grows wiser) asks for the knowledge which removes attachment.


This year, I’ve decided to celebrate Durga Puja by re-telling the  Devi-Mahatmya story through art from museums.  Join me on this celebration by sharing / subscribing for the next in the series or simply pin the image below to bookmark the article! Shubho Mahalaya 🙂

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Mahisasurmardini : National Museum New Delhi

 

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