Navratri special: How the Durga Saptashati shaped our knowledge of the goddess
One of the integral parts of Navratri is the recitation of a centuries old text called the Durga Saptashati or the Devi Mahatamya. The Saptashati (700 verses) has influenced what we know today of Goddess Durga
It is that auspicious time of the year again when Indians and Hindus across the world celebrate Navratri.
Navratri (nine nights)  is a festival that honours the indomitable Divine Feminine (the three most revered forms are Durga, Lakshmi and Sarasvati). For most Hindus, Ashwin Navratri (October/November) is synonymous with the worship of Maa Durga  as she is fondly called.
From ghatastaphana to Kumari Puja, from Durga Puja to Golu, from fasting and praying to garba, from yajnas and homams to planting saplings — the diversity of Ashwin Navratri celebrations are a colourful kaleidoscope intended to harmonise both the body and the soul with the cosmos.
One of the integral parts of this festival is the recitation of a centuries old text called the Durga Saptashati or the Devi Mahatamya. It is among the loftiest of puranic compositions and is a part of the Markandeya Purana (one of the oldest 18 Mahapuranas). The Durga Saptashati is also popularly referred to as the Chandi Patha or the Chandi.
The Saptashati (700 verses) has withstood the test of centuries  and is as relevant today as it was at the time of its composition when it was probably an attempt to synthesise and crystallise millennia old traditions of Goddess worship in India . It can be stated with conviction that it drew upon many well-known myths in wide circulation at that time. The Saptashati is probably the oldest extant text in the world devoted entirely to a fiercely independent Goddess who is also The Supreme Being — The Ultimate Godhead — The Divine Feminine.
The Goddess Durga as we know her today has been shaped to a large extent by this text. The biggest achievements of the Saptashati are probably its contribution to the arts and iconography of the Goddess and its elucidation of the basic tenets of spiritual thought in a narrative form thus making the tenets accessible and comprehensible to the common devotee. In addition, it also serves as a basic text for re-evaluating and recasting gender equations in contemporary Indian and global social orders given that the composer(s) seem to have anticipated modern women empowerment issues millennia ago or maybe the times have changed but the debate hasn’t!
In a three part series, we propose to revisit the text within the following framework:
Part I – Summary of the Saptashati’s Narrative
Part II – Key Takeaways from the Saptashati for Contemporary Times
Part III – Re-imagining Kumari Puja in Households
Part I: The Durga Saptashati — A Brief Summary
The Saptashati can be roughly divided into three main episodes (referred to as charitras) over its 13 chapters and a frame narrative to weave the three episodes together .
It speaks of a king named Suratha and a merchant named Samadhi who meet while seeking refuge in the hermitage of Rishi (sage) Medha. A string of misfortunes had struck both of them and they had been deceived by their kin. Befuddled by their own circumstance and attachments to their lost possessions, they approached Rishi Medha for advice. The Rishi explained to them that they, like the Universe, were controlled by the great Goddess Bhagwati Mahamaya . He proceeded to extol her major exploits in the text’s three episodes.
The first episode  narrates the myth of the demons (asuras) Madhu and Kaitạbha who threatened Brahma. Brahma prayed to Goddess Yoganidra (deep sleep induced by Yoga), who was residing in Vishnu’s eyes, beseeching her to confuse the demons and awaken Vishnu to slay the demons. Propitiated by his prayers, Devi (goddess) Mahamaya (Yoganidra) did as requested. Vishnu woke up from his yogic slumber and killed the demons, thus saving the world and also setting in motion the cycle of creation.
The second episode  of the text is devoted to the Devi’s most celebrated form — ‘Mahishasurmadini’. In ancient times, the devatas (gods in common parlance), led by Indra; fought against the demons, led by Mahisha (buffalo in Sanskrit — vehicle of Yama, commonly god of death). The gods were defeated by Mahisha and he usurped Indra’s powers to become Indra himself. Mahisha ruled over all realms of the Universe. The defeated gods then approached Vishnu and Shiva for help. The news angered them. Radiant energy (tejas) emanated from the faces of Vishnu, Siva, and Brahma, and from the bodies of Indra and other gods. This dazzling energy coalesced into a whole and expanded to fill the Universe. The incomparable brilliant energy transformed into a feminine form — the goddess Shakti.
Shakti laughed so loudly that the worlds trembled and the oceans started churning on their own. Attracted by this loud sound, Mahisha’s demon army engaged with her in a battle which is described in vivid detail. She destroyed the demon army wreaking havoc with her weapons, the aid of her troops (ganas created by her) and her vahana (vehicle) — the majestic lion. Upon witnessing the defeat of his generals and army, Mahisha assumed the form of a buffalo and attacked the Goddess’ troops. A bitter and gory battle ensued. The battle climaxed in a duel between the agile Warrior Goddess and the fearless Mahisha. She leapt upon him, pressed him with her foot, and struck his throat with her spear. As the demon came halfway out of his own buffalo mouth, still fighting, the Goddess beheaded him, thus earning the laudatory title of Mahishasurmardini (she who killed Mahisha). The devatas, led by Indra, rejoiced and praised her with a hymn.
The motif of the Devi slaying the buffalo-demon Mahishasura continues to be one of the most pervasive of her iconographic representations. It should be mentioned that the motif predates the date generally given to the composition. Images of what can be construed as Mahishasuramardini can be traced to at least as long back as the 2nd Century BCE.
The Saptashati then progresses to the third episode  which recounts the ascent to power of the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha. As usual, they displaced Indra and the other devatas from their heavenly positions and usurped their power. The Goddess had promised the gods that she would reappear/reincarnate whenever they were in trouble and save them. Remembering her boon, the devatas went to the Himalayas to appease Goddess Parvati and sang an exquisite hymn in her praise.
Devi Ambika incarnated from the body of Devi Parvati in order to save the gods. Goddess Ambika’s unparalled beauty attracted the attention of Shumbha and Nishumbha, who wanted to control her. They demanded through a messenger that she marry one of them. The Goddess explained that as per her vow, she would only marry someone capable of defeating her on the battlefield. Spurned by the arrogant Goddess, the demons and their army engaged in a battle with her. After the defeat of their vast armies and generals, Shumbha and Nishumbha eventually attacked the Goddess and were defeated and slayed by her, thus re-establishing the reign of the devatas.
Within this episode, the Saptashati also weaves in the emergence of the Sapt Matrikas (mother goddesses) — the shaktis (energies) of various gods (not consort goddesses). It also mentions the fierce Goddess Kali (black) who appeared from the face of Ambika which had turned black with anger. Kali is also referred to as Chamuṇḍa, because she destroyed the demons Chaṇḍa and Muṇḍa, who served Shumbha and Nishumbha. The Matrikas also fought the terrible demon Raktabija in this episode.
As is customary in texts of this nature, there is a chapter  on the ‘phalashruti’ (fruits of listening and reciting) or Mahatmya of the Saptashati. The frame narrative culminates  with Surath and Samadhi propitiating the Goddess with severe penance and beseeching her for boons of their choice — Surath in the material world and Samadhi in the eternal world.
The summary above does not do justice to the text and is intended to serve only as an outline to its stories to enable further discussion. The Saptashati (originally composed in Sanskrit) has been translated into most Indian languages and English.
 There are 4 Navratis during the course of a year but the most popular and widespread is the Ashwin Navratri which comes somewhere in the months of September/October. For most Hindus, Ashwin Navratri is synonymous with the worship of Maa Durga as she is fondly called.
 Durga means the far shore that is difficult to reach, and the essential doer of all things.
 The Markandeya Purana is variously dated by scholars to the 3rd century CE. The Saptashati (700 verses) is believed to be a later interpolation in the Markandeya Purana but is definitely dated before the 7th century CE.
 The tradition of Goddess Worship in in the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation has been proven conclusively based on archaeological evidence. References to various forms of the Goddess are present in the Vedic Literature, Epics and other ancient Indian traditions.
 The Saptashati frame is independent of the Markandeya Purana frame.
 The word ‘Maya’ has many connotations — generally implies that which is unreal or illusory. The world is supposed to be Maya (unreal) in Vedanta and it is common parlance to say in Hindi — ‘sab moh maya hai’.
 Chapter 1
 Chapters 2-4
 Chapters 5-11
 Chapter 12
 Chapter 13
Garima is an independent business and strategy consultant and an Indic Studies enthusiast. She can be reached at email@example.com
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