India has a tradition of worshiping the feminine divine which stretches through the world’s oldest unbroken civilization. But it is not unique. There was a time when almost all old cultures worshipped the feminine divine.
The Venus of Willendorf. (Natural Museum of Vienna)
Durga Puja, in the east of India, coincides with Navaratri, in most other parts of the country. Together these festivals unfurl ten days of fasting and feasting that coincides with autumn slowly seeping into South Asia.
There is a sense that this festival is simultaneously modern (after all it has spawned everything from comic books to rap songs) and ancient. There is something primordial about a ritual that involves ‘breathing life’ into an idol of the feminine form built using mud from a holy river — as is done with idols of Durga in the state of Bengal.
Also, both in the east of India, in Bengal, and the west, in Gujarat, rituals of fasting, rejuvenation and piety, and dances of love, mating and fertility have always occurred simultaneously in this festival giving it a certain unique wholesomeness.
But why does worship occur? Where does it come from? And what is its significance?
Some of the answers go back between 30,000 to 250,000 years before our time. The image that you see above is a great find in the history of archaeology. It is a figurine that was discovered in 1908 at a paleolithic excavation ground near the village of Willendorf in Austria, and now famous as the Venus of Willendorf. There have been many such figurines, all with the same heavy breasts and wide hips, that have been discovered — for instance, the Venus of Dolni Vestonice at Moravia or the Venus of Lespugue in France.
Archaeologists and historians believe that this sense of worshiping fertility comes from some of man’s earliest instincts. It comes from first realization of the importance of fertility to carry forward from generation to generation life itself, and it comes from the first comprehension that food can be grown, there can be such a thing as a harvest, that plant seeded will, in time, bear fruit. Paleoanthropologists have discovered cave paintings in France showing an interposed bull and the naked lower half of a woman with a expansively defined pubic area dated to around 35,000 years ago.
In the 1960s, figurines of women found in Anatolia dating from around 7,500 BC shows goddesses flanked by lionesses. This imagery was found in a grain bin leading archeologists to connect it to harvest and agriculture. This has been taken as a precursor to Cybele, the Mother Goddess of Anatolian history, who was always depicted with a lion.
Cybele on the throne with the lion. (Getty museum)
We see the same imagery in the Mother Goddess excavated at Çatalhöyük in Turkey where the deity is flanked on either side by lions. This has been dated to around 9,000 years before our time.
The Mother Goddess at Çatalhöyük. (Ankara Museum)
By now, if you are Indian, you can obviously see the clear similarity between these images
and the Durga/Devi/Mata/Kali worshipped in autumn in India. If you are not Indian, the
following images might help. Notice the same ‘body type’, if you will, in the Durga image below from the 1st century BC.
Durga, 1st century BC. (The MET)
Notice again the voluminous breasts and hips depicting fertility in the Durga plaque below — this one from Bengal. It must be noted here that in the earliest depictions of Durga in Bengal, the goddess is always shown with curly hair, which echoes the undulating head carving of the Venus of Willendorf. The same hairstyle is seen in Cybele of Anatolia.
Durga, 1st century BC — 1st century AD from Bengal. (The MET)
We see the same structure of body in the Mother Goddess figurine from the state of Rajasthan in India dated to the 6th century.
Mother Goddess, 6th century, Rajasthan. (The Met)
In many imaginations of Durga/Devi, the goddess is shown riding her lion steed, as is shown in the 9th century statuette below. In the Kali avatar, she is bare-chested.
The Goddess Durga is seen in battle on her lion steed also in the striking cave temples of Mahabalipuram built by the Pallava king Narasimha Varman (630–70 AD) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The carvings in the cave temples of Mahabalipuram.
The most common mistake in a few recent flawed analysis of this phenomenon has been to explain the depiction of Goddess Durga with the lion and the Indian national flag as Bharat Mata as an ironic copy of Goddess Britannia of Roman Britain because Bharat Mata was so frequently used as an inspiration in India’s struggle for independence against British rule.
Calendar art of Bharat Mata.
This is incorrect because the autumnal worship of the feminine divine has a much longer and illustrious history which goes back to man’s very first understanding of where food, and more importantly, life comes from, as the French archeologist Jacques Cauvin described in Naissance des divinités naissance de l’agriculture (The Birth of Divinities, The Birth of Agriculture).
The feminine divine that the Hindus worship in India and elsewhere in autumn is a colourful celebration of a most primal sense of gratitude in man. It is most certainly not a slavish colonial copy..