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Biographies of God and God-alike

Malabika Majumdar

Nilima Chitgopekar ; Mehru Jaffer; Navtej Sarna
Viking/Penguin, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 125; pp. 147; pp. 149, Rs. 195.00 each


This set of three volumes aims to cover the salient features of God and God-alike appearing in different religions, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. The contributors have given a comprehensive bird’s eyeview of their origins along with anecdotes that manifest their awesome personality. The cultural settings of the three religious heads vary considerably. Goddess Durga, the slayer of Mahishasura has a mythical origin, hence her feats can be traced from the phantasms recorded in the Puranas like the Devi Mahatmya, Markandeya Purana and Skanda Purana. Nanak and Muhammad on the contrary had a humble human beginning. It makes an interesting reading as to how they ascended to the exalted position of a mystic and a seer to whom God has revealed the way.   It is difficult to write biographies of Gods and that too in a manner that reduces mysteries and miracles to the minimum. The iconic representation of Durga as it appears in the Puranas, is a purely fictitious narrative, hence a demystified version of her origin and deeds of valour can be attempted at the cost of the devotee’s rancour. The author begins by surveying the Puranas that reveal the fabricated origin of both Durga and her arch enemy, Mahishasura. She also scores by going beyond the narratives to interpret the iconography once from the philosophical angle and then from the socio-cultural view. Hence her canvas is vast.   The core philosophical ideas associated with Durga are that she is the unfathomable female power who reveals herself through cosmic manifestations. She has been described as parama prakriti or the Divine Mother. The author thinks that there is a possibility of phenomenal rise of female divinities from Samkhya dualism. Though in latter philosophy, prakriti is insentient, the image of Durga is hardly so. As the Mahatmya reveals she is the underlying power of the Divine. This idea could have originated in the tantric philosophy and have at a later stage entrenched into the brahminical works.   The devotional aspect of Durga is as paradoxical as her origin. Her personality is simultaneously benevolent and malevolent. Her relationships with her devotees vary according to the form in which she appears. The ten-handed Goddess who rides a lion and slays Mahishasur with concentration has a benign face. But Kali, Chhinnamasta and Chandika who rout demons like Raktabija, Shumbha Nishumbha are fearsome in appearance. A natural concomitant to this would be a kaleidoscopic interpretation ...

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