Many people have heard of Shiva and Durga, the god and goddess of this material universe. However, they often don’t know that Shiva and Durga ultimately consider themselves devotees of Krishna.
Durgastami falls on the eighth day of Navaratri, a nine-day festival honoring Goddess Durga. This year it falls on October 13. In this article we explore Durga’s position as the personification of the material energy, as well as the different names by which she is known in this world.
Durga-devi is well-known as the bride of Shiva. And as a chaste wife, she follows her husband in all respects. What many people do not know is that Shiva is actually a devotee of Krishna. This is seen throughout the Vedas. For example, the Srimad Bhagavatam calls Shiva “the best of all Vaisnavas” (vaiṣṇavānāṁ yathā śambhuḥ). Shiva himself tells his wife, Parvati, that he is a devotee of Krishna:
sattvam vishuddhaṁ vasudeva-shabditam
yad īyate tatra pumān apāvrtah
sattve ca tasmin bhagavān vāsudevo
hy adhokshajo me namasā vidhīyate
“I am always engaged in offering obeisances to Lord Vāsudeva in pure Krishna consciousness. Krishna consciousness is always pure consciousness, in which the Supreme Personality of Godhead, known as Vāsudeva, is revealed without any covering.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.3.23)
Furthermore, in the Padma Purana, Lord Shiva tells Parvati:
aradhananam sarvesham vishnor aradhanam param
“Of all types of worship, the worship of Vishnu (Krishna) is the highest.”
However, seeing his wife somewhat discouraged due to her great affection for her husband, Shiva then spoke the next line:
tasmat parataram devi tadiyanam samarchanam
“Even greater than the worship of Vishnu is the worship of the Vaishnavas, who are related to Lord Vishnu.”
When Parvati heard this, she became very happy, because she knew her husband to be the best of all Vaishnavas, or worshipers of Vishnu.
The Vedas explain that God is much more than an impersonal being who is devoid of qualities. God possesses unlimited energies, among which three are most prominent:
- The spiritual energy. This is Krishna’s internal, pleasure-giving potency that makes up the total variety of life in the spiritual realm known as Vaikuntha. Krishna’s abode, His clothing, and all of His associates ultimately expand from this spiritual energy.
- The material energy. This is Krishna’s external potency, which is the cause of the creation and annihilation of our material world. It blinds conditioned souls to their own spiritual nature and distracts them from the worship of God, which is their eternal duty.
- The marginal energy. This energy is situated in between the internal and external potencies. It consists of all the living beings, known in Sanskrit as jivas, who are struggling to find happiness in this material world. When the jivas turn toward Lord Krishna and take up the practice of bhakti-yoga, they can recover their original, spiritual nature and experience complete happiness in Krishna’s service.
As the total embodiment of the external energy, Durga provides conditioned souls in the material world with all facilities for forgetting God and attempting to become happy independently. However, she also mixes in the right dose of suffering so that we can learn that this material world is not our true home. Just as Shiva expands from Krishna, Durga-devi expands from Krishna’s internal potency, Radha.
‘devī-dhāma’ nāma tāra, jīva yāra vāsī
jagal-lakshmī rākhi’ rahe yāhāṅ māyā dāsī
“The abode of the external energy is called Devī-dhāma, and its inhabitants are the conditioned souls. It is there that the material energy, Durgā, resides with many opulent maidservants.” (Caitanya-caritamrta 2.21.53)
The worship of Goddess Durga goes back many millions of years. Ancient stories in the Vedic Puranas describe many famous devotees of Parvati. However, the Puranas further reveal that such worship was traditionally viewed as auxiliary to the primary worship of the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. As devotees themselves, Durga and Shiva are eager to help conditioned souls break free of the bondage of material consciousness and realize their true nature as eternal servants of God.
As the personification of the Lord’s external, illusory potency, Durga-devi expands her energies as the three modes of material nature, which delude the conditioned souls into identifying with matter and forgetting their eternal spiritual existence. She rides on a tiger chasing down and punishing sinful solus. However, by the practice of bhakti-yoga, culminating in surrender and service to Krishna, one can overcome this fearsome aspect of Maya-devi (Durga). As Krishna tells Arjuna:
daivī hy eṣā guṇa-mayī
mama māyā duratyayā
mām eva ye prapadyante
māyām etāṁ taranti te
“This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.” (Bhagavad-gita 7.14)
In the Srimad Bhagavatam, a list of fourteen different names are given for Durga. Like a mother watching over her children, Durga feels great affection for all the souls in this world, and when they pray to her for aid, she quickly reciprocates. However, the material boons or blessings one might receive are ultimately temporary. Only bhakti is eternal. All other assets are destroyed with the body at the time of death.
- Durgā. This name means “One who is difficult to approach.” In other words, Durga is elusive. We may recognize that we are under illusion, but still we cannot perceive all the multifaceted layers of our ignorance.
- Bhadrakālī. Bhadrā means “auspicious.” If one approaches Durga in a humble mood of devotion, then she will reveal the path to Truth and everlasting happiness. Kālī refers to her deep blue color.
- Vijayā. This name refers to Durga’s extreme power. Literally, Vijayā means “supreme conqueress.”
- Vaishnavī. Because she is a devotee of Vishnu and one of His eternal energies, Durga is known by the name Vaishnavī.
- Kumudā. Because she always enjoys the pleasures of this world and readily shares such pleasures with her servants and worshipers, Durga is known by the name Kumudā.
- Chandikā. To her opponents, Durga is fearsome and dangerous. She does not hesitate to kill demons and evildoers. Therefore she is known by this name.
- Krishnā. This name refers to Durga’s attractive nature. Just as a flame attracts a moth, ultimately bringing about its destruction, Durga-devi attracts conditioned souls and keeps them entranced in the illusion of material existence.
- Mādhavī. Although she is often fierce and intimidating, Durga-devi can also be soft and sweet as a flower, as indicated by the name Mādhavī.
- Kanyakā. This name refers to Durga’s beautiful and youthful feminine appearance.
- Māyā. As the deluding feature of this world, Durga-devi is the personification of Maya, or the illusion created by false ego and the material mind.
- Nārāyanī. Durga is famous as Subhadra, or the sister of Lord Nārāyana in His original form as Sri Krishna. Therefore she is known as Nārāyanī.
- Īshānī. Durga is also famous as the eternal consort of Shiva, who is also known as Ishana. Therefore she is known as Ishānī.
- Shāradā. Because she is extremely clever and intelligent, Durga is also known as Shāradā.
- Ambikā. Last but not least, the name Ambikā means “mother,” for Durga is the mother of all of us here in the material world. What does any mother want for her children? She wants to see them grow up! By giving up our self-centered childishness and taking up the responsibilities of spiritual adult life, we will give great pleasure to our mother Durga-devi.