Worship of the feminine is something that sets Hinduism apart from monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam. In ancient times, worship of the Mother goddess was widely prevalent, but as patriarchy took root, this disappeared. Today, only Hinduism gives pride of place to female divinities who even have their own temples, and rituals specific to each region. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, we have the Amman temples and in Kerala we have the Bhagavati Seva rituals and Devi temples dedicated to the Goddess.
Indian art too has always celebrated the divine feminine, be it in the verses of Ilango Adigal (Silappathikaram) or the rock cut sculptures at Ajanta and Ellora. Sublime theologies of the Goddess are part of Hindu philosophy as well. For instance, in Shakta theology, supreme divinity, power over creation, speech, mind, nature, liberation and even the universe is attributed to Devi, the Goddess, who is regarded as more powerful than the supreme gods, Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and Indra. Tantric religious traditions which are shrouded in secrecy and known only to a select few also acknowledge the power of the Goddess. Tantric texts claim that only the Goddess can grant the dual goals of bhukti and mukti. The Devi Mahatmya says that she is eternal, supreme knowledge and bestows the boon of final liberation. She is the universe’s sole and absolute creative force or shakti (power). Shakti is also the name of the Goddess and the ultimate principle. She is the “dynamic, manifesting energy of creation, while the male god is the static, unmanifested aspect of reality”.
Goddess Durga was born to kill the demon, Mahishasura, who represented evil and ignorance. Even the gods were unable to defeat him, so each god surrendered his individual energy (shakti) to the collective force that became Durga. She slew the demon with ease; the death of Mahishasura symbolizes the death of the stubborn human ego, which prevents the individual from escaping the cycle of reincarnation.
The goddess again incarnated as Ambika to kill Shumba and Nishumba, the mighty demons. The battle was so fierce that the gods had to enlist the help of the Saptamatrikas, or the Seven Mothers. They are Kaumari, Brahmani, Vaishnavi, Maheshvari, Varahi, Indrani and Chamunda. The first six are the relinquished shaktis of the six prominent Hindu gods. Chamunda, best known as Kali, is the most virulent energy of the Goddess who emerged from Ambika’s forehead. As she defeated the demon generals, Chanda and Munda, she got the name of Chamunda.
Among the many festivals dedicated to goddesses in India, Navaratri is the most important. It celebrates the nine forms of Goddess Durga. Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati are three dimensions of the feminine, symbolizing the earth, the sun and the moon. They also represent tamas (inertia), rajas (activity, passion) and sattva (transcendence, knowledge, purity) respectively. Those who want strength or power, worship Mother Earth or Durga or Kali. Those who desire wealth, passion or material things worship Lakshmi or the sun. Those who seek knowledge, dissolution or the ability to transcend the limitations of the mortal body worship Saraswati or the moon.
The nine days of Navaratri are classified on the basis of these qualities. Durga is revered on the first three days, Lakshmi, on the next three days and the last three days are dedicated to Saraswati. Vijayadashami, the 10th day, represents the victory achieved over all these three facets of life.