An important festival of the Hindus associated with goddess Durga is that of Durga Puja, which has been celebrated for ages by Hindus. In the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana there are various references to goddess Durga. When the Pandavas entered the capital of Virata for their period of one year in disguise they propitiated Durga who appeared before them and granted them boons. Again, at the commencement of the great war of Kurukshetra, Lord Krishna advised Arjuna to worship Goddess Durga to ensure victory in battle.
The festival of Durga Puja is popularly attributed to a tale from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Lord Rama went to Lanka, the kingdom of Ravana - the demon king, to rescue his abducted wife, Sita. Before starting for his battle with Ravana, Rama wanted the blessings of goddess Durga. He came to know that the goddess would be pleased only if she is worshipped with one hundred eight 'Neel Kamal' or blue lotuses. Rama, after travelling the whole world, could gather only one hundred seven of them. He finally decided to offer one of his eyes, which resembled a blue lotus. Durga, being pleased with the devotion of Rama, appeared before him and blessed him. The battle with Ravana started on the 'Saptami' (the seventh day after the new moon night just prior to the Autumn festival of Durga Puja) and Ravana was finally killed on the 'Sandhikshan' i.e. the crossover period between Ashtami (the eighth day after new moon) and Navami (the ninth day after new moon). Ravana was cremated on Dashami (the tenth day after new moon). Since the period of this worship was different from the conventional period of worship of Durga (during the spring - 'Basanta'), this puja is also known as 'Akal-Bodhan' or worship (Bodhan) at an unconventional time.
Worship of goddess Durga signifies the process by which the divine potential within every being removes its layers of ignorance and achieves the state of self-realization. Hindus celebrate this occasion at an auspicious time every year to constantly remind themselves of the significance of this very process. They contemplate the progress made on their spiritual journey and celebrate with great joy the victory of the supreme consciousness over the demons of ignorance. The festival is also a reminder that evil can never triumph over the power of truth.
Durga Puja is the greatest Hindu festival in which God is adored as Mother. Hinduism is the only religion in the world, which has emphasized to such an extent the motherhood of God. Perhaps the greatest testament to the power of Durga Puja is that even today the Mother is worshipped by billions of Hindus world wide in exactly the same manner as she was thousands of years ago.
Images of Durga usually have an extra divine eye in the middle of the forehead. There can be four, eight, ten, eighteen, or twenty arms. The most common objects held in the hands are a conch, discus, trident, bow, arrow, sword, dagger, shield, rosary, wine cup, and bell. Her hair is in Karandamukuta, a crown style of hairdo. She wears gorgeous red clothes and several ornaments, and stands on a lotus or the head of a buffalo or rides a lion. There are endless aspects of Durga described in the Puranas and Agamas (ancient Hindu texts) and the iconography is consequently varied.
The most important form of Durga is as Mahishasuramardini or the slayer of Mahishasura (the demon king). The image is of the Goddess cutting off the head of the buffalo-demon. This image usually most commonly is shown with eight or ten arms, and the hands hold weapons and a lotus. Mahishasura, the demon, may be shown half emerging in his human form from the carcass of his former buffalo form.
At the Durga Puja, the most important festival of Durga, she is shown with four other deities - usually smaller in size than that of goddess Durga. Two deities are placed on each side of the main idol of goddess Durga. These deities are Kartikeya, Ganesha, Saraswati, and Lakshmi, who are commonly identified as her children. The festival of Durga Puja usually involves beautiful and larger than life clay idols of Durga and her accompanying deities.
The four days (beginning with the sixth day after the last new moon before the festival) of the festival is actually representative of the home-coming of goddess Durga along with Kartik, Ganesha, Saraswati and Lakshmi. These four days are marked by celebration and merry-making. The deities are presented with offerings throughout the festivities. On Vijayadasami, the "Victorious Tenth Day," the idols are taken in a parade to a river or tank and immersed as a representation of bidding a tearful goodbye to the deities. This is usually a very emotional time for devout Hindus who accompany the idols to the immersion spot.
The same day sees millions of Hindus also celebrate the festival of Dusshera which marks the end of evil, as depicted by the burning of huge effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meghnad - the three demon brothers, Ravana being the king of demons. All three were defeated by Lord Rama on this day.
Other forms of festivities during the period preceding Dussehra or Vijayadashami also exist, the most popular being that of the Navaratri festival, which involves the propitiation of Goddess Durga in nine different forms called the Nava-Durga (explained in an earlier section), over the nine days preceding Dussehra and starting on the first day after the last new moon preceding Dusshera. During Navaratri, one of each of these nine forms of goddess Durga is worshipped on a particular night for the destruction of evil and for the preservation of Dharma (religion).
The Devi Mahatmya indicated that Durga, in the form of Mahamaya or Mahashakti, pervades the universe in both its forms as material and thought. She creates, maintains, and periodically destroys it. When the balance of the universe is disturbed, Durga assumes various forms to restore order and balance. She is thus also, the guardian of dharma or cosmic order. This nature of hers makes her akin to a female form of Lord Vishnu since the concept of a deity assuming a separate form for maintaining the cosmic order is central to Vaishnavism - the Hindu sect which follows Lord Vishnu as the sole universal power.
The Devi Mahatmya talks about three such cosmic interventions by Durga on behalf of the gods: the battle with Madhu and Kaitabha, the battle with Mahishasura - the buffalo-demon, and the battle with Shumbha and Nisumbha.
The Devimahatmya states that Durga is the universe. "As immanent in the world Durga is equated with the earth. As transcendent, she is the heavenly queen who descends from time to time to maintain harmony on earth." (Kinsley 1986, 105)
The Divine Mother is beyond all material attributes, eternal and ever omniscient. She is beyond any change, immutable and unattainable but by yoga. She is the refuge of the universe and her nature is of pure consciousness.