‘To Devi, who abides in all beings as strength…’
Like a peep at the Devi Mahatmyam, the ‘Shakta bible’ since it's Navaratri? One look and you know right away why Macaulay came up with the deep and cunning plan to tear educated Indians away from their roots, bastardising us culturally forever and eve, he thought. You know why British policy was so deliberate in dismissing the entire history of thought in India as “a fabric of error.” When you brainwash someone that they are fundamentally ‘wrong’, the damage lasts for generations in subtle, poisonous ways.
Sensitive, intelligent Hindus naturally found many of our social malpractices deeply shaming and were vulnerable already. Add imperial disdain from our conquerors and what we become was a Chinese under Chairman Mao, a creature that no longer thought for itself, one of a herd of obedient servants, hiding its bankruptcy of ideas behind ideology. Nor did the ‘defenders of the faith’ make us feel any better, because they too lacked imagination and gentleness, they seethed with anger and jangled our darkest thoughts, instead of empowering our better self constructively. There really seemed nowhere to go.
But there is! Ironically, it is through the English language, back to the old books, deploying the Indian sensibility that never left us as an instinct and the loving help of the mother tongues: with the choice of taking only as much as we can handle, the new millennium choice.
So when you first read the Devi Mahatmyaham, as I did some years ago, your heart leaps: “This amazingly beautiful thing is mine?” It’s like with my friend, a Peshawari Khatri, who when she first ventured as far afield as Modhera in Gujarat and Thanjavur, TN, came back gobsmacked by the Sun temple at one and the Brihadishwara temple at the other. “I didn't know we could make things like that!” she said and actually wept a little.
Also called the Chandi or Durga Saptasati, the Devi Mahatmyham is 700 verses on the Goddess in 13 cantos from the Markandeya Puranam. They contain famous prayers that many of us already know, like the hymn Ya Devi sarvabhuteshu shakti rupena samastithah (Hail Goddess, who abides in all beings as strength). The Chandi, typically, starts with a story frame. Rishi Markandeya tells his disciple Krasustuki Bhaaguri about Suratha, a once-powerful king. His own ministers staged a palace coup and seized his treasury and army. The dispossessed king rode away alone into dense jungle, where he was amazed to see even the wild beasts behaving calmly because of the peaceful sound of chanting from an ashram. He pined however for his lost kingdom and in this state, encountered another man, also wandering desolately in the jungle.
This was the once-wealthy merchant, Samadhi, whose own greedy sons and wife grabbed his wealth and drove him out of his own home. Yet his heart longed for them and brooded over their betrayal. Shocked at their unintelligent attachment to lost luck, they looked for the ashram and found Rishi Markandeya. He explained to them it was all because of Mahamaya (Devi), the sublime Creatrix of every energy in the world. That existence was a game to be played with understanding. One had to do the best one could anyway, with full effort and goodwill and yet be constantly aware that it was the ‘pit of delusion’, that one must never, never get too attached beyond a point, because that way lay madness. Everything and everyone would go away in pleasant or unpleasant ways. That was the law of existence.
So you absolutely had to insulate the inner heart from hurting at everything. Yes, as a frail human being, you needed strength and comfort. Well, the best source of that was the Source herself, the Parashakti or Sublime Power. The king then asked, “Venerable Sir, who is that Devi whom you call Mahamaya? How did she come into being and what does she do? What constitutes her nature? Where did she come from, what is her form?”
And we're off! Swami Jagadiswarananda of the Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, did the book I have. You choose yours. May the Power be with you!