The story of Durga comes to us from the Devi Mahatmya, a 6th century text which is part of the Markandeya Purana. By the time this text was written, Goddess worship was clearly a significant component of popular religion in India. Neither the popularity of Buddhist monasticism nor the male bias of Vedic Brahmanism could overshadow the appeal of the Goddess and her fondness for blood. The Devi Mahatmya refers to the Goddess as a warrior who kills or helps kill trouble-making demons like Mahisha, Shumbha-Nishumbha, Chanda-Munda, Madhu-Kaitabha and Raktabija.
And yet in the Durga Pandal, what we see is a gentle, benign looking deity, dressed in finery, her face ethereal and enchanting, smiling benevolently. Her devotees worship her as mother. They sing songs to her glory. But few pay attention to the blood on the altar. A buffalo lies decapitated. In clay, if not in flesh. Those lips, those eyes, those jewels distract us from the violence around: the weapons of war, the ferocious lion, the man impaled by a trident, the blood pouring out of the buffalo’s severed neck.
In many parts of India, buffaloes are actually sacrificed to the Goddess. The beast is decorated with garlands of neem leaves. It is smeared with turmeric and kumkum. The entire village participates in the ceremony. Drums are beaten. Women go into a frenzy. Men dance. And finally, one of the men, usually belonging to a lower caste, raises the axe and beheads the sacrificial beast. The blow is swift and hard. The animal must die in a single stroke. It must not struggle or gasp for life. It must be alive one moment and dead in the next. Everyone will cheer the Goddess. A feast will follow.
What does this mother do – she kills a buffalo after a fight that lasts for nine nights. Explanations are simplistic: It is the battle of good over evil. Fine. So she kills the bad guy but why does she drink his blood and wear his head as a trophy? Shiva kills demon like Andhaka and Taraka but we don’t pour blood over the Shiva-Linga. Vishnu as Rama and Krishna kills Ravana and Kamsa. But the very idea of blood in Vishnu temples is shocking. Why then this special offering for the Goddess in a country where women are associated with timidity, weakness and gentleness ?
( ack : Devdutt )