KOLKATA: Shahid Ali is a Muslim priest who will perform the rituals at a Durga Puja this year. But that’s not the only reason we’re writing about him. Like the deity he will worship, Shahid and the humble locality he stays in, are a symbol of the victory of good over evil, of humanity over divisive faith and of the secular mind over zealous theocrats.
Balwant Singh, a member of the puja committee, says: “Shahid fasts for all four days and performs puja according to Hindu shastras“
Every year, my grandparents used to take us to Uncle Devraj’s house in Karachi where together we celebrated the annual full moon sighting, known as Diwali. Devraj was Hindu, and my grandfather was Muslim, but they both spoke Sindhi and shared familial roots. Theirs was not a unique story. Unlike in Punjab, where partition brought bloodshed on an unprecedented scale, the Sindh province to the south saw little or no communal violence. The Hindus of Sindh largely stayed behind. Muslim and Hindu families shared bonds that reached back generations; a sense of respect for community prevailed. My grandfather even had his own collection of Hindu icons in his study. Perhaps I’d taken the Durga from Devraj’s house thinking it would be equally at home with him.
Those memories, long forgotten, came flooding back when I decided to make a trip to the Hinglaj—a Hindu holy site located half a day’s journey from Karachi. The Hinglaj temple is located in a cave in the Hingol mountains. It is where the goddess Sati’s head (one of the forms of Durga) is said to have fallen from the sky after her body was cut into 51 pieces by Vishnu. “The Hinglaj is to us as the Ka’abah is to you,” said my local Hindu guide, Danesh Kumar, referring to the shrine in Mecca toward which all Muslims direct their daily prayers.
MUMBAI: Mohammed Tahir and his wife Zubeida, main organisers of a local Navratri festival, have been celebrating since 1983.
Tahir said that his wife had dreamt of the Goddess and the couple has since been setting up a makeshift temple every year dedicated to Goddess Durga. “Every year, the temple has a different setting. We have made replica of the Balaji, Vaishno Devi Temple in Jammu, Kedarnath and Badrinath,” said Tahir.
Zubeida said the temple was for everyone who believed that all religions taught different paths to reach the same God. “It is for everyone who believes in the unity of religions. We all celebrate it together, be it Hindu or Muslim. In fact people from various religions and regions come here,” said Zubeida.
Mohammad Tahir, 61, is a labour contractor and has been to Vaishnodevi temple 15 times. “I wanted to keep a Bhandara like that temple and asked the goddess for strength to replicate it in my area. People have been very helpful and have donated a lot of groceries. Over 700 people are fed here daily, after the evening Aarti. Till date, I’ve never had to ask for funds. They just come.”
VIZIANAGARAM: Attaullah Shariff Shataj Khadiri Baba, popularly known as “Biryani Baba”, has been feeding biryani to the poor for the decades in Vizianagaram and Cheemalapadu of Krishna district.
When assessed, this comes to to be around one crore (ten million) people in the last 40 years. Mr Baba, 78, has continued the legacy of his guru Khadar Baba who passed away 40 years ago.
Mr Baba, who shuttles between Vizianagaram and Cheemalapadu Dargah, blesses the people who believe in him and offers them anna prasada at Langar Khana on the dargah premises. Mr Baba himself participates in cooking the biryani. Everyday, at least a thousand people eat in Cheemalapadu and Vizianagaram.
Mr Baba said, “I am just providing meals to the needy. With the help of donors and devotees, the programme continues smoothly. I don’t believe in religion or castes, I appeal to the public to help the poor. I believe that service to humans is equal to service to God.”
TRIPURA: Muslims in two villages bordering Bangladesh in Tripura are jointly celebrating the Durga Puja with Hindus. Dominated by Muslims, the Kulubari and Durgapur villages in western Tripura’s Sepahijala district, attract people of all religions across the northeastern state. Over 90 per cent of the total population of both Kulubari and Durgapur villages are Muslims, who comprise around nine per cent of Tripura’s total of 3.7 million
“The festival is for all. Why should we not organise this with everyone else? This is Tripura. We would like to live here together, die together and also like to share everything amongst us,” said Mujibur Rahman Chowdhury, an elderly Muslim leader in Kulubari village.
“We are really happy that Durga Puja is celebrated in our village with the active help of the majority Muslims. This is incomparable in many parts of our country,” said, Swapan Saha, a Hindu villager and a government school teacher. “Without the sincere support of Muslims, we can’t dream of celebrating the festival in such a big way as the Hindu population is very few.”
“They are tirelessly helping people from far and near to take on this arduous journey comfortably and then they deserve blessings. While we find it difficult to climb on our own back they take people in palanquins on their shoulder and with great ease. Commendable indeed and a matter of great happiness”
– Hindu devotee on Muslims assisting pilgrims
DHAKA: She gave Dhaka her name (from Dhakeshwari which means Goddess). And though she has been attacked several times she remains an inspiring example of communal integration in Bangladesh. The best time to witness this is during Durga puja. The 800-year-old Dhakeshwari temple is like no other Hindu temple in the world. It is a must-visit for not only the country’s estimated 14 lakh Hindus, but also for the vast majority of Muslims here.
The long queues waiting to be served the rich bhuna khichuri served on Ashtami include Muslims too. “Durga Puja, for us, is an occasion to do some social service and strengthen bonds between members of other communities,” says Bashudeb Dhar, president of the Mahanagar Sarbojonin Puja Committee. Prominent members of all communities, including Buddhists and Christians, are invited to participate in the festivities. But the committee also reaches out to the general public by offering free meals and organizing community initiatives. “There have been attempts to destroy this secular culture. Our participation in Durgotsav is important to defeat these attempts,” says Mohammad ‘Montu’ Naseem, a prominent businessman. Prominent Muslims serve on the organizing committees of most pujas here. “Pujas are an integral part of our cultural and religious heritage and we must fight all attempts to destroy it,” says Awami League leader Abdul Qadir Nissar.
BIHAR: Muslims have helped build a Hindu temple dedicated to goddess Durga in Bihar’s Gaya district, not just by making donations but also by supervising its construction. “There was active help from Muslims, all of whom are railway employees. This temple is a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity as both joined hands to construct it”, said Ashok Kumar, another resident.
Muslims personally donated and collected funds worth nearly Rs. five lakh, locals said. Mohammad Sahab said dozens of Muslims donated money and others helped by doing other works for the construction. Muslims make up around 16 per cent of the 105 million population of Bihar. In Gaya town, there are over a dozen Muslim localities. Over three decades ago, some Hindus had donated a piece of land for the construction of a mazar in the same village.
CUTTACK: The city’s zari pandals (intricately decorated tents) are not only remarkable in their beauty but are also a symbol of communal harmony. 52 year old Salim Khan has been working on Zari Pandalsfor Durga Puja since he was just eight years old. Salim learnt this art from his father and now his 22-year-old daughter, Resham, is carrying forward the family tradition – a tradition where Muslim artisans make the Hindu festival of Durga Puja complete with their hands.
“All festivals are the same be it Eid or Dussehra. We all must celebrate them,” says Salim Khan.
Every Durga Puja, Cuttack city’s Banka Bazar sees more than fifty such Muslim families working in full swing to complete the Zari pandals and each pandal takes at least three months time to make. Incidentally, these Muslim families are also the first ones present at the pandal for the Durga puja ceremony.
I bow again and again to the Devi, who lives in all creatures in the form of Mother. In this creation, I am one, and I am many as well, in various forms
– Srimad Devi Bhagavatam 6:11
Tonight marks the start of Navratri, a celebration worshiping Mother Durga in her various forms. Many Hindu devotees embark on a nine night (nav meaning nine, rat meaning night) fast. They conclude the festival with a grand feast on the 10th day of Dassera. The 10th day celebrates the anniversary of Durga slaying Mahishasura, a demon that terrorized both Earth and the heavens.
This narrative is also a metaphor with a deeper spiritual meaning. During these nine nights Hindus appeal for spiritual wealth, knowledge, and strength in slaying their own mental Mahishasuras such as pride, ignorance, or attachment to trivial matters of the world. These internal demons battle to steer the mind and soul away from its Higher purpose.
Learn more about the feminine concept of God in Hinduism and Islam here: Shakti and Sakina
This month Dharma Deen Alliance explores the concept of divinity as being feminine. We will discuss its existence in both Hindu and Muslim traditions and elaborate on its deeper meaning and metaphysical significance. And just as Muslims fast for Ramadan, during Navratri Hindus fast for 9 days.
In this creation, I am one, and I am many as well, in various forms
– Srimad Devi Bhagavatam 6:11
I am the Father of the Universe, the Mother of the universe, the Creator of all
– Bhagavad Gita 9:17
The concept of the Divine being worshiped as a Holy Mother may seem strange as most people would say that God is gender-neutral and lacks human traits. The reality is that people of all faiths ascribe human-like qualities to the Creator. Some see God as vengeful and angry, punishing people through great floods, earthquakes, and plagues. Others view that same God as all-loving and forgiving, bestowing blessings and offering protection in times of need. Then there are those who (unfortunately) view the Absolute as a competitor, commanding followers to take out opponent religions through conversion or suppression. While most people agree that the Almighty has no gender they see no contradiction in using terms like “Father,” “Lord,” or “King.” So if it’s odd that God is worshiped as Mother to some, shouldn’t it then also be equally strange that fatherly characteristics are assigned to something that transcends human characteristics? This will be discussed more later.
The Abrahamic faiths, just like the dharmic religions, also have a concept of female divine energy. In Judaism the Hebrew shekhina means “presence of God” and is described as feminine. As in Hinduism, shekhina is characterized as inseparable from and a functional part of the Creator. When revelations such as the Ten Commandments were delivered to the prophets, it was transmitted through shekhina’s energy. In Catholicism, adherents honor the Virgin Mary as the mother of Divinity. The equivalent of shekhina in Arabic is sakina in Islam (see Part 2 for the Muslim perspective on this).
In dharmic traditions, sakina’s counterpart is referred to in Sanskrit as shakti. Shakti is the manifestation of cosmic power. It’s the divine force that creates and sustains the universe.
What is Navratri?
Navratri is a festival of nine nights. The tenth day generally culminates with feasting and marks the anniversary of when the Goddess Durga slayed Mahishasura, a demon that terrorized both Earth and the heavens. This narrative is also a metaphor with a deeper spiritual meaning. During these nine nights Hindus fast and appeal for spiritual wealth, knowledge, and strength in slaying their own personal Mahishasuras/demons such as pride, ignorance, or attachment to trivial matters of the world. These internal demons battle to steer the mind and soul away from its Higher purpose.
Why worship a Divine Mother?
In Sanskrit nirguna Brahman means the Supreme Divine without form and human qualities. The opposite is saguna Brahman which means Divine form with qualities. Worshipping God as Sacred Mother or Holy Father (saguna Brahman) does not necessarily mean rejecting a gender-neutral, formless Supreme Being (nirguna Brahman). Swami Sivananda once elaborated on this point: “it is easier to establish a conscious relationship…in terms of benevolent fatherhood or affectionate, kindly motherhood than by the concept of an unfathomable void.”
Building up devotional qualities by viewing Brahman in the same way a child adores his/her parents becomes much easier to grasp. Since life comes out of a mother’s womb the Creator is more accessible to one’s mental capacity when the universe is viewed as the womb of the Mother’s creation. For some seekers it would be hard to open their heart and mind to an abstract, formless Being, and since a child calls out for their mother in times of need, worshipers of the Goddess call out to their Holy Mother when longing for protection or peace of mind.
Shakti manifested in human form
South Asia has a long and rich history of women who are living examples of shakti. The Vedas, which are the foundational scriptures of Hindu culture contain several texts and prayers that were written by female sages. The famous mystic Ramakrishna learned meditation and shakti worship through his female guru Bharavi Brahmani. Before his passing, he appointed his wife Sarada Devi, also a devout worshiper of Mother Kali (a manifestation of Durga), to be his successor. Sarada Devi initiated anyone who approached her into the spiritual path regardless of social status or gender. She also made it her life’s work to build Vedanta centers all over the world and spread meditation practice to the masses. Anandamayi Ma, an advanced yoga practitioner set up temples in various cities and attracted students of all religions desirous of divine bliss. She’s mentioned in the book Autobiography of a Yogi. A more recent example is the “Hugging Saint.” Amma has traveled the globe embracing thousands of people for hours on end at public events. She preaches that devotion must be go hand in hand with the karmic act of helping the downtrodden. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva works on behalf of exploited peoples and is author of Vedic Ecology. Many examples of women both out in the public eye to women of strength privately acting behind the scenes abound, each beaming shakti in their daily life, serving humanity and executing dharma.
The Arabic term Allah is in fact a container term that holds within it all the diverse names of the Divinity throughout time. Traditionally Muslims use names for God such as “True”, “Ever-Living”, “Merciful”, “Compassionate”, “Subtle” and so on. These names are called the Asma ul-Husna, or the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. This is by no means an exhaustive list, they are simply among the most prominent names used for God in the Qur’an, and can be used to invoke various aspects of Allah. Like the concept of yin-yang in Daoism, the Asma ul-Husna is made up of two complimentary sides, one being Jamal (Beautiful) and the other Jalal (Powerful). For example, God is both the Creator and the Destroyer, the Punisher and the Pardoner, the Kind and the Avenger, the Hidden and the Manifest, the Constrictor and the Expander, etc. Though appearing to contradict each other, they instead meet in the name Allah, which unites opposites.
Within Islam, God is the creator of everything, even that which we see as negative in the world. As in yin-yang, these can also be considered masculine and feminine aspects of one single Divine Essence, Jamal being in the feminine and Jalal being the masculine. Without reinforcing negative gender stereotypes, it is important to not take this literally to mean male and female in a dogmatic sense, but instead it is a way of unveiling the feminine within the divine, a subject often overlooked in the Islamic discourse. Speaking of and calling upon God using the Jamal names can be thought of as, in a sense, invoking the feminine qualities of God.
Beginning with the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Islamic scholars and sages have expressed the central role of the feminine principle within the Din (religion). The Prophet famously said: “I was made to love three things from your world: women, perfume, and the comfort of my eye is in prayer.” Muslims have taken this hadith (prophetic saying) as one important indicator of the Prophet’s love of the feminine. Women are mentioned interestingly even before prayer, the sacred devotional act in Islam. The 13th century Spanish Sufi Ibn al-Arabi elaborated on this by saying that women are “the most complete and perfect contemplation of Reality”. And Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi says that, “The eternal mystery of Allah’s uncreated Essence is the Divine Feminine.” In another verse he says that “Woman is the radiance of God. She is the Creator.” Taken together, these verses offer a challenge to any patriarchal, male-centered interpretation of the Divine in Islam.