Durga is the fierce warrior goddess of the ancient Hindu pantheon. She is famous for combating demonic forces and other evils that threaten prosperity, peace and the eternal law of the universe.
A many-armed deity mounted on a tiger, Durga is one of thousands of incarnations of gods and goddesses. She is often depicted triumphing over the bull demon Mahishasura and symbolizes the inherent strength of the feminine in the divine.
Basically, she’s an utter badass of the highest order. I mean, she rides a tiger for god(dess’) sake – she’s definitely the kind of being I’d rally behind in the ultimate fight against depravity. And her place of origin – India – I simply had to one day visit for myself.
Finally, late last year, I had the opportunity to venture north to the subcontinent as one of 20 scholars chosen for the 2017/18 Caux Scholars Program Asia Plateau. CSP-AP was a three week course on peacebuilding and conflict transformation at the Initiatives of Change (IofC) facility in Panchgani, Maharashtra – right in the heart of India.
Of course, I cast aside any visions of emulating Durga’s butt-kicking, demon-slaying ways, given their apparent incompatibility with the concept of peace-building. Instead, I tried to embrace the more peaceful, studious image of the goddess of knowledge and music, art, wisdom and learning – Saraswathi.
I discovered later when role playing one half of a brutal militia in a simulation exercise that I’m really not at all cut out for that #WarLordLyf – too much murdering and paranoia. Not enough tea breaks.
During the program, I figured I’d be pushed well out of my comfort zone. I assumed I would meet a variety of like-minded, naive idealists bent on changing the world for the better. I didn’t foresee finding myself red-eyed and half-naked on the floor of a hotel bathroom at 2 in the morning, scrubbing away a partially digested omelette, along with bile-on toast… But, hey, you know, swings and roundabouts.
I absolutely never imagined walking away from my trip to Panchgani with an entirely new extended family of ridiculously pure and incredible human beings. They came from fifteen different countries that included several Indians and a variety of different age groups. Each taught me so much. Honestly my time at the IofC centre in Asia Plateau was quite simply transformative.
There were animated classroom discussions on Indian monetary policy, and hushed late night instructionals on team progression in the Super Bowl. I still have no idea how this team play works but I’m pretty sure it’s a case of “multiply by 20 and subtract the first number that pops into your head?
Joyful, clumsy attempts at rhythm matching and sing-song circle chanting were followed by explorations of the victim-aggressor cycle; all sheltered from the harsh afternoon sun under the cool shade of a jacaranda tree. Over three short weeks, we shared sorrow-filled tears and raucous laughter alike.
One of our last journeys together was a field visit to a not-too-distant village, famous locally for conflict over severe water shortages. The village had subsequently put aside their differences and we were there to witness the fruits of their cooperation. Upon our arrival we were welcomed as honoured guests, and marched into the local school grounds to the sound of drums, receiving a bright blessing of kumkum (vermilion) and haldi (turmeric) on our foreheads.
I found myself endlessly impressed with the strides the village had taken to lift themselves out of distress. They had built special channels and wells, implemented a water purification plant, and had begun to reduce their use of pesticides in favor of more organic farming practices.
But the true moment of awe came courtesy of our two female Indian classmates – Swathi and Chetana. They bravely challenged the patriarchal leadership in the town. Swathi, (whose namesake is the goddess Saraswathi, the one I had tried to embody) diplomatically yet firmly confronted the gender elephant in the room.
She called out the tokenism in the village – they had effectively put the female sarpanch (village leader) on display to be seen by all, yet barely allowed her to speak.
When confronted, the leaders tried to save face, suggesting they’d “make sure she presented better next time”. This in turn was met with a polite but impassioned response from Chetana, who doubled down on the issue and reinforced the importance of women’s empowerment for the whole village to prosper.
Now, as the great wizard Dumbledore once proclaimed (more or less): it takes immense courage to stand up to an adversary, but challenging a friend (or in this case, one’s host, on their home turf, in front of the entire village!) requires something more.
Something akin to the fortitude of Durga, confronting Mahishasura from atop her tiger. Indeed, the goddess has many faces and sometimes conflict in life is inevitable… was it not Thomas Jefferson (and probably also Dumbledore on at least one occasion) who said that all tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent?
On the final day we gathered in the school hall before leaving the village. I sat on the floor surrounded by a dozen tiny mischievous faces. The little girls from the village, some as young as 5 years old, had found an entertaining new pastime in the form of casual torture – tickling my bare feet as I sat desperately trying to suppress my snickers and focus instead on the speakers at the front of the hall.
The final presentation, we noted with some joy, was given by a woman who worked with a number of local NGOs. This as opposed to the parade of men who had previously addressed us – it was a small victory, but significant nonetheless.
For in a country where the demands of a now prohibited but still deeply ingrained dowry-system have meant that foetal and infant femicide has become all too common an occurrence, in that moment it hit me.
These bright, curious, giggling little humans surrounding me, so full of life and promise, might not otherwise be alive – were it not for the courage of the women who came before them.
I left India inspired by these women. Women like Swathi and Chetana – warrior goddesses championing equality, questioning the status quo, and helping pave the way for future generations of women and girls, that they might share in their rightful spoils of the world’s biggest democracy – before riding their tigers into the sunset.