The Cult of Durgā

Durgā killing the Buffalo Demon.
Dated 9th-10th century. Made of stone (basalt).
© The Trustees of the British Museum
(Museum No.: 1872,0701.79)

The Indian deity Durgā has been adopted by the modern yoga movement as a symbol of feminism and the embodiment of strength and power. Her heroic myth has found resonance with contemporary practitioners, so much so that it is often the inspiration for self-help guidelines and empowerment retreats. The iconic depiction of Durgā as a victorious warrior upon a lion has come to inspire an āsana in which one is meant to mimic the riding of "a lion into the great victory of [one's] life." This same article in Yoga Journal claims that Durgā may be 'invoked' during a vinyasa flow practice so as to summon "her strength" and "[...] to never doubt your own power, to stand firmly in your truth, and to call forth your fearless heart."

Durgā mounted on her lion fighting the demons.
Undated. Drawing - gouache with oxidised silver.
Wellcome Library no. 27688i

How far are these ideas from the conception of the goddess Durgā in classical India? What are the origins of the cultural narrative of this deity? Where and when did the cult of Durgā arise? What are the scriptural sources and the political significances of this deity?

Dr. Bihani Sarkar (British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow, Christ Church, Oxford) has recently published the first expansive, chronological study of the cult of Durgā. The book, Heroic Shāktism: The Cult of Durgā in Ancient Indian Kingship, provides a thorough study of the ideas and rituals of heroism in India between the 3rd and the 12th centuries CE. 
By assessing the available epigraphic, literary and scriptural sources in Sanskrit, and anthropological studies on politics and ritual, Bihani Sarkar demonstrates that the association between Indian kingship and the cult's belief-systems was an ancient one based on efforts to augment worldly power.
  • First published chronological study of the cult of Durgā
  • Up-to-date, uses recent philological research
  • Includes Sanskrit text and translations of influential works such as the Devīpurāṇa and the Durgābhaktitaraṅgiṇī
  • Wide-ranging sources, including epigraphic, literary and scriptural sources in Sanskrit, and anthropological studies
  • Contains individual case studies of important local goddesses identified with Durgā
  • Contains maps of major cult centres and genealogies of kings

Purchase online

About the Author

Bihani Sarkar undertook a D.Phil in Sanskrit at Wolfson College under the supervision of Prof. Alexis Sanderson (All Souls). After her doctorate in 2011 she was awarded a Nachwuchsinitiative Postdoctoral Fellowship by Hamburg University, Germany and then a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University in 2014. She has written on the Navarātra and its history, on dualisms in Durgā's conception in classical kāvya and on the interdependence between conceptions in Indian philosophy and aspects of Durgā's mythological depiction in the classical period. She has also written about classical Sanskrit literature, for example, about the ethics of poetic practice in 13th century Gujarat and the interplay between poetic licence and minding narrative conventions in the classical period. She is currently working on the depiction and history of the tragic in classical Sanskrit literature.


♥  $1 / month
♥  $5 / month
♥ $10 / month
♥ $25 / month
♥ $50 / month