The Biggest Festival Of Bengali Hindus Should Be Called Durga Puja, Not Sharod Utsav
There is no reason why the biggest festival of Bengali Hindus should be given a non-religious name.
It is, and should always, be called Durga Puja. And rightly so.
A celebratory beat of drums by male and female dhakis (drummers) will reverberate through the regal Rajpath in New Delhi tomorrow as they march alongside West Bengal’s tableau down that boulevard during the grand Republic Day parade. A large idol of Goddess Durga (accompanied by Her children Lakshmi, Karthik, Ganesha and Saraswati) vanquishing demon king Mahishasura, more drummers, women blowing conch shells and men enacting the enticing dhunuchi naach, will feature on the tableau. The tableau will, thus, depict Durga Puja, inarguably the largest religious festival in Bengal.
However, officially, the theme of the tableau is ‘Sharod Utsav’. ‘Sharod’ means autumn and ‘utsav’ is festival. Sharod Utsav is how Durga Puja has come to be referred to in West Bengal since the time the atheist communists took over (and ruined) the state. The official explanation for referring to Durga Puja as autumn festival (since this has been repeated in the Press Information Bureau communique explaining the tableaus, it would be pertinent to quote it) is that Durga Puja is no longer a “mere religious festival, but has ascended a higher plane embracing the entire community in the state and across India and the world”.
Durga Puja is, essentially, a Hindu religious festival. Goddess Durga is worshipped as Devi Shakti, who vanquishes the demon king. The worship, and the various rituals and mantras in the worship, all celebrate the victory of good over evil. Many also believe that Lord Ram was the first to worship the Goddess as a thanksgiving after he defeated Ravana. Lord Ram had prayed to Devi Parvati before battling Ravana. Bengalis believe that Goddess Durga comes down from Mount Kailash with her children for a five-day stay – from the sixth day (Shasti) to the 10 day (Dashami) of the lunar fortnight (Shukla Paksha) in the month of Ashwin – at her parents’ place and returns to her husband’s abode on Dashami.
The worship of the Goddess was started in a big way by the zamindars (landed gentry) and the wealthy mercantile families during the early period of British occupation of India. During the later part of colonial rule, Durga Puja became a community affair with the increasingly affluent middle classes in cities, towns and villages pooling in resources to organise what is commonly called the sarbojonin (community-organised) Durga Puja. Later, Bengali nationalists started depicting Durga Puja as heralding the defeat of the evil British at the hands of good Indians. This resulted in popularising the worship of the Devi as Shakti even more in Bengal. Since the late 1950s and early 1960s, Durga Puja started taking the form of the mega celebration that it has become today.
Yes, Durga Puja today is a mega affair that features many aspects beyond the religious. The pandals are sterling examples of creative art, and so are the idols. Lakhs, and even crores, of rupees go towards making the idols and pandals. Students of art colleges sit with idol-makers over days and weeks to draw the design of the idols. They also design the pandals on myriad themes that draw breathlessly gushing accolades from across the world. The bigger Puja pandals, especially in Kolkata, draw tens of lakhs of visitors and not all of them are Hindus. But at the end of the day, it is essentially a Hindu religious festival with the worship of the Goddess being the critical and central component.
It was during the rule of the communists that the trend of calling Sharadiya Durga Puja [Sharadiya because it is celebrated in autumn whereas, according to Hindu scriptures, Devi should actually be worshipped in the month of Chaitra (roughly from the mid-March to mid-April) and so the Durga Puja at that time is called Basanti Durga Puja, Basanta being spring] as Sharadiya Utsav or Sharod Utsav started. The communists, realising that they would not be able to convert Bengali Hindu masses into atheists like themselves, did the next best thing by delinking religion from the biggest religious festival of Bengali Hindus.
Concerted and sinister efforts, which have largely succeeded, were launched to make what is essentially a Hindu religious festival into a ‘secular’ jamboree. The communists had also succeeded in spreading their odious ideology among the literate, bhadralok sections of Bengali Hindu society who assumed ‘secular’ pretensions by downplaying or disregarding their Hindu identity. Renaming Durga Puja as Sharadiya Utsav thus fitted very well with the dominant anti-Hindu and the pseudo-secular narrative that has since dominated the social discourse in Bengal.
This noxious narrative started getting reflected on the ground inside the Durga Puja mandaps also and continues to this day. The main idol of the Goddess decimating Mahishasura that costs a huge amount is mostly kept on the stage as a fixture to grab eyeballs and win awards for creativity, while a much smaller and simpler idol of Devi is worshipped in one corner of the mandap. Only a miniscule portion of the funds raised by the community Puja organisers is spent on the actual ‘puja’, which is, at best, a sideshow in most community Durga Pujas. The lakhs who throng the Durga Puja pandals are not bothered about the Puja per se and take no part in the rituals; it is a mega mela for them.
But whatever may be the case, there is no justification in renaming a Hindu religious festival and giving it a religion-neutral, secular nomenclature. The argument in favour of calling Durga Puja as Sharod Utsav is that people from all communities visit the pandals and, hence, it is not a “mere” religious festival of the Hindus alone. The number of non-Christian visitors to St Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata on Christmas-eve and Christmas day far outnumbers the number of Christians who go there to pray. Christians form a miniscule portion of the Christmas Day revellers in areas in Park Street that are decked up for the occasion. So, by the same logic, Christmas should be called a winter festival or Sheet (Bengali for winter) Utsav. And if one were to secularise all religious occasions, Eid should be renamed as the ‘festival of abstinence and charity’. There is no reason why the biggest festival of Bengali Hindus should be given a non-religious name. It is, and should always, be called Durga Puja. And rightly so.
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