Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Local Hindus celebrate

Durga Puja a huge festival for believers

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TO the world's estimated 600 million Hindus, Durga Puja is an important annual festival that is usually held in October.

Winnipeg's "Bichitra," which means a coming together or confluence, organized 10 days of Durga Puja, or prayers, at the Hindu Temple on Ellice Avenue last week and into this one.

Also known as the Bengali Association of Manitoba (BAM), Bichitra draws on the Bangladeshi and Indian diasporas for its membership. BAM winds this festive season up with a cultural program and dinner this evening at the Wildwood Community Centre.

Roughly 95 per cent of Bichitra's membership of about 30 families hail from India, the rest from Bangladesh.

There are three Hindu Temples in Winnipeg other than the one on Ellice Avenue: the Sai Centre on Sargent Avenue and two others preferred by the West Indian or Caribbean community -- one downtown, and the other on Manitoba Avenue. Hindus from South Africa, Kenya, the Caribbean and India comprise about 400 families of 5,000 Hindus in this city. They may follow various paths of Hinduism, from Arya Samaj to Sanatani.

The origins of Hinduism, one of the world's great cultural-spiritual movements encompassing myriad rituals and schools of thought, are hidden in the mists of thousands of years, the word Hindu having been coined by India's Islamic invaders to refer to those living on the wrong side of the Indus River around 1200 AD.

Hinduism is essentially monistic or pantheistic, the former holding that all things are ultimately one and the latter, that everything is a part of God.

Radhakrishnan, a former president of India, once said Hinduism was "more a culture than a creed," which may be true of most faiths. Hindu thought recognizes numerous avatars or divine incarnations.

Hindus believe the balance of their good and bad actions in this mundane world, or karma, causes the cycles of birth and death through which they must reincarnate until they attain nirvana or union with Brahman, the God above Gods.

Calcutta, once capital of India, just about shuts down during the Puja break, lasting about seven days, as does the Hindu world in general, including Nepal and the rest of India. The latter celebrate it in a slightly different fashion. The season is mainly known as Dasai in Nepal and Dussera in north, west and south India.

Built with characteristically Bengali artistry, the pandals, or massive tents, archetypal of this season in Calcutta, embody varying themes from the Gulf War to Mother Teresa, depending on the year's events. This year, portraits of Mother Teresa hung next to traditional statues of the goddess Durga in Calcutta, a sign of public esteem for her. Since the late Roman Catholic nun spent half a century caring for the ill and destitute of Calcutta, the east Indian city plans mass celebrations to coincide with her imminent beatification.

The pandals also feature the smells of Calcutta food next to them, and throngs of people dressed in their finest.

"I remember wearing my first tailored suit during the Pujas at Deoghar, Bihar, around 1958," says Bidhu Jha, MLA for Radisson.

Jha has an unquestionably strong sense of belonging to the Hindu community, though he is proud to have been elected from a 95 per cent Anglo-Saxon constituency.

"At its core, Hinduism is the best philosophy on the planet," he asserts.

"True Hindus consider the world their extended family and pray for the happiness of all. This manifested itself in my election campaign, in which I claimed the world as our jurisdiction and concern. To me, the most important aspects of the Hindu faith are social justice and democracy."

Milling around the pandals, flowing into the streets in such numbers that there are traffic jams at 2 a.m., extended families pack mini-buses to go from pandal to pandal.

From Arizona to New Zealand these last 10 days, Hindus, including Bengalis, were celebrating. During the celebrations, Hindu goddess Durga, resplendent in all her martial glory, is believed to come to Earth astride a lion to slay demon-king Mahishasura. Legend has it that Mahishasura, the ebony-skinned tyrant, challenges the gods and almost has his way. The deities create the warrior goddess Durga who, armed with 10 lethal weapons, sets about her task of killing the asura (demon) -- traditionally symbolizing the dark forces of the underworld -- in a prolonged battle of strength and will.

Mahishasura, King of the Asuras, was granted a wish by Lord Brahma because of many years of austerity observed by him -- that no one may be able to kill him. This power created in him an urge to rule the world. With his battalions of Asuras, Mahishasura began to terrorize the inhabitants of heaven itself, driving the gods out. When Mahishasura usurped the throne in the ensuing chaos, the gods requested the most powerful among them, Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, to stop him; the latter created a female form so brilliant it lit the heavens up.

The demon-killer Durga emerged from the glow, a beautiful yellow woman with 10 arms riding a lion. In her 10 hands, the powerful trio placed 10 symbols of her divine power, each from another god: Agni's flaming dart; Vayu's bow; Surya's quiver of arrows; Vishnu's discus; Shiva's trident; Varuna's conch shell; Yama's iron rod; Indra's thunderbolt; Kubera's club; and Shesha's garland of snakes.

Durga beheads Mahishasura in a fierce battle, causing him to emerge from the bull in his original form. She then pierces his chest with a trident, delivering the world from evil, protecting her devotees and establishing peace and prosperity on Earth.

Ashoke Dasgupta is a Winnipeg writer

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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