What’s the point of Durga Puja?

This morning as my mom was getting dressed to go to Durga Puja I overheard her apologetically say to her friend, “I wore this sari to my niece’s wedding.” Her friend, who was also getting dressed, consoled her by saying, “It’s a beautiful sari, what does it matter that you already wore it once?”

My mother’s sentiment (of feeling like something is missing without a new outfit for the holiday) pretty much sums up what Durga Puja has turned into in my community. Going through the yearly motions, people have lost sight of what this holiday is about.

For those who are unfamiliar, Durga Puja is a Hindu celebration of goodness over evil, along with a commemoration of the autumn harvest. Many regions in India, particularly Bengal, celebrate it.

Growing up as a Bengali kid in the States, I always struggled with what Durga Puja meant to me. It felt like a yearly fashion show meets class reunion. Mashis decked out in new saris fawn over you in the new salwaar you received as a puja gift and talk about how big you got. If you are a student they ask you, “how is school?” If you are in your 20’s, “have you met someone yet?” or “where are you working?” Everyone is carefully stacked up against the invisible measuring stick.

In the rented school cafeteria-slash-gymnasium we meet new members of the community, whether they are newborns or a peer’s serious boyfriend or girlfriend and remember those who have passed. There is always kichoori and mishti for the grown-ups and pizza and brownies for the kids. Lots of conversations are floating in the air. In the meantime, the small pandal of Ma Durga, imported from India, is in the background and a religious few throw flowers at her feet and join their palms in a Namaste. To be honest, it feels like any other social event. I always wanted the holiday to be more meaningful to me and was disappointed at the elders in my community for missing the point – the spiritual part.

On the other side of the globe in Kolkata Durga Puja has become something like Brazil’s Carnival meets America’s Christmas. For one week, Kolkata turns into New York City – meaning it doesn’t sleep. It has a different significance to different people.

For artists and community organizations, it is a time for them to collaborate and showcase their talents and creativity and generate income through the creation of pandals. A pandal is basically a large, life-size recreation of the image of the goddess Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura. You know those plastic Jesus Nativity scenes they sell at Walmart that people place on their lawns? I guess its sort of like that, but not mass-produced or sellable. Last time I visited Kolkata during Durga Puja in 2004, I saw dozens of varieties of puja pandals, some traditionally made out of clay, cloth, paint and bamboo, and others created with out-of-the-ordinary materials, like thousands of homeopathic bottles. Some theme pandals make a socio-political message. One I saw had Mahishasura replaced with bin Laden and instead of Durga holding the traditional weapons, she held AK-47s.

Walking around day and night visiting the various elaborate structures is called pandal hopping. Durga Puja is also a time where parents in India relax the rules on their children, curfews are lifted and young people like to hang out with their friends and check out members of the opposite sex. Many teenage romances begin during Durga Puja.

On the business side, it has become a time that retailers depend on (just like Christmas) because businesses have pushed people to believe that it’s a time to wear new clothes and buy friends, relatives and house-help new clothes. Indian Magazines are extra thick and feature the new styles and carry the excitement of Vogue’s Fall Fashion issue. What this has to do with good over evil or spirituality I’m not sure, but traditions in India are dutifully followed and rarely changed or even questioned. Besides, it seems like every organized religion has their one commercialized holiday — Christians have Christmas, Jews have Hanukah and Muslims have Eid. So why should Hindus be any different?

So I started celebrating my own way. In my own head. Every year I mark Durga Puja in my head as a time for looking inward and asking myself questions.  Autumn to me is a time of change and reflection. As my ex-hippie-dippy-holistic-healing roommate taught me, “Spring is a time of growing outward” — think of all the flowers and vegetables like tomatoes and leafy kale that reach for the sun. It is a time to meet new people and try new things to expand your horizons. On the other end, “Fall is a time to look inward” – think of potatoes and beets and other root vegetables that dig deep into the soil. Think about the leaves that change color and die. It is a time to be introspective about your existing relationships with people and things.

I believe that no person is entirely evil or entirely good, but rather a mix-up of both. In reality, to literally celebrate the triumph of good over evil is naïve. To me, it’s the same as rooting for a comic book hero or your home sports team (the good guys) as they beat an opposing team (the bad guys). “Good” is relative. What we should do instead, is examine ourselves. I am human. I am both good and evil.

So this year to commemorate Durga Puja, instead of celebrating goodness over evil I am going to think about “what good deeds can I do” and “what are some ways people have been hurt by my actions and what can I do to change them?” and just like the trees get rid of the dead leaves to make room for new buds, “what are some things I can let go of?” I’ll answer those questions in upcoming posts.

In the meantime, what about you? What actions will you take today to add more “good” into the universe?