Narendranath Dutta (original name of Swami Vivekananda) was 21 years old then – it was 21st September 1884, the day of Mahashtami. Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansa visited the house of Rambabu, sang songs and had discussions with the devotees of Brahmo Samaj. Narendranath was quietly sitting infront of Ramakrishnadeva (affectionately called ‘Thakur’ by his devotees). As he spoke, Thakur glanced at young Narendranath. Sree Ramakrishna immediately stood up, placing his foot on the knee of young Narendranath; then stood in ‘Samadhi’ being unconscious of the outside world, keeping his eyes fixed. Touch of Thakur’s feet on an auspicious day of Durga puja must have been one of the most sublime experiences for Narendranath Dutta, as a young Brahmo-associate. After the death of Sree Ramakrishnadeva, Durga puja was conducted by the disciples of Ramakrishna Paramhansa at Baranagore monastery under the leadership of Sashi Maharaj – but that was a very small- scale conducted Durga puja without even any image.
The Durga puja and the associated Kumari puja of Belur math and also at other ashramas of the Ramakrishna order have become a great cultural and spiritual heritage of our country presently. Every year lakhs of people visit Belur Math to witness the worship, pray to the Mother, feel their lives with Her grace which gets specially manifested in this worship. The first Durga puja at Belur math was coordinated under guidance of Swami Vivekananda in the year 1901 – the puja was done in image. The coincidence of Swami Vivekananda and Swami Brahmanandaji’s vision – “Long long years ago, Jagat Banerjee, an orthodox Brahmin of Bally, was surprised to see the multitude of people at a small monastery on the bank of river Ganges. They had come either by Hore Millar’s steamer from Ahiritola or by foot from Salkia or by train from the nearest railway station. Not only Jagat Banerjee, but also Bhuban Mukherjee, Sarat Ghosal and many other orthodox Brahmins of Uttarpara, Dakshineswar and other places could not believe their eyes, even they could not restrain themselves from going to that monastery”. That was in October of the year 1901. In the balmy autumn
air of that year, the fields were lush green with paddy stalks waving their laden heads and lotuses, jasmines and tuberoses were rendering the air-fragrant making the situation like a heaven. The autumn festival was being held for the first time in that monastery which was consecrated only three years before. That was the first Durga puja in image at Belur Math.
Swami Shivananda Maharaj, the second President of the Ramakrishna order said, “Swami Vivekananda introduced the worship of Mother Durga at the monastery of Baranagore. Of course, the worship used to be performed in a consecrated pitcher (ghata) in those days. But worship in the year 1901 had one distinction – Swamiji had introduced the worship of Mother Durga in image for the first time at Belur Math. Many orthodox pundits and Brahmins of the neighbouring places used to criticize Swami Vivekananda and other monks of Belur Math for their innovating and liberal ideas, their modes of work and especially their non-observance of the customs regarding caste and food. Even these bigoted people, who considered themselves ‘custodians of Hinduism’; gave up their animosity and attended the puja. They became convinced that the monks of Ramakrishna order were truly ‘Sanatani Sannyasins’ ”. According to Sarat Chandra Chakravarty, the main purpose of Swami Vivekananda in conducting this Durga puja was to remove all unsavoury doubts and scepticism from the minds of the orthodox.
Swami Vivekananda had not seen Durga puja for a decade. He intended to see it that year. The decision to celebrate the Durga puja in image at Belur Math in 1901 was taken by Swamiji personally. Swamiji had cherished that idea since several months before. He asked Sarat Maharaj to bring the book ‘Raghunath Smriti’, which deals in detail with the ceremonial forms of the worshipping of various gods and goddesses. Swamiji read the book thoroughly. On being questioned, Swamiji replied to his disciple, “This time I have a desire to celebrate the Durga puja if the expenses are forthcoming, I shall worship the Mahamaya”. But Swamiji did not share his intention with any of his brother- disciples at the math, till only a few days before the date of worshipping Devi Durga. Four or five days before the Durga puja, Swami Brahmananada was sitting at the verandah of the math, facing towards river Ganga. Swami Brahmananda had a vision of Devi Durga, coming over river Ganga from Dakshineswar and stopping near the
Bilva tree (now infront of Swami Vivekananda Memorial Temple). Just then Swami Vivekananda returned to the math and asked, “Where is Raja (Swami Brahmananda)?” On meeting him, Swamiji told, “This time make all arrangements for the Durga puja by bringing the pratima (image) to the math”. Swami Brahmananda Maharaj hesitated for a while for there was very little time to make all arrangements. Then Swamiji disclosed the vision he had. He had seen Devi Durga being worshipped in image at Belur Math. Swami Brahmananda, too then described his own vision. These visions were greeted with great joy and cheered by the monks and brahmacharis of Belur Math. The main problem was to get a clay-image for worshipping Devi Durga
Swami Dhirananda (Brahmachari Krishnalal), a disciple of Holy Mother (Sree Sree Maa Sarada), was sent to Kumartuly, to see if an image could be procured. Enquiries at Kumartuly (the street in Calcutta where artisans make clay images) revealed that there was a single beautiful clay image of Goddess Durga left in a shop as the person who had ordered it had not turned up. Thus, the artisan gladly agreed to sell it to the monks of Belur math. Swami Vivekananda was informed. Swami Vivekananda and Swami Premananda went to the Holy Mother’s residence at 16A Bosepara lane, Calcutta; and sought her permission to perform the Durga puja. Maa Sarada gladly consented. Apart from the clay-image of Devi Durga, a lot of other arrangements were needed to be done for the elaborate ritualistic worship. Everything was fully arranged finally, under the guidance of Swami Brahmananda Maharaj. Soon, the news of conducting Durga puja at Belur Math spread all over the city and the devotees joined with the monks to make the celebration a grand success. The image was finally brought from Kumartuly a day or two before Sashthi (18th October, 1901). From an article, written by Swami Abhayananda (Bharat Maharaj) the information about the arrangements of the first Durga puja at Belur Math can be properly viewed : “In the courtyard between the shrine-building (old) and Math (Belur Math) building, erected a temporary pandal where the image was installed for worship. It was facing west. The pandal was extended upto the mango tree which still stands in the courtyard, and the direct disciples of Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansa sat there. Swami Vivekananda felt it imperative to have the presence of the Holy Mother at the Belur Math during the days of puja. Along with her lady companions, Maa Sarada came and stayed at the garden house (bagan bari) of Nilambar Babu, which was rented for one month only. Every day
the presence of the Holy Mother and the lady companions at the pandal gave immense joy to everybody. In the presence of ‘Living Durga’, the Holy Mother Devi Sarada; the image throbbed with life and the whole atmosphere was surcharged with divine bliss”. Swami Vivekananda himself worshipped the Holy Mother at the Durga mandap. All the devotees enjoyed the holy company of the direct disciples of Sree Ramakrishnadeva like Swami Vivekananda, Swami Brahmananda, Swami Premananda, Swami Advutananda, Swami Saradananda and others. Swami Dhiranandaji (Brahmachari Krishnalal) and Ishwar Chandra Chakravarty [father of Swami Ramakrishnanandaji (Sashi Maharaj), a devout Brahmin, being well-versed in worship] were the pujari (worshipper) and the tantradharaka respectively. The relevant dates of this first Durga puja were as follows –
Sashthi : Friday, October 18, 1901 (Kartika 1, 1308 BS)
Shaptami : Saturday, October 19, 1901 (Kartika 2, 1308 BS)
Ashtami : Sunday, October 20, 1901 (Kartika 3, 1308 BS)
Nabami : Monday, October 21, 1901 (Kartika 4, 1308 BS)
Vijaya Dashami : Tuesday, October 22 (Kartika 5, 1308 BS)
The ‘Sankalpa Mantra’ was uttered in the name of the Holy Mother (Maa Sarada), for Swami Vivekananda declared, “We are all penniless beggars; thus the worship won’t be done in our name”. Moreover, sannyasins are debarred from performing any vedic and pauranic rituals. The worship is therefore performed by a brahmachari of the Ramakrishna order. The custom is still being followed at Belur Math.
Performing rites on each day of Durga puja
On ‘Sashthi’, the rites connected with ‘Adhivasa’, ‘Bodhana’ and ‘Amantrana’ were performed under the Bilva tree (the spot in front of the place where Swamiji’s temple is now standing). Maa Sarada attended the awakening ceremony that day and also attended the puja on all the three subsequent days, along with her women devotees. The rite of sacrifice (‘boli’) of an animal was dropped on the advice of Maa Sarada. As a substitute, sugar and sweets were heaped on either side of Goddess Durga. Swami Vivekananda was fond of the ‘agamani songs’ because these songs reflect the love of the parents for their married daughters, besides welcoming Maa Durga to visit ‘martyaloka’ for four days. Thus on the day of Sashthi, Swami Vivekananda sang an agamani song “Giri Ganesh Amar Shubhakari” . This tradition of singing agamani songs at Belur Math during Durga puja continues even today – every year from the first day (‘Pratipada’) after Mahalaya to the sixth day (Sashthi), the sadhus and the brahmacharis gather at the main temple of Sree Ramakrishnadeva at dawn and sing the agamani songs in chorus. At night after aarati, the ‘kalikirtan’ is conducted.
On the night of ‘Saptami’, Swami Vivekananda had an attack of fever. So, he could not join the worship on the next morning but he came down to pandal at the time of Sandhi puja and offered pushpanjali for three times. The Sandhi puja began at 6:17 AM and ended at 7:05 AM on October 20, 1901.
On ‘Ashtami’, the Kumari puja was performed. At Swami Vivekananda’s request, Gauri Maa, a lady disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, made the necessary arrangements. The ritual of Kumari puja started from dawn, after a bath in the holy waters of the Hooghly river. The kumaris (pre-pubertine girls) were wrapped in red saree, adorned with floral ornaments and given a sindoor (vermillion) mark on their forehead. In this way, Swami Vivekananda himself worshipped nine little girls as ‘Kumaris’ with asana, arghya, sankhya, clothes etc. Swamiji placed flowers at the feet of the ‘kumaris’ and offered sweets and ‘dakshina’ to their hands. Displaying equanimity, the kumaris were made to sit for hours silently before Goddess Durga’s idol on a decorated chair with priests chanting the hymns, thereby creating a mesmerising atmosphere. The kumaris were kept in fasting until the worship is over. These are the rules which are still followed at Belur math during Kumari puja even today, following the ideological path of Swami Vivekananda. One of the kumaris was a very small girl and Swami
Vivekananda was so absorbed in the thought of the Divine Mother that, when he put red-sandal paste on her forehead, he exclaimed, “Ah! Have I hurt the third eye of the Mother?” Sri Ramakrishna’s nephew Ramlal’s youngest daughter Radharani was one of the kumaris. According to Swamiji’s vision, “The divinity of the goddess descends into the kumari after the puja”.
‘Why did Swami Vivekananda introduce the Kumari puja as a part of the Durga puja celebrations at Belur Math?’ : The answer is to be found in the life of Swamiji’s guru Sree Ramkrishna Paramhansadeva. Though he established different relationships with God, in the course of his various sadhanas – the most abiding and nearest to his heart was ‘God as the Divine Mother’. In the late 19th century, Ramakrishna Paramhansa used to perform the ritual of Kumari puja at Bhabatarini temple of Dakshineswar in Hooghly district on ‘Mahashtami’. Vivekananda carried forward his guru’s mission and performed Kumari puja, a tradition to be followed by the Mission. As Ramakrishnadeva beheld nothing but God everywhere, it was the Divine Mother that he saw in everything and in everyone. Ramakrishnadeva saw no distinction between the Mother, whom he worshipped in the temple, his own mother Chandramani devi and his divine consort the Holy Mother Maa Sarada. Kumari puja was started by Swami Vivekananda in 1901 at Belur Math to underline the importance of women. Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa said, “Why do people worship virgins? All women are so many forms of the Divine Mother. But Her manifestation is the greatest in pure-souled virgins. I worship virgins because I see in them the Divine Mother. Haven’t you observed Kumari puja? Why should you worship a girl, who has all the physical limitations of a human being? – it is because She is a form of the Divine Mother”. The girls worshipped as Kumaris, symbolize the power that regulates creation, stability and destruction in the whole universe.
Even at Kanyakumari in December 1892, Swami Vivekananda himself performed Kumari puja and worshipped the little daughter of Shree Manmatha Bhattacharya. At that time, Swamiji was on an all-India travel from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Swamiji stopped at the shrine of Kshir Bhabani in Kashmir and decided to perform Kumari puja there. In August 1898, Swami Vivekananda requested a boat-man to allow him to worship his little daughter, so that he could perform the Kumari puja on an auspicious day and finally Vivekananda
worshipped the Muslim boatman’s four-year old daughter as ‘Uma’, the Divine Mother, during his visit to Kashmir along with some of his Western disciples. The boat-man was overwhelmed as he thought that as if the God was asking him through Swamiji and readily agreed. Then Swami Vivekananda not only worshipped the girl but also bowed down to touch her feet, as part of the ritual. A radical Hindu monk who was more socially committed, than being obsessed with religiosities, Vivekananda spotted the poverty-stricken girl and saw the ‘Divine Mother’ in her. Swamiji’s example would hit hard the fundamentalists both in Hindu and Muslim camps. The Kumari puja conducted at Belur Math has become a special attraction to the thousands and thousands that pour themselves at the Math-premises year after year to participate in the celebration of Durga puja, to pray the Divine Mother and to fill their lives with the Mother’s grace. Every year lakhs of people visit Belur Math to witness the worship of Mother Durga and also the Kumari puja on the morning of Ashtami. ‘Kichuri prasad’ is distributed to all.
On the night of ‘Nabami’, Swami Vivekananda sang few songs in praise of Divine Mother (Maa Sarada) at the pandal – some of the songs which Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva loved and himself sang on those occasions. One day, there was an open-air drama performance (yatra) named ‘Nala Damayanti’. The drummers and the flute players played sweet music at intervals. The householder disciples of Sree Ramakrishnadeva and the orthodox Brahmins of the nearby area had been specially invited and thousands of people, irrespective of the distinctions of caste and religion, attended the programme.
On ‘Vijaya Dashami’, the image of Mother Durga was immersed at the river Ganga. At the time of immersion, Swami Brahmananda Maharaj danced like child; Swami Vivekananda and Swami Premananda watched from upstairs. At the end of the puja, Swamiji gave Rs.25 as ‘dakshina’ to tantradharaka through the Holy Mother. The Holy Mother Sarada devi was highly pleased with the way the puja was conducted and remarked : “Mother Durga will come here every year”. She returned to her residence in Calcutta after blessing the monks and brahmacharins. Swami Vivekananda’s joy knew no bounds.
On November 12, 1901 Swami Vivekananda wrote to Sister Nivedita : “Since Durga puja, I have been very ill and so could not reply to your letter earlier. We had a grand Durga puja here, lasting nearly four days, but alas I was down with fever. We had a grand image and a huge puja it was”. On the same day, Swamiji wrote to Sister Christine, “We brought a clay image of Mother Durga with ten hands, standing with one foot on a lion, the other on a demon. Her two daughters – the goddess of learning and the goddess of wealth – on either side of lotuses beneath her there were two sons – the god of war and the god of wisdom..Thousands of people were entertained”. The point of attraction of this festival was the feeding of poor. The devotees had prasada in the north-western portion of the courtyard, at the space between the existing jackfruit tree and Sree Ramakrishna’s new temple. Everyone without any discrimination was warmly welcomed and entertained by the monks. The atmosphere of joy could be palpably felt at Belur Math during the days of Durga puja.
However from 1902 to 1911, the worship of Mother Durga at Belur Math was conducted not in an image but in a consecrated pitcher (ghata). A devotee promised to pay the expenses for the Mother’s image, and hence from 1912 onwards the Mother’s worship in image was resumed – the tradition continues even today.