The word Durga (दुर्गा) literally means "impassable", "inaccessible", "invincible, unassailable". It is related to the word Durg (दुर्ग) which means "fortress, something difficult to access, attain or pass". According to Monier Monier-Williams, Durga is derived from the roots dur (difficult) and gam (pass, go through). According to Alain Daniélou, Durga means "beyond reach".
The word Durga, and related terms appear in the Vedic literature, such as in the Rigveda hymns 4.28, 5.34, 8.27, 8.47, 8.93 and 10.127, and in sections 10.1 and 12.4 of the Atharvaveda. A deity named Durgi appears in section 10.1.7 of the Taittiriya Aranyaka. While the Vedic literature uses the word Durga, the description therein lacks the legendary details about her that is found in later Hindu literature.
The word is also found in ancient post-Vedic Sanskrit texts such as in section 2.451 of the Mahabharata and section 4.27.16 of the Ramayana. These usages are in different contexts. For example, Durg is the name of an Asura who had become invincible to gods, and Durga is the goddess who intervenes and slays him. Durga and its derivatives are found in sections 4.1.99 and 6.3.63 of the Ashtadhyayi by Pāṇini, the ancient Sanskrit grammarian, and in the commentary of Nirukta by Yaska. Durga as a demon-slaying goddess was likely well established by the time the classic Hindu text called Devi Mahatmya was composed, which scholars variously estimate to between 400 to 600 CE. The Devi Mahatmya and other mythologies describe the nature of demonic forces symbolized by Mahishasura as shape-shifting and adapting in nature, form and strategy to create difficulties and achieve their evil ends, while Durga calmly understands and counters the evil in order to achieve her solemn goals.
There are many epithets for Durga in Shaktism and nine appellations: Skandamata, Kushmanda, Shailaputri, Kaalratri, Brahmacharini, Kaliputri, Chandraghanta and Siddhidatri. A list of 108 names that are used to describe her is very popularly in use by eastern Hindus and is called "Ashtottara Shatanamavali of Goddess Durga".
One of the earliest evidence of reverence for Devi – the feminine nature of God, appears in chapter 10.125 of the Rig Veda, one of the scriptures of Hinduism. This hymn is also called the Devi Suktam hymn (abridged):
– Devi Sukta, Rigveda 10.125.3 – 10.125.8,
Devi's epithets synonymous with Durga appear in Upanishadic literature, such as Kali in verse 1.2.4 of the Mundaka Upanishad dated to about the 5th century BCE. This single mention describes Kali as "terrible yet swift as thought", very red and smoky colored manifestation of the divine with a fire-like flickering tongue, before the text begins presenting its thesis that one must seek self-knowledge and the knowledge of the eternal Brahman.
Durga, in her various forms, appears as an independent deity in the Epics period of ancient India, that is the centuries around the start of the common era. Both Yudhisthira and Arjuna characters of the Mahabharata invoke hymns to Durga. She appears in Harivamsa in the form of Vishnu's eulogy, and in Pradyumna prayer. Various Puranas from the early to late 1st millennium CE dedicate chapters of inconsistent mythologies associated with Durga. Of these, the Markandeya Purana and the Devi-Bhagavata Purana are the most significant texts on Durga. The Devi Upanishad and other Shakta Upanishads, mostly dated to have been composed in or after the 9th century, present the philosophical and mystical speculations related to Durga as Devi and other epithets, identifying her to be the same as the Brahman and Atman (self, soul).
The historian Ramaprasad Chanda stated in 1916 that Durga evolved over time in the Indian subcontinent. A primitive form of Durga, according to Chanda, was the result of "syncretism of a mountain-goddess worshiped by the dwellers of the Himalaya and the Vindhyas", a deity of the Abhiras conceptualized as a war-goddess. Durga then transformed into Kali as the personification of the all-destroying time, while aspects of her emerged as the primordial energy (Adya Sakti) integrated into the samsara (cycle of rebirths) concept and this idea was built on the foundation of the Vedic religion, mythology and philosophy.
Some early European accounts refer to a deity known as Deumus, Demus or Deumo. Western (Portuguese) sailors first came face to face with the murti of Deumus at Calicut on the Malabar Coast and they concluded it to be the deity of Calicut. Deumus is sometimes interpreted as an aspect of Durga in Hindu mythology and sometimes as deva. It is described that the ruler of Calicut (Zamorin) had a murti of Deumus in his temple inside his royal palace.
Durga has been a warrior goddess, and she is depicted to express her martial skills. Her iconography typically resonates with these attributes, where she rides a lion or a tiger, has between eight to eighteen hands, each holding a weapon to destroy and create. She is often shown in the midst of her war with Mahishasura, the buffalo demon at the time she victoriously kills the demonic force. Her icon shows her in action, yet her face is calm and serene. In Hindu arts, this tranquil attribute of Durga's face is traditionally derived from the belief that she is protective and violent not because of her hatred, egotism or getting pleasure in violence, but because she acts out of necessity, for the love of the good, for liberation of those who depend on her, and a mark of the beginning of soul's journey to creative freedom.
Durga traditionally holds the weapons of various male gods of Hindu mythology, which they give her to fight the evil forces because they feel that she is the shakti (energy, power). These include chakra, conch, bow, arrow, sword, javelin, shield, and a noose. These weapons are considered symbolic by Shakta Hindus, representing self-discipline, selfless service to others, self-examination, prayer, devotion, remembering her mantras, cheerfulness and meditation. Durga herself is viewed as the "Self" within and the divine mother of all creation. She has been revered by warriors, blessing their new weapons. Durga iconography has been flexible in the Hindu traditions, where for example some intellectuals place a pen or other writing implements in her hand since they consider their stylus as their weapon.
Archeological discoveries suggest that these iconographic features of Durga became common throughout India by about the 4th century CE, states David Kinsley – a professor of religious studies specializing on Hindu goddesses. Durga iconography in some temples appears as part of Mahavidyas or Saptamatrkas (seven mothers considered forms o Durga). Her icons in major Hindu temples such as in Varanasi include relief artworks that show scenes from the Devi Mahatmya.
Durga appears in Hindu mythology in numerous forms and names, but ultimately all these are different aspects and manifestations of one goddess. She is imagined to be terrifying and destructive when she has to be, but benevolent and nurturing when she needs to be. While anthropomorhpic icons of her, such as those showing her riding a lion and holding weapons are common, the Hindu traditions use aniconic forms and geometric designs (yantra) to remember and revere what she symbolizes.
Durga is worshipped in Hindu temples across India and Nepal by Shakta Hindus. Her temples, worship and festivals are particularly popular in eastern and northeastern parts of Indian subcontinent during Durga puja, Dashain and Navaratri.
The ten-day-long Durga Puja is a major annual festival in Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Jharkhand and Bihar. It is scheduled per the Hindu luni-solar calendar in the month of Ashvin, and typically falls in September or October. The festival is celebrated by communities by making special colorful images of Durga out of clay, recitations of Devi Mahatmya text, prayers and revelry for nine days, after which it is taken out in procession with singing and dancing, then immersed in water. The Durga puja is an occasion of major private and public festivities in the eastern and northeastern states of India.
The day of Durga's victory is celebrated as Vijayadashami (Bijoya in Bengali), Dashain (Nepali) or Dussehra (in Hindi) – these words literally mean "the victory on the Tenth (day)".
This festival is an old tradition of Hinduism, though it is unclear how and in which century the festival began. Surviving manuscripts from the 14th century provide guidelines for Durga puja, while historical records suggest royalty and wealthy families were sponsoring major Durga puja public festivities since at least the 16th century. The 11th or 12th century Jainism text Yasatilaka by Somadeva mentions a festival and annual dates dedicated to a warrior goddess, celebrated by the king and his armed forces, and the description mirrors attributes of a Durga puja.
The prominence of Durga puja increased during the British Raj in Bengal. After the Hindu reformists identified Durga with India, she became an icon for the Indian independence movement.
In Nepal, the festival dedicated to Durga is called Dashain (sometimes spelled as Dasain), which literally means "the ten". Dashain is the longest national holiday of Nepal, and is a public holiday in Sikkim and Bhutan. During Dashain, Durga is worshipped in ten forms (Kushmanda, Chandraghanta, Brahmacharini, Shailaputri, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, Mahagauri, Mahakali and Durga) with one form for each day in Nepal. The festival includes animal sacrifice in some communities, as well as the purchase of new clothes and gift giving. Traditionally, the festival is celebrated over 15 days, the first nine day are spent by the faithful by remembering Durga and her ideas, the tenth day marks Durga's victory over Mahisura, and the last five days celebrate the victory of good over evil.
During the first nine days, nine aspects of Durga known as Navadurga are meditated upon, one by one during the nine-day festival by devout Shakti worshippers. Durga Puja also includes the worship of Shiva, who is Durga's consort, in addition to Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya, who are considered to be Durga's children. Some Shaktas worship Durga's symbolism and presence as Mother Nature. In South India, especially Andhra Pradesh, Dussera Navaratri is also celebrated and the goddess is dressed each day as a different Devi, all considered equivalent but another aspect of Durga.
In Bangladesh, the four-day-long Sharadiya Durga Puja is the most important religious festival for the Hindus and celebrated across the country with Vijayadashami being a national holiday. In Sri Lanka, Durga in the form of Vaishnavi, bearing Vishnu's iconographic symbolism is celebrated. This tradition has been continued by Sri Lankan diaspora.
According to Hajime Nakamura, over its history, some Buddhist traditions adopted many of the Hindu ideas and symbols. The fierce goddess Yamantaka in Vajrayana Buddhism, for example, is a syncretic Yama and Durga. The Tantric traditions of Buddhism included Durga and developed the idea further. In Japanese Buddhism, she appears as Butsu-mo (sometimes called Koti-sri). In Tibet, the goddess Palden Lhamo is similar to the protective and fierce Durga.
The Sacciya mata found in major medieval era Jain temples mirrors Durga, and she has been identified by Jainism scholars to be the same or sharing a more ancient common lineage. In the Ellora Caves, the Jain temples feature Durga with her lion mount. However, she is not shown as killing the buffalo demon in the Jain cave, but she is presented as a peaceful deity.
Durga is exalted as the divine in Dasam Granth, a sacred text of Sikhism that is traditionally attributed to Guru Gobind Singh. According to Eleanor Nesbitt, this view has been challenged by Sikhs who consider Sikhism to be monotheistic, who hold that a feminine form of Supreme and a reverence for Goddess is "unmistakably of Hindu character".
Archeological site excavations in Indonesia, particularly on the island of Java, have yielded numerous statues of Durga. These have been dated to be from 6th century onwards. Of the numerous early to mid medieval era Hindu deity stone statues uncovered on Indonesian islands, at least 135 statues are of Durga. In parts of Java, she is known as Loro Jonggrang (literally, "slender maiden").
In Cambodia, during its era of Hindu kings, Durga was popular and numerous sculpture of her have been found. However, most differ from the Indian representation in one detail. The Cambodian Durga iconography shows her standing on top of the cut buffalo demon head.
Durga statues have been discovered at stone temples and archeological sites in Vietnam, likely related to Champa or Cham dynasty era.
Durga is a major goddess in Hinduism, and the inspiration of Durga Puja – a large annual festival particularly in the eastern and northeastern states of India.
One of her devotees was Ramakrishna who founded Ramakrishna Mission, and who was the guru of Swami Vivekananda.
Durga as the mother goddess is the inspiration behind the song Vande Mataram, sung by Rabindranath Tagore during Indian independence movement, later the official national song of India.