By Subhash Kak

How we are free in a world of natural laws and order is one of the deepest mysteries of our lives. The Vedas provide a subtle resolution which is hinted in terms of riddles and paradoxes, which for some means nothing but other learn to understand by reasoning and spiritual practice.

One of these riddles is Goddess Durgā who rides a lion. If you look at the image you will call it idol worship but it encapsulates the answer to our mystery.

The image of the goddess with the lion represents both the free-wheeling Nature, which evolves by natural law, as well as the control of it by higher agency. In the domain of human life, Nature is the complex of the instincts that is epitomized by the freedom of the mount. Yet, the Goddess by virtue of the power of the spirit, quite like the dṛṣṭi-sṛṣṭi of Vedanta (consciousness controlling the physical world, which has the analog of observation guiding physical process in quantum theory) is able to command the beast and make it do what she wants. The symbolism is thus informed by deep Vedic insights.

In the Devī Sūkta, Ṛgveda 10.125, the Goddess proclaims: “I am the sovereign queen of all existence …I bend the bow for Rudra; I pervade the heaven and earth.” Goddess Durgā is also called Ambikā, or in short just Ambā (Mother), or Devi Ambā.

The Śrī Sūkta gives several other names of the Goddess including Ārdrā (“of the waters” in ŚS 13), and she is compared to the moon illumined by the sun. Indeed, it is the light (the illuminating self behind the observation) that makes her auspicious (ŚS 8). The Ārdrā reference is to creation emerging out of the womb of the primal waters. In a previous essay I spoke of the Sogdians of Central Asia, who for centuries controlled the trade on the Silk Road. With their centre in Samarkand and Bukhara, until 1000 CE, this helped them spread their religion and art from the eastern corner of Asia to the edge of Danube in Europe. Their language, which became correspondingly influential, has much affinity with Sanskrit, as was the case also with the languages of Khotan to the east. The scholar Marshak summarizes thus: “From the third to the eighth century Sughd [Sogdiana], which had originally lagged behind its neighbours to the south and west, became one of the most advanced countries and the leader of all Transoxania. It was neither a powerful state itself nor firmly subjected to any of the neighbouring empires. From the second or first century BCE each district had developed independently, maintaining ancient community traditions. Private individuals such as merchants, missionaries and mercenary soldiers were extremely active and penetrated into distant lands. Thus, political isolation did not entail cultural isolation.”

Here I wish to add to the fascinating history of their religion. Until the end of the first millennium CE, the religions of the region included the dualistic Zurvanite Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism along with Buddhism, Hinduism, and Nestorian Christianity. The currency of Hinduism is seen in the worship of Brahmā, Indra, Mahādeva (Śiva), Nārāyaṇa and Vaiśravaṇa (Kubera).

It is remarkable that Sogdian Buddhist and Manichaean texts mimic the Vedic trinity and use Hindu symbols. Zurvan (who symbolizes Time, Avestan zruuan from Sanskrit śravaṇa) is depicted in the form of Brahmā, Adbag (Ādibhaga, the first God) is in the form of Indra (Śakra), and Veśparkar (Vāyu) in the form of Śiva (Mahādeva). This use of Hindu symbols by competing religions shows the great influence of Hinduism in Central Asia during that period. Since the Sogdian state was not strong, it became possible for the folk religion to gain expression in uniquely new ways. The Jats were most likely one element of the population in Sogdiana, and thus one source of the Hindu influence.

Hindu images indicate that the religion was popular in the general population, even when the ruling class patronized others. This is not very different from the situation in India under, say, Buddhist rulers. The reason for this is that the Vedic religion is a personal path to knowledge and until the time of Ādi Śaṅkara it had no organized system of monks or nuns.

The worship of the goddess is a central aspect of lived Hinduism, because to reach the heart of awareness, one’s true self, one must use the “shadows” of it in the inner sky of our mind. The false associations (represented by the buffalo demon) are destroyed by the power and light of Durgā, and so the goddess symbolizes the path of active search for knowledge that transcends sectarian worship. Not surprising then, that the worship of the goddess was a key element of the Sogdian religion.

Goddess Nanā

Nanā, नना, is the name for mother and goddess (as in Ṛgveda 9.112.3 कारुरहं ततो भिषगुपलप्रक्षिणी नना), speech (Vāc), and daughter in Sanskrit.

Nanā is attested by name on a coin of Sapadbizes, a first-century BCE king of Bactria. She also appears on the coins and seals of the Kushans. The Rabatak inscription of Kanishka I invokes her in claiming that the kingship was obtained from Nana and from all the gods. The inscription also claims that the language of the Kushans was “Aryan”.

Goddess Nana, Afghanistan

A four-armed Goddess Nanā with lion as her vāhana (mount) is seen painted in a palace in Panjikent near Samarkand. Nanā is the equivalent of Goddess Durgā, who is also known as Ambā. Indeed the complete Sogdian name of Nanā in the Sogdian script rendered in modern Latinized form is

Nana-debi-amban | नना देवी अम्बा

A representation of Goddess Nanā from Panjikent, Tajikistan, 1st quarter of 8th century CE in charred wood from The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, is given below.

Goddess Nanā with lion = Goddess Durgā on charred wood, Panjikent

Since Ambā (Universal Mother) is the original name and Durgā (Unassailable) just an appellation, we conclude that Nanā Devi Ambā is indeed the same as Durgā.

Durgā killing the buffalo demon, note that Durgā is called Nani in shrines as far as Baluchistan and Naina Devi in Himachal Pradesh. The latter variant means “Goddess with [Beautiful] eyes” which stresses the “command from seeing aspect” of the deeper intuition. Goddess Mīnākṣī, मीनाक्षी, “fish-eyed one”, also stresses the same insight.

For related goddesses in lands further off, note Nane (Armenian: Նանե, Nanė) is an Armenian mother goddess who is also the goddess of war and wisdom. She was depicted as a young beautiful woman dressed as warrior, with spear and shield in hand. This is quite like the Greek Athena, with whom she identified in the Hellenic period. Babylonian Nana and Sumerian Nanai were most likely the same goddess.

Goddess Anāhitā

Anāhitā is the Old Persian form of the name of a goddess who was earlier known as Aredvi Sura (Ārdrāvī Śūrā), आर्द्रावी शूरा (of the waters and mighty). Anāhitā, अनाहिता, immaculate, is an appellation quite identical in meaning to Nirañjanā, निरञ्जना.

Goddess Anāhitā remained extremely popular in Iran until her worship was suppressed by an iconoclastic movement under the Sasanians (who ruled 224–651 CE), indicating the influence of Devi Ambā in lands further south and southwest of Sogdiana.

Devi Ambā has many names that emerge from the different facets of the mind. She is Sarasvatī, Lakṣmī, and Pārvatī seen through the lenses of learning and knowledge, fortune and prosperity, and strength and devotion. Durgā is the name of Pārvatī when she fights the demons of ignorance and materiality.

These goddesses defined the lived religion across the entire ancient world. For example, Kishijoten and Benzaiten are the names of Lakṣmī and Sarasvatī in Japan. Once I traveled from Perth to Yogyakara in Indonesia to see Durgā in the great Prambanan temple. The Roma have clung to the worship of Durgā in the form of Kālī, personification of Time, as Saint Sara. One must not forget Goddess Lalitā who opens the doorway to the deepest understanding of the world. In Kashmir she is called Śārikā or Rāgnyā (Rājñī, the Queen).

The great Naina Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh and the city of Nainital both recall Goddess Nanā or Naina. The metropolis of Mumbai is named after Mahā-Ambā.