Swami Vivekananda’s initiation of Durga Puja at Belur Math in the year 1901 marked a significant departure from traditional Hindu Sanyasin practices. As a rule, Hindu Sanyasins do not conduct ritualistic worship. This decision can be attributed to several compelling reasons, as recounted by authoritative sources from the Belur Math.
Firstly, Swamiji aimed to institutionalize respect for the divine aspects of motherhood and the sanctity of womanhood. During his time in the West, he observed that the elevation of women had contributed significantly to Western progress, while the neglect of women’s roles hindered the development of Bharata. Worship of the Divine Mother, particularly through Kumari Puja, aimed to raise awareness of women’s potential divinity and promote a more respectful attitude toward them.
Secondly, Swamiji sought to gain the acceptance and understanding of the local community for the unconventional way of life he and his monastic brothers were leading. At the time, many in Calcutta were skeptical of Swami Vivekananda’s Western travels and the unorthodox practices at Belur Math, including the disregard for caste norms and interaction with Western individuals. Celebrating Durga Puja helped dispel misunderstandings and misgivings, fostering goodwill among the local people.
Thirdly, Swami Vivekananda’s decision had a spiritual dimension, driven by his vision. A few days before Durga Puja in 1901, he had a vision of the Puja being performed at Belur Math. Simultaneously, Swami Brahmanandaji has experienced a similar vision, seeing Mother Durga crossing the Ganga from Dakshineshwar to Belur Math. Responding to these visions, Swamiji instructed Raja Maharaj to make preparations for Durga Puja, even though there were only a few days left before its commencement.
Obtaining a clay image for the worship posed a challenge, but eventually, a beautiful image of Durga was secured from an artisan’s studio in Kamartuli. Under the able guidance of Swami Brahmanandaji, all necessary arrangements were made on a short notice.
The inaugural Durga Puja at Belur Math was held in a grand Pandal on the open ground north of the old shrine. The invocatory worship began on Shashthi, the 6th day of the lunar month, on October 18, 1901. The Pujari of the first Durga Puja at Belur Math was Brahmachari Krishnalal, and the Tantradharak was Isvar Chandra Chakravarty, the father of Shashi Maharaj (Swami Ramakrishnananda). Sitting under the Bel tree, which now stands in front of his temple, Swami Vivekananda himself sang the Agamani songs welcoming the Divine Mother.
The event attracted householder disciples of Sri Ramakrishna and orthodox Brahmins from the vicinity. Thousands of people, regardless of caste or religion, attended the three-day festival. On Navami night, Swamiji sang several songs in praise of the Divine Mother, some of which were sung by Sri Ramakrishna.
Before initiating Durga Puja at Belur Math, Swamiji sought the approval of Holy Mother Sarada Devi, who was then residing in Baghbazar, Kolkata. Mother wholeheartedly endorsed the proposal and even attended the Puja on Shashthi day with other women devotees, staying at Nilambar Babu’s nearby garden house. Swamiji decreed that the Puja be performed in the name of the Holy Mother, a tradition that continues to this day, viewing Sri Sarada Devi as the divine counterpart of Sri Ramakrishna, born to awaken womankind in the modern world.
In a letter to his brother disciple Swami Shivananda written in the year 1894 from America, Swamiji had given expression to his conviction about the Divinity of the Holy Mother as follows, “Brother, I shall show how to worship the living Durga (Jivanta Durga), and then only shall I be worthy of my name. I shall be relieved when you have purchased a plot of land and established there the living Durga, the Mother (i.e. Sri Sarada Devi).”
The presence of the Holy Mother, the Living Durga, during the Puja, must have given boundless joy and satisfaction to Swamiji and the other disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. Holy Mother attended the Durga Puja at Belur Math in 1912, 1916, and possibly other years, blessing her monastic and lay children.
Today, the Durga Puja at Belur Math remains a global attraction. On Asthami Day, Kumari Puja is conducted annually, where the living Durga is worshiped with utmost devotion, following all the rituals.