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Navratri-The Festival of Victory and Purification

Navratri devoted to Goddess Durga, a very important festival of Hindus, is celebrated with great reverence and faith in India. Navaratri literally means nine nights. The Divine Mother fought with Mahishasura (the demon) for nine nights (the demons possess extraordinary strength during the night) and killed him on the evening of the tenth day, which coincides with the festival of Vijaya Dasami (Dusshera). So the entire spiritual festivities of Sri Durga Puja spread out in nine nights and then follows Vijaya Dashmi the tenth day of the victory. Devotees of Durga observe a fast. Brahmins are fed and prayers are offered for the protection of health and property. This year Navaratri will start on Friday, the 8th of October and will continue for 9 days until Saturday, the 16th of October (Hindu month of Aswayuja or Ashwin).



Navaratri festival is also observed once more in the year in the month of Chaitra (April-May). This one is devoted to Lord Rama and known as Rama-Navaratri. Sri Rama is worshipped during Ramnavmi.

The beginning of summer and the beginning of winter are two very important junctions of climatic conditions and solar influence in the year. Our bodies and minds undergo change on account of the changes in the outer nature. In India, the two occasions are considered opportune times to commence Sadhana and worship Lord Rama and the divine mother, indicated respectively by the Chaitra Navaratri (in April) and Ashwin Navaratri (in October).

STORY OF NAVRATRI AND DURGA PUJA

The story associated with Navratri and Durga Puja is found in the Markandeya Purana. The chapters 81 to 93 in the Markandeya Purana talk about the slaying of demon Mahishasura or Mahisha by Durga and it is referred as Devimahatmya and is recited during the Navaratri and Durga Puja. It symbolized the victory of good over evil.

Devi-Mahatyma extols the greatness of Durga in 700 hymns grouped into 537 sections and therefore it is also known as Durga Sapta Sati. It details the exploits of the Goddess in her three major forms: Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati, representing the three fold energy: Strength, Wealth and Wisdom. The most famous episode is Durga killing Mahishasura.

BIRTH OF MAHISHASURA

Legend has it that two sons of Danu called Rambha and Karambha performed penances to gain more powers. Rambha performed the austerities by standing amidst five ritual fires called Panchagni and Karambha by standing in neck-deep water.

Indra, the Lord of the Gods, felt threatened by such intense austerities and took the form of a crocodile and killed Karambha. Rambha, who came to know about his brother’s death, increased the intensity of his austerities and won several boons from Gods like great brilliance, beauty, invincibility in war. Most important was the boon that he will not be killed by humans or Gods or Asuras (demons).

After receiving the boon, he was roaming in the garden of Yaksha and there he fell in love with a female-buffalo. To express his love Rambha took the form of a male-buffalo and copulated with the she-buffalo. But soon a real male buffalo discovered Rambha in the garden and killed him.
Rambha’s inflated ego made him not to ask the boon of invincibility from animals. And an animal happened to be the reason for his death.

The female-buffalo, who was pregnant, decided to kill herself in the funeral pyre of Rambha. She jumped into the pyre and from the pyre sprang up a mighty Asura (demon) with the head of a buffalo and human body. This was Mahishasura.

MAHISHASURA DEFEATS GODS

Mahishasura defeated the Gods and the demons. He attacked the heaven and captured it and made ‘Devas’ his slaves. He proclaimed that he is now Indra – the lord of the Gods. The Gods led by Brahma approached Vishnu and Shiva and appraised them of the situation.

BIRTH OF GODDESS DURGA (A FORM OF SHAKTI OR PARVATI)

The actions of Mahishasura caused intense anger in the Trimurtis. The anger emerging out of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva combined to the take the shape of a terrible form and this was Durga.
It is said that the flames of fire that gushed out of the eyes of the Trimurtis – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – formed a mountain, brilliant like a million suns. Out of this mountain, Durga took shape as the Goddess more powerful than all the Gods. ‘samasta devanam tejo rasi samudbhavam’ (Durga is the brilliance of all the Gods).

Captivated by the awe-inspiring Durga, the Gods bestowed on her their own characteristic weapons. Shiva – the trident, Vishnu – the discus, Varuna – the conch, Agni – the spear, Yama – the cudgel, Vayu – the bow, Surya – the arrows, Indra – the vajra, Kubera – the mace, Brahma – the water pot, Kala – the sword and Vishwakarma – the axe. Himavan gifted a mountain lion as her vehicle.

GODDESS DURGA KILLS MAHISHASURA

When the Goddess was seen by Mahishasura, he fell in love with her and sought to marry her. The Goddess promised to marry him if he defeated her in the battle. A terrible combat ensued and continued for nine days. Finally, Durga assumed the terrifying form of Chandika and pinned Mahishasura down with her foot and pierced his neck with her spear and cut his head off with her sword.

The legend about the killing of Mahisha is found in many Puranas and therefore there are slight variations in the story. The story is also found in Vamana Purana, Varaha Purana, Shiva Purana, Skanda Purana, Devi Bhagavatam and Kalika Purana.

NAVRATRI VRAT (FAST)

Navratri Vrat or Navaratri Vratam is an important fast observed by Hindus during this festival. It is believed that those devotees who perform Navratri fasting will find happiness on earth and will receive ‘Moksha’ (salvation). Legend has it that Goddess Durga once narrated to one of her ardent devotees as to how to observe the Navratri Vrat. The Vratam is observed by both men and women and Navratri mantra is repeated during the period.

HOW TO PERFORM NAVRATRI FAST

• The Navratri fast is observed from the first day to the ninth day of Ashvin month. People take bath in the morning and evening during this period and some even drink water only after the ritual bath in the morning.
• Most devotees take only a single meal during the day. Non-vegetarian food is totally avoided. Some people confine to milk and fruits during the nine days.

• Some devotees only observe fast during three days i.e., first fast during any one of the first three days and second fast during any one of the next three and last in any one of final three days.

• Goddess Durga is worshipped during the first three days, Goddess Lakshmi for the next three days and Goddess Saraswati during the last three days. Some people make clay figures of the Goddesses during the period.

• A kalash is prepared at home and the water is changed daily for nine days. The kalash is placed on grains on raised platform or in the Puja room.

• Each day fresh flowers and fruits are offered to the Goddess. Arati is performed and Bhajans are recited.
• Devi Mahatmya (Durga Saptashati) and Sri Lalita Sahasranama are recited during the period. The important Navratri mantra is ‘Aaim hreem kleem chamundayai vichche.’

• Some devotees conduct special homage and pujas during the period.

• On the ninth day, all books, pens and whatever implements that a person uses for his/her livelihood is worshipped and is not touched on the day.

• On the tenth day, that is the Vijayadashami day in South India, especially in Kerala, young children are initiated into the world of learning.

• There are no hard and fast rules for any fasting in Hindu religion. There is always scope for flexibility. Some people just abstain from non-vegetarian food during the period. Some people just visit temples all the nine days. Some people read Bhagavad Gita or other holy books during the period.

THE STRUCTURE OF NAVARATRI

The structure of worship throughout Navratri is a profound representation of the stages of evolution through which we all must pass. One stage naturally leads to the next.

GODDESS DURGA (TAMAS GUNA)

During Navaratri, on the first three days the Mother is adored as power and force, as Durga the Terrible. You pray to Mother Durga to destroy all your impurities, your vices, your defects. In the process of Sadhana, what is conquered and transformed first is Tamas. Thus Durga, the divinity behind the Tamas-Shakti, is worshipped first. 

Durga is invoked to help us conquer the low animal qualities within us. As the supreme power and force, Durga represents the destructive aspect of the Mother who annihilates all impurities, vices and imperfections. These first three days mark the first stage, or the elimination of impurities, along with a discerned effort to root out the negative tendencies in the mind. Thus the first three days, which mark the first stage or the destruction of impurity and determined effort and struggle to root out the evil tendencies in your mind, are set apart for the worship of the destructive aspect of the Mother.

GODDESS LAKSHMI (RAJAS GUNA)

The worship of Lakshmi is performed during the next three days. Once you have accomplished the task on the negative side that is of breaking down the cravings and old habits, the next step is to build up a sublime spiritual personality, to acquire positive qualities. This stage is as important as the previous one. The difference is: the former is a ruthless, determined annihilation of the lower self; the latter is an orderly, steady and calm effort to develop purity. 

This pleasanter side of Sadhana is depicted by the worship of Lakshmi (The Goddess of good fortune). She bestows on Her devotees the inexhaustible divine wealth or Daivi Sampat. Lakshmi is the Sampat-Dayini (wealth-giving) aspect of God. She is purity itself. She is also the goddess superintending the force of Rajas, the Guna that must be overcome after Tamas.

GODDESS SARASWATI (SATTWA GUNA)

The worship of Saraswati is performed during the next three days. Once the aspirant succeeds in routing out the evil propensities, and develops Sattwic or pure, divine qualities, he becomes competent to attain supreme wisdom. At this stage comes the devout worship of Saraswati, who is divine knowledge personified, the embodiment of knowledge of the Absolute. The sound of her celestial Veena (lute) awakens the notes of the sublime mahavakyas (great statement or profound aphorism, usually referring to the great proclamations of the Upanishads) and the Pranava (mantra Aum; primordial sound vibration). She bestows the knowledge of the supreme Nada (psychic or internal sound) and then gives full atmajnana (self-knowledge) as represented by her pure and dazzling white apparel. She is also the Mother in her Sattwa Guna and transcending Sattwa is the last rung of Sadhana.

THE TENTH DAY

The tenth day, Vijaya Dashami, marks the triumphant ovation of the jiva (soul) at having attained jivanmukti (liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth) through the descent of knowledge by the grace of Goddess Saraswati. The jiva rests in his own Supreme Self of Sat-chit-ananda (existence-knowledge-bliss absolute). It marks complete victory over the threefold force of the universe. The day celebrates the achievement of the goal. The banner of victory flies aloft! Lo! I am He! I am He!

CONCLUSION

Navaratri is festival of self- restraint, a festival of spiritual upliftment of individual soul to perfection, to the God realization. What is required is the earnest effort of total individual’s energy to divert in one direction only towards the absolute peace and supreme blessedness which is the realization of the absolute. A little moderation in daily routine of getting up at early dawn before sunrise, little balance, harmony and moderation in food habits, essential exercise, prayer, meditation, contemplation, charity, introspection, purity and chastity in conduct in individual and social behavior can certainly rejuvenate and reshape our lives on this planet earth. One can shine and prosper. 

Therefore, follow this arrangement and your efforts will be successful. This is your path. As you destroy one evil quality, develop the virtue opposite to it. By this process you will soon bring yourself up to that perfection which will culminate in identity with the Self which is your goal. Then all knowledge will be yours: you will be omniscient, omnipotent and you will feel your omnipresence. You will see your Self in all. You would have achieved eternal victory over the wheel of births and deaths, over the demon of worldliness. No more pain, no more misery, no more birth, no more death! Victory, victory be yours! This is the secret of Navaratri. This is the meaning behind the Shakti worship.
May Mother Durga’s abundant grace be ever upon us! Let us realize that we all are children of the Supreme Mother. Let us live and lead our lives in natural love, harmony, peace and happiness.

Courtesy: Dr. Rita Khanna
Aum Shanti