No sooner Ganesh Chaturthi is over and the fortnight of Mahalaya or the Pitripaksha begins, we wait for it to pass and for the festival of Navaratri to commence.
The Navaratri festival begins on the first day of the bright half (Shukla) of Ashwin month and lasts for nine days, the last tenth day being the Vijaya Dasami. Navaratri literally means ‘nine nights’ during which Goddess Durga is worshipped. Goddess Durga or the embodiment of Divine Mother Shakti is revered in commemoration of Her victory over the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Durga Puja in Bengal starts after the “Ghata Sthapana” on the sixth day of Ashwin Shukla.
Durga Festival is a significant festival especially of Bengal though it is celebrated in various forms throughout India. The main aim is to propitiate Shakti the embodiment of Goddess Durga. The Goddess Durga with Her potent powers is the consort of Lord Shiva, and represents Divine Mother. She is the Shakti of Shiva and Shiva Her soul.
Goddess Durga has ten hands holding different weapons, the lion being her vehicle. According to Durgasaptashati the Divine Mother, the Goddess Durga was created out of the combined Cosmic Divine Forces or Powers of all the Gods to kill the buffalo-demon Mahishasura. Durgasaptashati relates how all the Gods then pool out their individual weapons to gift them to Goddess Durga, to make her all-powerful and kill the demon Mahishasura.
The Divine Mother is also described in various roles during her fight with the demons. She is Ambika, Jagadamba, Chandika, Bhavani, Chamundi, Kaushiki and Kalidevi. From Parvati’s body Ambika was born so she was known as Kaushiki. After Kaushaki’s appearance, Parvati’s body is said to have become black so she came to be known as Kalidevi. She is known as Chamundi because she killed the demons Chund and Mund. She finally kills the buffalo-demon Mahishasura so She is hailed as ‘Mahishasur Mardini’ The Divine Mother is worshipped as Durga because She is the saviour from all ‘durgam’ i.e. sorrows and sufferings.
Legend has it that Durga or Parvati’s mother longed to see her daughter and she was permitted by Lord Shiva to visit her mother only for nine days in the year. The festival marks the visit of Goddess Durga and her return to Kailas on the tenth day that is the Vijaya Dasami day.
Durga Puja is celebrated in Bengal with great enthusiasm and fervour akin to Ganapathy Festival in Maharashtra. Goddess Durga is always flanked on either side by Lord Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Durga Puja Festival is a great occasion for family union and rejoicing and on the last Dasami Day called ‘Bijoya’, people greet by embracing each other known as ‘Kola Kuli’.
The Navaratri Festival comprises of Durga Festival for ten days, punctuated by Lalita Panchami on the fifth day of Ashwin Shukla and Saraswati Puja from seventh day to ninth and the Vijaya Dasami Day. Legend has it that Lalita or Upangala was the patron goddess of a town ‘Upanga’, and that by worshipping her on this day the inhabitants gained great prosperity. On the first day of Saraswati day of Ashwin Shukla seventh, all sacred books of learning are collected and worshipped with Goddess Saraswati. Even instruments of Music, Dance, and all forms of Art are venerated and worshipped with flowers etc. All types of machinery are decorated and also given a holiday.
In Gujarat, Navaratri is a festival again of gaiety and rejoicing. Goddess Durga is worshipped as Mata Amba or Mother Earth, seeking her blessings and protection. Decorated earthen pots having holes with pulses are made to sprout and then worshipped for nine nights. Navaratri of Gujarat is famous for its Garba dance by women and men dancing rhythmically in circles to the tune of folk music. It is a spectacular sight to watch the multi-coloured ghagras swirling around with the graceful body movement. It is also famous for the Dandiya raas which is danced with a pair of sticks called dandiyas.
There are other legends attributed to the Vijaya Dasami or Dussera, the tenth day, one being the victory of Mother Durga over the buffalo-demon Mahishasura. The other it seems on this day Lord Rama won over Ravana by invoking the grace of Goddess Durga. Dussera is interpreted as “Das-Hara” i.e. cutting of the ten heads of Ravana, symbolically meaning overcoming passion, pride, anger, greed, infatuation, lust, hatred, jealousy, selfishness and wickedness of our demon, the Ego. It means triumph of good over evil. Effigies of the ten-headed Ravana are burnt on Vijaya Dasami day emulating the killing of Ravana by Rama.
Again it is said that the five Pandavas after completing their year’s service in incognito in Virata’s palace, took their arms from their hiding place in the sami tree (mimosa suma) on this day, fought against the Kauravas, finally defeating them. Even to this day some worship the sami tree and its leaves are distributed amongst elders and friends under the name of gold as a mark of respect and goodwill. It was on this highly auspicious day that Arjuna seemed to have worshipped Devi Durga prior to starting the battle against the Kauravas. Some ascribe this custom to ancient kings’ winter campaigns after cessation of rains and crops are ripe for harvesting ,and marauding chieftains trespass boundaries (Seemolanghan) and return with spoils or ‘gold’ of the raid.
Another legend leads to the fight between Devi and Bhandasura and his forces for nine days and nine nights. It seems Bhandasura had a wonderful birth and life. When Lord Shiva burnt Cupid with the fire of His “third eye”, Sri Ganesha playfully moulded a figure out of the ashes, and the Lord breathed life into it! This was the terrible demon Bhandasura. He engaged himself in great penance and on account of it obtained a boon from Lord Shiva. With the boon he began to harass the worlds. The Divine Mother fought with him for nine nights and killed him on the evening of the tenth day, the Vijaya Dasami Day.
Religious observances have their significance and are allegoric too. Thus, some spiritual aspirants divide Navaratri into sets of three days worshipping different aspects of the Supreme Divine Mother. First three days the Mother is adored as supreme power and force. You pray to Mother Durga to destroy all your impurities, your vices, your defects as Durga who destroys evil and annhilates the baser animal qualities of the aspirant. The second set of three days is of Mother Lakshmi, the sublime Goddess bestowing wealth and yielding to the devotees to achieve pure mind.
The third stage is to propitiate the Goddess Saraswati who is divine knowledge personified, the embodiment of knowledge of the Absolute as, by now the aspirant will have routed out the evil propensities and developed ‘Satvic’ or pure nature worthy enough to attain wisdom or divine knowledge. Durga sometimes worshipped as Katyayani is represented to be divine wisdom ( Durgasaptasati). Knowledge will not and cannot be achieved until our impurities have been removed. The tenth day, Vijaya Dasami, marks the evolution of man liberating himself from his baser qualities to attain knowledge and self-realization, through Divine Shakti and Her Grace.
Mention may be made of the custom of displaying dolls during Navaratri in South Indian Tamilian houses. It is called “Bommai Kollu”. Bommai means dolls and Kollu means displaying. Collections of rare beautiful items of antiquity are arranged on specially erected flight of steps. The beautiful decorations reflect the ingenuity, skill and artistic talent of the lady of the house. This function is mainly for women but draws a large crowd of children as well who come to enjoy. For more details you may dive into my book – “Gems from Mythology” (B.V. Bhavan).
Navaratri is one of the most suitable occasions for doing intense spiritual practices. These nine days are very sacred to the Divine Mother. So plunge in Her worship. Practice intense repetition of the Divine Name and be blessed by the Divine Mother Durga. At the same time rejoice and do not miss the beauty of the Navaratri celebrations.