Festivity filled the air as the garba and dandiya dancers in flamboyant costumes kept pace with rhythmic beat of the drums, moving gracefully around a lighted lamp in front of the picture of Durga, the divine mother or the feminine form of cosmic energy. The rings of dancers revolving in cyclic movements merged into exquisite patterns symbolising, as widely believed, the changing sequence of life surrounding the eternally constant and unchanging reality of the divine mother.
The music and dance lending vibrant colour and merriment to the evenings is the festival of Navrathri, a celebration lasting nine nights (Sanskrit nava denoting nine and rathri night). The celebrations enter the ninth night as I sit down to write a portion of this post, to culminate in Dussehra or Vijaya dashami on the tenth day, falling on the 3rd October 2014.
The concept of divine mother or feminine energy is a major characteristic of Hindu, Christian and Zoroastrian religions. Hailed as Mary, the mother of God in Christian faith, mother Nature manifesting as life sustaining water in Zoroastrian belief, and worshiped variously as Durga, Sakthi, Kali, Lakshmi, Parvathi, Saraswati in Hinduism, power in its most intense form is deemed to be vested in feminine energy.
According to Hindu scriptures, on this day in Treta Yuga (one of the four ages in Hinduism; treta means third, and yuga age, in Sanskrit; treta yuga lasted nearly 1.3 million years), King Rama or Shri Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, killed the ten-headed despot Ravana, who had abducted Sita to his kingdom of Lanka. Rama, his brother Lakshmana, together with Hanuman and an army of simians fought an epic battle to rescue Sita.
Invoking the blessings of Durga, Rama is able to defeat Ravana. The day is commemorated as Vijaya Dashami. Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana returned to Ayodhya 19–20 days after Vijayadashmi. To mark the return of Lord Rama, the residents of Ayodhya light up their kingdom with millions of earthen lamps or Deepam; since then, the day is celebrated in India as Deepawali or Diwali, the festival of lights.
The tenth day rituals of Dussehra or Vijaya Dashami also carry symbolic significance of victory of good over evil or the triumph of the human spirit against several vices represented in the ten heads of Ravana, as Kama (lust), Krodha (anger), Moha (attachment), Lobha (greed), Mada (hubris), Matsara (jealousy), Swartha (selfishness), Anyaaya (injustice), Amanavata (cruelty) and Ahankaara (ego).
Some of the powerful Asuras, or demons, continually tried to defeat the Devas, or celestial beings, and capture Heaven. An Asura by name Mahishasura, having buffalo-like appearance, grew very powerful and created havoc on earth. Under his leadership, the Asuras defeated the Devas. The world was crushed under Mahishasura’s tyranny; a very powerful band of lightning emerged from the mouths of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to converge into an immense mass of incandescent energy (Shakti or Durga) in the beautiful form of a young virgin with ten hands to serve the express purpose of killing Mahishasura. Riding on a lion, Durga fought Mahishasura. The battle raged for nine days and nights. Finally on the tenth day, Mahishasura was defeated and killed by Durga.
Hence Dasha-Hara or Navrathri or Durgotsav is a celebration of Durga’s victory. Durga, as consort of Lord Shiva, represents two forms of female energy – one mild and protective and the other fierce and destructive. In Dwapara Yuga, Lord Krishna prayed to Durga for strength and endurance before the Mahabharata war.
Vijayadashami is celebrated in various ways in different parts of India. It is seen as a day to express gratitude for everything that brings success in life. Vijayadashami is also considered auspicious for Vidyarambham, initiating children to the world of letters and formal learning. Students keep their books for Saraswati puja and workers their tools for Ayudha puja on the ninth day of Navratri; these are taken back after puja and used from the tenth day (Vijayadasami).This wonderful tradition is now followed even by non-Hindus with many churches adopting the same ceremony of initiating little ones to education on the day of Vijaya dashami.
My connect with the divine mother started during childhood days through regular visits to near-home temples dedicated to ‘Ananda valli’ (repository of bliss) and ‘Durga’(remover of sorrows and miseries). It later got reinforced through noon prayers in my school classroom where all students used to be on their feet at toll of the church bell, chanting “Hail Mary, full of grace./ The Lord is with thee./ Blessed art thou amongst women,/ and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus./ Holy Mary, Mother of God,/ pray for us sinners,/ now and at the hour of our death./ Amen”.
My experience of mother’s divine grace, mercy, love and protection strengthened further through annual visits to Mookambika temple, where both my sons were initiated into the world of learning, occasional visits to saint Mary’s Basilica, during my tenure in Bangalore, and to Mount Mary in Bandra (Mumbai), where I presently am. Reigning way beyond any barriers of established religions, the divine mother’s benevolence is so comprehensive that negative effects of Karma and all else are clearly eliminated from one’s auric ambit.
The Nine Nights are not only about worship of Durga in her nine forms, but also the worship of Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) and Sarasvati (goddess of arts and learning). The first three nights are spent in worship of Durga. Lakshmi is invoked in next three nights and in the last three nights one seeks the blessings of Saraswati, followed by the tenth day of victory. Through worshipping Durga, who is durgati harini, in the first three nights, all evil is destroyed, ushering in purity and goodness. The buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura represents sloth, inertia, lust, ego, greed and other vices within. Durga destroys all of these and the resultant cleansed state takes us to the next three nights of invoking the grace of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity. Wealth here is not in the limited sense of material riches but to mean happiness derived from complete well-being of body, heart, mind and soul, the greatest blessing that comes through noble thoughts, words and deeds, as the one bestowed with all these is indeed the recipient of true wealth and prosperity.
The last three nights are spent in prayers to Saraswati, to be showered with appreciation of the song and dance of life. As goddess of arts and learning, Saraswati grants wisdom and knowledge of the self or realization of oneness with the cosmos.
Based on the foregoing, Navrathri and Vijaya dashami signify journey of the soul through nine auspicious nights, from mire of earthly life to radiance of the divine. The hydra-headed Ravana and the vicious Mahishasura are not merely mythological figures; seen in perspective, we realize that the world is full of Ravanas, with too many egoistic and arrogant heads on their shoulders, or Mahishasuras harbouring all conceivable vices within themselves. The world needs rituals to afford breaks from frenetic pace of life that create receptive ground, enabling humanity to refine through spiritual nourishment of large communities of people, to experience in heightened perception the grandeur of Nature in the delightful sounds of birds, dazzle of light filtering through leaves of trees, gurgle of meandering mountain streams, smell of parched earth after the first rains, and to arrive at the wisdom of what really matters. Immersed in these rituals of prayer, song and dance, we experience a cessation from routine and an uplifting sense of stillness and peace, propelling us beyond our limited identities and connecting us, after equipping with enhanced faculties, to wider dimensions of beauty, magnitude of creation and our place in the grand scheme of things.