The Hindu Festival, Navratri, Nava meaning nine, and Ratri meaning nights, is typically observed in the fall between the months of September and October, although specific dates are determined in accordance to the lunar calendar and can vary each year. In some parts of India, a Navaratri festival is celebrated in the spring as well as the fall (Fuller) and is a nine night, ten day festival, in which the Mother Goddess and her various forms are celebrated each day (HEB). During these nine nights and ten days, nine forms of Shakti/Devi are worshipped, [and are said to] signify various traits that the goddess influences us with” (Navratri). This festival is observed in most parts of India, particularly in northern India, eastern and western India, although the nine Devis worshipped during this time period depend on the tradition of the region in which the festival is being celebrated (Navratri). Consequently, within each region various styles of the Navratri Festival are practiced and ritualized (Sivananda).
However, the central, unifying goal of this observance is to “propitiate Shakti, the Goddess in Her aspect as Power, to bestow upon man all wealth, auspiciousness, prosperity, knowledge, … and all other potent powers” (Sivananda). Navaratri celebrates the defeat of the buffalo-demon Mahisasura/Mahishasura by the Great Goddess, Devi or Shakti. In this myth, Mahisasura had preformed severe penances in order to win the favor of the deity Brahma. In doing so, he was granted the blessing of invincibility against all males (HEB).
Viewing women as a non-threat, Mahisasura saw himself as immortal and so began to wreak havoc in the heavens and on earth (HEB). “Mahisasura soon ousted the gods from the heavens and [had begun] to destroy the order of the universe” (Fuller). After humiliating defeats by Mahisasura, the supreme gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, decided to pool their powers together to create a being powerful enough to stop Mahisasura, the goddess Durga. Armed with the powers of the three Gods, weapons from for each of her ten arms, as well as a lion to ride upon into battle, Durga was able to slain Mahisasura (Mahishasura).
At the end of a tremendous struggle in which the demon’s army was defeatd, the goddess was able to spear Mahisasura with her trident and cut off his head (Fuller), restoring the cosmic order. During the nine days of celebration, the repeated recitation of mantras are said to be of great benefit to the devotee (Clothey). “These prayers are offered for the protection of health and prosperity, Navratri is traditionally an auspicious and religious time for starting new ventures” (Navratri). In north India, Navratri is celebrated by fasting for all nine days, while worshiping all nine forms Durga (Navratri).
In the state of West Bengal in east India, the last four days of the autumnal Navratri take on a particularly dramatic form with the delicately crafted and decorated creations of life-size clay idols of the deity Durga slaying Mahisasura. In the state of Gujarat, located in east India, Navratri is celebrated with the famous Garba/Garbha dance (Navratri). Garbha is performed mainly by women, who in cadence to pulsating rhythm of music and clapping, “[exhibit stunning performances] around a traditionally decorated terracotta pot called the Garbi.
This centerpiece has a small Diya (lamp) burning within, signifying knowledge, or the light meant to dissipate the ignorance, or darkness, within” (Navratri Festival). Customarily, in the Garbha dance form, the leader begins to dance in rhythm with the first line of the song. Dancers who were once swaying gracefully with their arms to the metrical beating and clapping then begin to follow and commence dancing. (Navratri Festival). However, not all deeply rooted customs and myths are able to maintain their traditional counterparts.
Today, dances like the Garba are highly commercialized to the point that the original, customary dance is being substituted with much less traditional rhythms and sounds. Throughout India, in all locations, Navratri is divided into sets of three days in order to adore the three different aspects of the supreme god or goddess. (Navratri) On the first of the three days, the goddess of valor, Durga is recognized. (Navratri Festival). During this time Durga, also know as Kali, is invoked to destroy all of one’s impurities (Navratri).
During the next three days, Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, is then called upon to bestow her gifts upon her devotees. The final three days are held in celebration of Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom, to bestow all around success upon her worshipers. (Navratri) During each of the nine days of worship in the Navratri Festival, specific proceedings and ceremonies must be performed in the Temple to properly display and pay homage to Durga in her defeat of the immensely powerful demon Mahisasura.
In the article, “The Navaratri Festival in Madurai,” the authors, Fuller and Logan, illustrate the many celebratory rituals, their meanings, and the timing of the customs preformed by the temple priests of Madurai. The in-depth detail provided concerning the daily rituals within Madurai’s temples and that of the home, (Fuller) represent the complexity and varied practices among not only across the far reaches of India, but even within same city blocks.
Superficially, the nine-day celebration of Navratri in worship of Devi is one of triumph and elation in the victorious struggle to defeat Mahishasura and his army and restore order to the universe. However, according to the author Sivananda, Navratri is more than the celebration of a myth, but is also a representation of a practical truth. “In its cosmic aspect, it epitomizes the stages of the evolution of man into God, from Jivahood (the state of individualization) to Shivahood (the state of Self-realization)… it shows the course that his spiritual practice should take” (Sivananda).
The author then parallels the groupings of days and the goddesses they represent to demonstrate the significance of the Navratri Festival as a guide for its Hindu followers to recognize and achieve their eternal identity with the Supreme Spirit. Firstly, they must pray to the deity Durga, adored as a supreme power and force, to destroy all of one’s impurities and provide the ability to persevere in the struggle to root out any evil tendencies one might have.
Secondly, in conjunction with Lakshmi, one can now acquire a wealth of positive attributes in place of the eliminated negative qualities. Finally the aspirant wishing to recognize their eternal identity can now be open to attain the light of true wisdom with the help of the goddess Saraswati, giving full knowledge of the self. This breakdown and analysis of the various events by the author, Sivananda, allows for greater understanding and meaning of the significance of Navratri. Sirananda provides an analysis of the festival that would be relevant to the common Hindu worshiper.
Sirananda’s descriptions compliment the popular press’s coverage of Navratri and demonstrate that there is religious backing to the popular celebrations undertaken during the festival. These groupings parallel the idea that spiritual evolution is not made simply and quickly, and that it is a process of purification and acquisition. With each evil quality that is purged, a virtuous opposite must be the replacement, at which point, when all of one’s impurities are no longer present and supreme wisdom has befallen the seeker, only then can he or she achieve stability in an ever-changing and cyclical world.