Durga Navratri: Times of Triumphant Shakti

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Durga Puja and Navratri
Durga Puja and Navratri are a worship of Shakti

The divine feminine principle operative in the universe– that is what the Sanskrit term, Shakti, refers to. This principle is not only believed to be the fundamental driving force behind existence and all action in the phenomenal world, but also regarded as responsible for creation, preservation, and even the destruction of the universe.

According to Shaktism, a major sect of Hinduism, Brahman, the unchanging, eternal, infinite, immanent and transcendent ultimate reality is pure potentiality or consciousness. Though some texts of the Shakta tradition – a tradition within Shaktism – refers to Brahman as masculine, and some texts as feminine, some texts as masculine as well as feminine, and still some other texts as neither, according to Shaktism, Brahman should be regarded as a reality beyond gender demarcations.

Shakti is the feminine energy of the divine, in other words, it is the underlying unmanifested potential of Brahman. It alone can animate and actualize the formless, inorganic and unmanifested aspect of Brahman, bringing forth the diverse forms and phenomena in the universe. The union of Brahman and Shakti makes the underlying unmanifested potential of Brahman the manifested reality. Shakti is not regarded as separate from Brahman but as an aspect or manifestation of Brahman. Therefore, Shakti can be understood as the active and creative aspect of Brahman, the ultimate reality.

Scilptures of Goddess Durga from 9th Century Kashmir (left) and 13th Century Karnataka (right)

The phenomenal universe is the result of the perfectly balanced union of the principles of Brahman and Shakti. This perfect cosmic union is epitomized in the union of Lord Shiva with Shakti or in the union of other male gods with Shakti. At this level of epitomization, this union signifies the interplay of the divine masculine and the divine feminine energies in the creation and sustenance of the universe. The androgynous deity, Ardhanarishvara, consisting of Shiva and his consort, Parvati, depicts the inseparable union and balance of the two divine principles in Shaktism and its non-dualistic philosophy, emphasizing the oneness of all existence.

Shaktism regards and worships Shakti as the Supreme Being or the ultimate reality which is often personified and believed to manifest as various gods and goddesses, often as the spouses of male gods. Durga, Kali, Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Gayatri, Ganga, Sita, and Radha are some of the most popular manifestations of Shakti. Shaktism advocates the worship of the divine feminine in various forms, and it has a rich tradition of festivals and rituals dedicated to different goddesses.

Sculpture of the Goddess from 2nd Century Uttar Pradesh

Durga Puja, the worship of Shakti in the form of goddess Durga is the grandest of all Hindu festivals in India, especially in West Bengal. While devotion to and worship of Durga is very prevalent in the eastern Indian states such as West Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand, Orissa and Tripura, in West Bengal, it takes on unparalleled significance, transcending its role as merely a religious observance to become a monumental social and cultural event. The worship of Durga extends beyond India’s borders, gaining popularity in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, and wherever Hindu communities exist.

The name, ‘Durga’ signifies ‘the entity that eludes easy comprehension or accessibility.’ Durga is believed to manifest in approximately sixty-four distinct forms, each associated with a unique name. Each of her manifestations symbolizes a distinct aspect of her divine attributes. Depicted and comprehended as the quintessence of power, beauty, love, wealth, and numerous other virtues, she assumes the role of the universal goddess, the divine mother, the embodiment of cosmic energy, and the very essence of the energy of Lord Shiva, one of the supreme trinitarian deities in Hinduism. Since Durga is a manifestation of Shakti, the Supreme Being, worshipping her, one is believed to worship all gods and goddesses at once.

Figurine of Goddess Durga from Nepal

Durga Puja commemorates the triumphant defeat of the demon or asura king, Mahishasura, by the divine warrior, Durga, who was born out of the collective energies and powers of various gods and goddesses at a time of cosmic crisis ushered in by the apparent triumph of evil embodied in Mahishasura. Having secured from Brahma a special boon that rendered him impervious to harm from men, gods, yakshas, or gandharvas, Mahishasura had become invulnerable to all except women. Blinded by his overriding ambition, he decided to expand his dominion unleashing brutal wars on gods in heaven as well as on humanity on the earth. Endowed with and sanctioned by the energies of various gods and goddesses, and mounted upon a lion, brandishing an array of weapons in her ten hands, Durga engaged Mahishasura in a fierce and decisive battle until she vanquished him. Thus, she liberated heaven and the earth from the clutches of evil and reinstated the rightful order in both realms. It is this great feat that Durga won for gods and humanity that Durga Puja celebrates every year.

Termed in Sanskrit as Durga Navaratri, which translates to ‘nine nights,’ the festival of Durga Puja commences on the first day of the Hindu calendar month of Ashwin, which typically aligns with the Gregorian calendar months of September or October. As per the custom, throughout the course of this celebration, each day is dedicated to invoking and worshipping one of the nine distinct aspects of Durga’s divine power, a tradition that gave rise to the term, Durga Navratri, signifying her glorious ‘nine nights.’

Durga Puja commemorates the triumphant defeat of the demon or asura king, Mahishasura, by the divine warrior, Durga, who was born out of the collective energies and powers of various gods and goddesses at a time of cosmic crisis ushered in by the apparent triumph of evil embodied in Mahishasura. Having secured from Brahma a special boon that rendered him impervious to harm from men, gods, yakshas, or gandharvas, Mahishasura had become invulnerable to all except women.

On the first day of Durga Navratri, the worship of Durga is directed towards her form as Shailaputri, often referred to as the daughter of the mountains.’ As Shailaputri, Durga is regarded not only as the embodiment of the natural world but also as the consort of Lord Shiva. Shailaputri symbolizes purity and unwavering devotion.

The second day is dedicated to the worship of the goddess as Brahmacharini, a devoted practitioner of celibacy and austerity. Brahmacharini serves as a guiding light, leading humanity towards the path of moksha, signifying devotion, power, and profound knowledge.

On the third day, the focus of the devotees shifts to the worship of her form as Chandraghanta, characterized by a crescent-moon-shaped bell adorning her forehead. As Chandraghanta Durga engages in battle against evil and removes all difficulties and disorders. Chandraghanta epitomizes knowledge, wisdom, prosperity, grace, happiness, and serenity.
As the celebration progresses to the fourth day, Durga’s manifestation as Kushmanda (the creator of the cosmic egg, signifying her role as the creator of the universe) takes center stage. As Kushmanda she symbolizes the origin of all existence and the primordial energy that gave rise to the universe.

Uma pleading with her father king Daksha

On the fifth day, her manifestation as Skandamata, the mother of Skanda (an alternate name for Kartikeya, the god of war and son of Shiva and Parvati), is venerated. As Skandamata, Durga represents motherhood, compassion, and boundless love.

Moving on to the sixth day, her manifestation as Katyayani, the daughter of Sage Katyayan, emerges with the sole purpose of vanquishing the demon Mahishasura. As Katyayani, she embodies strength, courage, and triumphant valor.

The seventh day witnesses the worship of Kaalratri, a manifestation of Durga in her dark and destructive form. Known as the night of death, Kaalratri dispels all fears and negativities, symbolizing power, protection, and ultimate liberation.

Upon reaching the eighth day, Mahagauri takes the spotlight. She is celebrated as the most beautiful and pure form of Durga, capable of cleansing all sins and sorrows. Mahagauri symbolizes beauty, purity, loveliness, and auspiciousness.

Finally, on the ninth day, Durga is worshiped as Siddhidatri, the bestower of supernatural powers achieved through unwavering devotion and meditation. Siddhidatri signifies perfection, fulfillment, and divine grace.

On the tenth day, the entire celebration of Durga Navratri culminates in Bijoya Dashami symbolizing Durga’s victory over Mahishasura. However, in practical terms, Durga Navaratri is observed for a duration of six days, which include Mahalaya (the day of homecoming), Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Navami, and Bijoya Dashami.

Durga idol at a residential Durga Puja

Mahalaya, the day of Druga’s homecoming, marks the commencement of Durga Navaratri. It is the day when by reciting hymns from the Devi Mahatmyam (Chandi), the devotees invoke as well as invite the goddess to descend to the Earth from Mount Kailash where she lives with her husband Lord Shiva (as per one tradition) or her heavenly abode (as per another tradition) along with her children Ganesha, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Saraswati. By chanting mantras and singing devotional songs, devotees invite the goddess to their homes and temples on this day.

The Hindu Bengalis in India regard Durga Puja as a commemoration of the annual visit of Uma, an embodiment of Shakti and the wife of Shiva, to her parental home on Earth. Uma is the maiden name of Durga. It is believed that when Uma married Shiva against the will of her father, Daksha, the king of the Himalayas, Daksha organized a ‘yajna’ (puja) and deliberately left Shiva out from the list of invitees in order to insult him. When Uma confronted her father about this issue, he humiliated both Uma and her husband. Unable to bear the humiliation, Uma killed herself. Holding the lifeless body of his wife in his hands, Shiva continued his destructive dance, threatening the existence of the universe, until he was finally pacified by the removal of Uma’s dismembered body from his grasp. Uma was later reborn as Parvati. According to Bengali belief, during the month of Ashwin when Durga Puja is celebrated, Uma visits her parents’ home along with her children Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganesh, and Kartik, bringing joy and happiness to all. Hence, in Bengal, alongside the idol of Durga, one can find idols of Ganesh, Kartik, Saraswati, and Lakshmi. Uma’s annual visit signifies the ultimate restoration of life itself.

The visitation of the goddess is believed to extend over a span of four days, commencing from Maha Sashti, known also as Durga Shashti, and concluding on Mahanavami. Maha Sashti, corresponds to the sixth day of the Durga Navaratri festival. On the evening of Maha Sashti, the goddess is invoked and awakened after which the idol is believed to embody the goddess herself. This ritual marks the commencement of Durga’s arrival on the Earth.

Maha Saptami known also as Durga Saptami marks the seventh day of the Durga Navaratri and the second day of Durga Puja. It is a day of great significance as it commemorates the commencement of the goddess’s epic battle against Mahishasura.

Durga puja in Kolkata

The eighth day of the Navaratri, which is the third day of Durga Puja, is celebrated as Durgashtami or Mahashtami. It is a day dedicated especially to the worship of the goddess’s weapons, a ritual known as ‘astra puja’ amidst other pujas.

The ninth day of the Navratri, which is the fourth day of Durga Puja, is observed as Mahanavami, the day on which Durga assumes the form of Mahishasura Mardini, the vanquisher of Mahishasura, during a relentless nine-day battle at the end of which she annihilates Mahishasura. On this day, Durga is worshipped in her form as Aparajita, the undefeated. Mahanavami signifies the culmination of the Durga Puja festivities.

The Navratri festival becomes a ten-day festival with the addition of the last day, Bijoya Dashami that commemorates the victory of Durga over Mahishasura that symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. On this day, the devotees bid farewell to the goddess as she is believed to go back to her husband Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas or to her heavenly abode. The idol of Durga is immersed in water symbolizing her transcendence from our phenomenal world.

Over the years, alongside its spiritual significance, the festival of Durga Navratri has assumed great social, cultural and economic significance. It plays a vital role in bringing people and communities together, fostering cultural traditions, and stimulating economic activity. Nevertheless, the unifying thread that ties together all of these diverse aspects of the festivities during Durga Navaratri is the devout ritualistic remembrance of the triumph of Shakti over all adversities.

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