Navaratri - The Hindu Festival

Durga

Durga

by Jayaram V

A doctor from Indore once told me that many people visited him, complaining of stomach upset at the end of Durga festival, which is traditionally celebrated for nine days in many parts of India. When I asked him for reasons, he told me that it was because when people started eating regular food after fasting for nine days, they would experience problems with digestion. It is amazing that despite such inconveniences, year after year during the Navaratri festival people observe complete fasting. Some devotees do it so strictly that they even avoid drinking water. That is a challenge for anyone who lives in a tropical country where the temperatures are above normal.

If you visit North India, in some towns and villages you will see wide open grounds, mostly in the outskirts, where they install large statues of Ravana. They are usually fierce looking statues, in a battle-ready stance, with one or ten heads, piercing eyes, prominent whiskers, holding a large, curved sword in one hand. During the Navaratri festival people would assemble in those grounds and burn the effigies of Ravana, marking his defeat and the victory of good over evil.

During normal times, you may see children playing in the ground or elders walking by. However, no one usually disturbs the statues out of fear or respect. The story of Ramayana is deeply embedded in the minds of Hindus. It is the most popular epic in the world, and probably the most ancient. It is popular even in countries as far as Thailand, Burma, Tibet, China, and Far Eastern countries. Lord Rama is associated with many Hindu festivals. Of them Navaratri or Dussehra is the most popular.

Ravana's Effigy Ravana's Effigy

Navaratri, the festival of nine nights, is an important festival of Hindus, which is celebrated variously in different parts of India. In some states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, it is celebrated as Ramalila, meaning the play of Rama, to commemorate the victory of Lord Rama against Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. Each day people recite verses or passages from the Ramayana, especially the Ramacharitmanas of Tulsidas, or listen to them, or watch plays that depict incidents from the life of Rama.

After celebrating the festival for nine days, on the tenth day, called Vijayadasami (the tenth day of victory) effigies of Ravana, his son Meghanatha and his brother Kumbhkarna are burnt amidst a lot of fanfare. In the metropolitan cities of India, especially New Delhi, many celebrities and political leaders also participate in the festivities. Benares is a famous Hindu pilgrim center where the Ramalila plays are enacted on a large scale.

In the eastern states of India like Bengal, Bihar and Assam, people celebrate the nine days as Durga festival. The reason why the festival is celebrated for nine days is the Goddess has nine-forms or aspects. Hence she is also known as Navadurga. In southern India, goddess Saraswathi is also worshipped during the Navaratri.

Hindu tradition recognizes five different Navaratris celebrated each year at different times, and on each occasion a different aspect of the Goddess is worshipped. Of them Mahanavarati or Sharad Navaratri is the most important, which is celebrated during the month of Sharad (September - October). On the first day, the goddess is invoked by worshipping her clay image. Each day she is given the offerings. On the tenth day, her image is carried in a great procession and immersed in the waters of a lake, river, canal or ocean. The festival is celebrated in various parts of India with minor variations. Many people fast on the nine days for self-purification and abstain from eating meat or drinking liquor.

The question which is often asked is why do Hindus celebrate the same festival differently? Whether it is Diwali, Navaratri or Sankranti, people in different parts of India worship different deities and associate different legends to each festival. While it is difficult to know exactly what happened in the remote past, one probable reason could be that the nine night festival was originally associated with the fertility cults of prehistoric times in the Indian subcontinent. Over time people in different parts of the country might have adapted it into their local cultures by associating ancient myths and legends to it and introducing new practices to suit their local needs. Another reason could be that people in different parts of India used to worship local devis or goddesses who were eventually elevated or identified as the aspects of the Goddess.

What is the benefit of celebrating Navaratri? It is said that the goddess will be pleased by the devotional worship and will materially help you, resolving your problems and suffering. On the spiritual side, she will take away your sins, impurities, evil and demonic qualities and help you in your spiritual transformation. She purifies your consciousness to awaken your hidden potentials. Your major problem in your life is your animal nature. It is your inner animal (pasu), which prevents you from knowing the truth of yourself (pati). It is responsible for your desires, attachments (pasas) bondage, and delusion (moha). The goddess helps you to subdue the animal (asura) in you and cultivate the higher qualities of compassion, wisdom and sameness and ascend through the nine doors of consciousness into the highest heaven.

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