Immediately after the end of Pitṛpakṣa, the fortnight where we remember and honor our ancestors, we begin a very different and powerful spiritual journey – 10 days of celebration and spiritual practice in honor of the Goddess.
Navrātri, as it is known in modern languages, (Sanskrit: navarātra) means “nine nights”, and during this time, we follow Goddess Durgā’s nine-night mythological battle against the demons who are threatening to overrun the inner and outer universe. On the 10th day, we honor her victory. There are actually four Navrātris throughout the year, but the two most common are in the spring and the fall, and between those two the fall Navrātri (happening in the month of Śarad) is the most commonly celebrated, and what most people refer to when they say Navrātri.
Śarad-Navrātri stands apart as one of our most beloved and joyful spiritual celebrations during the year. Every region has its own traditions, rituals, and celebrations for this festival. Navrātri is most famously celebrated in two regions. One, in the northwestern state of Gujarat, whose folk dances of garba and rāsa have now spread all over the world and are synonymous with Navrātri celebration. Durgā Pūjā is also the most iconic and ancient celebration in Bengal, equal in fervor and joy to Gaṇeśotsava in Maharashtra. (And similarly, a unique organic icon of Mā Durgā is made and then immersed back into the water at the end of the festival).
The main deity for the festival is Durgā-mā (Mother Durgā) , and she is worshipped all 10 days. Additionally, depending on which lineage you come from, different goddesses are worshipped on each day. In recent times, there is a growing trend of worshipping nine different incarnations of Durgā, one for each day of Navrātri.
More commonly, however, the tradition is to follow the general sequence of the Devī Māhātmya – an ancient scripture that teaches about and invokes her blessings (For more information, please view Lesson 3). In the text, Durgā, who is the central deity, also emanates the forms of Mahākālī, Mahālaksṃī, and Mahāsarasvatī. So it is traditional to worship Mahākālī for the first three days, Mahālakṣmī for the second three, and then Mahāsarasvatī for the last three. Some lineages flip this so that Sarasvatī is first and Kālī is worshipped last.
In other words, we embark on a spiritual journey where we begin with powerful purification and liberation, then move into nourishment, sustainability and dharma, and then finally arrive into the purity and subtlety of wisdom and creative power.
Each scripture and each tradition will elevate its central deity as the supreme oneness (in Devī Mahātmya, Durgā is the source and sustainer of the entire universe). As a student just starting to learn mythology, it can get confusing to hear in one scripture that for example Śiva is the supreme deity, and all the others emanate from him, and in another that it is Kālī, or Gaṇeśa, etc.
It’s important when we study mythology to understand that these are not stories set in a temporal sequence (even though we say “first this happened, then this”) – each myth exists simultaneous to all the rest. That is because myths in our tradition are descriptions of inner or outer processes that exist simultaneously. And, we need to remember each set of mythology will be cohesive and [mostly] coherent within a specific lineage or tradition in terms of which deity it uses as its symbol for Supreme Source, and how it organizes the deities to correlate to the different aspects of God, and the universe. However, when you start studying mythology from multiple lineages they appear to contradict themselves.
The important thing for all of us to remember is not to then confuse the underlying principles and guidance presented across different mythologies – which need to be coherent for our practice to grow. This is one significant area where having a legitimate guru to help us correctly interpret and apply mythological teachings to your life, as well as a strong community of fellow students is extremely beneficial.
And, because of all the contradictory mythology, you can see why it doesn’t serve our learning to take myths literally, or to start arguing about which myth is “true”. These are not factual stories of people, nor are they derived from a single source. They are wisdom tales lending us insight into and inspiration for the spiritual journey. Resourceful students of the tradition learn to extract wisdom from each myth, even where it seemingly contradicts other myths they have heard.
As we explore Navrātri, you will learn about several different goddesses, all of whom could be considered supreme. Of course, in this celebration, we elevate Durgā as the Supreme Power. But that doesn’t mean that Kālī, Śiva, or Viṣṇu, who all appear in her mythology as subordinate deities, are not also manifestations of the supreme power. (In fact, a devotee of any of these deities might passionately correct you and say, no, in fact, all the other forms emanated from the form that they worship!) So the fact is, if we want to learn from all the rich mythologies and diverse scriptures in our tradition, rather than just one linage, we need to be able to sustain the complexity and seeming paradox of multiple mythologies.
Each deity expresses divine grace in a particular form. Please note that even though we ascribe gender to them in their mythology in order to relate to them, deities are aspects of reality – cosmic powers that exist beyond gender. Many women, for example, experience Durgā’s power flowing through them naturally (for example, the fierce superhuman energy that emerges to protect her child from harm), but her energy is not limited to only women, nor should it be. In fact, doing sādhana for a deity is to actively welcome their energy moving through you and your life regardless of your gender, or their mythological gender.
Durgā-devī is an incarnation of Pārvatī, Lord Śiva’s wife, and also Ādi-Śakti, the Supreme Power. In the Devī-Mahātmya, she is the source power of all other goddesses.
Lord Śiva’s grace has the qualities of stillness, mercy, simplicity, and cool, moonlike beingness; Durgā Mā’s is the polar opposite – she is action and justice. Her red sari and the roaring tiger/lion she rides all convey the qualities of rajas, the element of passion, of action, of heat, forcefulness, pride, and even a sort of divine anger. And yet, these two comprise fundamental aspects of God that are recognized throughout many religions – that God is both justice and mercy, solar and lunar, activity and stillness, power and presence.
Durgā – also referred to as Ambā – is revered as the fierce, protective cosmic Mother, as the power of life itself fearlessly striding forth and guarding her children (i.e. all living beings) from any kind of violence or harm. She is a warrior, but with a beautiful violence that actually destroys the violent. She is divine anger that tames ordinary anger; divine pride that smashes ordinary pride; divine action that frees us from the consequences of misguided action.
She has the qualities of a beautiful, powerful queen, sovereign amongst all the realms. No one can overpower her. In six of her arms, she contains weapons that can destroy every sort of demonic/harmful consciousness – a mace to smash pride, a trident to pierce the lie of duality and separation (the three guṇas are actually one), a discus to sever the “head” – i.e. false and limited identities, etc. In fact, she holds all the weapons of all the major male deities, indicating that she is actually the source of all of their power. In her remaining two hands, she expresses abhaya-mudrā: “Don’t be afraid” and varada-mudrā: “My blessings are with you”.
Durgā is a guardian of dharma, the cosmic order, and the destroyer of all suffering. In the mythology, these harmful patterns of behavior ( are represented by demons, who are proud, angry, greedy, addictive, dishonest, violent, and foolish. For each demon, she has a particular strategy for “killing” it – which is really just neutralizing it and releasing it from the form that emanated from her to begin with (she is the Mother of the Universe, after all). In fact, in some versions of the myth, when she kills the demons, a radiant light-being actually emerges and bows to her in gratitude for freeing them from the karma of having to live as a demon. So even in her act of destruction, there is grace, love, and blessing for all.
Anyone who has fought for – or taken any action towards – what is good, true, and loving has in some form or another experienced her power. Unlike Mā Kālī, who takes us into the mystical space beyond our human existence and concepts of right and wrong, Mā Durgā firmly centers us in the dharmic flow of life, and that which is just, sustainable, and loving to all beings. In fact, it’s a common misconception to think of Kālī as the fearless warrior, fighting for justice against what we might call “evil”, when truly, that symbolic space is held by Durgā in our tradition. (Kālī-mā also protects us from harm, but in a different way. (And, according to their respective lineages, they emanate from each other).
Both are protective mother goddesses, but Durgā is the guardian and preserver of life. We can understand her as a force of nature, as God’s pure and protective love that protects us and the flow of life at each turn. It is not accidental that both the spring and fall Navrātri fall during a time of harvest, when there is great nourishment and sustenance available all around.
Many folk songs of praise revere her beauty, her strength, her love, her nurturing, her sovereignty. In the songs, we thank her for her shining power which frees us from all fear – in fact, this is why we dress up and dance. Her scintillating presence fills us with profound devotion and gratitude, and [in traditional garba] we dance around her spinning in beautiful circles, like children delighted by and full of love for our enchanting mother. It is also worth noting that if until now you associated being a warrior as a male quality, consider if there is any warrior more terrifying and unstoppable than a mother fighting to protect her child.
Any time we make a stand for dharma, our inner and outer demons will come rushing to overpower us. They will try to disrespect us, taunt us, and overpower us, as described so captivatingly in the Devī Mahātmyam. It is up to us to take right action, and to stand strong and fight for what is true and what is kind. Any time we do spiritual practice, we can remember Durgā’s presence and energy manifesting as our inner warrior, as the relentless and fierce love that conquers darkness and transform it into light.
In Lesson 2, we will learn about traditional Navrātri practices!
If you have any questions about this lesson, or want to share your experience, you can do so by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teacher: Shivani Hawkins