The Festival of Light: Naraka Catūrdaśi

[shareaholic app=”share_buttons” id=”25567871″] This lesson is part of our series on basic practices and traditions for the traditional New Year. Please note that there are tremendous regional and historic variations in terms of how these holidays get celebrated. What we are sharing here is what most of the Northern and Western regions practice, and each community and even family has its own personalized rituals and traditions.

The common theme through the holiday season is offering gratitude for the abundance in our lives, and choosing light over darkness. Śrī Mahālakṣmī is the primary deity of this time, and each day we welcome and honor her in different forms.

As with all of these traditions, you are welcome to practice as much or as little as you are able. Remember that the outer ritual helps us to connect with the spirit of the holiday inside, so maintaining that connection and cultivating wisdom will yield greater fruit than just trying to do every ritual perfectly!

About Naraka Catūrdaśī

Naraka Caturdaśī is also known in some regions as Kālī-caudas. Naraka means “hell”, and it’s because on this day we honor the release from our inner and outer hell. Specifically, we honor the freedom of women from all forms of oppression, torture, and assault.

There’s a powerful story behind this day:

Once upon a time, there was a demon named Bhaumāsura, who was also called Narakāsura because he created hell everywhere he went. He had acquired a boon that no man could ever kill him. He was a monster in every sense of the term – in particular, he liked to kidnap, rape, and torture women, especially those of noble birth. Over the years, he had imprisoned 16,000 women in a special jail he had built, where he was able to inflict unspeakable horrors upon them everyday. Their families had tried to rescue them in vain – he destroyed anyone who attacked him. In time, the families gave up, reconciling them to the fact that they were as good as dead, forgotten to the world.

The women, however, were all dharmic and pure, and each one prayed to the Lord for rescue and salvation. So intense and deep were their prayers, that they penetrated the heart of Śrī Kṛṣṇa himself. At the time, he was relaxing with His wife Satyabhāmā. When she saw the sadness in His eyes, she asked Him what was wrong. He shared the situation with her – that these women were suffering, but only a woman could free them. As soon as she heard this, she jumped up and said, “Well, let’s go free them!”

So they gathered the army and headed towards Narakāsura’s castle. Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s army fought with great might, and were just barely able to hold Narakāsura and his equally mighty army at bay through the day and night.

At the right moment, around 3 am, Satyabhāmā – who was not a trained warrior, but had a courageous and just heart – suddenly charged towards the demon, and managed to kill him. They then set about freeing the women, who were weeping with gratitude and relief.

As the Lord and Satyabhāma prepared to leave, however, the women begged them to stay. After all that they had been through, they knew that none of the nobility or their old society would accept them again. After so much suffering, the additional tragedy was that they had nowhere to return to.

Satyabhāmā, who knew the vastness and depth of divine love and protection, suggested to Śrī Kṛṣṇā that he marry them, so they would be honored and received as divine queens. By marrying the Lord, each woman would not only have a new home and life, but a much more magnificent one than she had before.

Lord Kṛṣṇa, who IS dharma, sought to fulfill the dharma of a husband by giving each woman his undivided attention and love. In order to do so, He replicated himself 16,000 times. He then married each woman, built her a beautiful palace, and lived there happily with her until the end of her mortal life.

In another version of this story, Naraka Caturdaśī is the day Mahākālī took form, and She is the one who slays the demon. Depending on the region and lineage, either Śrī Kṛṣṇa or Mahākālī is worshipped on this day. However, in both instances, it is the feminine embodiment which slays the demon.

This story has so many layers to reflect upon. One thing to keep in mind is that myths are not history – they are not stories of things that happened long ago to other people. Myths describe existing dynamics and processes; all the characters within a myth can be found both inside of us and in our world.

For example, around the world, women are still being kidnapped, assaulted, raped, and tortured. The pain of that inevitably reaches the men who love them. The only way to defeat this demon is when both masculine and feminine join forces (and resources), and if the feminine gathers up her strength and courage to deliver the final blow.

Another interpretation of this myth is that we each have our own personal traumas, our own hellish experience that we have been through, or might still be going through. We are powerless against it, and we might feel shame and disconnected from our world because of the pain or suffering we have endured. We feel that we can’t go back to our old carefree life – to our old habits and “friends”.

This myth shows us a way forward. By opening to divine love, we are ultimately protected and redeemed. Even if grace comes in the form of a fierce and exhausting battle, we WILL be free from what hurts us. And then, the same love that freed us becomes our eternal companion – blessing us with a much more beautiful life than what we had before.

Reflecting on this story, what stands out for you?

Practice:

The tradition for the day is (for both men and women) to wake up early, well before dawn (generally around 3 am, because that was that moment of liberation), and bathe. As you bathe, imagine that you are washing away any trace of pain, misery, shame, or unworthiness. Like the women in the myth, you are about to be freed from your personal hell and become the beloved of the Lord himself. When you emerge, anoint your entire body with fragrant essential oils, massaging them into your body. Feel your beauty, your purity, your goodness, and your majesty.

People also use this day to clean and decorate the entire house, and also fill it with fresh fragrance and beauty. Many people also start arranging and lighting oil lamps on this day. You can also get rid of anything old or broken – clothes, dishes, etc. This is all preparation to step into a life of truth, beauty, and love.

There is also a more esoteric practice of facing west and pouring water, making offerings to Lord Yama, the power of Death. We do this with the prayer that we can die gracefully, and at the right time in a peaceful way, rather than by accident. This ritual also helps remind us even as we celebrate life that death is also part of our journey, and we can maintain a steady and conscious awareness of it.

Throughout the day, people worship and sing to Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the living embodiment of dharma. If any woman is still being abused in some way, today is the right day to pray to him for protection and freedom (this is something that can be done everyday, but the energy is heightened on this day). Men can also pray to Śrī Kṛṣṇa on behalf of any women who are being hurt or in danger.

You can also do Kālī-pūjā, praying for protection, liberation, and release from every form of darkness and bondage.

And for all of us, no matter what we have suffered, or where we feel irreparably broken, we can know that the divine accepts us and loves us completely. We always have a cherished place in the sacred heart of the Supreme Presence. With that knowing, we can reclaim our life from the shadow of darkness and once again fully enter the light.

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