Combining merriment with faith and transforming ritualism and austerity into a carnival : evenings of festive crowds overwhelming lanes and streets, houses, even mud-huts, bathing in rare lustre, temples, large or small, along their towers, walls, facades and each part : interior or exterior, illuminating in colourful lights, hawkers selling balloons and toys swarming all around, gaiety and vigour revealing in everything, and purity, on every face …, a celebration affording to religion the culture of colours, and to culture, a binding : ethical and spiritual, is what defines the nine days long Nava-Ratri festivities.
Rigorous fasts, temples thronged by crowds of devotees : hymns-humming elders and fancy-dressed curious children feigning mystic seriousness stealing now and then a glance away to fascinating toys and balloons, sounds of bells, throats exalting the Devi for her exploits, coils of fragrant smoke rising from ritual hearths, richly bejeweled and brilliantly costumed damsels, young and old, dancing in rings around the ritual pot, symbolic of absolute good – ‘sarva-mangal’ that the Devi as Sarva-Mangala, the Nava-Ratri’s presiding deity, represents, manifest the socio-religious texture of Nava-Ratri, one of the India’s most widely celebrated festivals.
Theology’s New Goals as Sets Nava-Ratri
A ritual festival, Nava-Ratri abounds in a strange contradiction, or it is at least the festival that assimilates two widely different, if not diagonally opposed, facets, though both, positive and creative : one, purely spiritual in which reflects man’s desire for achieving ends beyond this birth, and the other, a desire to seek in this birth itself world’s all colours, freedom from ills and good for all, that is, spiritually attaining worldly ends, or seeking in worldly means accomplishment of spiritual goals. This strangeness reveals also in the evolution of the Nava-Ratri cult practically from a no-celebration stage to a nine-day long set of rituals and festivities, especially in assimilating a strong social and cultural aspect and deep-rooted individual and national concerns – not the domains of early theology, with ritualism expanding over nine days and rigorously observed austerities, all dedicated to Devi, whichever her form, forms or manifestations. Essentially the theology’s new face, the Nava-Ratri sets before it new goals, individual, social and national.
It transforms personal austerities, the entire range of deity-forms these austerities are dedicated to, and rituals as evolved in the theological traditions, into the tool of the highest good aiming at invigorating society’s morale and determination to stand united and fight against all wrongs.
The Early Cult of Worshiping the ‘Female’
The practice of worshiping some female deity – perhaps born of their reverence for ‘the mother’, the only relation they identified with definiteness, has been prevalent in India since eternity. As suggests the recurrence of the term ‘devi’ in the Rig-Veda, the seers of the Veda attributed to the ‘female’ the status of a goddess and around this Devi-worship emerged the elaborate ritual practices. Some scholars contend to have sought in the Rig-Veda even specific allusions to the Devi, though most others feel that the term has been used merely as a common epithet expressing the Vedic seers’ reverence for a female form they saw manifesting in ‘Vak’, ‘Ushas’, or ‘Shri’ like constituents of the cosmos.
However, the Mahabharata, the great
epic, is considered as the earliest to allude to the Devi with absolute specificity, both by her name as Devi itself and also as Durga. Exalting her as ‘Parajayaya
shatrunam Durgastotra mudiraye’ – commemoration of Durga Stotra :
‘mantra’ or hymn, defeats enemies, the Mahabharata celebrates her as
the supreme power of battlefield that assured victory in war.
Evolution of Devi-cult and Devi-Mahotsava During and After the Puranas’
Though scarcely, allusions to Devi as Durga or otherwise keep pouring in till about sixth-seventh century when sage Markandeya almost overwhelmed the Brahmanical pantheon by his timeless ‘Devi-Mahatmya’,
the most significant and popular part of his text, the Markandeya Purana.
The three-aspected Devi of sage Markandeya manifests as Mahakali, Mahalakshmi
Devi-Mahatmya is followed by another significant text ‘Devi Bhagavata’ lauding Devi in her various forms.
Practically the Puranic literature, subsequent to Devi-Mahatmya is flooded with allusions to Devi’s exploits, in her form as Devi as also in her other manifestations; however, none of these early Puranic texts alludes to a Devi-festival and certainly not to one extending over nine days as the Nava-Ratri. Literary texts talk a lot of Vasantotsava dedicated to the love god Kamadeva
but, except a few allusions to individually performed Devi rituals, a ‘Devi-mahotsava’ or ‘Devi-utsava’ – Devi festival, does not comprise such texts’ theme. Alike allusions to Devi’s diverse manifestations are in abundance but the concept of her nine manifestations, each presiding over one each of the nine days rituals, does not have a place in the early Devi-related texts. Puranas apart, Nava-Ratri celebrations are also not a part of any ancient sectarian practice or of a social/religious convention ever in prevalence.
A Mass Movement Born of an Agitating Mind
Certainly not a one-time or an individual being’s initiative, the Nava-Ratri : the celebration part and the rituals, the expression of a mind unwilling to concede the evil that prevailed as the foreign rule eroding the nation’s prestige and shaking the very roots of her faith, seems to have grown over a period of time along this mind’s agitation. Obviously a late cult – not datable in any exactness, the festival might have grown out of some prevailing belief mandating a set of personal austerities dedicated to Shakti, the supreme female power, for the accomplishment of a desired end as the Devi-Mahatmya, Devi-Bhagavata and other texts perceived her capable of accomplishing. Maybe, it sprung out of a shrine’s confine, its rituals exploding its four walls storming the streets and the minds of masses seeking to revive the nation’s inherent determination and spiritual strength to fight against evil in any form and for any period. A celebration or a set of rituals, in any case Nava-Ratri seems to have evolved more like a movement accomplishing national ends, correcting social ills and people’s attitude, especially in regard to a girl child, and inducing the spirit of austerity in personal life.
A Socio-Ritual Cult
Now the Nava-Ratri is a socio-ritual festival dedicated to the Devi, more often seen manifesting as Durga, the Devi’s evil eradicating manifestation and the most highly worshipped goddess of Indian masses held in alike reverence in other sectarian lines, even Buddhist and Jain, that worship her as the wrathful Tara and the nurturing mother Ambika respectively. She is revered as the ultimate divine power capable of destroying every evil and every wrong, nurturing good and sustaining life in whichever form it exists. In believing minds this form of the Divine Female or any of her nine manifestations that preside over and inspire the Nava-Ratri austerities is not a mere epiphenomenal presence or a disembodied divine authority, and correspondingly, the festival, a mere expansion of the India’s colourful culture, but a dynamic presence with a form, often personalized and operative, engaged in eradicating the dark and everything adverse to life and sustaining good and righteous.
A form evolved of late, the Nava-Ratri is a cult with spiritualism, its core, festivity, celebration and sociality, it body, and social and national concerns, its guiding principles, and as is any cult, Nava-Ratri is not a creation, an act of hands or even intellect or the product of a day but an evolution through many known and unknown avenues and over a long period of time – manifest or unmanifest. Hence, despite that the Puranic texts do not talk of the Devi festival or public display of one’s reverence to the Divine Female, it is widely in the Devi-related texts spanning a period of a millennium or more that the Nava-Ratri has sought its manifest body comprising the Devi’s diverse manifestations, aspects of divine energy that these manifestations represent, Devi’s exploits and her confidence-generating acts against evil, and its basic spirit, mass appeal and perhaps its guiding force, in the people’s desire to regain what the nation had lost. The Nava-Ratri is thus a multi-textured event which combines theology, social and national concerns and the desire to celebrate, and accordingly there cropped up around the term Nava-Ratri not only Devi’s diverse forms or styles of imagery but also various sets of rituals and modes of celebrating it, sometimes varying region-wise.
Evolution of Devi’s Nine Forms : Reflection of India’s Visual Culture
Thus, despite that the festival is dedicated to the Devi, more often in her form as Durga, the Nava-Ratri austerities grew around her various forms, nine being more significant, each day’s austerities being dedicated to one of them. This cult of the Devi’s diverse forms is inspired perhaps by India’s basic visual culture – the timeless distinction of her soil, that discovers forms even of the abstract; apart, the Indian mind perceives in the Devi the divine power to inhabit or take to any form : a flame emitting from a lamp, a young girl or a woman of advanced years, a painted image or even a line-drawn diagram, perceiving the Devi in any form, or perceiving in any form, the Devi’s divinity – myriads being thus her forms. The Divine Female, and perhaps she alone, has the power to choose any form as her vehicle and conduct her powers through it. This power confined to Devi, the Divine Female who to an Indian is not a mere presence or a symbol but an agent effective and operative, one who interacted with humans and is the same as her human vehicles.
Three Initial Forms of Devi and Nava-Ratri Rites
Now a festival dedicated to Devi’s nine manifestations, in its initial form it did not have such diversity. Initially, the festival evolved pursuing the classical tradition born of texts like the Devi-Mahatmya or the Devi-Bhagavata. These texts came out with the Devi’s three forms or manifestations : Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati. Accordingly the Devi-festival, whatever its name but celebrated for nine days as now, was dedicated to these three forms, worshipping Mahakali – representing ‘tamas’ : the material aspect of cosmos, and the destroyer of all impurities and vices, for the first three nights, Mahalakshmi – representing ‘rajas’, activity or passion, the binding aspect of cosmos, and the destroyer of poverty and provider of means and abundance, for the next three, and Mahasaraswati – representing ‘sattva’, purity, the lustrous aspect of cosmos, and the destroyer of ignorance and provider of divine wisdom, for the last three. The austerities dedicated to these three forms, the three elemental constituents of the manifest cosmos, were believed to transcend the devotee from the perplexing diversity of the manifest existence to his ultimate union with the Supreme : the spiritual perspective of the Nava-Ratri rituals.
While most other festivals, religious or social, are annual features, Nava-Ratri, perhaps for keeping live the spirit that it inspired, occurs five times a year, and each time for nine days, that is, in Chaitra, Ashadha, Ashwina, Pausha and Magha – first, fourth, seventh, tenth and eleventh months under Indian calendar. The Chaitra Nava-Ratri is also known as Vasanta Nava-Ratri, Ashadha’s, as Gupta Nava-Ratri, Ashwina’s, as Sharada Nava-Ratri, and those of Pausha and Magha by the names of these months. Two of them, Vasanta and Sharada Nava-Ratris, respectively the first nine days of the second halves of Chaitra and Ashwina, have greater significance than those occurring in the months of Ashadha, Pausha and Magha. These three relate largely to personal austerities observed by individuals and the rituals that they performed, the Vasanta and Sharada Nava-Ratris are multi-dimensional, abounding in great festivities and having implications not apparently seen. Except a Vasanta Nava-Ratri related minor legend centering around three kings : Dhruvasindhu of Koshal, Yudhajit of Ujjain and Viresen of Kalinga, and the incidence of arriving at the Devi’s ‘bija-mantra’ – seed-syllable ‘klim’ or ‘kleem’, and thereby the Devi’s vision and blessing, the tradition, perhaps aiming more at accomplishing social and national objectives and inducing austerities in personal life without being led away by myths or other contexts, has not sought to add to the Nava-Ratri cult any kind of legendary or mythological colours.
Legendary Origin of Vasanta Nava-Ratri
A Tantric interpretation of Nava-Ratri cult, the Vasanta Nava-Ratri related legend links the festival with chance discovery of the Devi’s ‘mantra’ leading to the recovery of lost state and prestige. As the legend has it, when prince Sudarshana, after his father king Dhruvasindhu of Koshal was killed by a lion during a hunting expedition, was readying to ascend Ayodhya’s throne, king Yudhajit of Ujjain and Virasen of Kalinga, each greedy of usurping Koshal for settling his grandson there, simultaneously attacked Ayodhya. As a result a three cornered battle ensued. Prince Sudarsana’s mother Manorama, who knew that after the death of her husband king Dhruvasindhu Koshal was weak and unprepared to face a war, fled to the forest with her son and a faithful eunuch and sought refuge in the hermitage of sage Bharadwaj. In the war Virasen was killed and the victorious Yudhajit enthroned his grandson Shatrujit on Ayodhya’s throne. After Yudhajit found that Sudarshana and his mother Manorama were seeking sage Bharadwaj’s shelter, he stormed the hermitage and asked the sage for handing over the custody of prince Sudarshana and his mother but the sage refused to oblige. The furious king wanted to raise arms against the sage but under his ministers’ advice restrained from doing so.
A Tantric Perspective
Providence had in the store better fortune for prince Sudarshana. One day a young scholar, a hermit’s son, came to the hermitage of sage Bharadwaj. The Sanskrit-speaking young man addressed eunuch as Kleeba, the Sanskrit term for eunuch. Fascinated by the term’s rhythm and grace the prince decided to use it for addressing the eunuch and for memorizing it unknowingly repeated it. He pronounced it several times but every time faltered and could not proceed beyond ‘kli’, the part he pronounced as ‘klim’ or ‘kleem’, which happened to be the most powerful sacred ‘mantra’ of the Divine Female, the Great Mother. ‘Kleem’ was the ‘Bija-akshara’ – root syllable, of the great ‘mantra’ of the great Goddess. Repeating it the prince realised unusual peace of mind and to his utter surprise when so repeating the sacred syllable the Great Mother appeared before him and blessed him and also gave him divine weapons and a quiver with inexhaustible arrows.
The blessings of the Divine Mother began showing further results. In due course he was married to Shashikala, the daughter of the king of Banaras and the revival of his regal position was begun. King Yudhajit was also one of the suitors at the ‘swayamvara’ : choosing a groom by one’s own choice, of the princess Shashikala but she did not even look at him. Infuriated by this insult the arrogant Yudhajit ordered his forces to take away Shashikala forcibly and declared war against the king of Banaras and prince Sudarshana. Devi herself appeared in person. Prince Sudarshana exalted and worshipped her but Yudhajit only mocked. Ultimately Yudhajit was killed, and his grandson, forced to evict Koshal for prince Sudarshana and his newly wedded queen Shashikala. It is said that after the war prince Sudarshana and his father-in-law, the king of Banaras, worshipped the Devi with due fire-rituals. The Devi once again appeared and mandated that she was worshipped for nine days during Vasanta which came to be known as Vasanta Nava-Ratri. The Sharada Nava-Ratri does not have associated to it any such legendary tradition.
Nava-Ratris, the Great Tool of Sectarian UnityOther things apart, these major Vasanta and Sharada Nava-Ratris seem to have evolved also as great synthesizers between contentious Shaiva and Vaishnava sects. Devi and her manifestations, especially Durga, are essentially Shaivite but both Nava-Ratris have powerful Vaishnava links. The Vasanta Nava-Ratri has been scheduled to have its concluding ninth day as the Rama-Navami : the date of Lord Rama’s birth, one of Lord Vishnu’s two most important incarnations, other being Krishna. Similarly, the Sharada Nava-Ratri is followed on the tenth day by Dashahara – the day when Lord Rama had defeated and killed Ravana, Lanka’s demon king : one of the Indian people’s four major festivals. Vice-verse, Bangala Ramayana and many other traditions of Rama-katha allude to Rama invoking Devi for nine days or on the ninth, the Nava-Ratri’s concluding day preceding Dussehra, and, as contended, it was by her blessings that he was able to eliminate Ravana. Some traditions seek the Sharada Nava-Ratri’s origin in context to Rama’s worship of the Devi for nine days preceding elimination of Ravana.
Nava-Ratri’s Social Perspective
The major role of the Devi consists in leading to light out of darkness; the festival is hence Nava-Ratri : nine nights, not days. Nava-Ratri not only has strong bearing on Indian society, the medieval mind seems to have sought in it even the correction of its attitude towards many social ills, especially towards the girl child. The Nava-Ratri sought to restore a girl-child earlier prestige by mandating her worship on all nine days, as representing the Devi’s various forms vesting in her the Devi’s divinity.
Unanimity and Diversity in Devi’s Worship-Modus
Regional variations as to which form of the goddess is to be worshipped on which day or as to the modus of worshipping a particular form, or set of rites, even in regard to the proportions of rituals, festivity or celebration part : people of Gujarat and Mumbai dancing all nights, Bengalis, celebrating it in full splendour – the display of images of massive sizes being more significant, those of Goa in rare ornate style, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Assam, with stage performances … apart, there is almost complete unanimity in regard to their number which is essentially nine, each to be worshipped on each of the Nava-Ratris – nine nights, each representing one of the nine forms of life and one of the nine supreme auspices. Almost in all traditions these nine forms are known as Shaila-putri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushamanda, Siddhi-datri, Skanda-Mata, Katyayani, Kala-Ratri and Maha Gauri.
Shaila-putri, Parvati’s other name, is worshipped on the first day,
Brahmacharini, Parvati as engaged in penance, the second day,
Chandraghanta, one with a bell like shaped mark of moon on the forehead, on the third,
Kushamanda, on the fourth,
Skanda Mata, Karttikeya’s mother, on the fifth,
Katyayani, on the sixth,
the terrible looking Kala Ratri, on the seventh,
and Maha Gauri, the elegant, beautiful and delightful aspect of the Goddess, on the eighth.
Nava-Ratri Rituals : Homage to Sarva-Mangala Who is Siddhi-datri
In most traditions Nava-Ratri worship rituals are offered to her nine forms represented on a Pata known as Nava-Ratri worship-pata; Siddhi-datri occupies the central position with other forms flanking around.
Though listed as fifth, different from her other eight forms that represent her one aspect or the other, Siddhi-datri, the sum aggregate of the Devi’s divine power, is worshipped on Mahanavami, the Nava-Ratri’s concluding day, as Sarva-Mangala : the all-auspicious and all-accomplishing aspect of the Goddess. This worship-pata is usually submerged into a pond, river, sea or reservoir on the ninth day. Sometimes, quite artistic, such patas are also preserved. Some of its Mata-de-Pachedi type regional variants represent only Devi’s arch form or as one of the Matrikas – Devi’s another early cult, and the legends of her various exploits. Whichever the medium, the Devi is represented invariably in her multi-armed warrior form carrying different attributes in her hands. Accomplishment of the ‘desired’ being her essence, Siddhi-datri is invariably represented with two of her hands held in ‘varad’. Her two hands denote accomplishment.
References & Further Reading:
- Shrimad Devi Bhagavata, Chaukhambha Sanskrit Pratishthan, Delhi
- Shrmad Devi-Bhagavata, Gita Press Gorakhpura
- Devimahatmyam, tr. By Devadatta Kali, Delhi
- Mahabharata, Gita Press, Gorakhpura
- Vijay Ghose (ed.) : Tirtha , The Treasury of Indian Expression
- Pratapaditya Pal : Durga : Avenging Goddess : Nurturing Mother
- Dahejia, Vidya : Devi, The Great Goddess, Washington D.C.
- Ramachandra Rao, S. K. : Durga-Kosha, Benglore
- Menzies, Jackie : Goddess, Divine Energy, Art Gallery, NSW
- Kinsley, David : Hindu Goddesses, Delhi
- Hawley, J. S. & Wulff, Monna Marie (ed) : Devi, Goddesses of India, Delhi
- Sharma, B. N. : Festivals of India
- Mookarjee, Ajit & Khanna, Madhu : The Tantrika Way, Boston
- Devdutt Pattanaik : Devi, The Mother Goddess
- Veronica Lons : Indian Mythology
- Shakti M. Gupta : Festivals, Fairs and Fasts of India