INDIAN FESTIVALS : Holy Nights : Navaratri
By P. V. Jagadisa Ayyar
navratri

Navaratri or the nine holy nights is a period of festivity observed by the Hindus for nine days or rather nights, after sunset, in temples in the month of Purattasi corresponding to the English months of September-October, commencing on the first day in the bright fortnight of the month every year. The object or aim with which it is observed is said to be to propitiate the Goddess symbolising every possible kind of energy in the universe, with a view to obtain perpetual happiness and prosperity.

The first day of this Navaratri festival, if it is ruled over by the asterism Hasta (corvi), is said to be specially suited for the Devi worship to invoke blessings on the whole world. The Vrata in which the goddess Gauri, seated on a white elephant is worshipped, goes by the name ‘Gaja Gauri Vrata.’ This Vrata, observed at the hour when the sun enters the asterism Hasta, is believed to bring worldly prosperity for the observer. An image of Gauri is made and worshipped on the first Tuesday in the month of Sravana. After the puja or worship is over, the image is gifted to a deserving Brahmin with money, pan-supari, flowers, fruits, etc., by women, to insure their immunity from widowhood and to give them good children. The observance of the Vrata, in this manner, is given the name of ‘Mangala Gauri Vrata.’

A noteworthy feature in the observance of the Navaratri Vrata is that virgins, ranging from the age of two to ten, are offered gifts of saffron, vermilion flowers, sandal paste, fruits, etc., after the Gauri puja. The reason for this is obvious. Nine Shaktis or forces of Devi are recognised. These are personified and given the names of (1) Kumari, (2) Trimurti, (3) Kalyani, (4) Rohini, (5) Kalika, (6) Chandika, (7) Sambhavi, (8) Durga and (9) Subhadra.

Kumari represents the playful activities in babies making and unmaking things. Devi’s activity directed to the creation of Brahma and the devas is akin to this play of children though at a higher level. Hence babies are given special treatment on the Navaratri days. The Shakti named Trimurti is said to bestow good children; Kalyani education and royal friendship; Rohini freedom from sins; Chandika wealth; Sambhavi success in undertakings; Durga removal of impediments; and Subhadra desired objects. All these possibilities are there in virgins and consequently they are chosen for special treatment. It is said that in their selection, care must be taken to exclude the deformed, the slovenly, the bad-smelling, the sickly and the blind. Beautiful virgins, belonging to good families, should be chosen since they are to be considered as representations of Shakti who is perfect in everything.

The Navaratri festival is also known as the Dasahara festival. On the ninth and the last day of this period, goddess Saraswati is worshipped. This worship is known as Saraswati Puja. It is interesting to note that this puja is performed in honour of the element Vayu (air). Goddess is installed in a pot called gadam. In ancient days when cudjan leaf manuscripts were in vogue, they were neatly arranged on a plank and the worship was offered to Saraswati, by worshipping those manuscripts. Nowadays, printed books, pens and pencils take the place of the cadjan leaves, manuscripts and styles. If the Saraswati puja day happens to be a Tuesday or the day on which the moon is in the asterism Hasta, the occasion is said to be especially auspicious for her puja.

On the day during the festive period when the asterism Moolam is in the ascendancy, Saraswati is installed on the books arranged for her worship; oblations and sacrifices are offered on the occasion of the next asterism Pooradam; and a happy send-off is given to her on the ensuing day when the asterism Tiruvonam (Aquitoe) holds sway. The ceremony of installation goes by the name avahana, and that for sending her off is known as visarjana. The installing of life in the image and the send-off given after the puja ceremony is over, are considered most religious and sacred, since the former action is akin to charging a dynamo with the mental force or electricity while the latter may be compared to the act of storing it away to be brought out for use on the next occasion when needed. There are potent incantations recited on both these occasions. It is no doubt true that the Hindus worship idols and images. But when the basic principles, on which the avahana and visarjana referred to above are based, are taken into consideration, it will be seen that the images are intended to serve the purpose of a means to concentrate the mind on the abstract idea of a deity without material form, and that they are not ends in themselves.

The centre of force thus created, persists and may be attached to a fresh form or image if the original one is defaced or mutilated. But the newly formed image should be similar to the one replaced with its various parts having proportions in accordance with the dictates of Silpa Sastra or the science of architecture. The mutilated and cast-off image should be thrown into deep water to avoid creation of mutilated thought forms in the minds of people, when they look at it.

The day next to the Mahanavami day on which puja to Goddess Saraswati is performed, is known as Vijaya Dasami.

The word vijaya is the name given to the twilight hour between sunset and nightfall. This hour is said to be highly favourable for certain occult developments. The nature of this twilight has eluded the grasp of even very great men. Anyhow the word vijaya may be taken to mean auspicious and ‘Vijaya Dasami’ day may well be called ‘a day of auspicious beginning.’

Tourists select this occasion for embarking on their journeys, and children begin to learn their alphabets for the first time on this occasion.
If the Vijaya Dasami day happens to be presided over by the asterism Tiruvonam the occasion is said to be highly meritorious and auspicious.
A tree called the vanni (Prosopis Spicigera) is worshipped on this occasion for the reason that it once had given relief to Parvati by its shade when she was much fatigued. Sri Rama, hero of the Ramayana, is said to have circumambulated this tree in his rambles in search of Sita, to get her back. The Pandavas are said to have concealed their arms in a vanni tree when they had to lead their lives incognito.

The importance of the Vijaya Dasami day as an auspicious one, for the beginning of a new venture, is emphasised by the following myth:

Lord Siva once went into a state of yoga trance called nirvikalpa samadhi. By this act of his, he controlled the play of forces in the senses. As his senses remained controlled, there was no play of such forces in the world and consequently there was no activity among men and certain classes of devas. The higher devas grew anxious and desired Manmatha, the god of all desires, to disturb Siva’s samadhi and bring him to the lower level of consciousness where the indriyas or sense-organs have full play. When he attempted to do so, Siva opened his third eye of destruction and looked at Manmatha. This act of Siva reduced Manmatha to ashes.

Siva’s first born Ganesa, in a playful mood, formed out of the ashes of Manmatha’s body a mould which was subsequently filled with life by Siva, and it then became a cruel demon named Bhandasura. This demon performed severe penance and obtained from Siva the boon that none but the Devi could destroy him. When it became imperative that he was to be destroyed in the interest of the universe, the Devi assumed different forms during the nine nights of Navaratri (since nights are asura’s periods of activity while days are of devas) to destroy him but without success.

On the tenth day, namely, Vijaya Dasami day, she prayed to that aspect in her Lord Siva going by the name Kameswara, and obtained from him the power to vanquish the demon and eventually to kill him. It is also said that by the union of this aspect of Siva, Devi begot her second born Subramanya, the mighty teacher of gods and men.

As Rama began his march to rescue Sita from the hands of Ravana on this auspicious day, Hindu kings subsequently came to consider the day as one generally auspicious for starting on any expedition. Nowadays, as there are no kings to conduct the expedition, in some states, grand Dasahara processions are arranged to keep alive the past memory and to impress on the people the importance of the occasion.

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