India’s NavRatri Has Begun – But what does it Mean?

The meaning of the Nine Nights of Goddess Durga

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October 9th marks the start of NavRatri – the Nine Nights of Goddess Durga. In North Indian tradition, we mark each one of the Nine as being dedicated to a particular NavaDurga Aspect of MataDI; whereas in South India, it is more common to regard it as three sets of three days apiece – one for each of the TriDevi. In either case, NavaRatri is followed by a tenth day – Dussehra – which is symbolically tied to a number of mythic culminations of war against evil.

As applies the tradition we follow, in addition to the more commonly commemorated Victory of Mother Durga against the demon Mahishasur, the Nine Nights also trace a ‘deeper’ set of stories and cycle – that of the (re-)birth and resurrection of the Goddess as the Daughter of the Mountain [‘Shailaputri’; the Mountain in question being the King of the Himalayas] following Her self-immolation upon the pyre of the ill-starred Sacrifice of Daksha, and the ongoing pathway of ascension and (re-)empowerment which She undergoes until eventually re-immanentizing the ‘true’ status as the all-powerful (a rather figurative partial rendering of ‘Siddhidhatri’ now that I think about it) Shakti.  श्री महाराज्ञी , श्रीमत् सिंहासनेश्वरी , भुवनेश्वरी, देवी दुर्गा

It is also, of course, as with many great religious texts – a beautiful love story. In part composed of the Goddess’s determination to overcome even death itself (although Mritunjaya is, of course, appropriately enough, a title more commonly affixed to another …) in pursuit of Reunification with Her Beloved  Mahadeva; and the post-reincarnation tribulations She encounters (particularly as ‘Brahmacharini’ – the ‘Seeker of the Absolute’) when endeavouring to win (back) the heart of the grieving Great God – Who has become so overwhelmed with the loss of His ‘other half’ [the theonym of Ardhanarishvara helping to show just how sincerely this term is meant] , that in addition to carrying out the most appropriately brutal of dismembering sanctions against those responsible and wandering the Universe in search of peace, that He has (mythically) literally burnt to ashes Kamadeva (‘Love’ – a figure not entirely unlike modern Western depictions of Cupid in some elements of form and function) for daring to attempt to intervene.

The re-unification of the Divine Pair, which is associated with the culmination of the first three nights of NavRatri, and in particular the celebrated Marriage which takes place following the ‘revelation’ of ChandraGhanta [lit.: “Moon-Bell”, although more figuratively, “Illumination”], leads on to a perhaps more ‘exoterically directed’ phase of the NavaDurgs. Here, just as ‘Moon’ progresses to ‘Sun’ with a growing intensity of rays and warmth and generative power following the Dawn, ‘Princess’ takes on the greater regality of ‘Queen’; with the Aspect of Kushmanda having the supreme imperial power even over the Sun, Surya [this, as a point of interest, records what is very likely the very ancient Proto-Indo-European pantheon’s setup – wherein in direct contrast to the Greek-influenced popular perception of such things, it appears that the Solar Deity was, in fact, female; something also attested via Sol in the Nordic cosmology and associated mythography], and exercising judicious responsibility for the nourishment of the whole of creation via the Sun’s holy rays. What may be regarded as a ‘motherly’, ‘generative’, and ‘matrimonial’ phase of the NavaDurgs is then presented in more literal terms with Skandamata [‘Mother of Skanda’, the Hindu War God … well, one of the deities with a strong ‘war’ function to Their portfolio – takes after His Mother in that regard 😛 ; although interestingly, as connoted by the Kartikeya theonym of Skanda, She does not necessarily give birth to Him … but that, is another story for another time – although it nevertheless occurs that notwithstanding the fact that She is genetically Skanda’s mother, the recognition of and consequent incorporation of worthy figures directly into the Imperial Household via ‘adoption’ of a sort, continues the Regal emblematic-exemplary conduct of this phase of the NavaDurgs].

The Birth of Lord Skanda does not simply represent a greater immanentization of ‘motherhood’ into the NavaDurga Cycle – but also, introduces a most serious (my)theme of righteous violence. For the ensuing NavaDurga Forms, Katyayani and KaalRatri, are counted amongst the foremost Warrior Forms and Slayer/Destroyer Aspects of the Goddess; the former directly responsible for the slaying of Mahishasur (which we might perhaps regard as something akin to the ‘archetypal’ Durga demon-slaying myth) and radiant as the beautiful force embodiment of Divine Anger, the self-empowered blade of vindication through Deva-station; while the latter is as ‘dark’ (‘Kaal’) as the void which preceded Creation, as ‘all-consuming’ as Time (‘Kaal’; the ‘fire’ in which the universe entire burns during the span of existence), as ‘all-enfolding’ as Night (‘Ratri’) (and with all the ‘finality’ and ‘Annihilation’ that the ‘ultimate’ Destroyer of the Universe. These Two NavaDurg Aspects thus represent both the righteous upholding and protection of Dharma (through most beautiful(ly incarnated) violence), as well as the power and penchant to protect Her Devotees . Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitaha. KaalRatri also represents  ‘illumination’ – for in the dark of the night (‘KaalRatri’), the truth can shine clearer, particularly if, like the Stars, it is ‘hidden’ in daylight hours.

But if  the phase running to KaalRatri represents the rising power of anger, and the celebration of righteous violence – then the transition from KaalRatri to MahaGauri [‘Great White[ness]’] is its culmination and transcension. Here, the immense fury of KaalRatri, which burns with such black intensity as to exceed the universe itself, is sublimated into a more ‘beatific’ emotion; and while in some tellings, MahaGauri is the ‘restoration’ of the fairness and beauty of Devi following whatever calamitous crisis that Kali was manifested for having passed (generally in tide of blood), it would perhaps be more apt to regard this state not as the absence of anger – but rather as the establishment of ‘control’ over the previous quality of berserk fury, so that it does not burn ‘out of control’ and become destabilizing in its all-consuming rage. This can be adduced, in part, from some of the specific mythology around MahaGauri – wherein, after having managed to once again regain Her most fair complexion from the blackness of the Kali Form as MahaGauri, Durga voluntarily re-adopts the terrifying Annihilator Aspect as necessary to confront the specific threats arrayed before Her.

This (self-)mastery, and its accompanying mastery of the universe at large, also underpins the subsequent and final transition – that from MahaGauri into Siddhidhatri. Just as the movement from blackness to white light entails the spectrum from (that which is beyond) nothingness to ‘everything’ (for within white light, as can be seen via the aid of a prism, lies the entire run of the colours and qualities of visible light), so too does the Final Form entail, put simply, “all and everything”. Here, Siddhidhatri is regarded on one level as the ‘Bestower of Boons, of Powers’ – with the ‘Siddhis’ in question being regarded as abilities that MataDI has attained, and representing qualities and faculties that can be bestowed upon the worthy and learned devotee.

Yet it is intriguing to look further at the linguistics at play here – as Siddhi can also mean ‘perfection’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘liberation’. This is thus a most fitting ‘final destination’ along the NavaDurg Path. While ‘Dhatri’, in addition to its meaning as ‘bestower’ or ‘giver’ [also cognate and from the same roots as English terms like “Dative” and “”Donation”], with slight change of inflection is rendered as “Earth” (thus conceptually linking back to both Durga as ‘Earth-Mother’, and more figuratively with the symbolic connotation of the span of the universe in mind, in conjunction with Siddhi, referring to one who ‘makes whole’ the World – as we often regard those we love .. wives in adulthood, our mothers more especially when we are younger; although, as ever, and as extensively shown via the specific myths of the previous Eight Forms, this ‘making whole’ of  the World often entailing active violence against those who would poison and destroy its fabric and  inhabitants both mortal and otherwise], as well as in slightly more modern connotation, the idea of a “foster mother”.

The idea of the ‘perfect’ (foster) mother is very much an appropriate one for how we regard Her, and stands at the opposite end of the spectrum … and yet not at all distinct … from young maid Shailaputri with whom the NavaDurga Cycle began. Interestingly, though, it also represents arguably a greater ‘(self-)realization’ , empowerment, (self-)mastery, and universally-immanent Might , as compared to the ‘previous’ culmination of a cycle of Devi – as Lady Sati, the Wife of Lord Shiva Whose self-immolation in response to Her father’s most rash and affronting endeavours at the humiliation of the Divine Couple leads to Her reincarnation as Shailaputri as a result (I hesitate to say “in the first place”, for other [Adi-]Shakta/i related reasons].

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After all, not only do we see the ‘mistakes of the past’ successfully overcome, the ‘pattern” of the previous cycle abrogated with, for instance, ChandraGhanta’s dispelling of Her Father’s highly unfavourable mis-perception of Mahadeva – thus allowing for a far better relationship between Shiva and His father-in-law this time around as compared to the lethally fractious one He had grimacingly borne from Daksha as father of Sati towards Him earlier … but it is hard further to imagine Durga, by now the mightiest of the Gods in part as a result of this quest or journey of ’empowerment’, and quite literally universally (that is to say, by the Universe and its fabric itself) hailed as *the* Power [‘Shakti’] allowing Herself to be placed in such a clearly iniquitous position by the petty and small-minded dictates of what is ultimately, a lesser being.

In both cases, there are ardent lessons for the Devotee, of clear and valuable ambit.

And a universe strewn with titanic corpses of some of those who have refused to get the point.

Bringing it back to matters contemporary – I shall endeavour to do as I have done in previous years, and post imagery and commentary on each NavaDurga Aspect, upon their Night.

To begin, we have this excellent Pandal – which depicts each of the Nine NavaDurgas , as well as Lady Sati upon the pyre, as well as the Presence of Mahadev as you can see from the Tripundra & Tryambaka. Alongside can also be seen Her Sons, Ganesha and Skanda; in addition to the other TriDevi, Lakshmi, and Saraswati; as well as, of course, Dawon – the Vahana of Mother Durga.

A fitting beginning 😉

जय माता दी

जय जय हे महिषासुरमर्दिनि रम्यकपर्दिनि शैलसुते

जै माता कालि जै माता दुर्गे।
कालि दुर्गे नमो नमः॥

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