23 October, 2016

Navaratri and Navagraha

The Annapurna Post asked me to contribute an article this Dashain. And since it was a day or so away from Navami, I decided to write this article. 


Navaratri is dedicated to nine forms of Goddess Durga, consort of Lord Shiva. She appears in different forms: as Shailaputri or daughter of the Himalayas on the first day of ghatasthapana; as virginal Brahmacharini on the second day; as Chandraghanta, wearing a crown made of the moon in the shape of a bell on her head on the third; as Kusmanda, the one who embodies the universe, on the fourth; as Skandamata, mother of Kartikya who slays demon Tarkasur, on the fifth day; as Katyayani, who slays the demon Mahisasur, on the sixth; as Kaalratri, who reminds us of the inevitability of time and death, on the seventh;  as Mahagauri, who removes all sins, on the eighth; and as Siddhidatri, or the one who bestows 26 forms of siddhi powers to her devotees, on the ninth. 

Siddhi powers are suprahuman powers acquired after sadhana, including meditation and yoga. According to the Bhagvata Purana, the five siddhis are: knowing the past, present and future; tolerance of heat, cold and other dualities; knowing the minds of others; being able to resist the influence of fire, poison, water etc; and remaining unconquered. Other secondary siddhis include: hearing things from far away; seeing things from far away; moving the body to a desired place; taking any form desired; entering the body of others; dying when one desires; and perfect accomplishment of one’s determination. 

 For modern Hindus whose practice of yoga takes place during an hour in the gym, and whose practice of meditation is confined to 10 days of vipassana with work colleagues in fancy locations, these siddhi powers can appear absurd, perhaps even juvenile.

The myths of Durga can also feel difficult to relate to, and without a clear connection to everyday life.  A theme does run through the nine stories—the Goddess doesn’t like those who oppress and torment, and she is ever ready to go out on her lion and tiger and bull to slay demons with her multiple arms. But how do we relate these fantastic events to our everyday lives, and how are her exploits relevant to this contemporary age and time?

Hindu texts and mantras, but most importantly ritual practice, give multiple answers. Just as worship of the Goddess can take different forms, from elementary daily puja, to advanced sadhana in which devotees chant complex mantras to transmute goddess energy into their own bodies, so to the meanings behind these various practices.

 For the jyotish amongst us (I happen to be a scholarly one), Navaratri is also associated with Navagrahas, or the nine astrological planets. Each Navaratri night, people worship one planet. So the puja may also propitiate Mars or Saturn, and not just awaken the Durgas or the chakras, as another bhakta, yogi or sadhak might be doing in another location.

As I walked through my neighborhood and noticed a young man polishing his sword outside the Dakshinkali Temple, it occurred to me the literal meanings—ritually slaughtering a goat to represent slaughter of demons—could obscure higher forms of practice. I admit meat, which I love, has become less palatable to me in recent days. Perhaps it’s antibiotics pumped into industrial factory animal carcasses, or perhaps it’s the hormones, but lately each time I eat meat I get horrific nightmares. This moving away from the gore-laden and stomach oriented aspect of Dashain has also forced me to think about what inner processes the slaughter could represent.

The most important process, I would guess, is the “killing” of negative qualities. Working outward from my jyotish knowledge, I correlate that each Navaratri night is associated with their own planetary negative qualities, and the Goddess would surely help to slay each one. When malefic, Mars stands for anger and violence, Saturn stands for breaking of niyama (because it is Saturn who helps with discipline, when well disposed), Jupiter can stand for both greed and wastefulness (because he is generosity personified when benefic), Mercury represents ignorance, Venus could mean excessive zeal and fanaticism towards ideology (when well disposed, Venus helps with devotion and bhakti), Sun could denote pride and ego, Moon could denote excessive attachment, Rahu is obsessiveness and insatiable ambition, and Ketu represents darker, underhand sides of life.

As a modern Hindu living in a globalized city like Kathmandu, I tend to think this reading of the Nine Nights makes the most sense to me: that we evoke the Goddess on each of these days and ask her to help slay these imbalances and bring our mind into equilibrium. Admittedly, my reading is colored by my Buddhist practice, where the balance of the mind is of primary importance. But in the absence of literal demons, perhaps this might be a good way to understand Navaratri, and the inner wars we have to go through with ourselves in life.

The descriptions of siddhi is from Wikipedia. You can read more here:

*Joshi is an Anthropologist and Writer