What is Navaratri?
In Sanskrit nava means nine and ratri means night (just as we have Shivaratri – the night of Shiva) and so, according to tradition, during this festival consecrated to the Divine Mother, we perform abhishekams to worship her and to ask for her grace and her blessings. In Sanskrit riti means “to return to the source”.
By means of ritual, therefore, we will acquire the capacity of returning to our divine origin, of rediscovering the Divine within ourselves. Swamiji generally encourages spiritual aspirants to perform or attend a pooja regularly, if they like, because during ritual the mind and body are fully absorbed in the worship of the Divine. It is a means of learning to control the mind and it also purifies the mind. At the same time, we absorb much spiritual energy and enjoy the physical and mental connection to the sacred divine.
Who is the Divine Mother?
God or Divine energy is called ‘Mother’ because of the way God takes care of us in such a perfect way and is constantly trying to make us realize our true divine nature, which we have forgotten. It also reminds us that we have come from the Divine and it is our true home.
If we consider the Supreme Being (Brahman) who is transcendent, infinite, eternal and beyond the reach of the senses and the mind, we can say that what we call the Divine Mother is the dynamic aspect of the Supreme Being. She is the conscious power of God, the manifested force of God, God’s creative aspect.
“She is the manifested form of the ultimate principle, Brahman.
She is eternal, without beginning or end.
She is the inherent energy of the Universal Being.
She is the totality of consciousness,
the origin of intelligence and of wisdom.
She represents the origin of all that is, the source of all things.
She is the totality of the Universe.
The manifested Universe is Her body.
The form of space is Her form.”
The Vedas (ancient sacred scriptures) – about the Divine Mother.
The relationship that exists between the Divine Mother and Brahman is, therefore, the one that exists between the manifest and the non-manifest. They are inseparable. One cannot exist without the other. They are like fire and its warmth. Thus, the five elements (air, fire, water, earth and ether) and their combinations are external manifestations of the Mother. Intelligence, discernment, psychic power and will are her internal manifestations. She is the entire life of the universe. She is the cosmic power that appears under all names and forms.
Forms of the Divine Mother – What Do They Represent?
According to Sanatana Dharma, the Divine Mother is One but she presents herself to us as different aspects that have been given different names. To explain the essence of the Mother to the people, the ancient rishis taught humanity to worship her as the manifestations of destruction, preservation and creation. The names corresponding to these three functions are Durga, Lakshmi and Sarasvati. These are the three aspects that we will encounter during the days of Navaratri. Three days are dedicated to Durga, the next three to Lakshmi and the following three to Sarasvati. This order of worshipping these three main aspects of the Mother has a very profound significance.
During the first three days the Divine Mother is worshipped in her aspect of Durga, the Shakti of Shiva. At first glance, when we look at her image, we might well think that we are venerating a frightful Goddess whose attributes are menacing weapons. We should first fully understand the symbolism and its deep and profound meaning.
In general, Durga is represented seated upon a lion. The lion, king of beasts, may also denote eagerness to find food and, more than this, eagerness to find all kinds of material goods and pleasures. To attain the Divine we must have complete control over our animal instincts.
Durga destroys, but destroys to save, to build. Without pity for our ego, she destroys all our imperfections. She destroys ignorance in order to install knowledge and destroys darkness to restore light. To develop our good qualities we must first eliminate our faults. We need to have a stable base on which to build. If we pray to Durga, her divine energy will practically intervene in our lives to help us do just that. Because this ‘cutting’ of the ego is a painful process of letting go of so many old patterns and attachments, Durga is represented by images that could be mistaken as those of a cruel destroyer. Yet, on the contrary, all that the Divine Mother does is out of pure, divine love for all her children as she wants them to return to her, their original source and rediscover their true blissful nature.
Therefore, during these first three days we are going to implore the Mother to help us destroy our faults and negative tendencies. The last of our ten days will mark Durga’s victory over the demon Mahisasura, or in other words, the triumph of the positive forces over the negative, the triumph of light over darkness.
In general, Navaratri represents the victory of the Divine and superior forces over the negative and bad characteristics that find expression in injustice, oppression, vanity, envy, egoism, pride and other negative forces that increase human suffering. On a more personal level, Navaratri represents the spiritual aspirant’s victory over the ego.
This philosophy of ending being in one form and developing into another, lies at the base of the conception of the Mother as Durga. It is the necessity of transcending what is low that makes it possible for us to attain the high. Thus it is not only destruction but also transcendence. By means of self-analysis we need to become aware of our negative tendencies if we are to succeed in destroying our undesirable traits. We need to practise introspection. If we don’t know precisely which faults we have, how can we possibly eliminate them? If, having come to know our faults, we then do nothing about them, they will simply remain with us. We need to have a firm determination and an unflinching will to destroy our ego-qualities. If we have not thoroughly uprooted all our faults they will resurface with the slightest disruption that comes our way.
The Mother, as Durga, will help us in this first stage.
After Durga, who has helped us to purify ourselves, Lakshmi will aid us with the following stage, which is the acquisition of moral and spiritual qualities. Lakshmi is the Shakti of Vishnu. Within the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, Vishnu is the energy that maintains and preserves the world. In order to maintain one must first own. Therefore Lakshmi, who manifests the power of Vishnu, is in charge of nourishing and maintaining the earth. She is, therefore, also considered as the goddess of abundance, fortune, health and beauty.
When we observe Lakshmi we see that with one hand she is generously dispensing golden coins, while with the other she grants her grace. In her two other hands she holds lotus flowers. The immaculate lotus that rises above the muddy and stagnant waters is associated with the notion of purity.
These days people attach more and more importance to material goods and often venerate Lakshmi with the hope of acquiring wealth. In modern culture we say that someone is successful because she or he earns a good wage, owns a big house, a second residence, a big car, lots of money, etc. However, the wealth that Lakshmi distributes should not be understood uniquely in the material sense. In fact Lakshmi is teaching us that the only true riches worth acquiring are inner riches. She will make it possible for the spiritual seeker to acquire all the moral and spiritual riches necessary to attain knowledge, that is to say, willpower, moral stamina and also intellectual strength. This is the reason Lakshmi is worshipped after Durga but before Sarasvati.
The next three days are dedicated to Sarasvati. Literally, Sarasvati means “She who gives us the essence of our true Self.” Sarasvati is the Shakti of Brahma, the creator. Thus, she is considered as the Mother of the entire creation. She represents power and intelligence, the wisdom of the sage, without which organized creation is impossible.
She is the origin of all things but she is also the conclusion, the goal to attain in the evolutionary process. Being at the origin of all things, she also represents creativity: the sciences, arts (painting, music, literature), professions and trades and all that is studied. Hence she is the deity for school children and students. In many schools throughout India lessons begin with a collective prayer to Sarasvati. Knowledge is the opposite of ignorance and obscurity. This is why you will often find Sarasvati wearing a white dress, showing also that the exercise of her powers is totally pure. She is described as having an extraordinary grace and beauty and is represented sitting on a white lotus flower.
In the Vedas it is written that in the beginning the first manifestation of Brahma was a vibration which was expressed under the form of the original sound or Pranava, the sound OM (don’t confuse Brahman, the absolute, the non-manifest, with Brahma, God the creator). This is why Sarasvati plays the veena, the instrument that produces the original pure sound. All of creation is but the manifested form of this music from Sarasvati’s veena. In one of her left hands she holds a book representing the totality of all knowledge. She holds a mala (rosary) in one of her right hands symbolizing all spiritual sciences or yogas and sadhana, including tapas (austerities), meditation and japa (repetition of Divine names). In this way she reveals to us that intellectual knowledge alone is not enough. Developing the qualities of the heart (or the opening of the heart chakra) is essential.
By her side stands a magnificently plumaged peacock representing the material world in all its glory. This peacock also symbolizes ignorance, because all the attractions of the world take us further away from true knowledge. On her other side we see a white swan, a symbol of wisdom and discernment and therefore knowledge, for it is by the intermediary of these that we will be able to attain true knowledge.
First Durga, then Lakshmi, then Sarasvati – why do we worship in that order?
When the non-manifest transcendent power became manifest, when the One became multiple and appeared under diverse forms at the moment of creation, a process of involution came into being: this process of involution takes us through progressively grosser and grosser spheres to finally reach the one of inert matter. Once the process begins, it is Sarasvati the Shakti of Brahma, the creator, who intervenes. Then, when creation has taken place the function of preservation and maintenance appears (with Lakshmi, the Shakti of Vishnu). Furthermore, since all life is perishable, destruction intervenes with Durga, the Shakti of Shiva. This is all part of the process of the descent into the material.
Observing the order of poojas during Navaratri: Durga, Lakshmi and lastly Sarasvati, we see that we are following the same process, but in reverse. It is an evolutionary process of man and woman returning to the source and reaching the Divine.
We have seen that the symbolic beginning of the spiritual journey of Navaratri, during the first three days dedicated to Durga, involves the destruction of those tendencies that bind us most to the material. It is here that Durga intervenes. Then Lakshmi bestows upon the spiritual aspirant those qualities necessary to advance successfully on the spiritual path. Although during the process of involution Lakshmi gives us material goods, in the process of evolution, the return towards the Divine, she will help us acquire and develop those moral and spiritual qualities, which will replace those ego-qualities previously destroyed by Durga. She helps us acquire vigilance, alertness, discipline, self-control, firmness of will, perseverance and determination.
Day 9: Blessing of Tools
The ninth day, the watchful wait before the victory, is traditionally the day of the blessing of tools. At first it meant the benediction of arms, which we could say are the tools of warriors, but with time this came to mean all tools used by men and women in their daily work. The potter venerates his wheel, the carpenter his hammer, the driver his cart, etc. Musicians have their instruments blessed, artists their brushes, etc. Students bring their schoolbooks to be blessed.
These arms that we venerate are in fact the divine powers of humankind. Each one of us has received certain talents from the Divine and it is our responsibility to use them for good and to make them bear fruit.
Day 10: Victory of the Light
The tenth day celebrates Durga’s victory over the demon Mahisasura. Mythology relates that the demon, having performed great austerities, was granted by the gods the gift of continuous victory over his enemies, plus the assurance that he could only be vanquished by a woman. He then proceeded to attack the world of the divine beings (devas), was victorious and usurped their power. The devas gathered together to figure out how they could vanquish this demon. They decided that together they would emit a very powerful energy which would create a great light and which would then condense into the body of a woman, that of the goddess Durga. Then each of the devas gave the goddess an armament and this is why we see her brandishing a weapon in each of her eight arms: a trident from Shiva, a disk from Krishna, a bow and arrow from Vayu, etc. The Goddess is thus here represented as having gathered together all the powers of the assembled gods, ready to vanquish the demon.
Mahisasura stands for the ego-characteristics of humankind: ignorance and obstinate egoism, the brutal force that tolerates no opposition to its egoistic objectives. He even triumphed over the devas, but he was vanquished by their combined powers, that is to say, by Durga.
The only way the spiritual aspirant can be victorious is if he or she gathers together all their strength, energy and willpower to fight against these negative tendencies. Then the Divine will intercede to support them.
How Can We Put All This Into Practice?
Everyone must experience Navaratri in their own way. Swamiji says, “Mother is in your heart”. If we use this time to open our hearts and minds, to concentrate on and pray to Divine Mother, to connect with the divine source within our own hearts, we will definitely receive God’s grace and blessings.
“We give names to describe God. We call it God, Lakshmi, Muruga and so on but we cannot see that great energy, the Divine. You do an abhishekam and wash the statue of the Divine Mother in the Ashram. You give the statue a name and put it in a particular place. But you are not doing abhishekam to the divine shakti – only to the statue. Where is the divine shakti? That shakti is inside you. You do the pooja to the shakti outside but you have to come to the stage where you do the pooja to the shakti, the divine energy, within you. You are doing the ‘outside’ pooja. Now you must do the ‘inside’ pooja. The first stage is doing the pooja to the deity, the second stage is doing the pooja inside yourself.”