Navaratri: Divine Feminine

Quick Facts

  • Summary: a nine-night Hindu festival that celebrates the goddess Durga and the triumph of good over evil
  • 2018 Date: 10th – 19th October (ten days inclusive)
  • Celebrated by: Hindus
  • Linked Holidays: Vijayadashami/ Dussehra, Durga Puja (Hinduism)

Background and Theological Significance

Navaratri (from the Sanskrit, नवरात्रि, meaning ‘nine nights’) is a Hindu festival that occurs annually in the autumn and is celebrated in honour of the goddess Durga. It is correctly referred to as Sharada Navaratri, to distinguish it from the other lesser ‘nine night’ festivals throughout the year, but is more commonly called simply Navaratri or Navratri. Durga is a prominent Hindu goddess who appears as a fierce warrior with eight hands, often fighting the demonic forces of evil that threaten the dharma of the universe. She is a principle form of ‘Devi’, the Great Goddess figure in Hinduism, and is often associated with the goddess Parvati. The most important aspect of Durga’s mythology is her battle against Mahishasura, a shape shifting buffalo demon whom she killed whilst riding a lion. The annual festival of Navaratri celebrates Durga’s epic nine-day-and-night battle and eventual defeat of Mahishasura, in addition to honouring the goddess and her nine avatars. Another aspect of the festival is the similar narrative of the god Rama defeating the demon king Ravana, highlighting the importance of the triumph of good over evil.

Navaratri typically commences on the first day of Ashvin, the seventh lunar month in the Hindu calendar, and ends on the tenth day with the festival of Vijayadashami or Dussehra. It is widely observed across India and elsewhere in the world, although traditions and practices vary from region to region.

History

According to Hindu traditions, there are either two or four Navaratri festivals each year. Sharada Navaratri and Vasanta Navaratri are the two most important of these, and are celebrated in the autumn (Sharada) and spring (Vasanta) respectively. There are also two lesser festivals called Magha Navaratri and Ashada Navaratri (celebrated in the winter and monsoon seasons), although these are less widely observed. All of these nine-night festivals share a common devotion to the Devi, the female divine in Hinduism who appears in many different forms. Sharada Navaratri is the most important of these four festivals and garners particular importance due to falling near the September Equinox, therefore acting as an autumn harvest festival of sorts.

Sharada Navaratri is celebrated during the first ten days of the lunar month of Ashvin. The Hindu year is composed of twelve lunar months with an extra intercalary period to align with the solar cycle. Each month contains two ‘pakshas’ or fortnights; ‘shukla paksha’ when the moon is waxing, and ‘krishna paksha’ when the moon is waning. Navaratri begins on the first day (prathama) of the shukla paksha of Ashvin and finishes on the ninth day (navami), with the tenth day (dashami) being the festival of Vijayadashami or Dussehra. The exact dates of the festival in the Gregorian calculation vary from year to year, but usually fall in late September or October.

What Happens?

The nine-nights and ten-days of Navaratri are widely celebrated throughout India, with an emphasis on the triumph of good over evil. Each of the first nine days of Navaratri are dedicated to one of the goddess Durga’s nine avatars (known as the Navadurga) as follows:

  • Day 1: Shailaputri, an incarnation of the goddess Parvati and the wife of Shiva
  • Day 2: Brahmacharini, another incarnation of Parvati, representing peace
  • Day 3: Chandraghanta, representing beauty and courage
  • Day 4: Kushmanda, giver of health and natural life to the universe
  • Day 5: Skandamata, who protects her children from danger
  • Day 6: Katyayani, a fearsome warrior
  • Day 7: Kalaratri, the most ferocious form of the goddess, often related to Kali
  • Day 8: Mahagauri, representing peace and intelligence
  • Day 9: Siddhidatri, representing great power and meditation

In northern and eastern India, the festival is usually called Durga Puja, and is celebrated only on the final five days of Navaratri. Durga Puja tends to emphasise Durga’s defeat of Mahishasura, whereas Navaratri emphasises the worship of the goddess and her nine avatars. Many Navaratri traditions also incorporate the similar story of the god Rama defeating the demon king Ravana, another story concerning good triumphing over evil.

On the tenth and final day of Navaratri, Hindus celebrate the festival of Vijayadashami, also called Dussehra. In the eastern regions of India that observe Durga Puja, the day of Vijayadashami commemorates the eventual defeat of Mahishasura at the hands of Durga. In the western regions of India, the festival is called Dussehra (or Dasara) and commemorates the defeat of the demonic Ravana by the god Rama. Both of these accounts concern good overcoming evil and have been woven together with many similar motifs and themes. The central importance of the female divine, known as Durga, Shakti, Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati and many other names, is also a common theme in celebrations of the festival.

The festival of Navaratri is a combination of many different stories and traditions, and as such the liturgical practices associated with is vary widely. Some Hindus fast during the festival, whereas others celebrate with feasts and dancing. Statues of Durga are often venerated before being submerged in water on the day of Vijayadashami. Another tradition is for statues of the demons to be burnt to symbolise the destruction of evil. Navaratri is one of the most important of all Hindu festivals, although the theology and practices vary greatly, demonstrating how it has changed and adapted over many millennia. The two common themes that seem to appear universally are the victory of good over evil and the veneration of the female divine. Navaratri shows how many diverse traditions can be brought together into one festival that is celebrated across India and further around the world.

India, god, goddess‘ by pradippal is licensed under CC0 1.0

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