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The ’Splainer: What is Navaratri?

An Indian artisan gives finishing touches to an idol of Hindu goddess Durga, sculpted for Navaratri, or the festival of nine nights, in Hyderabad, India, on Sept. 30, 2016. AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — Many non-Hindus are at least vaguely aware of Diwali, the Hindu holiday marked by lights, dressing up and the exchange of gifts. But some Hindus say Diwali gets overemphasized outside India because of some similarities to Christmas. (Sound familiar, Hanukkah?)

More important than Diwali is, in fact, Navaratri, which Hindus around the world are celebrating right now. What is this religious holiday, sacred to the more than 1 billion Hindus worldwide yet relatively unknown by non-Hindus, all about? Let us ’Splain …

What is Navaratri?

Navaratri means “nine nights” in Sanskrit and is always celebrated near harvest time. It honors Shakti, the Hindu version of the divine feminine. Shakti takes many forms and each day of the festival is focused on one of her qualities. In some parts of India, celebrants don a different, specific, color for each day and perform different daily rituals. At night there are special Navaratri dances (called “garba” and “dandiya raas”), street processions, feasts and fun. The whole festival lasts 10 days, this year from Sept. 21-30.

Navaratri is the longest-running dance festival on the planet. With multiple mythological and historical roots, the festivities are a celebration of the feminine, wherein the revelers dance to the tunes of traditional folk music.

Navaratri may have originated from several Hindu myths. One tells of a nine-day battle Shakti had with a demon before trouncing him on the 10th day. Another says the god Rama fasted and prayed to Shakti for nine days to win her help in defeating a 10-headed demon. He did — also on the 10th day — so the last day of Navaratri, called the “Day of Victory,” marks the triumph of good over evil.

How important is this holiday?

“It is probably the most important Indian festival you have never heard of,” Balaji Viswanathan, a writer in Karnataka, India, wrote on the website Quora. It is also, he noted, one of the few Indian holidays where women take center stage — part of the festival honors Shakti as mother, with the placement of pots and other vessels as symbolic of her womb. There are at least as many different customs and traditions associated with Navaratri as there are Indian states. (Fun fact: There are 29 Indian states.)

In western India, people dance in the streets with specially decorated batons. In Karnataka, elephants are dressed up and paraded through the streets. In south India, families arrange dozens — sometimes hundreds — of small figurines into elaborate tableaus depicting the lives of the gods. Across the country people fast, give sweets to children (like Halloween, another harvest festival), buy gold as a sign of good luck, burn demon effigies and give gifts to young girls, seen as special to Shakti.

What are the nine “faces” of Shakti?

Shakti is the source of primal energy (day one), repentance and rebirth (day two), slayer of evil (day three), creator of the universe (day four), mother of warriors (day five), daughter of wisdom (day six), the bringer of death (day seven), the giver of calmness and wisdom (day eight) and the fulfiller of wishes (day nine).

This is a derivative work of goddesses Durga, Kali and Sri Lakshmi. Photo courtesy of Sarah Welch/Wikimedia, Creative Commons

I am not Hindu and I don’t live in India. Are there Navaratri festivities I could attend here?

We could all use a little dancing in the streets and some sweets, no? There are Navaratri concerts, dance performances and cultural festivals slated for metro New York; New Jersey; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Houston; Dallas; San Jose, Calif.; and more. In a sign of how integral Indians have become in the U.S., even Peoria, Ill., once the banner city for mainstream American culture, has a Navaratri festival. Its Hindu community is holding it at an Episcopal church.

If you can’t get to one near you, here’s a YouTube playlist of Navaratri songs from Bollywood — the next best thing.

 


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About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

8 Comments

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  • Thank you for using the word “ritual” and not the word “worship” in the article.

    Thanks also for not using the word “belief”.

    It is all too common to use terms from Christian theology (e.g., “belief” and “worship”) for the non-Abrahamic traditions, so it’s a welcome change not to see these words in the article.

  • Perhaps an odd observation and not to the point, but I would be gratified to know the basis for portraying these goddesses of Hinduism as multi-limbed; is this an artistic “special effect,” grounded in the accretions of tradition or something of great symbolism?

  • Each hand holds something that symbolizes one of their powers or has significance rooted in a traditional story. For example Durga was created from the combined powers of all the other Gods to defeat a demon, so each hand holds a weapon typically associated with the Gods that contributed to her creation. In cases where the extra hands aren’t holding anything, they’re making a specific hand gesture (these are called mudras) that has a specific meaning, fearlessness and blessings being the most common.

  • Great symbolism.

    What follows is a brief tour of the Indian traditions.

    An axiom of the Indian traditions is that there are two kinds of happiness, sukha and ananda. The former is the happiness we feel when our life runs the way we want it to. The latter seems to be independent of anything in the world.

    Mattieu Ricard is sometimes described as the happiest man in the world. My speculation is that Ricard is happy in the sense of ananda and not sukha.

    Star athletes sometimes speak of being “in the zone”. My speculation is that “in the zone” is a glimpse (or a preview) of ananda.

    What is the source of ananda? Does it even have a source? Several accounts (theories?) have been generated in order to answer these questions. One such account [Ref 1] says that there exists an emergent property named the atman. Human beings have partial access to the atman. Some human beings are able to get full access to the atman. Full access gives ananda. Partial access does not give ananda.

    Vigrahas (a Sanskrit word for idols) are highly recognizable representations of the atman. Vigrahas are designed with multiple limbs in order to depict that the atman is an emergent property, to depict that the atman does not have a material or energetic substratum.

    Some vigrahas don’t have multiple limbs, but they might have multiple faces instead. Or they might combine the face of an elephant with the body of a man. Or the face of a lion with the body of a man. Something that transgresses scientific patterns–this is the only way a vigraha can depict that the atman is an emergent property, that atman does not have a material or energetic stratum.

    Ref 1
    http://www.academia.edu/7866603

  • No problem.

    But it is of great interest to know how what your reactions are. In a previous post, you identified yourself as a Christian who believes that Satan exists.

    Satan has many roles, not the least of which is that he fools people like me into (i) mysticism and (ii) worshiping idols. (Aside: The word “mysticism”–if I am not mistaken–refers to the discussion of the emergent property named atman, and to techniques of gaining full access to the atman.)

    Since you announced in a previous message that you think that Satan exists, it will be of interest to know your reactions to what I wrote above.

  • I try to exercise probity on this forum where views on the mystical, supernatural, and etc. vary widely if not wildly. The terminology you use, i.e., atman, emergent, is unfamiliar to me though I tried to suss out the meaning of those terms in your earlier remark. I am a Christian who views Satan as a fallen angelic being whose chief aim is to deceive and ensnare humanity. I believe he is personal and active. Naturally as an orthodox Christian, I take the view that all other belief systems are in error to one degree or another, and that Satan uses that error to his own ends. That said, I have both sympathy and empathy for all my fellow humans and desire to discuss and exchange viewpoints in the most cordial manner possible. Each person has the right to own his or her own spiritual perspective, but I consistently endeavor to increase my base of knowledge with respect to those systems of belief with which I am largely unfamiliar, even as I hold stoutly to the precepts of the bible. I hope that is an inoffensive answer to your question.

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