Understanding Navaratri through Vedanta
Navaratri or the festival of nine nights is one of the most important festivals celebrated by the Hindus across the world. There is a diversity in the way the festival is celebrated in various parts of the country, with different local rituals, traditions, and modes of worship being employed in the festival celebration. But, what remains unchanged is the association of the festival with the worship of Divine Mother: Goddess Chandi, who is variously worshiped in her numerous forms as Kali, Durga, Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati, etc.
The festival begins a day after Mahalaya Amavasya, when the Goddess manifests in the physical plane in all her glory, thus marking the beginning of the Devi-Paksha, a 15-day period, which is most conductive for the worship of the Divine Mother. Since, the Divine Mother, Adya, manifests her innumerable forms during this period, various traditions have organically evolved to facilitate the worship of different manifestations of the Mother on different nights. Thus, some people worship Nava-Durgas, the nine forms of Durga: Shailputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, and Siddidhatri; some worship the ten Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, MahaTripura Sundari (or Shodasi or Sri), Bhuvaneshvari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi, and Kamala; and some others worship: Mahakali, Mahalakshmi, and Mahasaraswati for three days each.
The last tradition of worship is particularly interesting, not only because, this mode of worship is widely practiced and is closely associated with the legend of Chandi, but also because it contains within itself deep insights of Vedanta Darshana and acts as a practical facilitator for attaining the Vedantic goal of Brahma-Atma-Aikyam (Realization of the unity of Brahman and Atman).
To understand the Vedantic message of Navaratri, we must first understand the Legend of Goddess Chandi, which is central to Navaratri worship.
The Legend of Goddess Chandi
Goddess Chandi is the central deity of worship of the Navaratri. It is her different manifestations, which is worshipped on different nights of the festival. Chandi is the epithet of the fierce aspect of the Universal Mother, who destroys Asuras, Rakshas, demons, negativities, and weaknesses from the universe. She is the protector of the righteous and the destroyer of the unrighteous, and takes one to the ultimate goal of Moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death), by helping each individual to fight and defeat his/her inner Asuric forces. Thus, the legend of Chandi, is not only about the fight of the gods with the demons, but is also about the human struggle, human fight to reach the ultimate bliss. Hence, to understand Chandi and the importance of the celebration of Navaratri, one must understand the legend of Chandi as depicted in the popular Shakta text “Devi Mahatmya” (Glory of the Goddess), which is also known as “Saptashati” or “Chandi path”. It must be noted that this text is central to Navaratri rituals and its recitation is carried out on all the nine days of the festival.
The story of Chandi is basically a story of how the Mother fought and destroyed various demons, who were troubling the people and the gods and causing havoc and imbalance in the universe. Devi Mahatmya appears as part of the famous Markandeya Purana, narrated by Rishi Markandeya to his disciples. The story is divided into three portions: Prathama Charitra (the first part), Madhyama Charitra (the middle part), and Uttama Charitra (the final part), with each portion narrating a different story with a different aspect of Goddess Chandi playing the central role.
Prathama Charitra is the story of Mahakali, a particularly fierce aspect of Goddess Chandi, and how she destroys Asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha, who were born from the ears of Narayana, while he was asleep. The Madhyama Charitra is the story about how Chandi as Mahalakshmi destroys the mighty Asura, Mahishasura and his large army. The final portion contains the story about how Chandi as Mahasaraswati, manifests different forms and destroys a number of mighty Rakshasas and Asuras like Dhumralochana, Chanda, Munda, Raktabeeja, Nishumba, and Shumba, along with their vast armies.
The Asuras and Rakshasas represent both the cosmic forces, which are beyond empirical perception, as well as their counterparts within an individual, which binds an individual to this cycle of birth and death. Similarly, the various forms of the Goddesses, who rids the universe of these Asuras, also destroys the Asuric forces within each individual and grants them ultimate liberation. After all, the Hindu tradition proclaims- Yatha Brahmande, Tatha Pinde- What is there in the Universe, so is present in an individual.
It is in this individual context, in the context of practical spirituality that the nuggets of Vedantic wisdom hidden in the legend of Chandi must be understood.
The Vedantic Worldview
Vedanta, like the rest of Hindu traditions, posits Moksha or the liberation from the cycle of birth and death as the ultimate goal of life. The Upanishads, on which the Vedantic worldview is based, describes liberation as a state of freedom from all kinds of bondages imposed by the empirical world, the body, and the mind. They assert that the root cause of all sorrow is the false identification with the body and mind, which causes attachment to empirical universe.
This false-identification is in turn rooted in the ignorance (Avidya) of the true nature of Reality that the Self or Atman, is not a body, a mind, or a causal entity, but is instead the very Brahman, which is unborn, ever free, blissful and is of the nature of Existence (Sat), Consciousness (Chit), and Infinity (Anantham). Thus, the discarding of the false-identifications of the Atman with the body and mind and the first hand, direct realization of the unity of Atman (the innermost Self) with Brahman- the eternal substratum of the Universe, i.e. Atma-Brahma-Aikyam, also called as “Atma Jnana” (Self Knowledge) or “Atma Sakshatkaram” (Self-realization), constitutes freedom (Moksha) from the cycle of birth and death.
Now, to the question, how does one practically reach this ultimate state of Knowledge and Freedom, Vedanta posits a three-tier process.
Since, Moksha is not possible without “Atma Jnana” and this Atma-Jnana is not possible without Vichara or Self-enquiry, which is the process of separating the Self (Atman) from non-Self entities like body, senses and the mind, the very first goal that the seeker needs to accomplish is the attainment of the competencies, which would facilitate one to practice and perfect the process of “Vichara”. These competencies for practicing Vichara are termed as “Sadhana Chatushtaya” and are a collection of four-fold qualifications, which include: Viveka, Vairagya, Shatka-sampatti, and Mumukshutva.
Viveka represents the knowledge to differentiate between the Nithyam (Eternal) and Anithya (Temporary). Brahman, the unchanging infinite blissful substratum of the universe is Nithyam and the ever-changing universe, subjected to the cycle of creation and dissolution is Anithyam. Vairagya refers to detachment and dispassion towards all empirical objects and pleasures, arising out of the realization that the worldly objects are only momentary.
Shatka Sampatti refers to a group of six qualities: Shama, Dhama, Uparati, Titiksha, Shraddha and Samadhana, all of which are related to the control of mind and the senses. Shama refers to control of mental thoughts and feelings; Dhama is restrainment of the five senses; Uparati is withdrawal of the senses and the mind from worldly objects; Titiksha is the quality of forbearance, patience, and a state of absence of anger, sorrow, or feelings of revenge; Shraddha is a state of faith and inner conviction in the words of Guru, Sruti and Shastras; Samadhana is the one-pointed fixing of mind on Brahman, attained from the perfection of the five qualities of Shama, etc. And lastly, Mumukshutva refers to the burning desire for Moksha.
These qualities of Sadhana Chatushtaya cannot be developed as long as a person lacks a sufficient degree of purity of mind (Chitta-shuddhi) and one-pointed concentration (Ekagra-chitta). These in-turn could be achieved through the performance of Dharmic actions (Dharma Anushtana) and the practice of Bhakti or Upasana, which respectively lead to mental purification and one-pointed concentration. Karma/Dharma Anushtana includes both the performance of ritual worship, as well as the performance of righteous duties. Upasana constitutes the practice of Yogic techniques of meditation.
Thus, Dharma-Anushtana and Upasana, which results in developing Sadhana Chatushtaya constitutes the first and second tier of spiritual pursuit, with the process of Vichara or Self-enquiry, which leads to ultimate Atma-Jnana constituting the final tier.
Mapping the legend of Chandi using Vedanta
Now, let us return back to the legend of Chandi as given in Devi Mahatmya and see how it could be understood using Vedanta.
As mentioned before, the Prathama Charitra deals with the killing of the demons Madhu Kaitabha by Mahakali. The name Madhu Kaitaba is very significant. In Sanskrit, Madhu means “honey”, Keeta means “insect” and Bha means “resemblance”. That is, Madhu Kaitabha refers to “having a resemblance to the nature of honey bee”. Honey bees are known for their hard work and continuous involvement in the collection of sweet honey. This allegorically represents the common human nature to continuously involve in the pursuit of material happiness. Most people neither have time, nor desire to pursue spiritual goals. Their involvement in religion and prayers are also mostly to fulfill sensory desires and gain material happiness. This is nothing but a kind of Tamasic inertia, which makes people to concentrate only on Artha and Kama, while completely ignoring the pursuit of Moksha, without which life would remain unfulfilled. The demons Madhu-Kaitabha represent this Tamasic inertia, which propels people to perceive material pleasures as the ultimate goal of life and completely ignore and reject the spiritual aspect of life.
That these demons were slayed by the Divine Mother in her form of Mahakali, gives us a clue regarding the process by which the influence of the Tamasic inertia could be overcome. Goddess Mahakali is the personification of Kriya Shakti– the force of action. She is the cause and controller of time and hence of all actions. Hence, it is through the performance of righteous actions, i.e. Dharma Anushtana that one can invoke Mahakali and harness the Kriya Shakti to overcome the inner Madhu-Kaitabha. If it be asked, how would the performance of Dharmic actions, help one to overcome the Tamasic indulgence in material pursuit? The answer lies in the fact that the performance of righteous actions and obligations in life with a sense of duty and responsibility, helps to overcome inertia and purify one’s mind. This in-turn will propel one to pursue higher and more spiritual goals. This impulse for pursuing higher spiritual goals is called as Mumukshutva, one among the Sadhana Chatushtaya. The magnitude of this impulse depends on the magnitude of the performance of Dharma Anushtana. Even when the impulse of Mumukshutva is weak, it still lays a foundation for further spiritual progress that would happen over a long period of time.
Thus, this impulse of Mumukshutva brought by Dharma Anushtana using Kriya Shakti constitutes the antidote for Tamasic indulgence in material pursuit, which is allegorically represented by the slaying of Madhu Kaitabha by Mahakali. Thus, the Prathama Chatritra constitutes the first tier of the Vedantic path towards Moksha. And a fulfilling worship of Mahakali on the first three nights of Navaratri, could only be accomplished, when it is accompanied by Dharma-Anushtana performed throughout the year.
The Madhyama Charitra deals with the slaying of Mahishasura by Goddess Mahalakshmi. This story is an allegorical reference to the second tier of the Vedantic path: Upasana. Mahisha in Sanskrit means “Buffalo”, which represents dullness and ego. Thus, Mahishasura is the embodiment of dullness, pride, ego, and related Tamasic and Rajasic forces inside each individual. Mahalakshmi, who is the personification of Iccha-Shakti– the force of the will, the power of the mind, is the means to slay the demon of dullness and pride. In practical terms, the story points towards the necessity of Upasana- concentration and meditation for overcoming mental dullness and pride.
By Dharma Anushtana, one is able to develop Mumukshutva, yet in most cases this spiritual impulse will be weak owing to mental dullness. Unless the mind is made strong and the power of will harnessed, it would be very difficult to strengthen the impulse of Mumukshutva. This is further complicated by the fact that people are too proud about their name, fame, wealth, etc., which prevents one to disconnect from the material pleasures and work on our spiritual impulse. The only way to rectify this, says the Vedantic tradition, is to practice Yoga and Dhyana. While the Yama and Niyama of Yoga corresponds to Dharma Anushtana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dhyana and Dharana corresponds to meditation and control of mind. As one starts to practice Upasana- meditation on a form of deity, one starts to increase the will power and one pointed concentration (Ekagra-chitta). This, in turn, will help one to overcome mental dullness. Since, Upasana involves taking refuge in the deity by surrendering one’s ego and pride, it helps one to overcome them as well. In other words, Upasana leads to the control of the mind and senses and the development of qualities of Shatka Sampatti: Sama, Dama, Uparati, Shraddha and Samadhana.
Hence, Madhyama Charitra constitutes the second tier of Vedantic path and allegorically represent the overcoming of the qualities like dullness and pride through the development of qualities of Shatka sampatti by Upasana, which involves invoking and harnessing Iccha-Shakti. Thus, the worship of Mahalakshmi on the fourth, fifth and sixth nights of Navaratri will become fulfilling, only when one could perform Upasana for the rest of the year to his/her best ability.
Now, coming to the Uttara Charitra, it corresponds to the third tier of Vedantic path: Vichara, as well as to the important tenets of Sadhana Chatushtaya, which aid Vichara. Mahasaraswati is the personification of Jnana-Shakti and it is she who removes our doubts and imparts Atma-Jnana. Thus, her worship is inevitable for those who desire Atma-Jnana and Moksha. In the Uttara Charitra, she slays the following Dhumralochana, Chanda, Munda, Raktabeeja, Nishumba, and Shumba, respectively. The order in which the Asuras are killed is significant as well.
Dhumralochana means “one with smoky eyes”, i.e. “one with mistaken/improper/confused perception”. This is a reference to the perception of the world by those who are bound to the cycle of birth and death. Due to ignorance (Avidya) about true reality, people mistake the world and worldly objects to be permanent and pursue material pleasures mindlessly. On the other hand, they ignore, sideline, or completely reject Brahman as the supreme Self, which is eternal and infinite and the only permanent reality. Thus, there is a confused perception that the world is real and permanent, whereas Brahman is non-existent. This confused perception due to Avidya is represented by Dhumralochana. And this could be rectified by having a correct perception that the world is impermanent and hence unreal; and Brahman alone is permanent, and hence real. This correct perception, called as “Vivekam” or correct discrimination between the permanent and impermanent, would arise from the use of Jnana Shakti through activities like studying of Shastras, contemplating on them, etc.
Chanda and Munda represent “Krodha” or feelings of “extreme anger and revenge”. Munda literally means one who cuts off other’s head! As long as one is attached to worldly objects, one will remain insecure and unsatisfied, which results in frustration, anger and feelings of intense revenge. The only antidote to this Krodha is ‘Titiksha” or the quality of patience and forbearance. This comes only when one recognizes the futility of pursuing worldly objects, since they are impermanent. Thus, a strong Vivekam will give rise to strong Titisha, which in-turn will slay the demons of anger and revenge.
Raktabeeja is the next Asura slayed by Mahasaraswati. Raktabeeja literally means “seeds of blood”. But, Rakta also means “one who has desire” and hence, the Asura is the personification of “seeds of desire”. Desire, like Raktabeeja, is hard to kill. If one desire is fulfilled, ten others arise in the mind. Thus, no matter how many desires are fulfilled, people always remain dissatisfied and unfulfilled. The only solution to desire is “Dispassion” or Vairagyam, which again arises only through Jnana Shakti and Vivekam.
Goddess Chandi, having thus destroyed various internal demons starting from Madhu Kaitaba to Rakta Beeja, using Kriya, Iccha, and Jnana Shakti, and thus facilitating the development of required competencies of Sadhana Chatushtaya, now proceeds to further take the spiritual seeker through the final tie of Vedantic path: Vichara.
Shumba and Nishumba represent “Aham-kara” and “Mama-Kara’- the feeling of I-ness and Mine-ness, respectively. Their name literally means “Killing” and refers to how people, because of their “I-ness” and “Mine-ness”- false identifications with the body and the world- forget their true nature of Self (Atman) and in a sense “Kill” their Atman through ignorance and rejection. This idea is strongly expressed in Isha Upansihad as well, which says the slayers of the Self will go to demonic worlds. “Ni” in “Nishumba” reinforces the quality of Shumba, i.e. killing, just as the feeling of “Mine-ness’ reinforces the feeling of “I-ness” and further suppresses the true nature of the Self. The only way to overcome these demons of I-ness and Mine-ness is through the process of Vichara or Self-enquiry, which first separates the Self from non-Self entities and then causes the Self to subsume the non-Self entities, thus resulting in Self alone shining in its real state without any obstructions. This shining of the Self in its real state is Moksha. The subsuming of non-Self entities into the Self, due to the destruction of Ignorance is Atma-Jnana. Thus, the Uttara Charitra constitutes the final tier of Vedantic path, wherein using Vichara, which employs Jnana Shakti, one destroys the demons of I-ness and Mine-ness and attains Self-realization and liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Hence, the worship of Mahasaraswati during the last three days of the Navaratri festival must be accompanied by a dedicated involvement in the study of Shastras and the process of Vichara throughout the year.
Navaratri festival, in many a sense, is the practical expression of the Vedantic path. The legend of Chandi provides deep insights into the theoretical, as well as, the practical aspect of the Vedantic path to Moksha. In the words of Subhash Kak, the Devi Mahatmya “presents an account of what Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati do to bring about the transformation of Prakṛti from Tamas to Rajas, from Rajas to Sattva and from Sattva to Supreme Vijaya, which is mastery in the absolute.”
Thus, Goddess Chandi is none other than the Upanishadic Brahman, who through her triple forms representing the Kriya Shakti, Iccha Shakti, and Jnana Shakti, facilitates the performance of Dharma, Upasana and Vichara, leading one to the ultimate goal of Moksha.
The author likes to thank Prof. Vinayak Rajat Bhat and Shrivathsa Brahma for their help in understanding the etymology of the names of various Asuras.