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The festival of nine nights (Navrathri) is a celebration of Shakti, the feminine energy of the Universe. In some regions of India, especially the north and west, it is celebrated five times a year – Vasant or Chaitra Navaratri, Ashadha Navaratri, Sharad Navaratri, Paush Navaratri, and Magha Navaratri. Vasant Navaratri (which occurs in the March-April timeframe) and Sharad Navaratri (September-October timeframe) are the two that are more commonly celebrated, and of these two Sharad Navrathri is joyously marked as an important festival and is a national phenomenon. 

The entire period of festivities that includes the Sharad Navrathri (referred to as Navrathri for the rest of this article) lasts over one complete lunar cycle starting with the Mahalaya Amavasya which falls on the new moon. This is the first day of Navrathri and is also the day when ancestors are revered and rituals are performed to remember departed souls. While the spirit of celebration of the feminine energy is a common thread throughout the country, the form of this worship varies.

In Bengal, Durga Puja is celebrated with great devotion, preparation, and fanfare, and starts from the sixth day after the new moon (Shashti). In some practices in South India, Navrathri is dedicated to Sharada, the goddess of learning. In other interpretations in North India, each day is dedicated to nine different forms of Shakti. As described later in this article, philosophers interpret that the first 3 days of Navrathri are dedicated to the worship of Durga or Kali, the second 3 dedicated to Lakshmi, and the final 3 days to Saraswati, and culminates in the tenth day — Vijaya Dasami. The New Moon following Mahalaya Amavasya is celebrated as Deepavali (or Diwali, the Festival of Lights). 

The celebratory aspects are the most visible part of this series of festivals and entire countries and communities are engaged in them, with considerable resources being expended. Indians enjoy days off from work and school either for the entire 9 days or for the last 3 days of Navrathri, and good food and sweets abound. Some retailers depend on this season to balance their books, and even typically frugal families usually splurge on new clothes and other tokens of celebration for Deepavali.

L. Iyengar’s image of Durga Puja.
L. Iyengar’s image of Durga Puja.

While Bengalis erect elaborate pandals with Durga Ma and her entire family and celebrate with energy and an abundance of loud music, Gujaratis dance the nights away with graceful Garba groups. Children, and sometimes even adults, enjoy the thrill of setting off fireworks themselves (as against watching it being set off by someone else from a barge on the far horizon) once the sun sets leaving a moon-less dark sky. Flickering diyas adorn houses, and effigies of Ravana are set alight in maidans. 

This brings us to the layered significance underlying all this revelry — the triumph of good over evil at more than one level. In the epic Ramayana, Lord Rama destroyed the evil Ravana after an arduous 14-year exile culminating in a hard-fought battle and returned triumphantly to his capital city Ayodhya on Deepavali, where all his people celebrated his victory. Thus, the burning of Ravana effigies and celebrations with dance, music, food, and friends marks the more overt expression of the triumph of good over evil. However, at a deeper level, the entire period of Navrathri can be a reflection on the Self. 

Swami Chinmayananda spoke eloquently of Navrathri as an opportunity to create a flow between religion, mythology, and philosophy, leading to the purification of the sadhaka (practitioner). The first 3 days the ferocious purification power of Durga is evoked to help us in eliminating negative forces and weaknesses such as vanity, greed, jealousy, and prejudice. In the second 3-day phase Lakshmi is invoked to fill the void thus created within us with divine wealth, including qualities of love, kindness, peace, courage, and the desire for liberation to name a few. Thus purified and prepared, the sadhaka invokes Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, during the last 3-day period to understand the limitless reality of the so-called individual and realize the true nature of the Self. This sequence of Navrathri culminates in a victorious Vijaya Dasami, the tenth day, with a bonfire of the demon, the figurative mortal in the sadhaka. 

If a goal of a privileged human birth is to realize this true nature of the Self, good health of the body is a necessary prerequisite. While a concerted effort would be required to achieve the desired goal of control of the senses and the mind, at a more mundane level, a healthy body facilitates this. Temperance is a watchword that should be resorted to throughout this lunar month, without compromising the enjoyment of course! Both Navrathri and Deepavali are very social occasions coupled with an over-abundance of rich food and drink. Pacing the intake of these delicacies, maintaining a normal exercise regimen, and drinking warm water to reduce intake of rich foods is recommended. Perhaps spending more time dancing and singing will balance the calorie intake. 

L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures, ideas, and writing. Her short story will be included in an anthology showcasing a group of international women writers, to be published in 2021 by The Nasiona. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar.