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Why and how is Devi celebrated during the Navaratri festivities?

Bibek Debroy writes: Devi worship is an ancient tradition in India, with different parts of the country honouring different forms of the deity.

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: October 15, 2021 7:59:22 am
chaitra navratri, chaitra navratri 2021, chaitra navratri 2021 date, chaitra navratri start dateNavratri 2021: Dedicated devotees of the Goddess Supreme Durga, observe a fast for nine consecutive days. (Photo: Pixabay)

This is the time of the year when Navaratri (or Navaratra) celebrations take place throughout the country. Navaratri simply means nine nights. The timing of the festival is decided according to lunar tithis and these don’t exactly correspond to solar days. The nine nights (days) are from Pratipada (first lunar day) to Navami (ninth lunar day), though celebrations can also spill over to Dashami (tenth lunar day).

There is Shukla paksha (the lunar fortnight when the moon waxes) and Krishna paksha (the lunar fortnight when the moon wanes). Typically, Krishna paksha is for pitris (ancestor/manes). Devas and Devis will not be worshipped during Krishna paksha, only during Shukla paksha. Since every month will have a Shukla paksha cycle from Pratipada to Purnima (day/night of full moon), in the course of the year, we will have 12 such Navaratri cycles. From the point of view of worshipping Devi, all 12 are not equally important. There are four that are specific to worshipping Devi — Sharada/Ashvina Navaratri, Vasanta/Chaitra Navaratri, Magha Navaratri and Ashada Navaratri. Right now, we are in the middle of Sharada/Ashvina Navratri. Most people I know have heard of Vasanta/Chaitra Navaratri, but have never heard of Magha and Ashada Navaratris. That is because the worship undertaken during Magha and Ashada Navaratri is secret, not public, and these are known as Gupta Navaratris.

There is an ancient tradition of Devi worship in India, going back much before what is perceived as recorded history. Regardless of which part of the country we are in, Navaratri is associated with Devi worship. The form differs. As texts go, one should mention ‘Devi Suktam’. There are several such Devi Suktams from different texts: (1) ‘Devi Suktam’ (Rig Veda); (2) ‘Shri Suktam’ (Rig Veda); (3) ‘Devi Suktam’ (from the tantra texts); (4) ‘Durga Suktam’ (Taittiriya Aranyaka); and (5) ‘Ratri Suktam’ or ‘Devi Stotram’ (from Durga Saptashati).

Apart from the ones from the Rig Veda, the others find their origin in a section of the Markandeya Purana known as ‘Devi Mahatmya’ or ‘Chandi’. For Devi worship, the Markandeya Purana is the most important in the Itihasa-Purana corpus. This does not mean that stories about Shiva and Parvati do not occur elsewhere in the Itihasa-Purana corpus. Not only does the Mahabharata mention both, the ‘Anushasana Parva’ of the Mahabharata describes an incident where Uma tells Shiva about the dharma of women. The Valmiki Ramayana has several references to Shiva and Parvati stories. Other than the Markandeya Purana and the Devi Bhagavata Purana, one should mention the Linga and Skanda Puranas from the Itihasa-Purana corpus. The ‘Lalita Sahasranama’, which gives us 1,000 names of Lalita, a manifestation of Devi, is from the Brahmanda Purana.

Devi is worshipped in many forms, such as Nava Durga or the nine forms of Durga — Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidhatri. Especially in the tantra forms of worship, she is worshipped as the 10 Mahavidyas — Kali, Tara, Tripurasundari (or Shodashi), Bhuvaneshvari, Tripurabhairavi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala. There is local worship of Devi, often specific to certain temples, at other times of the year. In the Panchayatana Puja (worship of five Murtis), it is customary for Devi to be worshipped along with Shiva, Vishnu, Surya and the specific ishta devata. If it is specific to Devi’s worship during Navaratri and the stories connected with the asura Mahishasura, the Markandeya Purana is the most important. This tells us the story of King Suratha and the Vaishya Samadhi. Reduced to a miserable state, they are advised by Rishi Sumedha to worship Devi. To understand Devi’s worship at the time of Navaratri, one should also consider the Devi Bhagavata Purana, also known as the Devi Bhagavatam. The seventh skandha from this text has the famous ‘Devi Gita’. Since one has mentioned ‘Devi Gita’, one should mention the Devi Upanishad. There are also other Puranas like the Kalika Purana and Chandi Purana.

In Bengal, at this time of the year, Devi worship is equated with Durga worship. Generations have grown up with the belief that Mahalaya signifies the onset of Durga Puja. Historically, Mahalaya has nothing to do with Durga Puja. Mahalaya signifies the beginning of Shukla paksha. Today, every Bengali thinks Durga Puja happens on saptami, ashtami and navami. That’s not true either. This is because of the standardisation brought about by community-driven Pujas.

Texts speak of seven different kalpas (modes) of worshipping Durga. (1) Starting on the Krishna paksha navami that precedes Mahalaya in the month of Bhadra and concluding on the Shukla paksha navami in the month of Ashvina, lasting for 15 days; (2) Starting on the Shukla paksha Pratipada and concluding on navami, lasting for nine days; (3) Beginning on shashti and concluding on navami, lasting for four days; (4) Starting on saptami and ending on navami, for a period of three days; (5) Beginning on ashtami and ending on navami, for a period of two days; (6) Only on ashtami; (7) Only on navami.

When non-community-driven Durga Pujas occur, a practice fast dying out, the other six modes are still followed. But because of the standardisation brought about by community Durga Pujas, most have been reduced to (4). If you want to read more about these other modes, I recommend the work of Raghunandana Bhattacharya, from the 16th century. He was known as Smarta Raghunandana and wrote copiously on several topics. For Durga Puja purposes, the relevant texts are Durgotsav Tattva, Durgapuja Tattva and Kritya Tattva. Raghunandan Bhattacharya wasn’t the only one who wrote about worshipping Durga. For example, before him, there was Acharya Shulapani.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 14, 2021 under the title ‘Nine days for Devi’. The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal

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