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On 14 Oct this year (2002), Hindus celebrate the festival of Durgáshtami, the worship of Goddess Dúrga. From 7 to 15 October they celebrate Navarátri, the Nine-Day-Festival, during which the great battles of the Goddess against the forces of evil are commemorated. Ashutosh Vardhana, a Hindu writer who lives in England, explains what the festival means to Hindus.
Whenever evil becomes too powerful on earth, God appears in order to 'tidy up' by punishing bad people and by teaching us how to lead good and happier lives. That is the basic meaning of those of our festivals where God goes into battle with demons, for example the festivals of Lord Ráma (Ram Návami, and Diwali), of Lord Kríshna (Janmáshtami) and of Dúrga Dévi (Durgáshtami).
The ancient stories speak of battles with chariots, lances, arrows and magic weapons, of good kings and bad demons, but what is really meant is the battle between good and evil in our hearts. The stories are meant to encourage us to live better lives. The battle fields are within us.
There was once a demon king so powerful that none of the gods (all male), not even Lord Víshnu and Lord Shiva, could oust him. Therefore all the gods came together to create a 'supergod' with the combined power of all of them. That supergod was a woman, the Dévi.
The Dévi went into battle against the demon armies. They despised her because she was a woman, a weak woman, as they thought. But she, who was in fact identical with Bráhman, the Absolute, defeated all of them.
Navarátri, the Nine-day-Festival (náva = nine, rátri = night), commemorates the battle. During this period we worship the Dévi (God in its manifestation as a woman) and invoke the nine names she has as the Dévi. We also worship her in her different manifestations, e.g. as Káli and Dúrga (especially in Bengal), as Párvati, the wife of Lord Shiva, generally as Shákti, and under any of the innumerable names used by her devotees.
As Shákti, the Dévi is the creative power, the active power, of the male Gods. Without her they cannot do anything. Therefore every male god has his Shákti, his consort, his creative power: Bráhma has Sarásvati, Víshnu has Lákshmi, Shiva has Párvati, Ráma has Síta. Just as all male gods are ultimately the same, so are all the goddesses.
On the ninth day of Navarátri we celebrate Durgáshtami (áshtami = eighth day of the month), the climax of the worship of Dúrga. On the eve of Durgáshtami, an unmarried girl under ten is worshipped as a personification of the Dévi. This ceremony is called Kumári Púja: the worship of the young girl.
Apart from the personal lesson to fight evil within us, the festival also teaches us something about relations between men and women.
They gradually change over the centuries in society and in our religion, which reflects and informs that society, so much so that a great Indian scholar (P V Kane) had to write an eight volume book about the history of dhárma (right and wrong), i.e. about the way in which notions of right and wrong in Hinduism have changed over the centuries.
That is the reason why for us there is not only one incarnation of God, and why for us there is no last prophet for all times, but that God appears again and again on this earth, as she is needed.
It saves us from the dangers of fundamentalism (of which we too must be wary), of sticking rigidly to the letters of ancient scriptures which were written under different circumstances. It is meant to make sure that we do not kill people, commit acts of terrorism or vandalism (Ayódhya 1992) for the sake of such dead letters.
Our highest commandment is 'ahímsa': avoidance of violence. It tells us to practise our religion with moderation and common sense.
Our youngsters do not have to turn away from our religion and our culture in order to enjoy a modern life-style. The two are not incompatible. They can do so within the context of their ancient religion and culture, and they must fight for the right of doing so rather than walk away.
The story of the Dévi shows woman far superior to man. That is a useful message, especially in view of the fact that many other ancient texts suggest that woman is inferior. This festival helps to restore the balance.
Our ancestors had good reasons for demanding that women be obedient to their husbands, fathers and brothers, and we have good reasons, today, for renouncing that notion. The lesson we must learn from this festival is that woman is equal to man.
Therefore when an ancient Hindu scripture said, 'Treat your parents as God, treat your husband as God, treat your teacher as God, treat your guest as God,' today we have to add, with equal vigour and authority, 'treat your wife as God', which is another way of saying: 'Treat every woman as God.'
yatra naryastu pujyante
Wherever women are
treated with respect