1) Navaratri celebrates the Feminine Divine
A nine-night festival during the Hindu month of Ashwin, Navarātri is a celebration of the Feminine Divine.
According to the Vedas, everyone and everything originates from an absolute spiritual source referred to as Brahman (Divine), which is both the cause and maintenance of creation.
Depending on the follower, as there is a wide spectrum of understanding when it comes to the nature of Brahman, Hindus may worship the Divine in both male and female forms, as well as animal forms, or even no form at all.
The feminine aspect is known as Devi (goddess, in Sanskrit), which is a manifestation of Shakti, the creative and energetic force of the Divine. Navarātri is not only about honoring the role these various female manifestations (e.g. Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati) play in Hinduism, but also the role the loving, compassionate, and gentle, yet sometimes powerful and fierce feminine energy plays in our lives.
2) Some traditions use each night to honor a different form of the Goddess Durga
Known as the warrior form of Parvati, who is the consort of Shiva (God of Transformation), Durga is called the Mother Goddess, as she defends the oppressed with a fierce wrath, as well as looks after creation with a caring warmth.
Some traditions celebrate Navarātri by using each day to honor one of the nine forms of Durga, all of which display the following specific qualities and attributes:
- Shailaputri — The first night of Navarātri is dedicated to Shailaputri, the daughter of Hemavana, who is the king of the Himalayas. Seen as the “mother of nature,” she is depicted riding a bull and holding a lotus flower (representing devotion) in one hand and a trident (representing past, present, and future) in the other.
- Brahmacharini — The second night is dedicated to Brahmacharini, whose name means “one who practices austerity.” Said to bestow success and victory, she holds prayer beads in her right hand and a water pot in her left, representing the practice of penance in pursuit of an auspicious goal.
- Chandraghanta — The third night is dedicated to Chandraghanta, who’s named for the half-moon shaped like a bell on her forehead, which is described as her third eye. With ten hands holding various weapons, Chandraghanta rides a tiger, establishing justice and bestowing strength and courage to devotees.
- Kushmanda — The fourth night is dedicated to Kushmanda, whose name means “creator of the universe.” Usually depicted with eight arms, she rides a lion and is known for bringing energy and light to the world.
- Skandamata — The fifth night is dedicated to Skandamata, who’s named for being the mother of Kartikeya, a deity of yoga and spiritual advancement who’s also popularly known as the “god of war.” Seated on a lotus, emphasizing her divine nature, she has four arms and carries an infant Kartikeya on her lap.
- Katyayani — The sixth night is dedicated to Katyayani, who is known as one of Durga’s fiercest forms. With wild hair, and depicted with up to 18 arms, all holding weapons, she dispels darkness and evil, bestowing peace among her devotees.
- Kalaratri — The seventh night is dedicated to Kalaratri, who is also known as Shubankari, which means “doing good” in Sanskrit, as she provides both fearlessness and auspicious results to her devotees. Dark-complexioned, with four arms and disheveled hair, she is also among Durga’s most menacing forms.
- Mahagauri — The eighth night is dedicated to Mahagauri, whose name means “extremely white.” Wearing white, she is a symbol of tranquility and serenity, alleviating the suffering of her devotees.
- Siddhidatri — The last night is dedicated to Siddhidatri, whose name means “giver of supernatural powers.” Seated on a lotus flower, she instills devotion into the hearts of devotees, granting them happiness and wisdom.
Through Navarātri, all of Durga’s forms, which represent the multifaceted aspects of the divine feminine energy we all experience and benefit from in life, are honored with deep reverence and gratitude.
3) Others celebrate the holiday in three sets of three
There are many who celebrate Navarātri by worshipping not just Durga, but also Lakshmi (the consort of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe) and Saraswati (the consort of Brahma, the architect of the universe).
In this approach, Navarātri signifies three stages of an aspirant’s spiritual journey, each personified by one of these goddesses. The first three days of the festival is dedicated to Durga, who destroys not only negative beings, but also symbolizes the destruction of negative propensities. The war she wages against her enemies can be likened to the war we wage with our mind and senses.
As the weeds of one’s negative tendencies are pulled from the garden of spirituality, it is important for them to be replaced with the seeds of good qualities like austerity, truthfulness, steadiness, etc., called daivi sampat, or “divine wealth.” The next three days of Navarātri are hence dedicated to Lakshmi, who is known as the “Goddess of Wealth,” as she is like a mother who gives to her children what they need in order to succeed.
Those who vigilantly cultivate and embody daivi sampat become eligible to acquire the knowledge necessary to attain Divine truth. The last three days of Navarātri are therefore dedicated to Saraswati, the “Goddess of Wisdom” who is capable of bestowing this knowledge.
In this way, Navarātri is spent praying to three divine mothers to help one overcome negative tendencies, develop virtuous qualities, and attain the knowledge required to realize the truths of the Divine.
4) The last day commemorates the victory of Durga over the demon Mahishasura
The tenth and last day of Navarātri is called Vijayadashami, a festival of victory signifying the dawning of spiritual truth. Because Navarātri is specifically about recognizing the important role the power of Shakti plays in helping one attain this truth, observers celebrate Vijayadashami by commemorating certain Hindu stories that illustrate this power.
One such famous story is that of Durga and Mahishasura. In pursuit of strength, Mahishasura performed austerities to gain the favor of Brahma. Impressed by his dedication, Brahma appeared before Mahishasura and offered him a boon. After asking for immortality, which Brahma could not bestow as even he isn’t immortal, Mahishasura asked for what he thought to be the next best thing — to be undefeated against any man or god. Attaining his wish, Mahishasura used his newly acquired power to wage war against and subdue the gods.
Seeking help, the gods approached Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. Manifesting from the trio’s combined energies, Durga engaged in battle with Mahishasura before eventually killing him.
Besides symbolizing the triumph of good over a destructive force, this story highlights how the formidable strength of the feminine aspect should never be taken lightly.
5) The last day also commemorates the victory of Rama over the demon Ravana
In one of Hinduism’s greatest epics, the Ramayana, the demon-king Ravana kidnaps the Goddess Sita and takes her to his kingdom in Lanka.
In a mixture of devastation and fury, Sita’s husband Rama, who is also an avatar of Vishnu, becomes determined to rescue his wife at all costs. Amassing an army of powerful and intelligent monkeys, Rama and his brother Lakshmana build a bridge to Lanka across the Indian ocean, confront Ravana, kill him, and rescue Sita.
While the hero of the Ramayana isn’t a Goddess, it is a Goddess who inspires and drives the hero’s actions. In other words, Rama’s energy, motivation, and power are fueled by his love for and intense desire to rescue Sita, illustrating on one level how Shakti is the energetic force of the Divine.
The potency of this energetic force is also conveyed by Sita during her stay in Lanka. Though she was subjected to countless forms of mental torture, taunts, and physical threats, all antagonistic forces were kept at bay by the Shakti of her devotion to Rama.
6) Navaratri emphasizes the importance of gratitude
Towards the end of Navarātri many perform Ayudha Puja, a customary worship of the instruments used in one’s livelihood.
Because Hinduism espouses divinity as being in all of creation as both immanent and transcendent, followers believe all facets of life can be transformed into a spiritual practice. In this mood, Hindus endeavor to cultivate a consciousness of seeing one’s work as an offering to the Divine by cleaning, decorating, and worshipping the implements that allow one to make a living. Moreover, Ayudha Puja can be observed by taking time to show appreciation for all of the instruments we have at our disposal, including our mind and body, without which nothing would be possible.
7) Many pray to Mother Earth
As Navarātri generally occurs during India’s fall harvest season, it is typical for Hindus to pray to Bhumi Devi, the Mother Goddess of Earth who is revered as the source of all food.
One of Hinduism’s fundamental teachings is that everything one receives in life is a gift from the Divine, and should therefore be honored as such. When humanity falls into a bad habit of greedily taking more than is needed, without bothering to show appreciation to the source providing such gifts, the world tends to fall out of balance, generally causing some level of chaos.
A good example of this can be found in the Bhagavata Purana, when the earth tells the new king, Maharaja Prthu, that she had stopped producing grains due to being exploited and not properly maintained by the previous rulers.
In the spirit of recognition, it is therefore encouraged to carry out various rituals during Navarātri in honor of Bhumi Devi, for life could not exist without all that she provides.
8) Navarātri is popularly celebrated with a Gujarati folk dance called Garba
Navarātri is customarily celebrated like many festivals observed within Hinduism: with fasting, reflection, meditation, sacrifices, bonfires, and any other appropriate rituals.
But it’s the participatory garba dance of Gujarat that makes the festivities of Navarātri stand out as particularly unique. A vibrant scene of elegant, yet spirited dancers in colorful attire, whirling in synchronized, concentric circles of rhythmic steps to soulful and dynamic drum beats, garba events tend to magnetically draw in participants and viewers, whether they are aware of its deeper symbolic meanings or not.
Derived from the Sanskrit term garbhadeep, with ‘garba’ meaning “womb” and ‘deep’ meaning “clay lamp,” the dance is traditionally performed around a clay lantern, which is seen as representing life and fertility. The light symbol of the Feminine Divine is thus honored by the surrounding circle of dancers, who signify samsara (the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth). The framework of the dance is also said to convey how the Divine is the only constant and unchanging reality in the midst of the ceaselessly shifting material energy. Furthermore, garba can be interpreted as a symbol of the body, emphasizing how all humans have the feminine aspect of the Divine within them.
9) Navarātri is open to all
Though Navarātri is a deeply spiritual festival, specifically about honoring the Feminine Divine, everyone and anyone can participate in whatever capacity best suits them.
More austere worshippers may choose to spend most of the nine days fasting and meditating, while others might pray to a particular murti (image or statue of a deity). Some may partake in the livelier aspects of the holiday, like the garba dance, while some may choose to simply watch. And then there are those who will do all of the above, finding as many different ways to immerse themselves in the spirit of the festival as they can.
Ultimately, Navarātri is about inviting and engaging all of the public in honoring the fiery protective and soft-hearted energy of the Divine. It is also, however, about encouraging everyone to realize this energy is within all of us, and that the world is greatly benefited by us becoming more aware of and appreciative of it.