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Navarātri

NAVARĀTRI

NAVARĀTRI ("nine nights"), also known as Durgotsava ("festival of the goddess Durgā"), is a festival celebrated in India and Nepal at the time of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. The nine nights are followed by a festival known both as Daśarā (or Daśaharā, "destroying the ten [sins]") and as Vijayādaśamī ("victory on the tenth [day]"). Although the festival of the vernal equinox is not celebrated in all regions of India, it appears in modified form in local festivals dedicated to the Goddess. The great autumnal Navarātri, which takes place during the nine nights following the new moon in the lunar month of October-November, is pan-Indian and is regarded as an important rite performed to benefit a variety of aspects of Hindu life (see Kane, 1958, vol. 5, pt. 5, pp. 156157).

The theology and function of the Goddess, particularly of Durgā and of all popular female deities, find expression in the Navarātri (Biardeau, 1981, pp. 142156). Its main textual source is the Devīmāhātmya (Glorification of the Goddess), which is a section of the Mar-kaeya Purāa often extracted and regarded as a text in its own right. According to that text, the demons (asura s) at one time overcame the gods, and Mahiāsura, the Buffalo Demon, took the place of the king of the gods. From the palpable anger of the gods was formed the body of the Goddess, known variously as Mahāmāyā ("great illusion"), Caī ("the cruel"), Durgā ("unattainable"), and by other names. The Goddess, incarnate at the energy (śakti ) of the gods, obtained weapons from the gods and in her various forms fought against the multifarious asura s, whose archetype is Mahia.

When she is regarded as a virgin, as distinct from any male consorts, or as the supreme deity, the Goddess in India is depicted as a fearsome and terrible deity who demands blood sacrifices. From the defeated Buffalo Demon springs a purua, a "man" who when sacrificed becomes a devotee of the Goddess. Navarātri is thus closely associated with sacrificial themes, although in most regions vegetable substitutes now take the place of sacrificial animals in the ritual. The many forms and aspects of the Goddess and of the asura s correspond with the various interests and evils of this earth, for the continuation of which she manifests herself. What is more precisely at stake in the story of the Devīmāhātmya, however, is Mahiāsura's usurpation of the gods' power over the world. Hence it follows that the Goddess's close relationship with the king is a crucial element for the preservation of the Hindu cosmo-social order and for the prosperity of the kingdom as well.

The Navarātri is more complex in some regions of India than in others. In some areas it is primarily a festival marking the growing season. In others, it centers mostly around the worship of a local goddess, who may be thought of as the spouse of an untouchable. It may also be a highly ceremonialized and intricate festival, as in the former princely states, where the king was required to perform the Buffalo Sacrifice.

The main Navarātri ritual consists of installing the Goddess in the home and in the temple throughout the nine nights of the ceremony. In Tamil Nadu the Goddess is seated among many other images in a royal audience and is visited daily by women singing devotional songs; there, the ninth night is consecrated to the worship of Sarasvatī, the goddess of learning, and to āyudhapūjā, the worship of weapons and tools. In other regions young girls are worshiped as embodiments of the virgin Goddess. In Mysore (modern-day Karnataka) and Bastar the nine nights were a time of ascetic practices for the king.

In Bengal, the installation of the Goddess in a royal temple is an elaborate life-giving rite (see Östör, 1980, pp. 71ff.). The night between the eighth and ninth days serves as the climax to the ceremony as a whole. Navaratri is also an important popular festival in which the Bengalis build huge, richly decorated images of the Goddess. These icons of Devī are destroyed during the Vijayādaśamī rites. Large and excited crowds of people (who at times transgress the norms of conduct) parade the many images of the Goddess to bodies of water, where they are immersed.

Vijayādaśamī concerns primarily the katriya caste. In royal states and in Nepal the king performs āyudhapūjā, officiates at parades of soldiers astride horses and elephants, and symbolically conquers the world by throwing arrows to the four directions. Ritually crossing the boundaries, the king goes toward the northeast to perform śamīpūjā, the worship of the śamī tree, traditionally associated with the sacred fire. This appears to be a ritual restatement of an event recounted in the Mahābhārata in which the heroes of the epic retrieve the weapons they had hidden in that tree. Seated in a royal audience, the king receives the renewed allegiance of his subjects. In some regions there are dramatic enactments of the victory of Viu's incarnation as Rāma over Rāvaa, the demon-king of Sri Lanka. In former times, the end of Navarātri, which coincides with the end of the monsoon, marked the time for kings to return to their wars. Moreover, the close association between the asura -slayer, Devī, and the kingdom, which is under her protection, symbolically restores prosperity to everyone in the domain.

See Also

Durgā Hinduism; Hindu Religious Year.

Bibliography

Madeleine Biardeau's L'hindouisme: Anthropologie d'une civilisation (Paris, 1981) gives an accurate idea of the Goddess in the Hindu conceptions. P. V. Kane's History of Dharmaśāstra (Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law ), vol. 5, pt. 1 (Poona, 1958), pp. 154194, remains useful for its textual references. For Navarātri celebrations in Bengal, Ákos Östör's The Play of the Gods: Locality, Ideology, Structure, and Time in the Festivals of a Bengali Town (Chicago, 1980) is the most detailed and interesting study. See also Oscar Lewis's Village Life in Northern India (Urbana, Ill., 1958) and Lawrence A. Babb's The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York, 1975).

Marie-Louise Reiniche (1987)

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