Navaratri, Dussehra: Hindus hold nine-night festival of feminism, good over evil

temple Navaratri

The Kodungallur Sree Kurumba Bhagavathy Temple, in India, during Navaratri. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 7 and FRIDAY, OCTOBER 15: Hindus launch the nine-night festival known as Sharad Navaratri (English spellings vary; the name often appears without the middle “a”) on October 7, this year—an ancient festival that emphasizes the motherhood of the divine and femininity. Each night during Navaratri, Hindus worship a different form or characteristic of Mother Goddess Durga, who is regarded as being manifested in cosmic energy and power. In general, Sharad Navaratri is the celebration of good over evil, though many aspects of this tradition vary by region in India and around the world.

Did you know? Navaratri in its basic form takes place a number of times during the seasons of each year, but it’s Sharad Navaratri—this festival, at the beginning of autumn—that takes precedence over any other. Sharad Navaratri culminates on a final day known as Dussehra.

Legends related to this observance differ: Some indicate that Shiva gave permission to Durga to visit her mother for nine days, while others describe Durga’s victory following a nine-day battle with the demon Mahishasura. Life-size clay figures depicting this battle are commonly seen in temples during Navaratri. But there is a universal theme to this tradition, too: All Hindus aim for purity, avoiding meat, grains and alcohol—and usually installing a household pot that is kept lit for nine days. Some devotees fast, and others consume only milk and fruit for nine days.

SINGING, DANCING IN THE STREETS

A celebration for Dussehra. Photo courtesy of PxHere

Navaratri brings out community-wide singing and music in India: nighttime dances in the streets combine with bountiful feasts and shrines are elaborately decorated. In Saraswat Brahmin temples, statue figures are adorned with flowers, sandalwood paste and turmeric.

In some regions of India, it’s believed that one should try to envision the divinity in the tools used for daily life—whether books, computers or larger instruments—and decorate them with flowers and other adornments, in hopes of both humbling themselves and bringing auspiciousness upon the items that aid them in livelihood.

FROM NAVARATRI TO DUSSEHRA

The festival of Navaratri culminates in the most celebrated holiday of all nine nights: Dasara (spellings vary). From the Sanskrit words for “remover of bad fate,” today’s Dussehra brings towering effigies to the streets of India, along with a host of ancient rituals and marked traditions. Many Hindus recognize the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana, a demon, during an epic battle over Rama’s wife, Sita. It’s believed that Ravana had 10 heads, and thus, 10 unfavorable qualities are rid from households with elaborate Yanga performances today; the unfavorable qualities include lust, anger, delusion, greed and jealousy.

In many parts of India, towering effigies of Ravana and his brothers are filled with firecrackers and exploded. Commonly met with cheers, the burning effigies are also seen as a cleansing ritual: onlookers are encouraged to burn inner evil and follow the path of righteousness. In northern India, a chariot holding devotees costumed as Lord Rama and Sita rolls down the streets; in southern India, homes are decorated with lamps and flowers.

Did you know? Dussehra is also known as Vijayadashami, the celebration of yet another victory involving goodness over evil: Goddess Durga’s defeat of the demon Mahisasura. According to this legend, Mother Goddess Shakti incarnated in the form of Goddess Durga.

Given the day’s auspiciousness, many Hindu (and non-Hindu) children begin their formal education today. Some devotees purchase new work tools—whether books, computers or farming equipment—and still others pay respect to elders and request their blessings. Families and friends gather for parties and feasting.

Ramayana Week: Epic plays begin as India prepares for Lord Rama’s birthday

Woman statue blue man Lord Rama

A woman with a figure of Lord Rama. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, APRIL 8: Hindus worldwide anticipate the birthday of Lord Rama with Ramayana Week, a period that begins today and recalls the details of Lord Rama’s heroic adventures. Through April 15 (Ramanavami, or Lord Rama’s birthday), Hindus regale the hugely popular tales of Lord Rama through non-stop recitals. The Sanskrit epic that holds these stories—the Ramayana—is studied throughout the week, as Hindus note the significance of the Ramayana and its influence on Indian life and culture. For the most observant Hindus, Ramayana Week is a time of fasting and reflection; for others, fasting is reserved just for Ramanavami.

Lord Rama’s epic was written by Valmiki, one of the first Sanskrit poets. Legend has it that Valmiki was once a robber or hunter who, upon meeting a hermit, was transformed into a virtuous being. His passionate ability to portray the life events of Lord Rama was unmatched, and he met with divine sages to learn what he should write.

The Ramayana is no longer a single text: the epic tale has branched into many versions and renditions over the centuries. The Sanskrit original is said to hold approximately 24,000 verses, and it is as complex as it is long. Yet its dramatic scope rivals the ancient Greek and Roman classics, including a climactic scene in which Rama leads an army of monkeys into battle with an army of demons.

Interested in the Ramayana? We recommend the prose text by famed Indian writer R.K. Narayan. A colleague of Graham Greene, Narayan achieved cross-over success in the West in the middle of the 20th century. In the 1970s, he published his now-classic prose version of the epic. Currently, his version is published by Penguin, titled: The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic.

NEWS: $50 M FILM TO TELL STORY OF RAMAYANA

The story of the Ramayana has been retold through TV series, cartoons and movies countless times, but three young filmmakers are now aiming to bring that story to a new Western audience, as they adapt the epic to English and aim their story at global viewers. (Read more in The Hindu.) News sources report that the movie will be narrated and adapted for both 3D and Imax, using current Hollywood technology for special effects and costing approximately $50 million to produce—nearly twice the amount of most Indian movies. Despite the high budget, the filmmakers cite their biggest challenge as meeting the expectations of both Indian audiences and those abroad.