By Shashank Rao, active Sadhana member. Originally published on Medium
Starting September 29, the Hindu festival of Navarātri will begin and last till October 8. It is a time of celebration as well as of reflection for Hindus across the world. The story of Navarātri (“nine nights”) is commonly told as the story of Durgā, a fierce incarnation of Pārvati (the wife of Śiva), and how She defeated the buffalo demon Mahiśāsura.
Yet the story of Durgā is in fact only one episode in the greater saga of Śakti, the divine feminine in Hindu traditions. The story begins not with Durgā or Pārvati, but Sati, the daughter of Dakṣa.
The Story of Sati
Sati is the incarnation of Śakti, or specifically Ādi Paraśakti (“the primeval, supreme force”), who takes birth as the daughter of Dakṣa in order to coax Śiva into marrying.
Sati falls in love with Śiva, and after a number of austerities and developing her meditative prowess, Śiva is impressed by her dedication and recognizes her as an equal. However, Dakṣa refuses to approve of the marriage because Śiva sleeps at a cremation ground, wears a garland of skulls, is covered in ash and keeps the company of ghosts and spirits. He openly chastises Sati for choosing such a man as her husband, yet she pleads with him that she be allowed to find a husband of her own choosing, whoever he may be.
Dakṣa still does not give in, and says that he will never see Śiva as his son-in-law. Sati is deeply wounded, but decides to leave her father’s palace to live with Śiva on Mount Kailāśa. When a yearly yajña (sacrificial ritual) comes around, Śiva tells her that he will not attend because he is not welcome. Sati goes alone to get her father to recognize Śiva, but instead is humiliated by her father in front of all the participants of the yajña and Dakṣa proceeds to disown her. Overcome with grief and anger at her situation, Sati proceeds to immolate herself in the fire of the sacrifice to rid herself of all mortal attachments. In act of protest, Sati declares that when she is born again, she will be born to a father whom she can respect, invoking the Goddess Ādi Paraśakti.
The Navadurgā as Sacred Process
When Sati died, she invoked the Supreme Goddess to realize her wish to be with Śiva on her own terms and to be free from an oppressive patriarchy. In doing so, it is believed that she realized her oneness with Śakti, and so was able to freely take nine different incarnations, each of which symbolize different aspects of the divine.
For the lay devotee, Sati’s abandoning of social norms and freely pursuing her own relationships without regard for the approval of others is significant (quite literally, लोग क्या कहेंगे - “what will people say?”). The path to mokṣa (liberation), especially as envisioned in the Tantric tradition, requires a willingness to subvert and to abandon social conventions to acquire true insight into the ātman (self) and embracing of the divine as supreme self. There is naught but Devi and all creation emanates from Her.
Yet this is all a process; it is difficult to simply abandon the societies which we know and sometimes the families and friends whom we hold dear. Insight requires growth, and growth requires patience to go through many stages of life. The nine manifestations of Durgā or Śakti serve to illustrate the process, and help us understand the connection between ourselves, our communities, and our world. Each stage in the process is one that we continually refine, return to and pass through on the journey to liberation.
The first incarnation of Śakti is Śailaputri (“daughter of the mountain”), and another name for Pārvati. Śailaputri is the first time Sati is reborn as Devi and the stage where Devi asserts herself as the source of all creation as Ādi Paraśakti. Self-awareness is the first step to liberation.
As Brahmacārini, Devi undertakes austerities and learns from a guru to develop her awareness of intrinsic worthiness and equality. As a result, Devi marries Śiva freely, symbolizing the need for an environment with meaningful choices and ability to negotiate life on one’s own terms. It is especially significant that Devi as a goddess undertakes the vow of brahmacārya, or vow of chastity and austerity, which is often restricted to men today.
The third form of Devi is Caṃdraghaṃṭa, in which Devi’s newly gained insight allows her to more clearly identify suffering in the world and around Her. Emerging from the ascetic vows of brahmacārya, Devi realizes that she must encourage her husband to initiate a process of transformation. Even as she cares about Śiva, his ghastly appearance as a lord of ghosts frightens the world, and entreats him to take on a more pleasing form. This process represents the way in which the seeker engages others in their liberating efforts in thoughtful ways.
Kuṣṃāṃḍa is Devi’s creative aspect, in which she creates the entire universe from herself anew. In doing so, she is never depleted or exhausted because she is the infinite origin of all creation. Kuṣṃāṃḍa’s act of self-initiated creation can also be viewed as transforming one’s world view in light of new insight, and thereby working to share in the truth with others at the same time.
As Skaṃdamāta, Devi’s first child, Skaṃda (or Kārtikeya) is seated on her lap. As the Divine Mother, Devi’s ferocity and power is not superseded by compassion, but rather they coexist in a balance. The pursuit of the Self is selfless, not self-centered; the seeker knows that all life and creation is linked to them in the embrace of Devi.
As Kātyāyani, or her most common name: Durgā, she slays the demon Mahiśāsura. This form of the goddess prevails over injustice and inspires the devotee to use their wisdom and their journey for the greater benefit, for the enlightened see themselves in all things. By defeating Mahiśāsura, a shape shifter, we are able to see how the unchanging Parashakti is never defeated and is merely obscured by transient appearances. This teaches us the ability to surpass any and all obstacles, and even when things are bleak, there is always hope and redemption through wisdom and action to do good.
As Kālārātri, or Kāli Mā, Devi embodies righteous self-sacrifice and responsibility to the greater good, to recognize ignorance and drive it out. She swallows the blood of Raktabīja, knowing that it is harmful to herself, in order to eventually defeat him. Driven into a craze by the blood, she unleashes her terrifying dance that shakes the cosmos, but does not lose herself in the process. From the story of Kāli Mā, we also learn that the process of self-exploration can be destructive and fearsome, yet it does not destroy the ātman. The spiritually intense process of liberation requires us to abandon selfish motives and to peer into our deepest anguish in order to emerge victorious.
The eighth incarnation of Devi, Mahāgauri is a teacher and guru, spreading her wisdom to her devotees. She embodies forgiveness to those who have committed crimes and are willing to repent through honest work and a commitment to the pursuit of true knowledge. The Goddess, once a student and seeker, is now the teacher. Devi has shared in our suffering and offers guidance to her devotees through her own experience. Here, she teaches us the value of being of value to our community through giving back, teaching others to be better versions of themselves and overcome all forms of suffering.
In her final and ninth form, Devi is Siddhidātri, the “bestower of miracles”. Devi knows Herself as identical with the One, equal to Shiva and untethered by earthly suffering. She does not rule over us or teach us, but lives among us and pervades our lives. As a person, Siddhidatri is one who lives in the community as a positive influence on our lives and is able to fill all the roles that she has done before. The difference now is that she is truly at peace and is unafraid of worldly suffering, and leads us who are yet unlearned to liberation. Thus she grants our wishes and leads us from suffering and untruth to the Ultimate Reality that is Devi Herself.
Learning from the Navadurgā
The nine forms of Devi are correlated not only to the nine nights of fighting Mahiśāsura, but also the nine Tantric cakras. In the Tantric tradition, each incarnation is linked to a cakra, which are important nodes along the body that are part of an interconnected system of energy and spiritual experience. The conceptualization of the nine Devis as each cakra culminates in the revelation of a tenth form, Ādi Paraśakti, who is in reality all nine forms in one. The process theology presented here is both a meaningful spiritual framework for one’s personal growth, as well as linking social justice with Hindu faith concepts.
The fact that Devi is female can be interpreted as a radical expression of agency in a patriarchal society, and may be a useful tool to articulate a Hindu feminist ethic. Though Śiva is an important character in the beginning of the story, Devi’s journey through the nine cakras and her various identities is deeply personal and her relationship with Śiva does not preclude this process. Seeing Hindu goddesses is not enough to inspire a Hindu feminism, but an active reflection on Devi’s importance in our lives is a first step.
Too often, male deities are presented as the default, yet the scripture is unequivocal in declaring that divinity is ungendered. Parabrahman is all-encompassing and cannot be bounded up in a simple binary that is notional at best and extremely restrictive at worst.
Devi shows us that we must break the chains of social norms and be critically reflective on the way societal roles are constructed. Devi Herself has plural identities, yet we recognize her as the One, Changeless Divinity. The ways in which our society restricts people’s identities, actions, and beliefs on the basis of gender and other socially constructed categories are rejected by Devi who herself is immanent in all creation and also the transcendent cause of creation.
Emerging from insight of non-duality, interconnectedness, and an infinitely plural divinity latent in all creation is the means to liberation. It is by these principles we are moved to have faith in Devi in her many forms, and so remember her during Navarātri and at all times.
During this Navarātri, wish all your friends and family the best in the pursuit of knowledge and fulfillment. Let us encourage each other to live beyond the limits set by parochial norms and ignorance, that fog which shrouds the self-luminous ātman. Let us remember that the seeking of liberation is a process of continuous learning and insight, and let us be kind to ourselves and to others in untying the knots of grief.