Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Indian Dolls.

India, the land of mystic, magic and myth.  It's perpetually impossible to talk about India and not have religion in the discussion. After all India is a country of 32 crore gods or maybe more. Crore, for my friends in the US is 10,000.  Does this mean that Hinduism the main religion in India, believes in 320,000 deities. Quite the contrary, Hinduism by itself is mono-theistic, which means it believes in a supreme power and the variety of gods is the imagination or manifestation of the lesser mortals and symbolic of  the different needs of our consciousness. 

The month of October in the US marks the excitement of Halloween, and in India it marks the beginning of the elaborate and extravagant festival season; Navratri, followed by Diwali.  Here's an interesting fact for you, the Indian calendar is a lunar calendar, and according to this calendar, the day before Diwali is called "kali chaudas," which in Hinduism is the day to abolish all evil. And it just happens to be very close to Halloween every year. See any parallels? 

The festival of Navratri marks the beginning of the celebrations.  I grew up celebrating this time of the year, but seven years ago, I decided to be part of it; and went the whole nine yards with fasting and the prayers. This year, the cosmic energies worked differently, they kept 'poking' me to understand the "why" behind it all, and so started this blog post.  When poked its best to log on to Facebook.  They chimed in. For some it was the celebration, for others it was the traditional stories handed down generations, while for others it was a time to view god in their family. All very genuine reasons to celebrate, for celebration is a personal expression of happiness, and is just as unique as the individual. 

What is religion? The standard definition is belief in god, but then we are conveniently excluding the atheist or the one who challenges and dares to question. Most discussions tend to state what religion makes us do; believe in god, follow rituals etc rather than answer the question "what is religion.?" I think it's faith. Faith so profound in something or someone, that it is often blind and illogical. And for that reason, faith begins where logic ends. 

The dilemma on my wall when asked the question was the same. Most stated what they do and enjoy doing during navratri, but not much light was shed on the why of navratri.  I started reading; the more I read, the less clear it was. Such is the nature of religion.  Let us start with the a simple introduction to the potpourri of cultures and religions India embraces. 

Navratri literally translates to "nine nights." Just as India has 32 crore gods, it has 22 nationally recognized languages and is home to 300+ languages. Most of these languages have either an Aryan or Dravidian origin, and interestingly they don't speak each other.  The same is true for religion.  Such is India. It is a 4500+ year old civilization that today is a potpourri of cultures and traditions handed via civilizations that were born there and civilizations that came to conquer it. India embraced them all.

Navratri is celebrated twice in a year, in spring and in the beginning of the winter. While both occasions celebrate Goddess Durga, the celebration in winter is more grandeur maybe because it is followed by a sequel of other festivals.

The mythological stories behind navratri are nothing short of amazing. Feel free to Google and read the different versions, I am going to state two of my favorites here. India has the holy trinity or as Hindu's cal it Trimurti. Brahma is the creator of the Universe, Vishnu is the preserver and Shiva is responsible for change, both as in the form of destroyer of evil or death and also as in the destroyer of ego.  It just so happened that long time ago, amongst all the good and bliss, there lived a demon called Mahishasur. He wanted to be eternal, so he started praying to Lord Shiva, did penance for years, and finally was granted the boon, that no man or god will ever be able to kill him. Upon receiving the boon, his cruelty knew no limits, he conquered Earth and in his blind arrogance then set his eyes on "Indralok," the home of the Gods. The Gods were now worried and as you can imagine were furious at Lord Shiva for granting him such a boon. Shiva is also the angry yogi, the one who meditates and when his mediation is broken, is awakened with rage that has no control.  From his rage came a bright light that merged with the rays from Vishnu and Brahma, to create this beautiful and absolutely amazing woman. Woman, yes, because remember the boon was "no man or god." The woman came to be called, Shakti meaning strength or power.  She possessed the power of all the deity's in the heavenly abode. She had one mission, to save the Universe and destroy Mahishasur and all demons.
Shakti kills the demon king Mahishasur. 

Did she succeed? You bet she did.  Peace was restored into the world.

As I read about this, it was interesting to see how the Gods, all men, created this woman to do the task that they could not. They gave her their strength to save the Earth and the Universe. In a sense, Shakti is the essence of the lords, it is the cosmic energy. She is merciful, knowledgeable, powerful, and bestows her disciples with materialistic grandeur and spiritual freedom.  She sits on a lion and has ten weapons.  Over time Shakti, took nine forms, and every day of Navratri celebrates each manifestation, with the most popular being Goddess Durga. Shakti got the name Durga after she destroyed the demon Durg. From this perspective, not much has changed on Earth, we had demons then, we have demons today. The only difference, Shakti got lost.

The other story is about the lord Prince Ram, who was sent to 14 years of exile in the forest. His wife Sita and brother Laxman followed him. Sita, a reincarnation of Goddess Laxmi was Shakti as in the chaste woman. Ravana a demon was captivated by her pious beauty and decides to kidnap her. He succeeds and so starts a war between Ram and Ravana. The war they say lasts nine days, and Ram prayed to Shakti for victory. Shakti grants him the wish and Navratri celebrates the nine days of war that led to the Dusshera, the day when Ravana was killed.  Dusshera is followed by Diwali which is celebration of Lord Ram returning home after the exile.

The assassination of Mahishasur happened eras before Ram came into the picture. In modern day calendar, same months and dates but they are centuries apart. Irrespective of the dates the point is, every time it was the woman who was worshipped.  So rightfully, Navratri has come to be as the celebration for women. It is mythological India's feminism. It celebrates all forms of Shakti, the beautiful one and the scary Kali too, thus telling us women that irrespective of what the world says, YOU are beautiful in your own special way. Every woman has a quality that the other does not have, and when we unite, we are a Shakti that can change the world.

The Nine forms of Shakti
As Bhavani, you give birth for if there was no "garbha" or womb, there would be no world.  As Parvati, you stand next to your consort through all times, as Annapurna you feed your family before feeding yourself, as Saraswati you teach your kids the value of knowledge, as Kali you fiercely protect all you love, as Laxmi you use the wealth wisely, as Sati and Sita you prove your loyalty in every era. 

The second element of Navratri is fasting. The women fast. As religions evolved so did the strictness of the fast, with the underlying element being developing good eating habits. Most Hindu fasts focus on fruits and nuts, thus emphasizing the importance of eating healthy.

Tomorrow or Friday, the 11th of October, 2013 is the seventh day of the fast.  The 8th day of navratri (Asthami) is my favorite. A very special and sweet ceremony called "kanya pooja" or Kanjak is performed.  Kanya translates to girl and Pooja to prayer. So its a day when we invite the little princesses and dolls to our humble homes for they are the purest forms of  Shakti. We welcome them by washing their feet, adorn them with a tilak and offer them food untouched by anyone. Its only after the "kanya's" eat, that the adults can eat. We then bid farewell to all the Shakti's with a gift symbolizing our gratefulness that the goddesses came to bless us.  In essence, the prayers of Kanjak are a way to remind us women to recognize the strength of our own being from the time we are born.  Having girl friends is very important :) ! 

This navratri, let the Indian dolls remember; 

"... to be the heroine of their life, and not the victim." Nora Ephron


I cannot end this post, without showing you a glimpse of the navratri celebrations in the Indian state of Gujarat.  Enjoy! The sheer numbers are nothing like you have seen in the US. It looks crazy, but trust me there is a beautiful method to the madness here.

A Glimpse of Navratri celebrations in Gujarat.


  1. Nice to read about our religion - Hinduism or should I say way of life!!! Yes for me Hinduism is way of life....and all our God and goddess symbolise our state of mind, actions and reactions. Believing in religionis bbelieving in ourselves.
    Hinduism talks of winning over evil..nd so does other religions too... All religions eventually try show path of eternal peace and so attain moksha!!! But in the journey have to win over evils and Navratri symbolises the evils prevailing within us.
    Navratri festival of goddess is form of shakti...if one observes Hinduism closely would see vital role of woman for the cause of evil destruction... And is worshiped in many forms..But still wonder why still a family gets upset on the news of baby girl..why do they destroy life before its birth!!!