Come the holy month of Ashwin and the earth prepares to welcome Devi Durga yet again. The nine day period post Mahalaya is celebrated as Navratri, literally meaning the nine nights and dedicated to the nine manifestations of the goddess or Navadurga. Though Navratri is observed four times a year, the one during Durga Puja or Sharad Navratri is the most celebrated one, when people observe fast and worship the goddess. The nine forms of the goddess that are worshipped during the nine nights in order are Shailaputri, Bramhacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmandaa, Skandamata, Katyayini, Kalaratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidatri.
Shailaputri , also known as Vrisharudha, Hemavati or Parvati, holds a trishul on the right hand and a lotus on the left. After rigorous penance of some thousand years she convinced Shiva to marry her thus becoming the consort of Shiva and the mother of Kartikeya and Ganesha. In her previous birth she was Sati, who had gone against her father’s wishes and married Shiva. Unable to bear the disrespect shown by her father, Daksh towards Shiva she had immolated herself in the yajna fire before wishing to be born again as the daughter of a father she could respect. As Sati therefore she rejected a father she was unable to respect while as Shailaputri she shows the determination to marry the man of her choice.
Bramhacharini is the pious, austere and celibate form of the Goddess, holdinga ‘jap-mala’ on the right hand and ‘kamandula’ on the left. This form encompasses the goddess doing penance in both her Sati and Parvati manifestations. The penance of Parvati took thousands of years to complete. For the initial one thousand years Bramhacharini was on a diet of only fruits and flowers. For the next hundred years she fed only on leafy vegetables. For the next several thousand years she lived only on bilva leaves or ‘bel patta’. But after that she completely renounced food and thus came to be known as Aparna, meaning leafless or the one who lives without eating even leaves. Bramhacharini displays a strong determination while enduring difficult conditions during tapasya to achieve her desired goal. People pray her to develop the determination of keeping the fast for the nine days of Navaratri.
Chandraghanta gets her name from the crescent shaped mark on her forehead, inverted in the form of a bell (‘Chandra’ means moon and ‘Ghanta’ means bell). Of her ten hands, eight are seen holding weapons or objects like the bow, arrow, sword, trident, mace, lotus, a water pot and japamala. The remaining two are in abhaymudra (to bless) and gyanamudra(to meditate). When Shiva came in his baraat in a ferocious form, the goddess countered her in an equally ferocious form, and took up her usual form only when Shiva took the form of a normal bridegroom on her insistence. Though benevolent Chandraghanta assumes a fierce form and is known as Chamunda or Ranachandi when provoked. Chandraghanta portrays the real power of a woman. A woman can be calm and docile, but when provoked can assume a fierce form.
Kushmandaa‘s name is derived from the words ‘Ku + ushma’ meaning little warmth or energy and ‘anda’ meaning the cosmic egg. The goddess from her divine smile created the universe as a cosmic egg. Her eight hands hold the gada, dhanu, shara, chakra, padma, kamandula, japmala and a jar of amrit. She is seen riding a tiger. Initially there was a void and darkness all over and it was Devi Kushmandaa who created and illuminated the universe out of nothingness. She is therefore also called Adishakti. She is believed to be residing inside the sun and is the ultimate source of light and warmth. Maa Kushmanda is also the creator of Tridev (Bramha, Vishnu and Maheswara) and Tridevi(Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Saraswati). As she is the creator of the universe, the provider of light and warmth that are the entities necessary for the sustenance of the universe and the creator of the creator Bramha himself, she is the ultimate creator. She depicts the power of creation that a woman has and also attests that it was a woman who created the universe.
Skandamata derives her name from Skanda which is another name for Kartikeya. Her one hand is posed to bless while she holds baby Skanda with the other and is so called Skandamata. She rides a lion. Her devotees get the benefits of praying Lord Kartikeya as well. Skandamata is the mother who not only creates her child but gives him the strength and courage to emerge victorious against all evils.
Katyayini is also referred to as Shakti, Chandika, Bhadrakali and Durga. She rides a lion and has four hands. She holds a sword and a lotus in two of her hands while the other two hands are in abhaymudra and varadamudra (to grant boons). There was a saint in the ancient times called Katya who was a great devotee of the goddess Adishakti. He wished that the goddess be born as his daughter. Pleased with his prayers, Adishakti was born as his daughter and came to be known as Katyayini ( Katya’s daughter). Katyayini is also said to be born out of the combined energies of the gods who equipped her with several arms to kill the demon Mahisasura. As Katyayini, while she agrees to be born to a father who desires to have her as his daughter, she also kills Mahisasura and saves the universe from destruction.
Kaalaratri has the complexion of the darkest night, has disheveled hair and four hands. Two of her hands are in abhaymudra and varadamudra while the remaining two hold a vajra(a weapon producing lightning) and a scimitar. She has a necklace of lighting around her neck and rides a donkey. Her eyes emanate fire. As Kaalaratri the goddess is worshipped as a dark complexioned goddess who is the epitome of good luck (therefore also known as Shubhankari), thereby busting the age-old social misconception that unwhite is inauspicious.
Mahagauri gets her name from her extreme white complexion (Maha – great ; Gauri – White). She wears a white saree and rides a white bull. Of her four hands, two are in Abhaymudra and Varadamudra while the other two hold the Trishul and the Damaru. Mahagauri is the epitome of purity and frees her devotees from every suffering in life. She is thus a healer.
Siddhidatri sits on a bloomed lotus and maintains a serene look. ‘Siddhi’ means achievement or enlightenment and ‘Datri’ means ‘giver’. She has four hands holding the mace, discus, conch and lotus. By praying Siddhidatri, lord Shiva got all the eight supernatural powers and also his Ardhanarishwar form (half Shiva and half Shakti). While she provides enlightenment on one hand, by granting Shiva his Ardhanaarsihwar or half-man half-woman form, she legitimizes the existence of the third gender; a community vastly looked down upon by the society even in the twenty first century.
One can take away a lot from the lives of the Navadurga as they portray the real power and strength that a woman possesses. Our goddess is invincible, she is unconquerable. She is aggressive, she is peaceful. She is merciful, she is compassionate. She is the destroyer, she is the creator. In all her forms, her association with the flora and fauna viz. the lion, the bull, the lotus and the conch tells us a lot about the strong bond between humans and mother nature. Since these agents of nature are an inseparable part of our goddess, they must be revered, loved and cared for. She carries arms of all kinds viz. the trishul, the gada, the vajra, the chakra and the dhanu-shara letting the evil know that she is apt in using them if and when the time comes. Her armed form also gives an assurance to her devotees that she will protect them against all evils. Through postures of her hands Abhaymudra and Varadamudra, she blesses and grants boons to those who pray her. She is fierce, she is serene. She is whatever the situation demands.
On the auspicious occasion of Bijaya Dashami, as a society, let us recognize the true capabilities of our women and give them the respect that they truly deserve. Only then will the real essence of Durga Puja or worshipping Matrushakti, be realized.