Navaratri Stories told at Wesleyan University Puja by Dr. A.V. Srinivasan
It has been our pleasure and privilege to participate in the Navaratri festival at Wesleyan for over a quarter century. Professor Tanjore Viswanathan’s vision helped establish this rich tradition which used to be unique but in the recent past here in Connecticut Yale conducts not only Navaratri but also Deepavali, Holy and other festivals under the direction of my daughter Dr. Asha Shipman. The strength of that vision is visible as we see friends, family and most specially the former students of Viswa and Ranga organize, lead and conduct Navaratri here with flawless precision.
Navaratri worships through music and dance gods and goddesses, in particular Durga Devi and concludes with this formal worship of the goddess of learning Saraswati in her own temple here at Wesleyan.
The tradition here is for the students to set up and decorate the altar with pictures, images, flowers, fruits, lamps and ritual offerings. Musical instruments, books, manuscripts and other aids in learning music are laid out near the altar to receive Saraswati’s blessings. Instructors impart a brief “first lesson” to their students following the puja in the sacred space to usher a new and auspicious beginning.
The Story of Durga
A unique feature of Hinduism is, of course, worship of Gods and Goddesses. For example, Mahalakshmi, Saraswati, Seeta, Radha and a host of goddesses continue to be worshipped by millions of Hindus around the world. Earth is worshipped as Bhoomi Maata, Mother Earth. The aspect of Mother and the associated reverence, love, compassion, and respect are clearly implied in these worships. The female form of Godhead is generally accepted to represent a consort
supportive of the Lord, be it Brahma, Vishnu or Maheshwara. But the female form is also associated with shakti, i.e. awesome strength and power. In this context Durga Devi is the goddess who personifies the shakti aspect in all its implied destructive power. The mission of Durga is primary and not supportive and this uniqueness required Her to be powerful, even frightening at times, with an unusual spirit to fight fiercely in order to restore dharma. Also, Durga is at once a terrifying shaktimaata to Her adversaries but She is a karunaamayi as well, full of compassion and love to Her devotees.
Again the manner in which the manifestation of Durga came about is unlike that of other goddesses. When the demon Mahisha Asura conquered the heavens and drove Indra (Lord of Gods) out of his kingdom, the gods feared for their safety and began to descend to earth. It was then that Brahma and Shiva could not bear this assault on dharma anymore. They, along with many gods and demigods visited Mahavishnu and conveyed the news of Mahisha’s onslaught and the resulting lack of balance between forces of good and those of evil. The recounting of the events angered the assembled gods so much that bolts of light began to issue from their bodies. It is the fusion of these lights that gave birth to a feminine form known as Durga with immense power. It is said that each part of the devi was formed from lights issuing from individual gods. For example, Her face came into being by Shiva’s light, Her hair from Yama’s light, Her arms from Vishnu’s light, Her feet from Brahma’s light and so on! In addition the devas offered Her a variety of weaponry: trident from Shiva, discus from Vishnu, conch from Varuna, a spear from Agni, a bow and quiver full of arrows from Vayu, a thunderbolt from Indra, a noose from Yama, to name just a few of the weapons.
Armed thus, the Devi roared with anger and the Three Worlds shook. There ensued a fierce battle between Her and the asura forces of Mahisha. Thousands of the asuras were slain in the gruesome battle and the enormous loss of his army brought forth Mahisha himself to the battlefield. He had supreme confidence that he would never die in battle because he had, through his own penance, received a boon from the Gods that no man could kill him ever. He was immensely satisfied with that boon because he never thought to ask for a boon that included freedom from death at the hands of a woman! Clearly Mahisha had not read the Manusmrti where Manu declares yatra naryastuu pujyante ramante tatra devata: meaning Gods delight where women are honored. Mahisha assumed several animal forms to try and attack Durga but finally Durga slays Mahisha by stomping over him and driving a trident through his heart. Thus ended the saga of Mahisha which restored dharma and returned the Three Worlds to a life of normalcy in which gods can once again wield power to protect their devotees and prevent serious disturbances leading to an unacceptable level of imbalance between good and evil.
Durga is visualized as a beautiful and powerful female divinity riding a tiger or lion and fully armed in all Her many hands. Festivals to celebrate Durga each year emphasize Hindus’ recognition of the need for strength to protect dharma as an indispensable tool of life. Worshipping Durga is a popular Hindu practice that celebrates female divinity, endowed at once with strength as well as compassion, and seeks Her grace and blessings.
The Story of Saraswati
There isn’t a Hindu student who has not been encouraged to offer prayer to Goddess Saraswati especially during the school/college term. Goddess Saraswati is the consort of Brahma, the creator, and is worshipped as the Goddess of learning, wisdom, speech and music. Saraswati is worshipped regularly in the Fall during Navaratri. Hindus of Bengali tradition worship Her during the Spring season.
The literal meaning of the word Saraswati is “the Flowing-One” which refers to the flow of speech and thought. The word also refers to the ancient river of the same name and the unique civilization attributed to it: the Saraswati River Civilization dating back to 4000-6000 BCE i.e. prior to the Indus Valley Civilization. The river is reputed to have dried up long ago, but at Prayag, a famous place of pilgrimage at the confluence of holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, Saraswati is considered to flow “underground.” In every Hindu ritual Saraswati is invoked as one of the seven sacred waters for use during the ceremonies.
The familiar visualization Hindus have of Saraswati is that of a beautiful, graceful Devi, who exemplifies serenity and wisdom. She is pictured as a four-armed goddess, riding a swan or peacock, and holding a veena (lute) with two of Her hands, a pearl rosary in one hand and a manuscript in the fourth hand. During Navaratri, it is an ancient practice of Hindus to place musical instruments, books and other accessories of learning in front of the Devi during worship. This practice is still in vogue especially with music teachers, who upon completion of the worship, give a lesson to the assembled students symbolizing an annual, auspicious renewal of studies.
In the Hindu practice of praying upon first waking up in the morning, the shloka recited includes Saraswati as described below:
Karagre vasate Lakshmi karamadhye Saraswati
Karamule tu Govindaha prabhate karadarshanam
At the tip of hands resides Lakshmi and at the center Saraswati
And at the base resides Govinda. Thus we should
view our palms in the morning.
Festivals to celebrate Saraswati each year, whether in autumn or in Springtime, emphasize Hindus’ recognition of the need to acquire jnana (wisdom) as an indispensable tool of life. In fact, it is significant that the very first stanza in the great epic, the Mahabharata, is an invocation to Saraswati as described below:
Narayanam namaskrtya naram chaiva narottamam
Devim saraswatim chaiva tato jayamudirayet
Upon saluting Narayana and Goddess Saraswati,
as well as the noblest of men, Arjuna, shall one undertake the study.
It is therefore appropriate to offer prayer to Saraswati before beginning any intellectual pursuit. Thus worship of Saraswati by anyone, at any age, is a popular Hindu practice and is aimed at acquisition of knowledge through Her grace and blessings.