Female Goddesses and their Battles with Demons

Smita Rajput Kamble explores the psychic processes that underline the Hindu festival of Navratri (nine nights), which falls between October 17-27 this year. Mythical gods and goddesses fight demons and good overcomes evil, but does it, really? October 2020.

Garba dance during Navratri

Navratri (nine nights), a Hindu festival, will occur this year between 17th and 27 October, according to the lunar calendar. The mythical Hindu goddess Parvati, in her avatar as goddess Durga, will battle with Mahishasura (buffalo headed demon).  This year it will be quiet due to COVID.  During Navratri, Indian women fast during the day, dance the garba in mandala type formations in the night around the revolving images of the divine feminine goddess, Parvati, Shiva’s consort. The revolving images are her various roles- for eg, as a domestic serene goddess Laxmi, her feet on a lotus, as Saraswati, the goddess of music and education. In some interpretations, Durga becomes Kali, depicted by a lolling tongue, partial nudity and skulls around her neck.

Parvati represents female Shakti (strength, power). As the fasting, prayers and circular dancing go on, an intensity develops- a shakti making process for the fasting women.  As the ninth day draws near, the crescendo that has built up climaxes in a great communal all night festival. The music and the drums become louder, the dancing around the goddesses’ revolving avatars becomes more manic and on the last night, the ninth one, the dancing goes on almost all night. This nine night build up mimics the mythical ferocious battle between the goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura over nine days and nights. Like cheerleaders who keep their heroes going, the dancing of today is meant to cheer the mythical goddess from the past in her terrible battle. 

Parvati, demure and domestic, has transformed into a fierce Durga, riding a tiger.  The sweet smile of Parvati, her feet on the lotus disappear and weapons appear in the various hands of the mighty goddess, representing shakti, in a feminine form. Her eyes widen and become fierce and she rides a tiger, depicting strength and power. The dancing men and women show their awe and support by celebrating these changes. They anoint her statue, dress her up beautifully bedecked with sari and jewels and carry her in a procession.

Burning Ravana during Ramlila celebrations

The nine days also represent the battle between Rama, avatar of Vishnu, the mythical Hindu god of sustenance and the ten headed demon king Ravana, who had kidnapped Sita, Rama’s wife. Each night of the Navratri, in this story, one of Ravana’s heads is destroyed. On the tenth day, celebrations take place for the final tenth head being set on fire with the help of a burning arrow on open maidans (grounds) in India-where Ravana is a larger than life puppet full of fireworks. 

Navratri depicts the conflict of good over evil. The whipping up of fervour against evil forces and their release on the tenth day is a cathartic annual festivity for Hindu communities.  This can be understood as a form of splitting and fragmentation, the idealisation of gods and the denigration of demons, which also has the function of catharsis. Communities all over the world split off bad from good and build temples for the good. A large section of the East has an underlay of Hinduism in their culture- as far as Indonesia,  Indian epics are played out in shadow puppetry. Souvenir shops will have Ram and Shinta or Sita along with lord Krishna and Arjun, from the Mahabharata. 

Durga procession

However, India is now known by the unsavoury female foeticide and crimes against women. The split between crimes against women in India by so called ordinary men (not registered criminals but family members and community)  and the celebration of the mythological greatness of a female goddess is apparent. Against the backdrop of crime, a goddess, in ornate garb, is carried in a great procession on a day in the year, making a good visual. Is this act, of giving the embattled goddess an ornate garb, to celebrate her victory over evil an unconscious acceptance of life, as is? Does the culture demonstrate an implicit understanding and acceptance of aggression and the role of the woman in society, to contain it and become transformed herself in this process? Durga must use aggression and change avatars. The terrible avatar of Kali depicts what destructive aggression can do to the self. 

Few civilisations have kept their mythological past alive in the way India has. Why does Indian ideology  prevail over later Islamic and Christian invasions and ideologies? The Indian social consciousness seems to reside in a mythological ether which provides a soothing quality to the collective. The Hindu calendar is so full of auspicious and inauspicious days, festivals and observances that there is no time for any other kind of life and in fact, no other life seems quite so interesting-full of mantras, abstinence and celebration.  A conversation in India among non westernised Indians can revolve around discussing gods, mantras, rituals, fasting and daily and weekly penances and observations. Interpretations are almost as many as the hundreds of gods. Important festivals punctuate the lunar calendar and the day to day rituals and routine govern the psychic world of the Hindu, following a mystic lunar path.  There are solutions in the Hindu Vedas and Puranas and Upanishads (holy books) for every problem-economic, physical, mental and spiritual. The guruji or the astrologer has more power than the modern counsellor with his/her mystic understanding of the scriptures and therefore, progress into articulation and development as one knows it in the West, is slow, or may happen in a different way or not at all, as one expected it to. 

Man blessed by monkey

To the outsider to India, the sight of an Indian folding his hands in prayer infront of a monkey would appear strange but it is a true depiction of how mythology is almost real here. The monkey represents Lord Hanuman, the god of the monkeys. A Hanuman chalisa (forty verses) recital is known to give tremendous power to the person who recites it and this idea is connected with feeling empowered and overcoming troubles. 

There is also complexity in the understanding of good and evil. In Hindu mythology, a demon can fast and observe penances and receive divine powers from the gods. For eg, Ravana, the villain in the Ramayan, was blessed by Shiva. An old belief system such as Hinduism has many layers.

Underprivileged women protesting rape

Mythical belief creates a sense of fatality and acceptance, that spiritual feeling India is famous for. Durga remains on her pedestal, ornate, while the disadvantaged Indian woman in her torn sari and jewel-less state, bears the brunt of the split between power and its lack. There is progress to be seen for the disempowered Parvatis of India -activists and NGOs backed by corporate social responsibility and philanthropists -but not fast enough for some. Maybe Navratri should become a reminder for us of the mammoth task at hand of empowering disadvantaged women and a salute to the real Durgas, tireless activists and NGOs, who work towards this goal with little financial capital or ornate finery. 

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