STRENGTH, LOVE & WISDOM:SYMBOLISM OF THE DIVINE MOTHER
We are coming into a very special time of year, with the approach of Autumn and of Navaratri, the Festival of the Divine Mother. This festival provides a sacred space for reflection, worship, chanting of devotional songs and hymns, and readings from Devi Mahatmyam, the epic story of the Divine Mother.
Navaratri means “nine nights,” during which we honor the different manifestations of the Divine Mother through Puja, or ritual worship. In celebrating at Devi’s different aspects, we see how She helps us transform our lives, and as we explore the stories and symbolism of the Divine Mother, we realize the universal power of unconditional love. This festival itself reflects the stages of spiritual transformation: Purification, with three nights of worship of Durga; Cultivation of Virtues, with three nights of worship of Lakshmi; and the Dawn of Wisdom, with three nights of worship of Saraswati. On the tenth morning, we celebrate Vijaya Dasami, the Day of Victory, which marks our triumph over delusion and attachment through the attainment of Viveka (discrimination) and Vairagya (dispassion), and Saraswati blesses us with the wisdom that destroys delusion and gives Self-knowledge.
“Outwardly, the nine-day worship of Devi is a celebration of triumph. This nine days’ celebration is offered to the Mother for Her successful struggle with the formidable demons led by Mahishasura. But, to the sincere spiritual aspirant, the particular division of the Navaratri into sets of three days to adore different aspects of the Supreme Goddess has a very sublime, yet thoroughly practical truth to reveal. In its cosmic aspect, it epitomises the stages of the evolution of man into God, from Jivahood (the state of individualisation) to Shivahood (the state of Self-realisation). In its individual import, it shows the course that his spiritual practice should take.” –Swami Sivananda, from “Durga Puja or Navaratri” (read more from Swami Sivananda on the Significance of Navaratri).
Puja is a traditional Hindu worship ceremony, much like inviting a special guest to your home and making him or her welcome. The practice of outer worship invokes divine energy and reminds us that we too are divine in essence, that although we each have different names and forms, the same one Self, pure consciousness, or divine spirit pervades all, and we experience unity in diversity. We remember this through worship and stories of different divine manifestations, which brings out the divine qualities in us. Puja starts with the offering of incense and an invocation, inviting divine energy into the murti (“embodiment”). There is a purification of the inner and outer environment, which the pujari does symbolically on the behalf of all in attendance. This is followed by bathing and dressing the murti and offering powders, mantras, flowers, food, and light. All five elements of nature (earth, water, fire, air, and ether) are used in worship; this is our offering, and in the act of offering, we are refreshed, renewed, and recharged from the physical level to the subtle level. The experience of puja, regardless of whether we understand it or feel we are of a devotional nature, changes our energy level, uplifts us, and inspires us.
Devi Mahatmyam is the epic story of the Divine Mother’s battles and triumphs over terrible demons. Like Bhagavad Gita, it is an allegory of our inner and outer experience as we battle our own demons: lust, anger, greed, delusion, pride, and jealousy. It demonstrates the aspirant’s journey of spiritual transformation from the experience of limitation and sorrow to the blissful experience of infinite pure consciousness:
- Overcoming fear and negativity, we wake up out of Tamas (inertia). In the story, the Divine Mother as Durga defeats demons who in their arrogance and lust for power were trying to disrupt the process of cosmic creation. Thus the Divine Mother restores cosmic order over Tamasic forces of sleep and delusion.
- Cultivating virtues, we are able to calm Rajas (restlessness). This is demonstrated by the victory over Mahishasura, the buffalo demon who can change forms, which makes him extremely difficult to defeat and can be understood to represent our ego. Thus the Divine Mother as Lakshmi restores the world order over the Rajasic forces of selfishness, greed, and anger.
- Realizing unconditional love as the force behind all creation, we learn to see things as they are through Sattva (purity). This is demonstrated by the final battles with a demon who multiplies like our desires and those who want to possess all beauty and achieve all attainments. Thus the Divine Mother as Saraswati guides us to victory over even our Sattvic attachments and blesses us with Viveka (discrimination) and Vairagya (dispassion) to overcome delusion and to experience Self-knowledge.
Some Symbolism of Mother Durga
Durga’s divine instruments guide us to our own inner resources to overcome fear and negative habits, to rise above inertia and restlessness, to embrace the purpose of life, and to realize the highest bliss and wisdom.
- Usually depicted with either eight or ten arms, Durga protects devotees from all directions.
- She has three eyes: the left eye represents the moon (Iccha-Shakti, the power of willing); the right eye represents the sun (Kriya-Shakti, the power of acting), and the central eye represents fire (Jnana-Shakti, the power of knowing).
- She rides a lion or a tiger, which represents power, will, and determination. Devi gives us grace to gain mastery with these qualities, which we need to defeat the demon of egoism.
- Durga’s lower right hand is in Abhaya Mudra, the gesture of fearlessness, giving us Her blessing.
- She carries a mace or club, giving Her the power to defeat all enemies (vices) and giving us the grace to realize the power of self-control, loyalty, and love.
- The sword symbolizes Viveka (discrimination), which cuts through delusion and makes way for Vedantic inquiry and Self-knowledge.
- The Sudarshana Chakra is the disc that spins around the Mother’s index finger, showing that all the forces of nature are at Her command. It symbolizes righteousness or dharma, destroys our delusion and negative tendencies, and protects righteousness.
- The conch shell in Durga’s hand symbolizes the mystic sound Om.
- The bow and arrows represent energy. By holding both the bow and arrows in one hand, Durga has control over both potential and kinetic energy.
- Durga’s trishula, or trident, is a symbol of transcendence over the three Gunas, or qualities of nature – Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas – and over the three types of miseries – physical, mental, and spiritual.
- She holds a lotus in one hand. One Sanskrit word for lotus is “pankajam,” which means “born of mud” and stands for the aspirant’s transcendence of the worldly mud of lust and greed.
Join us at the Yoga Ranch for the celebration of Navaratri, which runs from Thursday, September 21, through Friday, September 29. (Learn more).
May the Divine Mother bless, protect, and guide us all on the path of goodness. Om Tat Sat Durgarpanamastu.