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Durga Saptashati: How a centuries-old epic shaped the spiritual backbone of Navratri

 

Navratri (nine nights) is a festival that honours the indomitable Divine Feminine. (The three most commonly known and revered forms being Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati).

There are four navratis (1) during the course of a year; the most popular and widespread of these is the Ashwin Navratri which usually comes in the months of September/October and is synonymous with the worship of Maa Durga (2), as she is fondly called. Chaitra Navratri, which occurs in the months of March/April, is also observed by many devotees and marks the beginning of the new year in many regions of India.

From Ghatastaphana to Kumari Puja, from Durga Puja to golu (only during Ashwin Navrtri), from fasting and praying to garba, from yajnas and homams to planting saplings, the diversity of Navratri celebrations are a colourful kaleidoscope intended to harmonise both body and soul with the cosmos.

One of the integral parts of this festival is the recitation of a centuries-old text called the Durga Saptashati or the Devi Mahatamya. It is among the loftiest of puranic compositions and is a part of the Markandeya Purana (one of the oldest 18 mahapuranas). The Durga Saptashati is also popularly referred to as the Chandi Patha or the Chandi.

The Saptashati (700 verses) has withstood the test of centuries (3) and is as relevant today as it was at the time of its composition, when it was probably an attempt to synthesise and crystallise millennia-old traditions of goddess worship (4) in India. It can be stated with conviction that it drew upon many well-known myths in wide circulation at that time. The Saptashati is probably the oldest extant text in the world devoted entirely to a fiercely independent goddess who is also The Supreme Being — The Ultimate Godhead — The Divine Feminine.

The Goddess Durga as we know her today has been shaped to a large extent by this text. The biggest achievements of the Saptashati are probably its contribution to the arts and iconography of the goddess and its elucidation of the basic tenets of spiritual thought in a narrative form, thus making the tenets accessible and comprehensible to the common devotee.

In addition, it also serves as a basic text for re-evaluating and recasting gender equations in contemporary Indian and global social orders given that the composer(s) seem to have anticipated modern women empowerment issues millennia ago or maybe the times have changed but the debate hasn’t!

In a three part series, we propose to revisit the text within the following framework:

Part I – Summary of the Saptashati’s Narrative
Part II – Key Takeaways from the Saptashati for Contemporary Times
Part III – Re-imagining Kumari Puja in Households

Part I: The Durga Saptashati – A Brief Summary

The Saptashati can roughly be divided into three main episodes (referred to ascharitras) over its 13 chapters and a frame narrative to weave the three episodes together (5). It speaks of a king named Suratha and a merchant named Samadhi who meet while seeking refuge in the hermitage of Rishi(sage) Medha. A string of misfortunes had struck both of them and they had been deceived by their kin. Befuddled by their own circumstance and attachments to their lost possessions, they approached Rishi Medha for advice. The rishi explained to them that they, like the universe, were controlled by the great goddess Bhagwati Mahamaya (6). He proceeded to extol her major exploits in the text’s three episodes.

The first episode (7) narrates the myth of the asuras (demons) Madhu and Kaitạbha who threatened Brahma. Brahma prayed to Goddess Yoganidra (deep sleep induced by yoga), who was residing in Vishnu’s eyes, beseeching her to confuse the demons and awaken Vishnu to slay the demons. Propitiated by his prayers, DeviMahamaya (Yoganidra) did as requested. Vishnu woke up from his yogic slumber and killed the demons, thus saving the world and also setting in motion the cycle of creation.

The second episode (8) of the text is devoted to the Devi’s most celebrated form — Mahishasurmadini. In ancient times, the devatas led by Indra fought against the demons led by Mahisha (buffalo in Sanskrit — vehicle of Yama, the god of death). The gods were defeated and Mahisha usurped Indra’s powers to become Indra himself. Mahisha ruled over all realms of the universe.

The defeated gods then approached Vishnu and Shiva for help, who were angered by the news. Radiant energy (tejas) emanated from the faces ofVishnu, Shiva and Brahma, and from the bodies of Indra and other gods. This dazzling energy coalesced into a whole and expanded to fill the universe. The incomparable brilliant energy transformed into a feminine form — the goddessShakti. Shakti laughed so loudly that the worlds trembled and the oceans started churning on their own.

Attracted by this loud sound, Mahisha’s demon army engaged with her in a battle which is described in vivid detail. She destroyed the demon army, wreaking havoc with her weapons, the aid of her troops (ganas created by her) and her vahana (vehicle) — the majestic lion.

Upon witnessing the defeat of his generals and army, Mahisha assumed the form of a buffalo and attacked the goddess’ troops. A bitter and gory battle ensued. The battle climaxed in a duel between the agile warrior goddess and the fearless Mahisha. She leapt upon him, pressed him with her foot, and struck his throat with her spear. As the demon came halfway out of his own buffalo mouth, still fighting, the goddess beheaded him, thus earning the laudatory title of Mahishasurmardini (she who killed Mahisha). The devatas, led by Indra, rejoiced and praised her with a hymn.

The Saptashati then progresses to the third episode (9), which recounts the ascent to power of the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha. As usual, they displaced Indra and the other devatas from their heavenly positions and usurped their power. The goddess had promised the gods that she would reappear/reincarnate whenever they were in trouble and save them. Remembering her promise, the devatas went to the Himalayas to appease Goddess Parvati and sang an exquisite hymn in her praise.

Devi Ambika incarnated from the body of Devi Parvati in order to save the gods. Goddess Ambika’s unparalled beauty attracted the attention of Shumbhaand Nishumbha, who wanted to control her. They, through a messenger, demanded that she should marry one of them. The goddess explained that as per her vow, she would only marry someone capable of defeating her on the battlefield.

Spurned by the arrogant goddess, the demons and their army engaged in a battle. After the defeat of their vast armies and generals, Shumbha andNishumbha eventually attacked the goddess and were defeated and slayed by her thus re-establishing the reign of the devatas.

Within this episode, the Saptashati also weaves in the emergence of the Sapt Matrikas (mother goddesses) — the shaktis (energies) of various gods (not consort goddesses). It also mentions the fierce goddess Kali who appeared from the face of Ambika which had turned black with anger. Kali is also referred to as Chamunda, because she destroyed the demons Chanda and Munda, who served Shumbha and Nishumbha. The Matrikas also fought the terrible demonRaktabija in this episode.

As is customary in texts of this nature, there is a chapter (10) on the “phalashruti” (fruits of listening and reciting) or Mahatmya of the Saptashati. The frame narrative culminates (11) with Surath and Samadhi propitiating the Goddess with severe penance and beseeching her for boons of their choice — Surath in the material world and Samadhi in the eternal world.

The summary above does not do justice to the text and is intended to serve only as an outline to its stories to enable further discussion. The Saptashati (originally composed in Sanskrit) has been translated into most Indian languages and English. A list of references is appended for further exploration.

Notes:

1: The other two Navratris are not widespread and also referred to as gupt navratri.
2: Durgameans the far shore that is difficult to reach, and the essential doer of all things.
3: The Markandeya Purana is variously dated by scholars to the 3rd century CE. The Saptashati (700 verses) is believed to be a later interpolation in the Markandeya Purana but is definitely dated before the 7th century CE.
4: The tradition of goddess worship in in the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation has been proven conclusively based on archaeological evidence. References to various forms of goddess are present in the Vedic literature, epics and other ancient Indian traditions.
5: The Saptashati frame is independent of the Markandeya Purana frame.
6: The word ‘maya’ has many connotations — generally implies that which is unreal or illusory. The world is supposed to be maya (unreal) in Vedanta and it is common parlance to say in Hindi: “Sab moh maya hai.”
7: Chapter 1

8: Chapter 2-4
9: Chapter 5-11
10: Chapter 12
11: Chapter 13

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