Navratri is around the corner and there couldn’t have been a better time for me to share a few of my thoughts regarding the celebration of this auspicious festival.
Navratri is one of the most popular festivals in India. This is because along with the prayers, fasting, kirtans there is also a fun side to the celebrations. In the North, Goddess is pleased by the dance to the beats of dandiya whereas in South, She is appeased through Golu display and music. Everywhere there is mood of joy, devotion, colour and bonding. This is also a festival with a great spiritual significance (https://premaarpan.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/why-we-celebrate-navratri-sri-sri-ravishankar/)
Many Indians have moved out of India but hold on to their roots and this is one of the major festivals which bring the community and family together. This festival goes on for 10 days culminating with Dassera or Vijayadashami. The Goddess of Strength- Durga, Goddess of prosperity- Lakshmi and Goddess of knowledge- Saraswathy are worshipped for 3 days each respectively. Ie the 9 days of navratri. (https://premaarpan.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/nine-days-of-navratri-worship-of-devi-in-different-forms-sri-sri-ravishankar /).Praying to them gives the seeker all material good and also the inner strength to triumph against all odds of life and fight against social evils that plague our society today.
Today, the Navratri festival has lost much of its spiritual significance and exists merely as a social festival – a reason for people to get together and spend quality time in a busy, unrelenting world. Mahishasura (the asura or demon annihilated by Goddess Durga) symbolically represents the vast darkness or Tamas of ego and arrogance within a human being. So do the other demons like Chanda, Munda, Shumbha and Nishumbha. These Tamasic forces come in the way of higher spiritual development, thereby creating a veritable tussle of good and evil within the mind of the seeker. The victory of the Devi over these demons represents the ultimate triumph of the Satvik (good) forces within, finally leading the true seeker towards moksha or liberation.
There are different traditions followed in North and South India. In this post, I will stick to what I know better ie the south Indian (mainly Tamil nadu ) way of celebrating Navratri.
South India has its own unique way of celebrating Navratri. In Tamil Nadu, women traditionally display a Kolu, also called Bommai Kolu/Golu. They erect a series of “padis” or steps in tiers, usually of an odd number (like 3, 5, 7, 9 and so on) and place various dolls like the idols of God, Saints, and various other decorative items on them. (https://premaarpan.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/navratri-golu/)
A Kuthuvilakku (lamp) is placed in the centre of a kolam (rangoli) drawn before the Golu. Devotional hymns like Lalita Sahasranamam, Mahishasura mardini Stotram, Laxmi ashtakam, Devi Mahatmyam are chanted and bhajans are then sung in praise of the Goddess. After performing the puja that day, Naivedyam (or food) is offered to the Goddess. The women coming to visit the Golu are asked to sing a song or two, after which they are handed the Prasad, kumkum (vermilion) and haldi (turmeric) sachets, coconut, betel leaves, flowers and, many times, a small packet of gifts.
Now, let’s have a look at the relevance of the above mentioned articles to be given to a sumangali. (A married lady) in these modern times. This is especially for ladies living outside India and maybe in some cases in India as well.
(Kindly note that I am not generalising the below practises. I am just jotting down my observations. I have seen this in some places where I have resided and to a great extent even I had been following the same practise until 2/3 years ago, when I started seriously giving thought to the relevance of these practises. It may not be necessarily true for other places.)
- Prasad or Sacred Offering
In olden times and may be still being practised in India, Prasad meant ‘Sundal’ (a savory item prepared with boiled lentils) or some sweet. Each day one or two prasadams would be prepared and offered to the Goddess. This would be distributed as prasadam to the ladies who come for haldi kumkum. Now, many places outside India it has become a practise to host lunches and dinners during this period. And as many people follow this tradition and days being limited to 10 days of the festival, on any particular day there are invites from 2 to 3 people and on Fridays it can go up to 6/7. Everyone expect the visitors to partake at least some lunch or dinner prasadam. It puts the invitee in a most awkward position to have food in so many places which is quite impossible and this ends up in wastage of food. Many cater food from outside which is very expensive as well. A period where fasting and contemplating on the Goddess is encouraged, the reverse is seen. (Of course in places where ladies travel a great distance and on any particular given day only one house is to be visited this is understandable)
- Betel leaves/Kumkum and Haldi sachets
These items are considered very auspicious for married women. But in this time and age; are these being used and treated with importance and sanctity? Betel leaves represent Goddess Lakshmi, but sadly as many ladies don’t consume these, they are invariably disposed; even though people are really not comfortable disposing sacred items. Haldi and Kumkum packets have also lost the value as many ladies hardly apply these and kumkum is replaced with sticker bindi. Does that mean that I am suggesting that we do away with these traditional practises? Absolutely not. When the ladies come for the prayers we can just offer them haldi kumkum to be applied then. A plate of tamboolam (Betel leaf and nut) can be kept and the ladies could just touch them symbolically and then apply the haldi kumkum. We can aptly call it ‘haldi kumkum or manjal kumkumam’ instead of ‘vetalai paak’.
This is the one of the main things to be addressed. Looking out and planning for the gifts to be given to sumangalis can be challenging. Many a times, it has to be planned much ahead of time and usually people prefer to buy these when on a holiday to India. Previously; back in India, coconuts, blouse pieces, bangles, mirror etc would be given to each lady. Nowadays ladies don’t find much use for these things. So the host has to come up with innovative ideas to present something useful. Now after so many years, ideas seems to have exhausted. Plastic items, bags, plates, deities pictures, idols, books; all are done. Silver items could be a good option but considering the sky rocketing prices of silver; how many can afford to gift such items. Many of the gifts given are also recycled or are of not much use. Isn’t it about time we did away with this gift system during this festival?
Can we try to relook at the way we celebrate this auspicious festival? We need not do away with all the above completely; we can revive our old system of Sundal or other prasadam, some sweet and a savory or two, a fruit, a small packet of dry fruits if one feels so and maybe $1 as a token. Another option could be doing this in groups like a community haldi kumkum. These are just some examples. Some of you may have better solutions than this.
Can we instead use the money spent for the above or at least a part of that for a worthier cause? We celebrate this festival to invoke the blessings of the Goddesses. It is a time to show gratitude to God for all the blessings bestowed on us. How can we do this? There are many ways to do this
- Temple Revival– There are so many old temples in Tanjore, Kumbakonam etc which are in dire state without even having a proper shelter for God. There is absolutely no maintenance of the temple, no priest to perform the prayers, many priests don’t have even a proper square meal a day, the temples don’t have basic amenities like enough oil to light the lamps, no vastram (clothes) for the deity, no flowers etc. Can we do something for such a worthy cause? Many people in the villages would be able to visit this temple if the temple functions and a family of priest can also get a sustenance. This will bring abundant joy, happiness and blessings to not only us but for our future generations to come.
- Humanitarian cause– A cause which is close to your heart. There are many genuine organisations helping out the needy, poorest of the poor with free medical, and education care, rehabilitation of various disaster prone places, building houses for the poor, providing water, old age homes and many more. Seeing God in them and helping them in any way would give a kind of satisfaction and joy which cannot be described and measured.
One should be indeed blessed to be part of the above noble causes. It’s time we ponder on this and spare a thought to the suffering around us and also how we can make a difference. Let’s make a change. Let Navratri be that festival to open our minds and heart. Once we are able to implement this for Navratri, other festivals like Diwali will also follow suit.
Let’s have a blissful navratri and make navratri a different one from now on.
May Goddess shower Her choicest grace on all.
(I am sorry if I have offended anyone with this article. It is purely unintentional and is just a different perspective of looking at things. If it has made a positive impact in anyone of the readers, please try to implement and spread this to likeminded people and for others who disagree; please choose to ignore. Everyone has a right of expressing his or her opinion.)