Durga Ashtami and Maha Navami; Know Its Significance and History
On October 24, India will be celebrating its most popular festivals- Durga Ashtmi and Maha Navmi puja. Usually, Maha Navami puja is celebrated on the next day of Durga Ashtami. However, this year, the two festivals are occurring on the same day. Etymologically, Ashtami and Navmi mean the eighth and the ninth day of Sharad Navratri that is dedicated to Goddess Durga.
How Is It Celebrated?
Mahanavmi puja is considered to hold so much value that the worship on this day is equivalent to the observances on all the nine days of Sharad Navratri. Every state has different and unique ways to celebrate the festival but what remains common is the worship of Goddess Durga.
In Northern India, Maha Navmi is celebrated by conducting Kanya Puja. In this ritual, nine girls are invited over, worshipped and fed with a holy meal. The belief behind this is that the nine girls are a manifestation of the nine faces of Goddess Durga.
Moreover, along with the nine girls, a boy is also worshipped who is a manifestation of Lord Bhairav, the brother of Goddess Durga who promises to protect her as per a tale.
In South India, this festival is celebrated as Ayudh Puja or Shastra Puja and is dedicated to Goddess Saraswati. On this day all the instruments of knowledge and wisdom are worshipped, like books, musical instruments and vehicles. Earlier, this day was considered auspicious to worship weapons.
In Eastern India, this festival is celebrated as the third day of Durga Puja because in this area, a smaller version of the Durga festival is observed. The celebration starts with Mahasnan (holy bath) followed by Shodashopachar Puja. You can read about the custom here.
In western India, Maha Navami is celebrated by installing a Garbo, a holy pot, which is symbolic of the womb. The Garbo is lighted with diyas which are symbolic of the soul. Garba is a very popular dance form in this region commemorated to Goddess Durga.
History behind it
According to Hindu Mythology, on the Maha Navami, Goddess Durga defeated the Buffalo demon, Mahishasur. On the day of Mahanavami, Goddess Durga made the final attack on the Buffalo demon and succeeded in killing him the next morning which is celebrated as Vijayadashmi or Dussehra. That is why on this day, Goddess Durga is revered as Mahisasuramardini which translates into ‘the slayer of Mahishasur’. You can read about the story and its feminist interpretation here.
The day hence is not only the worship of Goddess Durga but the win of good over evil. It is believed that people who celebrate this festival and especially the Durga Ashtami, Maha Navmi and Vijayadashmi do not need to observe any other festival.
Watching It From A Feminist Lens
Undoubtedly, the festival upholds feminine power and empowerment but it will make sense only if it is translated and changed according to reality. The ritual of Kanya Puja for instance is very regressive. Being personally a part of it, I can vouch for the sexist beliefs that surround it. The girls who are considered ‘pure’ enough to be worshipped are those who haven’t got their periods yet.
Women who are menstruating are not allowed to even be near the sacred space where all the rituals of the nine days are being conducted.
Now, how will a festival that celebrates womanhood be relatable if it excludes women who are menstruating? Menstruation is a significant part of womanhood and by ignoring it and calling it impure, the festival only propagates patriarchy. However, the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati shuts its doors for three days every month because it is believed that Goddess Kamakhya’s idol bleeds during the menstrual cycle. So Goddesses also bleed. What then makes the menstruating women in real-world impure?
Secondly, is it fine to venerate girls as Goddesses? I think no because Goddesses are not humans and humans are those who have flaws and fundamental rights. Let us remember that women deserve respect and equality even if they are not as perfect as the Goddesses. Pedestalling some women as Goddesses and respecting them will mean that not all women deserve respect since not everyone can be a Goddess.