There are occasions that come throughout the year to help us reflect more deeply on our lives so as to get that vital sense of direction that is needed. Durga Puja is one such time
The pressures and challenges of contemporary living make many demands on all of us, resulting in what has been called the disease of modern life: stress. A whole industry has developed around stress management, and no need to say it is very lucrative.
We have to study, clear exams, acquire skills so as to be qualified and employable. After finding a job, which may not these days be a permanent one, there are issues at the workplace which can be insuperable at times. Next comes founding a family with all that this entails as it repeats the life cycle all over again.
‘Having’ enough time becomes an issue in itself, and whatever of it is left or is available outside of work has to be shared with family, friends, at the Happy Hour that goes on for hours, in leisure activities, in holidaying and so on. For this purpose, the ‘market’ has multiplied the options available to us, and we are continuously nudged into following consumer behaviours that may damage our health or adversely impact our personal relations in our bid to accumulate objects ad infinitum. Unwittingly we become driven by the credo that ‘more and bigger’ means ‘better and happier’ – and do not care to pause and think, caught as we are in the rat race.
From the time we are this high we get into this heady swirl of life without any preparation for it, learning mostly by trial and error about how to cope with the people, situations, events, incidents that come our way. On this trajectory, the risks are manifold at all levels: individual, family, society at large, the workplace. These can lead to separations, family breakdown, disarray in society, change/loss of employment amongst others, and of course then the ‘stress’ factor.
As Swami Suddhananda said once, ‘Life is the only examination that you go through without any prior preparation’.
But this need not be so: there have always been resources available to help us negotiate through this labyrinth called life. These resources are our scriptures, which we tend to relegate to a later phase that keeps receding. Yet they contain profound teachings derived from the Vedas, the source books of Hinduism and the oldest known ‘records of the human spirit’. The teachings therein, illustrated by narratives of live situations that have been faced by humankind ever since – and that are similar to those that challenge us today – in the two great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and a unique one in the Bhagavad Gita which leads Lord Krishna to dialogue with a confused Arjuna, are dispensed by various organizations and learned persons. But much is also accessible online that we can imbibe in the comfort of our home as well.
They address fundamental issues captured in a few key questions: Who am I? What am I here for (the purpose of life)? What is the nature of the creation: non-living and living things (plants, animals, humankind), of divinity? How are they related? What is life and what is death? How do we live in a world torn between good and evil? And how do we find lasting satisfaction and inner peace?
“There have always been resources available to help us negotiate through this labyrinth called life. These resources are our scriptures, which we tend to relegate to a later phase that keeps receding. Yet they contain profound teachings derived from the Vedas, the source books of Hinduism and the oldest known ‘records of the human spirit’. The teachings therein, illustrated by narratives of live situations that have been faced by humankind ever since – and that are similar to those that challenge us today — in the two great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and a unique one in the Bhagavad Gita which leads Lord Krishna to dialogue with a confused Arjuna…”
Learning about and understanding the answers to these queries make up the teachings that will illuminate and smooth the path for our harmonious living. But for this, we must make the willed and conscious effort to devote some amount of time on a daily basis to try to understand ourselves and what is happening around us, and how to live our lives so as to have peace and joy.
Over and above such a daily engagement, there are occasions that come throughout the year to help us reflect more deeply on our lives so as to get that vital sense of direction that is needed. Durga Puja is one such time when the Devimahatmyam (‘Glory of the Goddess’) is narrated over nine days (hence Navaratri). It is a spiritual classic that addresses the perennial questions of our existence mentioned above.
But why Goddess? Because in Hinduism the divine principle is understood as encompassing the feminine and masculine aspects (Ardhaneeshwara), both being instrumental in the creation of the universe as a whole as Primordial Father and a Primordial Mother who formed the first pair. And all the pairs in the universe are said to be replicas of this first pair. Hence we will find that all Hindu deities are always paired, for example Shiva-Parvati.
There is a framework to facilitate our quest. One facet of it is that we can begin by seeing ourselves as humans who are born with innate tendencies of inactivity, activity and harmonious balance (equilibrium), designated by the Sanskrit terms tamas, rajas, sattva which are the three gunas or psychological tendencies. Unlike other living things such as plants and animals which do not have any control over their development, we are in a position to exert a degree of control over ourselves. Whether, therefore, we become normal or abnormal, especially in respect of our vital and mental qualities, depends on first, an understanding of our gunas and, secondly, how we allow them to influence the course of our lives.
It is no secret that we live in a world where disequilibrium reigns supreme. We have to struggle all the time against the forces of ill-will and excessive greed which are forever at work. These forces begin with the individual and spill over to contaminate, embitter or even destroy his environment and those he interacts with. We call these forces asuras or demons: alas, they abound, and some of them are greater than the others: the mahishasuras. The more one tries to get rid of them, the more they seem to spring afresh and to multiply.
They are both within and without us. But if we want, we have the means to nip them in the bud inside us. They manifest as an abnormal permutation and combination of tamas or negative tendencies comprising inactivity, laziness, lethargy, ignorance, darkness, jealousy, hate, fear; and of rajas or positive tendencies comprising activity, strength, drive, ambition, creativity. Transcending these to achieve balance and harmony is sattwa, and this is the ideal state we should wish for and aspire towards – both at the individual and collective level.
Unfortunately, the majority of us are driven by tamas and rajas, and this is the reason for our miseries. Durga puja is meant to teach us, through allegorical examples of demons vanquished by the strength and power of Durga-shakti, that we must be ever vigilant to guard against our low tendencies, that this can be done by controlling ourselves, and that it is within our capacity to achieve the state of sattva which empowers us for harmonious living.
The puja is celebrated at night symbolically, as we have to shine the lights that overcome darkness. During the first three nights we invoke the Kali aspect of Durga-shakti to get rid of our negative tendencies, vices and defects; the second three nights are devoted to the Lakhsmi rupa of Durga Mata, popularly known as the Goddess of wealth: we pray for obtaining wealth (both material and spiritual); the last three nights we invoke the Saraswati aspect of Durga Mata, Saraswati being known as the Goddess of learning and wisdom. Why wisdom? Because, after having destroyed (hopefully) our negative tendencies, we need the discernment of wisdom (viveka) to make judicious and just use of the wealth that we have prayed for. It can thus be seen that these three divisions correspond to the tamas, rajas and sattva aspects of our lives.
As we take part in the Navaratri puja, let us therefore at the same time take a pledge to ourselves that for our own good we will not stop there, but continue to live in that spirit when it is over, that is, maintain course in the search that will help us discover the fundamental Truth of our life and become established therein. That’s the sure way to attain lasting peace and joy.
Ya devi sarva bhuteshu buddhi rupena samasthita, namastasyai…
* Published in print edition on 12 October 2018