Durga Puja

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Durga Puja (Dussehra, Navaratri, Dasain)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: September-October; bright half of the Hindu lunar month of Asvina
Where Celebrated: India and Nepal
Symbols and Customs: Bathing in the Ganges, Durga Images, Ram Lila Pageant

ORIGINS

Durga Puja is a Hindu festival that honors the Divine Mother Durga. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. Many scholars regard Hinduism as the oldest living religion.

Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, but they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

The festival Durga Puja honors the Divine Mother Durga, wife of Shiva and mother of the goddesses Sarasvati and Lakshmi. Since Durga has nine manifestations, the festival lasts for nine nights (ten days) during the month of Asvina (September-October). Puja means "worship," and the exact time to worship Durga is determined with great precision by Hindu astronomers. It is believed that her spirit lights upon her image for only as long "as a mustard seed can stand on the pointed edge of a cow's horn." This is the moment at which sacrifices must be made to Durga and worshipping must begin.

According to Hindu legend, Durga's mother longed to see her daughter, but Durga was only permitted by Shiva to visit her mother for nine days a year. The Durga Puja Festival commemorates this brief visit and ends with Vijaya Dasami Day, when the goddess Durga departs. In Bengal particularly, this is a time for reunions between mothers and their daughters or sons, similar to MOTHER'S DAY in the United States.

During the first three days of the festival, Hindus pray to Durga to destroy all their sins and vices. Once they've rid themselves of their bad habits, they spend the next three days trying to achieve a more spiritual personality by worshipping the goddess Lakshmi, who symbolizes purity. After the worshippers have acquired Lakshmi's pure, divine qualities, they are ready to attain wisdom. So during the final three days of the festival they worship Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of divine knowledge. The tenth and final day of the festival, known as Vijaya Dasami, marks the soul's attainment of liberation.

In southern India, this festival is known as Navaratri, which means "nine nights." In addition to worshipping the goddesses Lakshmi and Sarasvati, Hindus in the south take advantage of the holiday to visit their friends and relatives. In other parts of India, the festival celebrates the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana and is known as Dussehra (see BATHING IN THE GANGES ). During the ten days of the festival, scenes from the epic poem Ramayana are dramatized (see RAM LILA PAGEANT ). In Nepal, where the festival is called Dasain (or Bada Dasain), the Ramayana story is modified to include the Goddess Durga's victory over the forces of evil represented by the demon Mahisasura. In the Katmandu Valley, there are masked dances and processions of priests carrying wooden swords, symbolic of the sword used to kill the buffalo-headed demon.

Durga is usually depicted as a very tall woman whose skin is tinged with the sacred color yellow. She has ten arms, each of which carries a weapon with which to destroy evil, and she rides on a sacred lion.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Bathing in the Ganges

Every Hindu hopes to bathe in the Ganges River at least once before he or she dies. The water is believed to cure various diseases, to ease the agony of the dying, Durga Puja

and to erase the sins of the living. The word "Dussehra," in fact, is an abbreviation of the Sanskrit phrase Dasa-bidha pap hara, "The destroyer of the ten kinds of sin." A dip in the sacred waters of the Ganges is therefore much more than a ritual bath; it is believed that merely uttering the name Ganga will purify a person from sin.

Men, women, and children come to the Ganges, which flows from the Himalaya Mountains to the Bay of Bengal, to take a dip. The tanks (or pools) of the river are particularly crowded with bathers during the Durga Puja festival. Those who can't get to the Ganges go to the nearest river, tank, pond, or sea, chanting "Hara Hara Gangey" as they immerse themselves.

Durga Images

During the holiday, Durga's image is everywhere, usually surrounded by images of her offspring. In Calcutta, craftsmen build huge clay figures of the goddess on her lion, slaying demons and engaging in other characteristic activities. Often ten feet tall, with straw-and-bamboo frames, these figures are used in tableaux throughout the city during the festival. On the fourth night, the images are taken down, placed on bamboo stretchers, and carried-accompanied by bagpipers and other musicians-to the banks of the Hooghly River. After being stripped of their clothes and valuable ornaments, the figures are thrown into the water. As they float toward the mouth of the River Ganges, they dissolve back into clay, straw, and bamboo.

Ram Lila Pageant

For two hours a day on each of the ten days of the Durga Puja festival, the Ram Lila Pageant is presented in every town, city, and village throughout northern India. The pageant portrays events described in the sacred Hindu epic Ramayana, based on the life of Rama, son of King Dasaratha. The story of Rama is as familiar to Hindus as the story of Jesus is to Christians, but the audience for this yearly spectacle respond as if they are watching the drama unfold for the very first time. Sometimes neighboring towns will compete with each other to see who can put on the most elaborate version of the pageant, which is also performed during the RAM NAVAMI festival.

Audience participation is central to the pageant. In between battle scenes, a chorus sings passages from the Ramayana, and the people respond to certain passages by shouting, "Victory to Rama! Death to Ravana!"-Ravana being the cruel demon with ten faces and twenty hands who threatened to conquer the earth until he was killed by Rama. The ten-day pageant ends with the death of Ravana, who is burned in effigy. An image of the demon made of bamboo and colored paper and stuffed with fireworks is placed on a platform and exploded in a great show of flames and noise.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Oki, Morihiro. India: Fairs and Festivals. Tokyo: Gakken Co., 1989. Sanon, Arun. Festive India. New Delhi: Frank Bros., 1986. Sharma, Brijendra Nath. Festivals of India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978. Sivananda, Swami. Hindu Fasts and Festivals. 8th ed. Shivanandanagar, India: Divine Life Society, 1997. Thomas, Paul. Festivals and Holidays in India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons, 1971.

WEB SITES

Belur Math rkmhq.org/durga_puja/article_on_durga_puja.htm

Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India www.durga-puja.org Durga Puja

Durga Puja

September-October; waxing half of Hindu month of Asvina
There are various Hindu festivals on the Indian subcontinent that celebrate the victory of good over evil.
The festival in Calcutta, India, in the state of West Bengal, honors Durga, who rides a lion and destroys demons. She is one aspect of the Mother Goddess and the personification of energy, and is famous for slaying the buffalo demon, Mahisasura. During the 10 days of Durga Puja, the city becomes one great festival, with deafening music and fireworks. Before the puja (a Sanskrit word meaning "worship" or "homage"), artisans have constructed clay figures over straw-and-bamboo frames, some of them 10 feet high. Stages are set up for these figures in neighborhoods throughout the city, and for four days throngs of people admire the clay tableaux, often showing Durga on a lion slaying demons. (Artist Aloke Sen's images have become famous because his demons have the faces of ordinary men and women and represent such evils as lust, anger, vanity, and greed.) On the fourth night, the images, which are genuine works of art and have cost as much as $20,000, are taken down from the stages, placed on bamboo stretchers, and carried—to the music of hundreds of bagpipers and other musicians—to the banks of the Hooghly River and tossed in. As they float toward the mouth of the Ganges, they dissolve back into clay, straw, and bamboo.
Navaratri . In the states of southern India this festival is known as Navaratri (nine nights), and also involves the worship of the goddesses Lakshmi and Sarasvati. Lakshmi is linked with wealth and good luck, and Sarasvati is associated with a river of that name, as well as with fertility, wisdom, and education. The festival is a time for visiting friends and relatives, and houses are decorated with displays of toys and dolls and images of gods. In the state of Gujarat there are nine days of music and dancing devoted to the nine forms of the goddess Ambaji, as well as competitions of garba dancing.
Dussehra (or Dashara ). In other parts of India the festival also celebrates the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana, and is known as Dussehra (or Dashara).
During the 10 days of Dussehra, scenes from the epic poem Ramayana are enacted. The epic tells the story of Lord Rama who wins the lovely Sita for his wife, only to have her carried off by evil 10-headed Ravana, demon king of Lanka. Ultimately, Rama slays Ravana, and the forces of good triumph over evil. The dramatizations with music, held throughout northern India, are considered at their best in Delhi. On the 10th day, immense effigies of Ravana, his brother, and his son (all of them stuffed with firecrackers) explode in dramatic bursts of flame and noise ( see also Rama Leela Festival).
In the northern mountains of Himachal Pradesh, the festival begins with a procession of deities to the town of Kulu from the little hill temples of neighboring villages. Accompanying the deities are villagers blowing large horns, ringing bells, and beating drums. When a deity arrives in Kulu, it is placed before Raghunathji, the presiding god of Kulu Valley, who is in an honored position in a tent. Outside, there is folk dancing and music. On the final day of the festival, a bull is sacrificed as a gift to the gods.
Mysore, in the state of Karnataka, celebrates the victory of goddess Chamundi over demon Mahisasura with regal pomp. The palace of the maharajah is illuminated, there are torchlight and daylight parades, and deities on decorated barges in a floodlit lake. On the final day, there is a grand procession of magnificently caparisoned elephants, the camel corps, the cavalry, and the infantry.
Dasain . In Nepal, the festival is called Dasain, or Bada Dasain. It comes at the end of the long monsoon period when days are clear and the rice is ready for harvesting, and lasts for 10 days.
In Nepal, Buddhists also celebrate this festival and special events are held at Buddhist shrines in Patan and Bhaktapur. The Nepalese also modify the Ramayana story to include the goddess Durga's victory over the forces of evil represented by the demon Mahisasura. Since Durga is bloodthirsty, there are thousands of animal sacrifices.
Before the festival begins, Nepalese clean their houses and set up ferris wheels and swings in their villages. On the first day of the festival, a water jug called a kalash is filled with holy water, and barley seeds are planted in cow dung on the outside of the jug. During the festival, the seeds are sprinkled with the water, and ceremonies are performed around it.
The first big day of the festival is the seventh day, Fulpati, meaning "day of flowers." A royal kalash holding flowers is carried by Brahmin priests from the ancestral palace in Gurkha to Katmandu. Cannons boom, the king and queen review troops, and then revere the flowers at the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, the old residence of kings.
The eighth night is known as Kalratri, or "black night." At midnight, at Hanuman Dhoka, eight buffaloes and 108 goats are beheaded. During the next day, thousands of buffaloes, goats, and chickens are sacrificed in temples, military posts, and homes as pe
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