To That Goddess Who Abides In All Existence

To That Goddess Who Abides In All Existence

Navaratri, and Saraswati Puja in particular, is probably my favorite Hindu festival. I doubt there is another festival that integrates so many of the deepest aspects of Sanatana Dharma into one celebration.

Right from a very young age, I have been in awe of worshipping the divine as the mother as well as the idea of worshipping knowledge. I believe it inculcated in me a deep respect for learning, and learning deeply, which has served me very well in life. Worshipping the Devi and Knowledge on the same day is a lovely amalgamation of Bhakti and Jnana yogas.

Tamil Nadu (and perhaps other states) has a tradition of “ayudha puja” on Vijayadasami. This literally means puja to weapons. But “ayudha” is also a generic term that means “instrument.” So everyone worships the instrument that enables them to make a living, seeing a manifestation of the divine in that. Musicians honour their musical instruments and farmers their plough. Students worship their books along with Saraswati on this day, while many factories declare a holiday and spend the day cleaning and maintaining machinery. I have seen software companies adorning their computers with flowers and tilak. And in line with the literal meaning of “ayudha puja”, this historically includes Kshatriyas cleaning and sharpening their swords and other weapons as well. Today, this would apply to policemen and soldiers. This concept of honoring “work” in this manner neatly integrates karma yoga into Navaratri as well.

The broader concept of Navaratri is of worshipping Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati for three days each. On one level, this indicates that every person must integrate knowledge, wealth, and courage (broadly dharmic conduct and resistance to adharma) in a balanced manner. On a deeper level, it also indicates the manner of one’s spiritual progress. One must first start with fighting tamasic tendencies within ourselves. Mahishasura is not to be taken literally as a “buffalo demon,” but rather as a representation of tamasic tendencies prevalent within us (the buffalo is seen as slothful and as wallowing in dirty water and hence is used in many spiritual texts as a symbol of tamas). Worship of Lakshmi is the proper harnessing of rajasic tendencies (including the accumulation of wealth and experience of pleasures of all kinds) in a dharmic direction.  Finally, Saraswati is indicative of sattvic (or purifying) tendencies that deserve to be cultivated.

Ultimately Vijayadasami on the tenth day indicates going beyond sattva as well to achieve self-realization. In fact, one of the names of Saraswati chanted during the puja is “Trigunatita”, i.e., one who is beyond the three gunas of tamas, rajas, and sattva. The north Indian tradition of Rama killing the ten headed Ravana on Vijayadasami is symbolic of the destruction of the ego (which is “multi-headed” and can grow another when one is cut off) leading to self-realization. The rasa lila and garba celebration of Gujarat, Rajasthan etc. symbolize the longing for, and eventual union of, the jivatma and the paramatma, once again symbolizing self-realization.

Many “rationalists” provide silly interpretations of rasa lila, ignoring that many of the Gopis were men and all human souls are “stris” next to the cosmic “purusha.” This concept is beautifully illustrated by a small incident in the life of the great Meerabai. She once traveled to Mathura and was told by someone that a particular area was out of bounds for women. Her response was classic: “Who else could be a man here other than my Krishna?”

The relationship between Siva and Shakti (or Vishnu and Lakshmi etc.) is described in many texts as the relationship between fire and heat or water and wetness, i.e, intrinsic, inseparable, and in fact, one and the same. Even “equality of men and women” falls a notch below the complete “oneness” of the Hindu vision. It is a powerful warning to all those that objectify, commodify, or abuse women and a reminder to some “traditionalists” who seem to resist change from a patriarchal society without internalizing this authentic Hindu vision.

And finally, these pujas have a way of inculcating deeper truths through the medium of murti puja, pejoratively called “idol worship” by many. Consider the following:

  1. Every puja, not just to Saraswati, involves a critical step called “prana pratishtha.” It literally means “bestowing prana,” or life-force. What the mantra really does is invoke and implore the spirit of the Goddess (or God) to reside in the murti and accept the worship being offered. I am always utterly aghast at the so-called “rationalists” who rail against the “superstition of idol worship” when even the most casual of reading of the procedure for a puja will reveal the idea of prana pratishtha. How can anyone believe that Hindus really worship the stone statue itself?

    But even for the devout, the prana pratishtha serves as an immediate reminder that just as the murti is not the Goddess, so the body is not us. This is even more powerfully reiterated in the visarjan ceremony when the murtis of the Devi are immersed in a body of water. Visarjan follows what is called a “punar puja” (or “after puja”), when we thank the Goddess for accepting our worship and requesting her to “depart” from the murti, after which it again becomes a clay image that can be dissolved, just like our own bodies at death.
  2. Even in the midst of a puja to a specific form of the divine, the mantras remind you that all forms are really one and the same. For example, the 108 names to Saraswati chanted at the end of the puja include the following – “Sivayai namaha,” “Govindayai namaha,” “Chandikayai namaha” “Brahma-Vishnu-Sivatmikayai namaha” and, “Brahma jnanaika sadhanayai namaha”,  with the last exhorting the worshipper towards knowledge of Brahman, the absolute cosmic principle that includes and transcends all forms. In fact, each of the 108 names usually reveals some unique insight into the nature of truth and reality.

The celebration of the Goddess that resides in all and as all, is easily a high point of Hindu civilization. Below is a simple English translation of one of the greatest of hymns that extols the Devi as just that – “residing in all, as all” – the Devi Mahatmya composed by the young rishi Markandeya and which is considered a founding text of the Shakta tradition of Hinduism. How apt that this boy’s famous story shows him as a staunch Siva bhakta.

To that goddess who abides in all existence as the Maya of Vishnu : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as consciousness : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as intelligence : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as sleep : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as hunger : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as reflection/meditation : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as creative power : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as thirst : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as forgiveness : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as all living things : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as modesty : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as peace : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as faith : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as beauty/brilliance : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as prosperity : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as activity : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as memory : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as compassion : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as contentment ; Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as mother : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

To that goddess who abides in all existence as illusion : Salutations, Salutations to Thee, …

Swami Venkataraman, an Executive Council member of the Hindu American Foundation, is a financial analyst based in New York. He holds an MBA in Finance from IIM Calcutta and a B.Tech in Electronics Engineering from IIT Madras.

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