How to conquer Shumbha and Nishumbha: Navarathri and the Gunas, Part III

In the previous two posts, we examined the slaying of Mahishasura and Raktabija, the asuras that represent tamas and rajas, respectively. Navarathri is deeply symbolic of the spiritual path and the systematic transformation of the gunas, resulting in increasing levels of sattva with its associated qualities of clarity, contentment and sweetness and decreasing levels of heaviness or inertia (tamas) and restlessness and ambition (rajas).

Ultimately, the quality of our desires determine the quality of our gunas and vice versa. The following verse from the Bhagavad Gita sums up this conundrum:

Just as smoke veils fire, dirt veils a mirror, and a womb veils a fetus, so does desire veil Self-knowledge. (3.38)

In the previous post, we examined the analogies of the baby in the womb and the dusty mirror for tamasic and rajasic desires. Here, we will explore the veiling effect of sattvic desires.

If the above statement caught you by surprise, you’re not alone. Many spiritual seekers find it unsettling. The veiling effect of sattvic desire? Does this mean that we are not “done” with the inner transformation with the acquisition of sattva?

The Devi Mahatmyam would suggest that the slaying of Mahishasura and Raktabija were only precursors to the war that is yet to come with two of the most powerful asuras yet – Shumbha and Nishumbha.

A Bit About the Asura Brothers

In the final episode of the Devi Mahatmyam, the devas once again find themselves ousted out of their celestial positions by the joint strength of the asura brothers, Shumbha and Nishumbha. They call upon Shakti to help. This time, she takes the form of Saraswati. Exceedingly beautiful, she attracts the attention of the asura brothers’ messengers who decide that their kings must possess this unearthly creature (they have everything else of value after all).

In response to the messengers’ crude suggestions to give herself to the asura brothers, Devi sweetly states that she would gladly do so but has to abide by an ill-considered oath she had taken long ago that she would only marry the man who defeats her in battle. Enraged at her impunity, Shumbha and Nishumbha send their best generals to capture her and “drag her by her hair” to them. Devi, to their dismay and growing rage, kills them all with surprising ease. With the death of Raktabija, their last great general, the brothers are forced to face her themselves.

Their attack is full-forced and well-executed. Devi stands alone, having absorbed all the various Shaktis into herself. When her weapon temporarily stuns Nishumbha, Shumbha is beside himself since his younger brother is, as the narrator states, “more dear to him than life itself.” He plunges into battle with Devi. When he is disarmed, Nishumbha rises to fight in his place. When Nishumbha is disarmed, Shumbha rises to fight Devi. Eventually, Nishumbha meets his end at Devi’s hands, followed by Shumbha. Devi’s victory is marked by absolute peace and silence. The Devi Mahatmyam ends with the devas bowing to Shakti, and her promise to humanity to appear whenever she is called upon to destroy evil and establish harmony.

Shumbha and Nishumbha in Us

We know now that the Devi Mahatmyam is much more than an entertaining story. It is symbolic of the various obstacles within us that prevent the realization of our true nature. Shumbha represents the ego and his brother Nishumbha (who is dearer to him than life itself) is symbolic of attachment. They are inseparable, each rising to keep the other alive in the great battle toward self-realization.

The ego is ordinarily thought of as an exaggerated sense of self-importance or pride. However, in the current context, the ego is simply what we take ourselves to be. Pause for a moment and consider this. If you were to be asked who you were, what would your response be? If you’re like most of us, you might respond with your name, where you come from, your family, language and so on. However, if you think about it, your greatest sense of self lies in your likes and dislikes, which result in attachment or aversion.

Attachment and ego are inseparable; attachment to what we like and aversion to what we don’t like come to define who we think we are (the ego). It is impossible to kill off attachment (Nishumbha) without a stable foundation of knowledge, because the ego (Shumbha) springs up to keep them both alive. Have you ever tried giving up attachment to your way of life, your beliefs, what you think is right or wrong, your spiritual teaching or teacher, your spiritual circle and what you consider to be good? It is like trying to blow away smoke from around a fire in order to see the flame, as Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita.

You can blow on the smoke and it will part a bit to show you the flame, but will soon cloud over again. Unlike the baby in the womb or the dusty mirror, this cloud of smoke kind of creeps up on us. We can still see the flame but not very clearly and it remains stubbornly out of reach. This is the predicament of sattvic desires, which tend to be very subtle and hard to see in ourselves. Take for example the desire to be part of a spiritual community. The original intention of wanting inner transformation was genuine, of course. Somewhere along the way, tamasic and rajasic desires  give way to shiny new ones. We can want to appear spiritual, virtuous, better than others (like those who might spend time chasing worldly things), appear a certain way, gain approval of the spiritual teacher or leader and so on.

The subtlest of all desires is the desire for knowledge. Seeking itself can become an obstacle to true Self-knowledge, where we can spend our time discussing, arguing, agreeing or disagreeing with teachings or fellow seekers, or intimidate others with our intellectual prowess. Knowledge gained thus is the greatest obstacle to knowing. We can know everything there is to know about the Self without ever tasting it, which is much like writing a doctoral dissertation on a strawberry without ever biting into it. Knowledge is so seductive that we become attached to it and it becomes our identity, where we come to define who we think we are by what we think we know. The smoke keeps clouding over the flame again and again, keeping it out of our reach.

Saraswati symbolizes Self-knowledge, the knowing of one’s true nature that is beyond words, teachings and pointers. Ordinary knowledge is empirical, where I know of something. Our entire education system is based on empirical knowledge – we go to school to gain knowledge about something that is not us. Thus, I go to school to become a doctor, someone who knows about medicine. I don’t become medicine. It is the object of my knowledge. I can feel like I possess this knowledge because I have a degree.

However, Self-knowledge is the curious phenomenon of becoming the Self, or rather, discovering that we have always been the Self. It is knowledge about the subject. Unlike objects, it cannot be possessed. Like the haughty messengers who want Devi to be owned by their masters, our desires sully our pursuit of Self-knowledge by the need to own it. The ego wishes to possess Self-knowledge because it would feel better about itself and how it defines itself. The paradox is that knowledge about Vedanta, yoga or tantra are not Self-knowledge and until the desire to own such knowledge remains, the Self cannot be known. In other words, liberation is not for the ego but from it.

By destroying Shumbha and Nishumbha in us, Devi shows us the way to the most difficult journey of all: the one from the head to the heart. It is through her grace that we come to lose sattvic attachments to the spiritual path, teachings and objective knowledge. In the light of her grace, Self-knowledge results in a shift of identity from the ego to the Self. We come to see that no teaching or words could ever describe the beauty of our true nature. Peace and absolute silence (from loss of the chatter of objective or empirical knowledge) are the result of Self-knowledge.

Jnana Yoga, the Antidote to Sattvic Desire

Recall from the previous post that karma yoga had two essential components: (1) to perform action without attachment to its consequences, and (2) to give up doership. Performing action without attachment is relatively easy, as we have seen. Giving up doership, on the other hand, is a bear.

Giving up doership essentially means losing identification with the ego, for our likes and dislikes not only determine who we think we are but also gives us the strong sense of being the one who is choosing and acting. I act in certain ways based on my likes and dislikes. I also think I have a choice in how I act, but in reality my actions are based on my past experiences and my attachments and aversions.

“Giving up” doership is a great misnomer because it implies that I as the ego can give myself up. From the story of the Devi Mahatmyam, does it appear that Shumbha is suicidal? On the contrary, he tries to hang on to dear life right to the very end! Such is the issue with the ego – trying to give up doership is another subtle way for the ego to reinforce itself. The only path out of this conundrum is through self-inquiry or the path of knowledge, also known as jnana yoga.

For successful self-inquiry, a certain degree of inner silence is required in addition to the ability to witness our inner processes in a non-judgmental fashion. Without either of these, self-inquiry can become a mind game and yet another of Shumbha and Nishumbha’s many tricks to remain strong and kicking.

In the Radical Beauty Ritual below, we will examine the basic process of self-inquiry.

Radical Beauty Ritual

  • Lifestyle changes. Continue with the lifestyle modifications that overcome tamas, including fasting and waking up early.
  • Meditate daily. Cultivating inner silence is the most effective way of cultivating the witness.
  • Self-inquiry. Try this practice immediately after meditation, when inner silence is most prominent. Are you aware of your body? Thoughts? Feelings?  If you are aware of your body, thoughts and feelings, how can you be them? Notice that all sensations, thoughts and feelings come and go, but you as awareness remain. Just like the background of this web page upon which the letters appear, all of your experiences, memories, ideas, beliefs and knowledge appear to awareness. That awareness is who you are, which is knowingness of all experience. You are the knower of your thoughts, feelings, memories and beliefs, actions, choices and their consequences. You are the sole subject of all the experiences arising in you as objects. All your likes and dislikes, labels and roles that define you are objects that arise and subside in you, awareness.
  • Continued self-inquiry. Self-inquiry is particularly helpful when performed in a systematic way that questions all that we innocently take to be true, such as our assumptions about ourselves, our bodies, the world, our minds, moods and states. I recommend The Direct Path – User Guide by Dr. Greg Goode as a superb resource for effective self-inquiry.

The final war in the Devi Mahatmyam is the longest one. So it is on the inner journey to transformation. We will find that desire can be lodged so deep that the process of weeding them out through self-inquiry can be tedious. This inner war takes incredible patience and self-honesty. We have to be willing to look at ourselves in a critical and compassionate way. Devi eventually comes to our aid, systematically blowing away the smoke that cunningly covers the flame.

Hope you found this minseries on Navarathri helpful. May Devi’s grace shine on you as you face your own inner asuras.

Vanquishing Raktabija: Navarathri and the Gunas, Part II

In the previous post, we examined the symbolism of the Devi Mahatmyam, the text that is most widely read during Navarathri.  The asuras (evil forces) of creation take over and the result is utter pandemonium. The arch enemies of the asuras are the devas, who represent the forces of nature that maintain balance. For example, Indra, the lord of the devas symbolizes rain and wields a thunderbolt as his weapon. Agni, Surya, Varuna and Chandra represent fire, the sun, water bodies and the moon, respectively. Asuras then are the opposing forces that result in disharmony.

On the individual level, the devas represent the harmony of sattva while the asuras are symbolic of the qualities in us that result in inner and outer conflict. When dark and heavy, they form a dense veil over our inherent wisdom and constitute tamas. When hyperactive or restless, the veil is less denser but still covers the light of self-knowledge (knowledge of our true nature) as rajas. Sattva is the lightest of the veils and most conducive to Self-knowledge (but is still a veil). All three gunas arise as a result of desire. The quality of our desires represents the quality of our inner state and vice versa.

Desire and Knowledge

What is it about desire that binds us? It has to do with becoming attached to the outcome of that wanting. When I become attached to wanting a particular result, not getting what I want causes me disappointment and/or resentment. When I get what I want, a strange thing happens – there is momentary peace because the energy of wanting subsides temporarily but I mistakenly think that peace was the result of getting what I want. Naturally, I think that if I get more of what I want, perhaps I might get to a place of permanent peace. However, that never happens because I don’t always get what I want. In fact, there is no way for me to predict that my actions will certainly get me a particular result or that even if I get it, I won’t lose it. So not only is there no guarantee that I’ll get what I want but when I do, I worry about losing it! Either way, attachment to the outcome of desire binds me in a cascade of actions. My desires keep morphing and growing, binding me further in cycles of disappointment or temporary elation followed by fear.

Desires are so seductive that eventually, they become the labels through which we start to define ourselves. Our likes and dislikes become our identity, the veils that cover our true (divine) nature. The denser the desire, the heavier the veil.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna describes the gunas of desire in this way:

Just as smoke veils fire, dirt veils a mirror, and a womb veils a fetus, so does desire veil Self-knowledge. (3.38)

A baby is so well-covered by the womb that it is engulfed in darkness. Similarly, tamas engulfs our divine nature in darkness and our likes and dislikes are so strong that we are unable to see beyond them. We lose perspective entirely, being entirely at the mercy of the fulfillment of our desires (which, remember, is never guaranteed and works in our favor only about half the time). Just as we have to nurture the pregnancy through proper nutrition and other measures and patiently wait to see the baby, so too do the lifestyle measures of fasting, exercising and cultivating inner silence aid in thinning of the tamasic veil.

If you’ve ever cleaned an old dusty mirror, you know the effort it takes!  This is the case with rajas, which is defined by hyperactivity, restlessness, greed, ambition, inability to sit still, racing thoughts and conditions like anxiety. Under its influence, our desires keep proliferating, one giving rise to several others. Like the mirror under the layer of dust, our divine nature is concealed under the layer of desires. In the Devi Mahatmyam, this all-too-common predicament is depicted by Raktabija (rakta=blood, bija=seed), an asura with unique abilities.

Raktabija Meets His End

After the slaying of Mahishasura, peace is restored and Shakti disappears. In another era, the devas are once again defeated by the asuras and call for her. The ever-compassionate Devi comes to their aid once again to restore order in the cosmos. This time she takes the form of Lakshmi and Saraswati and the asura brothers Shumbha and Nishumbha are the main villains. They assign several generals with the task of destroying her and Devi in turn slays them all effortlessly, until Raktabija makes an appearance on the battlefield.

His superpower is that a horde of clones are created spontaneously from every drop of his shed blood. All of Devi’s weapons therefore end up creating an increasingly bigger army of his clones. Devi summons the Shaktis (powers) of the various devas and deities to ward off the clones – Brahmani, the Shakti of Brahma, Aindri, the Shakti of Indra, Varuni, the Shakti of Varuna, and so on. Devi’s army marches on, slaying the clones by the thousands. Unfortunately, in the place of each of Raktabija’s clone arise thousands more. Devi frowns in concentration as she devises a plan, and from the power of her energy, Kali springs to life and leaps on to the battlefield.

Devi asks Kali to devour the clones before any of their blood is spilled. Kali opens her great mouth and consumes the clones struck by Devi and her army. Drained of his blood, Raktabija eventually falls.

Rajasic desires are like Raktabija’s blood. Each one forms the seed for scores more, keeping us engaged on the never-ending path of desire-fulfillment. These are the desires that drive us to seek wealth, money, fame, success and relationships. Rajas is easier to conquer compared to tamas – remember how Mahishasura keeps changing his form, which is the natural cunning of tamas that is steeped in likes and dislikes. Raktabija is relatively straightforward in comparison. With the right amount of vigilance and the practice of karma yoga, his clones can be devoured before they spill their blood.

What happens when we act on our desires without consideration of how it might affect our lives and those of others? This kind of indiscriminate action is the “spilling of blood,” where we are like a leaf in the wind, blown this way and that by our uncontrolled likes and dislikes. Every time we fulfill the desire for a drink, a cigarette or browsing the internet, we create deeper grooves of habit and eventually become slaves to it. Eventually, we “have” to have that drink, the cigarette or that browse time. The habits we cultivate come to determine the company we keep and the stories we tell ourselves about others. Like the layer of dust on the mirror, they keep us from discovering the bliss of our true nature.

Karma Yoga, the Cure for Uncontrolled Desire

You may have heard that karma yoga is selfless service. It is, but it is a bit more. Karma yoga is the gateway to Self-knowledge because it literally thins out the veil of rajas by sucking up the lifeblood of desire. There are two important aspects of karma yoga: (1) to perform action without attachment to its consequence and, (2) to give up doership.

Both of these aspects are easier said than done.

Performing action without attachment to its fruit is difficult because it takes a reprogramming of our ways of thinking and acting. However, it is made easier by understanding that the only thing we have control over is our actions. You can do your best in any situation knowing that what will happen next is largely out of your control. Now, there are of course physical laws with predictable outcomes – if you don’t know how to swim and jump into a 20-foot pool, you will drown quite predictably. What we are discussing here are the actions we perform throughout the day based on our mental and emotional assessment of a situation.

You can do all your research for your new project, invest in it and work 16-hour days to get it off the ground. Whether it will take off or not is largely dependent on factors out of your control, such as the national economy, natural disasters, technology, competition, market interest and so on. If you had visualized success to look a particular way and it looks different in comparison, you will suffer. On the other hand, if you realize that “what will be will be,” without fixed ideas about the consequences of your hard work, the effort will be joyful for its own sake.

In the following Radical Beauty Ritual, we will explore karma yoga, which gradually vanquishes the inner Raktabija.

Radical Beauty Ritual: Overcoming Rajas

  • Lifestyle changes. Continue with the lifestyle modifications that overcome tamas, including fasting and waking up early.
  • Meditate daily. Cultivating inner silence is the most effective way of cultivating sattva.
  • Pause before acting. The problem that most of us run into is that we almost always react and rarely do we respond. Reactions arise immediately and viscerally from the deep grooves of conditioning created by our likes and dislikes. Response, on the other hand, arises from stepping out of the situation and examining the facts with dispassion (non-attachment to our likes and dislikes). It helps to pause and pay attention to our inner landscape before jumping into action. Pause. Observe your breath – is it shallow and rapid, or slow and relaxed? How are you holding your body? Is there tension in your shoulders, belly, chest? Can you feel your heartbeat? When we take the focus out of the mind’s activity and put it on physiological processes, we begin to free ourselves from its slavery.
  • Pause again before acting. Once you’ve observed your body, breath and heartbeat, pause and ask yourself what you want to do and why. Do you need to respond? Can you choose to respond differently regardless of what you like or don’t like? Practice putting aside your preferences and step out of your comfort zone. After a while, this will become natural and liberating.
  • Cultivate devotion. Consider how selfless we can be as parents. When it comes to our children, we put aside our personal feelings and preferences and do what they need. This is because we are devoted to them. The Devi Mahatmyam is a text that evokes great devotion to the goddess as the Divine Mother. When we become devoted to a deity, we naturally come to dedicate everything to him or her. Cultivate devotion to your ideal – read about the deity, spiritual teacher, guru or prophet and emulate him or her in daily life. One practice that I’ve found very helpful is to make a promise every morning to my ideal – “Thy will, my Lord, not mine.” It is a reminder that whatever happens is a gift and what we ask for is merely the grace to know this.
  • Practice Inquiry. Inner silence cultivated through meditation enables us to stand back from our mental processes and observe our thoughts as they arise. This inner awareness is the great mother Kali, who consumes thoughts as they arise to deplete the mass of desire that Raktabija represents. Become curious about your desires – where do they come from? See that the basis of all desire is to be happy. Examine how often a fulfilled desire has brought your permanent happiness. What would happen if you didn’t frantically pursue every desire?

The color of rajas is red, symbolic of the blood shed that occurs on the battlefield. It is the color of fire and dynamism that keeps us engaged in the mundane without ever touching the divine within. The middle three days of Navarathri are dedicated to goddess Lakshmi, whose grace is needed to obtain the wealth of Self-knowledge. The power of desire is so strong that we will need the help of all the Shaktis to overcome them – Brahmani’s wisdom, Aindri’s vigilance, Varuni’s fluidity, and so on. So we invoke the great Devi who embodies all these qualities to help us in this quest for freedom from the tyranny of desire.

The most difficult war is yet to come. In the final three days of Navarathri, we will have to weed out the subtlest form of desire that resides in sattva. This is when we will have to examine the second aspect of karma yoga – doership, which is impossible to let go of without the grace of Saraswati. We will examine this great inner war in the next post.

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How to Destroy Mahishasura: Navarathri and the Gunas

Navarathri is here! Literally translating to “nine nights,” Navarathri is a an all-out celebration of the divine feminine (Shakti) and occurs twice a year in the spring and autumn. While there are many ways to celebrate Navarathri, we can use the cosmic energy of this period for deep inner work.

The Devi Mahatmyam (also known as Durga Sapthashati or Chandi Paath) is a lush text that is widely read during Navarathri. Composed by Sage Markandeya a millennium ago, it consists of 700 verses that describe the victory of Shakti over evil. The saga begins when creation is taken over by evil forces, the asuras. The disheartened devas (good forces) regroup after an epic defeat and invoke Shakti as the last resort. This supreme goddess has powers that surpass all of theirs combined. She promises to save them not just this time, but through eternity. She keeps her promise and appears through the eons in innumerable forms, the most famous of which are Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati.

The Devi Mahatmyam is a lyrical exposition of devotion to Shakti, with several well-known Devi chants embedded throughout its course. The verses take us on a journey of despair (of the Devas), hope (the appearance of Shakti and her promise to fight for them), gore (the bloody battles), peace (that comes about from her kept promises over thousands of years) and devotion (through the evoking verses praising the supreme goddess). The real gift of the Devi Mahatmyam, however, lies in its symbolic power. The particular forms that Devi takes in sequence have to do with with the path of inner transformation and the refining of our gunas.

What is a Guna?

Guna is quality, tendency or aptitude. All of creation can be seen to be composed of three gunas: tamas, rajas and sattva.

Tamas refers to the quality of inertia, darkness, and/or heaviness, rajas of movement, action, dynamism and sattva of purity, lightness, light. Tamas makes up the structure of the universe, rajas provides movement, and sattva its intelligence. In all creatures (including us), these qualities in specific combinations make up the individual psyche, nature or personality. When we talk about a particular guna dominating our body-minds, it doesn’t mean that the other two are absent. Everything in nature has a combination of the three; the predominant one shows up in our mental patterns and physical actions.

Tamas results in inertia, lack of motivation and laziness. When tamas predominates, we are unable to think clearly and feel like we’re in a mental fog. Even when we know what we need to do, we are unable to do it and feel somewhat paralyzed. We become excessively identified with our problems and our issues, feeling as though they define who we are. In the tamasic state, we are unmotivated to do any spiritual practices and lack the ability to look critically at ourselves to see our part in our problems. Tamas is a state of heaviness and under its influence, we are unable to see our own divine nature.

Rajas with its penchant for dynamism results in activity (and hyperactivity), movement, determination, accomplishment and restless tendencies. Many of us in the fast-paced modern culture have these rajasic tendencies, particularly when we are used to multi-tasking and being on the move. When rajas predominates, we are unable to sit still and meditation is difficult. While tamas feels like an oppressive windless summer day, rajas can be like a hurricane, with racing thoughts, inability to sleep, anxiety, worry and constant rumination over our problems. We can become impatient easily and have little or no tolerance for others. Because of its dynamism, rajas sometimes gives us clarity that quickly evaporates and leaves us confused and wanting more of it. We can sometimes see our divine nature, but not all the time.

Predominance of sattva results in a quiet mind, clarity, purity of being and qualities of sweetness and contentment. In sattva, the constant chatter of the mind has come to a rest and we live in a state of alert calmness. Because of loss of mental modifications, we are able to access the deep well-spring of peace, creativity, tranquility, wisdom and compassion. A mind influenced by sattva is like a crystal-clear mirror in which the reflection of the divine is well seen. Having overcome tamas and rajas, we are able to clearly see our own divine nature.

Spiritual evolution moves us from tamas to rajas to sattva. The stories of the Devi Mahatmyam point to this inner journey of transformation, where the form that Shakti takes and the particular asuras that she destroys represent our own innate wisdom destroying the obstructive qualities that keep us from recognizing our own divine nature.

The nine nights of Navarathri are divided into three sets of three and each set dedicated to one of the three deities: Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati.

In the first three days, we invoke the grace of Durga, who, in the Devi Mahatmyam is called upon to destroy the fierce demon, Mahishasura who is an odd half-human, half-buffalo demon. In his younger years, Mahishasura performs intense spiritual practices and gains the favor of Brahma, the creator and asks for the boon of immortality. Since immortality is impractical, Brahma asks him to choose another boon. Mahishasura cunningly asks to be slain by a woman, thinking that there would be no way that a woman could face him in battle. Considering this to be his boon of immortality, he terrorizes the devas who end up invoking Shakti to come to their aid.

The battle is a bloody one. Mahishasura is not only powerful but a gifted warrior and holds Durga at bay through his skills in warfare. He has the uncanny ability to change forms at will and continues to evade her weapons by turning into various beasts. Finally, Durga’s spear finds its mark just as he turning into a buffalo. He dies in his original half-human, half-beast form.

Tamas in us is as cunning as Mahishasura. The buffalo in him is symbolic of the heaviness and dullness of tamas while the human represents the ability to think, but in a distorted way. With these qualities, Mahishasura in us takes many forms of self-deception to evade its own destruction. Tamas is what makes us make excuses for everything we can’t seem to do. It keeps us bound in inertia through distorted mental reasoning that keeps a particular non-serving behavior intact. This is what makes us justify being unkind to someone, subtly conning others into our ways of thinking, manipulating situations to get our way, and falsely enhancing our own qualities to look good. Under the influence of tamas, we end up like hamsters on a wheel, unable to step out of our binding habits of self-deception.

Navarathri to the Rescue

During the first three days and nights of Navarathri, we can invoke Shakti’s grace in the form of Durga to incinerate the heaviness and cunning of tamas. Mantras, contemplation and rituals during this time are meant for igniting the path to transformation.

This is also the time that we worship Kali, the fierce goddess that decapitates the ego. Kali is the Shakti of Shiva, the destroyer. Destruction of the old makes way for the new. Without the clearing out of our heavy tamasic burden, we can’t make way for the splendor of Lakshmi or the wisdom of Saraswati. Thus, we can’t get to sattva directly from tamas. The process is like removing sediments from a cup of water. A thick layer of sediment sinks to the bottom and we can’t really see past it. To get it out, we have to stir the water so that the sediment can be scooped out. So too with tamas; cultivation of rajas stirs up its heaviness so that it can be eliminated.

Sankalpa: Intend Well to Act Well

The intention with which we act makes all the difference when it comes to gunas. A surgeon wielding a knife acts with the intent of doing good as opposed to one brandishing the same knife with the intent to cause harm. The former is sattvic and the latter tamasic arising from hatred, greed and other Mahishasura-like qualities. A key element to inner transformation is to purify our intentions. In Sanskrit, the word used for this is sankalpa and when it comes to transformation of gunas, our intentions must be held to a very high standard.

Remember how Mahishasura keeps changing his form? Regardless of our sankalpa, tamas will pull us into our old ways and make all sorts of excuses to bypass the sankalpa. Take for instance your intention to create the daily habit of meditation. You may go to bed at night determined to wake up early enough to make time to sit for meditation. Come morning, the alarm goes off and what thoughts come to mind? “Oh, I haven’t gotten enough sleep. It’s ok, I’ll start tomorrow,” or, “There is no evidence that meditation really helps, so I’ll skip,” or, “I don’t really need meditation. I already know what to do,” and so on.

Remaining faithful to our sankalpa is like the bloody battle between Durga and Mahishasura!

Below is a Radical Beauty Ritual for the first three days of Navarathri, when we can focus on transformation of tamas to rajas. Before you begin, make a sankalpa to follow-through on the practices you decide to take up.

Radical Beauty Ritual: Incinerating Tamas

  • Fasting. Since tamas is characterized by stagnation in the body-mind, fasting works superbly well to mobilize it. Even if you can’t do a full-on fast on water (which I wouldn’t recommend), see if you can give up your favored food(s) for Navarathri. Eat light, nutritious meals and abstain from heavy, fried, greasy or stale foods and meats. The point of this exercise is to cultivate discipline through the sankalpa of fasting.
  • Fast your senses. Forego watching TV and read only uplifting things. Avoid harsh music, preferring pleasing and softer genres. Favor simple clothing.
  • Keep active. Tamas loves inertia and inactivity. Counter this with a daily walk or some type of exercise that keeps your body moving.
  • Meditate daily. There is simply nothing like cultivating inner silence for the transformation of the gunas. Here is a simple and effective meditation practice.
  • Examine your intentions. As you go about your day, question your intentions, actions, thoughts and words. Why do you do what you do? What do you hope to gain? What do you think will happen if you don’t get what you want? When you are interacting with others, what thoughts are simultaneously running in your mind? If it helps (and it does!), write down your observations since looking at words on paper clarifies what is often a jumbled ball of thoughts.
  • Recite a mantra. There are many mantras that are incredibly transformative because they purify our intentions, thoughts and actions. Since Durga represents the sword that slices through the Mahishasura of our minds, her mantra is very appropriate and powerful for long-term transformation. Here is a simple one: Om Doom Durgayai Namah.  You can chant it silently for 20-30 minutes, slowly allowing the syllables to arise and subside in your inner space.

Through the sankalpa of such internal worship, we invoke the grace of the deity in leaps and bounds. In the Devi Mahatmyam, once she is invoked, Shakti never lets the devas down – so too does she come to our aid again and again to slay our inner asuras.

In the next post, we will examine the significance and practices for the next three days of Navarathri.

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