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.

Image Source: swarajyamag.com

Author: Kavitha

As a cardiologist, my interest lies in healing and well-being. The path to this is one of inner exploration and opening. I call this Radical Beauty.

10 thoughts on “How to Destroy Mahishasura: Navarathri and the Gunas”

  1. Another amazing post!
    You examine and explain this so clearly, the nine nights. I tend to see all of creation as equal–but able to be seen in so many ways. In any case, your exposition here is a true blesing, and your personal clarity and presence definitely comes through!

    <3

  2. Beautiful Kavitha..
    The relevance to both the inner and outer worlds is remarkable.
    Mahisha in his arrogance asks to be slain by a woman because in his mind a woman has no power and therefore he would be as close to immortality as it gets. And so the rampage of the world in his arrogance continues.
    Ofcourse the universe has other plans… Eventually everyone suffers and what brings balance is the divine feminine intervention.
    How apt to the current times….
    After this bloody battle, may we all come to a place of sweet harmony and creativity.

  3. When I first started to read I thought this is way to deep for me, but as I read on it all came together. Loved it.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your feedback, Bonnie! I was wondering if it was too deep and your comment is very helpful for me to hone my writing. Love and hugs.

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