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.

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.

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