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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What is a Radical Beauty Ritual?

Shakti, the epitome of Radical BeautyIn the previous post, we examined the predicament of resolutions and the way to love and joy. Let’s explore what “Radical Beauty” means and what its rituals entail.

Some time ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the many forms of Shakti, the divine feminine. Those writings were deeply meditative and resulted in profound insights, leading to great inner freedom and sweetness. The all-pervading nature of Shakti is useful to understand as we embark on the inner journey to freedom.

Who is Shakti and why should we care?

Shakti is not limited to the female body. As the energy that holds the cosmos together, she is the movement of the galaxies that creates new stars and black holes. As the digestive fire, she is agni that transforms food into the nutrients and strength. As the waking state, she appears as every thought, emotion and action. As the dream state, she is the play of the subconscious mind as it lives and acts out its fears and fantasies. As the deep sleep state, she is the absorption of consciousness into rest. As the evolutionary force of the planet, she is the movement of the tectonic plates that creates continents and oceans. As the great change, she is the earthquake, the tsunami and the volcano. Simply stated, there is nothing in existence that is not her.

Centuries ago, tantric sages gave names and forms to ten of the most significant facets of creation, calling them Dasha Mahavidya (dasha = ten, mahavidya = great wisdom). They are goddesses of profound transformation. They are called ‘maha’ (great) because they represent quantum aspects such as time and space.

On an individual level, Shakti represents both the shadows and the light within us. These opposing aspects are universal and occur in men and women. Shadows are destructive qualities that enhance ignorance and suffering. They are the debris we must wade through to find the light, which is Radical Beauty.

Kali, the first of the Mahavidyas represents renegade transformation. She symbolizes time, which is synonymous with evolution and change. Her shadow is one of aggression and violence. When we excavate through our tendencies for aggression, we find the light of non-violence. The process of transformation begins with Kali. The word “Radical” pays homage to her.

Our inner expedition takes us finally to Kamalatmika, the last of the Mahavidyas. She represents absolute delight, which saturates ordinary experiences and makes them extraordinary. When we dig through her shadow of inner conflict, we arrive at her light – contentment. The word “Beauty” is in her honor. Radical Beauty thus represents this sacred journey that traverses the path from Kali to Kamala, exploring every crevice in our psyche and washing it clean.

Ritualize it!

A ritual is a series of actions performed in a particular order. I find rituals deeply healing and use them to start the day, get ready, drive, see patients, write notes or manuscripts, cook, and so on. Rituals help bring focus and clarity to things we tend to do on auto-pilot mode. They help us slow down and savor small things.

Rituals can be as simple as stepping back briefly to breathe in the abundance of the moment, give heartfelt thanks, gain a wider perspective, recall our life’s purpose or inquire into experience. In these actions, we open to the possibility that life is much more than the details of our day-to-day existence.

A Radical Beauty Ritual is meant to bring the wisdom of the great goddesses into our lives in practical ways. In every post, you will find recommended practices and inquiries. Set time aside to delve into them. Note that these beauty rituals take time to ripen and provide results.  Be patient. Keep at it. Archaeology is not for the faint of heart. It is diligent, deliberate and delicate work!


  • Please use your discretion about practicing a certain ritual. Many of these are profound and have the potential to bring up hidden or suppressed trauma, emotions and life situations. If you don’t feel comfortable with it, please don’t do it.
  • If you are you are under therapy or treatment (or have a past history of) for significant trauma, anxiety, depression or other psychological conditions, please consult with your personal physician before taking on these practices.
  • This is a journey of self-discovery. The rituals are suggestions based on my experience. Each of us is responsible for our own journey. If you do take up these exercises, you are solely responsible for its effects.

Further reading:

  • The Ten Great Cosmic Powers Paperback by S. Shankaranarayanan (Samata Books; Second edition, August 19, 2013)
  • Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga by Sally Kempton (Sounds True; 1 edition, February 1, 2013)

Photo credit: Click here.