Stories of the nine Durgas
NAVARATRI, meaning Nine Nights, is a Hindu festival in honour of the divine feminine, also known as Shakti Devi, the Primal Energy of creation. This nine-night long festival celebrates the victory of good over evil through the worship of several aspects of the Goddess.
This is the story of the nine manifestations of Shakti Devi celebrated during Navaratri, called the Navadurga or nine Durgas.
THE FIRST NIGHT OF NAVARATRI is dedicated to Maa Shailaputri. Derived from the Sanskrit words putri (daughter) and shaila (mountain), her name means "Daughter of the Mountain".
Aeons ago, the Goddess took birth as Sati, one of the daughters of Daksha, son of the Creator god Brahma.
As a child, Sati loved to listen to tales and legends of Shiva, and dreamt of marrying him when she grew up. When she came of age, she decided to win the favour of the divine yogi. Giving up the luxuries of her father’s palace, she retired to the forest and devoted herself to meditation and austerities.
Years later, her prayers bore fruit when Shiva asked for her hand. They married and left for the Himalayas, where they lived happily together on mount Kailash, Shiva’s abode.
However, Sati’s father Daksha was upset: he disliked Shiva, considering him to be a dirty, uncouth ascetic. Some time later, he organised a grand yagna (sacred fire ceremony) to which he invited all the gods and goddesses — except for his daughter and Shiva.
Sati came to know about it and asked Shiva to accompany her there. He refused and tried to dissuade her from going uninvited, but she insisted that she must, even if it were alone. When Sati arrived at the yagna, only her mother seemed happy to see her. Her father Daksha ignored her and even insulted her absent husband.
Humiliated and angered, Sati assumed her divine form. Lightning and thunder burst from the wrathful Goddess as, full of grief, she swore that she would return to Shiva only when she was born to a father she could respect — and with those words, she immolated herself through her yogic powers.
Shiva was beside himself when he learned of Sati’s death. He created the ferocious warrior Virabhadra and sent him to kill Daksha and destroy his ceremony. Filled with Shiva’s fury, Virabhadra cut off Daksha’s head and threw it into the sacrificial fire. Through the intervention of Vishnu, Daksha was later forgiven and restored to life by Shiva, who replaced his head with that of a goat.
When Shiva picked up the remains of Sati’s body to bring it back to Kailash, parts of it fell to Earth — the sites of their landing have become sacred places of Goddess-worship known as Shakti Peethas: there are thirty-six in India, seven in Bangladesh, three in Pakistan, three in Nepal, one in Tibet and one in Sri Lanka.
Sati, true to her word, was later reborn as the daughter of Himavan, king of the Himalaya mountains: in that incarnation she was given the name Parvati, also known as Shailaputri, Daughter of the Mountain.
THE SECOND NIGHT OF NAVARATRI is dedicated to Maa Brahmacharini.
Derived from the Sanskrit words brahma (here "austerity") and charini (follower), her name means "She who follows the path of austerity".
Little Parvati grew, and the time soon came to find a suitable husband for her. A prophecy announced that she would marry Shiva and that their son would kill the wicked asura Taraka, who had invaded Swarga, the land of the gods.
King Himavan sent her to serve Shiva, which she dutifully did. As time passed and the young princess devotedly attended to the needs of the divine yogi, she fell in love with him. But Shiva had not looked upon a woman since Sati had given up her body, and completely ignored Parvati.
Princess Parvati decided to live in the mountains and practice austerities alongside Shiva, hoping to awaken his interest by living the life of an ascetic: she slept on the cold damp ground, barely eating anything, and sat in an icy pool, her lips quivering, meditating on her chosen Lord.
Thus she earned the name Brahmacharini, She who follows the Path of Austerity.
News of the princess engaging in such intense penance spread far and wide. One day a young traveling hermit came to her and questioned how she, beautiful as she was, could admire the ascetic Shiva, whose body is covered with ashes, adorned with snakes and clothed in dirty animal-skins; who is poor, short of temper and coarse…
Parvati answered, "It takes a great soul to know a great soul." She refused to listen any further and turned to leave, but the hermit blocked her. He removed his disguise, and behold! It was Shiva himself, come to test her resolve. Conquered, he asked her to marry him.
Brahmacharini is a symbol of devotion, strength and determination, an encouragement not to abandon when faced with adversity.
THE THIRD NIGHT OF NAVARATRI is dedicated to Maa Chandraghanta. Derived from the Sanskrit words chandra (moon) and ghanta (temple bell), her name means "Moon Bell".
On the day appointed for their wedding, Shiva arrived at king Himavan’s palace in his usual half-naked garb, body smeared with ashes, with serpents around his neck and matted locks of unkempt hair.
Parvati, a half-moon adorning her forehead, mounted a tigress to meet her beloved — the moon between her brows looked like a bell, and earned her the name Chandraghanta. It is believed that the sound of the moon-bell above her eyes protects her devotees.
Himavan was delighted to marry his daughter to Shiva, and to this day their union is celebrated as Maha Shivaratri every year.
THE FOURTH NIGHT OF NAVARATRI is dedicated to Maa Kushmanda. Derived from the Sanskrit words ku (little), ushma (warmth, energy) and anda (egg), her name means the "Little Cosmic Egg" we call universe.
Kushmanda is the initial creative aspect of Shakti Devi. When the universe was non-existent and there was darkness everywhere, she produced this Little Cosmic Egg with her smile, and the universe became filled with light — therefore she is also known as the Smiling Goddess.
After creating the universe, she generated the first beings, the three supreme goddesses: from her left eye she created a ferocious form and named her Mahakali. From the eye in the center of her forehead sprung a majestic form, which she named Mahalakshmi. From her right eye appeared the benevolent and smiling form of Mahasaraswati.
From the body of Mahakali, a male and a female came into being: the male was named Shiva and the female, Saraswati. From Mahalakshmi’s body also were a male and a female born: the male was named Brahma, and the female Lakshmi. Mahasaraswati also produced a male and a female: the male was named Vishnu, and the female Shakti.
The Smiling Goddess united Saraswati to Brahma, Lakshmi to Vishnu, and Shakti to Shiva, tasking them with their respective roles:
Brahma the Creator wed Saraswati, the goddess of Knowledge.
Vishnu the Protector wed Lakshmi, the goddess of Prosperity.
Shiva the Transformer wed Shakti, the goddess of Active Energy.
Kushmanda then reabsorbed the three supreme goddesses into herself, and entered Shakti as an orb of divine and infinite energy. The gods and goddesses that she created then went on to produce the other living beings in the universe.
A joyful manifestation of the Goddess, Kushmanda provides energy and direction to all beings.
THE FIFTH NIGHT OF NAVARATRI is dedicated to Maa Skandamata. Derived from Skanda (another name of Karttikeya) and maa (mother), her name means. "Mother of Skanda".
As had been foretold, a son was soon to be born to Shiva and Parvati.
For a long time now, the wicked asura Taraka had been wreaking havoc in Swarga, the land of the gods. Now Taraka was protected by a boon that only a son of Shiva could defeat him, and thought himself invincible ever since Sati had given up her body. Little did he know that Sati, reborn as Parvati, had just been reunited with Shiva, and that a son would soon be born to them!
Soon after Shiva and Parvati’s wedding, their combined energy produced a fiery seed, whose heat was so intense that it was entrusted to the river goddess Ganga until it produced a baby.
Ere long, little Karttikeya was born. He grew into a handsome, intelligent and powerful youth. Blessed by all the gods, he became the leader of their army and defeated Tarakasura in a fierce battle, earning the name Skanda, the Attacker.
Skandamata’s worship is said to lead to peace, prosperity and salvation.
THE SIXTH NIGHT OF NAVARATRI is dedicated to Maa Katyayani. She is one of the most worshipped incarnations of Durga, the warrior aspect of the Goddess.
Once there was an evil asura named Mahisha, to whom Brahma had granted the boon that no man could kill him — and as women were considered to be helpless creatures, the asura fancied himself immortal.
Full of this new power, Mahisha drove the gods out of Swarga and declared himself Lord of lords, ordering all to worship him.
Angered, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva combined the fires of their energies and from this light brought forth goddess Durga, the Invincible. She then took birth as the daughter of sage Katyayan, hence earning the name Katyayani, Daughter of Katyayan.
Katyayani went to Mahishasura, mounted on a lion and armed with powerful weapons the gods had gifted her: trident, discus, thunderbolt, spear, conch, bow, axe, mace, sword and shield, and many others.
A fierce battle ensued between the two. Assuming the form of a raging buffalo, the asura crushed the earth with his hooves and shook the three worlds. Katyayani flung a noose around his neck and bound him, but the asura escaped her by turning into a lion. When the goddess lifted her sword to behead him, he morphed into a man.
Katyayani shot arrows at him and the asura escaped again by taking the shape of a gigantic elephant, which attacked the goddess with his huge tusks. As she cut off his tusks with her sword, he reverted to his original buffalo form.
They continued to battle ferociously until Katyayani leapt onto him and struck him with her spear. Caught helplessly, Mahisha tried to take human form again but could only manage to transform himself until the waist before the goddess chopped his head off.
There is great symbolism in these animal shapes: the buffalo represents brutality, the lion stands for power, and the elephant is a symbol of greed. Katyayani is therefore called the Destroyer of Evil, and the slaying of Mahishasura is celebrated during the Durga Puja every year.
THE SEVENTH NIGHT OF NAVARATRI is dedicated to Maa Kalaratri. Her name derives from the Sanskrit words kaal (time and death) and ratri (night or ignorance), meaning "She who brings the death of darkness" or "She who ends ignorance". She is also referred to as Kali, the most terrifying form of the Goddess.
Once goddess Durga was fighting against the terrible asura Raktabeeja, "He for whom each drop of blood is a seed" — from the Sanskrit words rakta (blood) and beeja (seed).
Every time a drop of his blood fell on the ground, a duplicate Raktabeeja arose, and soon there were legions of Raktabeejas. Durga became angry, and from her forehead sprang Kalaratri (Kali), born of the goddess’s fury.
She stretched her tongue over the earth, licking up each drop of blood pouring from the asura’s body and devouring his duplicates. Soon Raktabeeja was no more.
Kalaratri is considered as the destroyer of all negative energies and the remover of sorrow (darkness).
THE EIGHTH NIGHT OF NAVARATRI is dedicated to Maa Mahagauri. Derived from the Sanskrit words maha (great, extremely) and gauri (white), her name means "Extremely Fair".
During Parvati’s long penance to win Shiva’s heart, she gave up all forms of comfort and braved heat, cold, rains and storms for many years. Her body became covered with dirt, soil, insects and dry leaves.
When Shiva finally appeared to her, Parvati was cleansed by the waters of the holy river Ganga which flows from his matted locks. She emerged clothed in resplendent white, thus earning the name Mahagauri, the Extremely Fair.
She is worshipped as the goddess of kindness, morality, and loyalty.
THE NINTH NIGHT OF NAVARATRI is dedicated to Maa Siddhidatri. Derived from the Sanskrit words siddhi (supernatural power) and dhatri (giver), her name means "Giver of Siddhis".
It is said that the left half of Shiva’s body is that of goddess Siddhidatri — this composite half-male and half-female form is known as Ardhanarishwara, from ardha (half), nari (woman) and Ishwara (lord), and represents the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies of the universe: Purusha (Pure Awareness) and Prakriti (Primal Motive Force).
According to Vedic scriptures, Shiva attained the eight siddhis by worshipping goddess Siddhidatri, who fulfills all divine aspirations.
These siddhis are:
anima: reducing one’s body to the size of an atom
mahima: expanding one’s body to an infinitely large size
garima: becoming infinitely heavy
laghima: becoming weightless
prapti: having omnipresence
prakambya: achieving whatever one desires
ishitva: possessing absolute lordship
vashitva: having the power to subjugate all
These nine manifestations of the Goddess are described in the Devi Mahatmya, one of the most important texts of the Shakta tradition, found in the Markandeya Purana (400 CE). Its 700 verses are recited during Navaratri celebrations, the Durga Puja and in Durga temples.