Every year, during the festival of Navaratri, my local temple celebrates the Divine Feminine through a multitude of religious rituals and events from among the diverse ethnic traditions that are represented by the Indian immigrant communities here in southeastern Michigan. In the two decades of making the Bharatiya Temple in Troy my “go-to” spiritual center, one of the rituals performed there that has stood out is a monthly havan, a ritual held around a sacred fire, with a focus on a single aspect of the One Divine. As I attended the havan held during Navratri, this month I took away a kernel of wisdom from one of the many Vedic hymns that was sung or chanted: the Narayani stuti or stotram. As I worshipped and also watched the people around me, I realized that one of the things we need most is to be protected from fear. And during Navaratri, we can do so by celebrating Shakti, the Divine Feminine, and seek the primal energy that she embodies.
The nine nights of Navaratri began on Sept. 21 this year; the tenth and last day of the festival is Dassara or Vijaya Dasami. There are multiple stories and celebrations among Indian and diaspora Hindus centering around the three most popularly worshiped manifestations of the Divine in its feminine form: Goddess Durga representing the Mother Goddess and Shakti (Divine Energy); Goddess Saraswati representing knowledge, speech and the arts; and Goddess Lakshmi, representing good health, wealth and prosperity. Another story centers on the Hindu god Rama of the Ramayana, and Vijaya Dasami marks his victory over the demon king Ravana, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. Many fasts and rituals are associated with Navaratri, especially for women. The temple offers devotees an opportunity to perform a monthly havan centered on Chandi, who embodies the primordial energy that is responsible for the creation, sustenance and destruction of the universe, with a host of verses from the Vedas chanted around a sacred fire. People fill out sponsorship forms, and those who sponsor successively take turns to sit at the altar to participate in the steps of the ritual, while the rest of us gather round the sanctuary and participate through watching, and singing or chanting as appropriate.
As I sat amongst fellow temple members, I found myself easily distracted: I was unfamiliar with many of the steps involved in the ritual and many of the sections of the Hindu scripture that were being recited by not only the priests but also the many knowledgeable men and women amongst the temple membership. The older woman I sat next to was an immigrant from another part of India; from another language community, she had a booklet in her hand written in her mother tongue with the various hymns and parts of the scripture which were being recited. Unable to follow along, I began people-watching. The first to catch my attention was a young college student, hesitating on her arrival into the sanctuary to join her parents, who were seated around the sacred fire and engaged in performing the steps in the ritual. The priest and her aunt beckoned her up, and she awkwardly sat down to follow the instructions the priest gave her. I saw that several other people picked up sponsorship forms, ready to make a donation, interested in participating in the ritual. A few moments later, a young professional – a woman whose parents I knew to be visiting from India – got up at her mother’s persistence to go participate in the ritual. She timidly approached the priest with a sponsorship form, not sure of where to go or what to do. (He indicated that he would call her up at the right time, so that she could participate appropriately). And still later, an elderly woman, whose spouse was not visibly present, had given her sponsorship form to the Religious Committee Chairperson and come to sit back down amidst the group I was with. As she came back, several of the women gestured to her to go back and participate in the ritual. It was obvious she was reluctant to go because many Hindu rituals involve both husband and wife performing the steps in partnership, and she didn’t want to be up at the altar alone. (Her friends convinced her, and she found a place at the altar).
As the priest announced the next in the series of hymns to be chanted, I realized that I needed to focus – and that he had given me a way to do so, by providing me the hymn’s name. I pulled out my smartphone and found the Narayani Stotram online, to follow along with those who were turning the pages of their booklets. This segment of the Devi Mahatmyam, shlokas or verses 8 to 25 of Chapter 11, is part of a larger body of work by the ancient Rishi Markandeya. I was lucky to find more than one version of this prayer to Narayani – including one with an English transliteration of the original Sanskrit along with a verse-by-verse English translation. As I recited the verses and glanced at the approximate and slightly awkward translation, I was touched by its relevance to the scenes that had played out before me, of how each of us needs to be protected from fear. We need to channel that inner Shakti and become aware of the Goddess – and the strength we have – within. Chandi, Shakti, Narayani – whatever name you use – the primordial energy of creation is essential to taking on that which holds us back, whatever the situation is, big or small.