Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, from Yogamag, sept 1997
Navaratri, or the nine days of sadhana, is traditionally celebrated as a festival. During this period, according to the myth, Shakti (Durga) was victorious over the negative forces or demons. Traditionally, it is the victory of Shakti which is remembered during these nine days. Navaratri falls twice during the year, once in the month of April and once in the month of September. For spiritual aspirants, Navaratri has a special meaning because, due to the lining up of the faith and devotion of the people in the nation, an environment is created in such a way that any form of spiritual sadhana or pooja becomes conducive to spiritual development. The story behind Navaratri is also symbolic.
According to myth and the available literature, the demonic forces in the world were gaining power and subduing the divine forces. So all the devas got together and prayed for mukti, liberation, from these demonic forces. The inherent Shakti of the devas became one and took the form of Mahashakti, whose name is Durga, in her multitude of manifestations and forms. Durga, created by the power and qualities of the devas, fought against the demons and was victorious.
In our own lives we can feel that the negative qualities or tendencies overpower the innate goodness within us. The goodness then manifests, tainted by the colour which it has imbibed from the negative qualities. When goodness manifests in this way, it becomes a selfish quality. One example is that, although people talk of compassion and love, this love is not a universal feeling for everybody. The feeling of love and compassion is coloured by motivations which are selfish, personal and individualistic.
So, good qualities are always coloured by the gunas. The negative traits seem to have more power in external life, because the manifest world is a process of outgoing experience. Communication is outward. The entire spectrum of life is geared for interaction with the external world of name, form, idea and object, within the confines of time and space. The negative or limiting tendencies hamper our growth and the expression of our positive nature in the manifest world.
Human life has a particular quality and nature which is constantly subject to the influences of prakriti, maya, and the three gunas. Under the influence of prakriti, all beings perform in a certain way. Under the influence of purusha, all beings perform in a different way again. In prakriti, in maya, the gunas predominate. In purusha, the divine, self-luminous qualities predominate. When one is burdened by the influences of prakriti, in the form of craving, desiring, wanting a certain status for oneself, then the self-luminous and divine qualities become suppressed, because their nature is not to want, but to give. So there is conflict between the desire of taking and the desire of giving, between self-motivation and universal motivation.
This is the fight between the demons and Shakti. They are termed demons just to make us more aware of the limited or negative nature of particular feelings, ideas, desires and so forth. Shakti, or Durga, the transmuting force, again redirects these limited expressions of life towards the goal of evolving positively. It is this positive evolution which is known as the victory of Durga. The 32 names of Durga represent the transformation of consciousness from the ridiculous (the negative), to the sublime (the transcendental). They trace what happens when consciousness changes and takes on the form of another superior and more subtle consciousness.
Therefore, Navaratri has this significance. For nine days sadhakas create a change in their lives through a concerted effort to follow a specific spiritual discipline. The sadhaka receives a set of instructions at the beginning on how to practise, how to observe himself, what disciplines to maintain. This is known as Navaratri anushthana.