The Navaratri Story: The Origins and Religious Texts

By Daria Woodside


Background information for
Dancing in the Light: The Nine-Day Festival of Navaratri in South Louisiana

It is difficult to say how old the custom of Navaratri is or where exactly it began. Some believe that it is an ancient harvest or fertility festival. Many of the ancient religious festivals were related not only to the sun and moon, but also to the position of the stars. Navaratri, like all holidays and rites of passage, is determined by Indian astrology. The position of the constellations at the time of Navaratri are closely related to the basic story that is at the heart of the celebration, the tale of Durga, a fierce form of the Divine Mother who rides a lion and conquers the evil Mahisasura, who takes the form of a buffalo bull. Like the positions of the stars in the sky, she is often depicted atop the buffalo demon as she slays him.

The concept of a divine feminine aspect of god goes back as far as human documents and memory exist. In India, the four Vedas-considered to be the oldest books on the planet, which make references to events as distant as 6000 BCE-include feminine aspects of the divine forces of the universe in their songs and prayers. The ancient rishis or saints, who Hindus believe were divinely inspired and able to intuit the natural energies of our cosmos through meditation, speak of Usha, Ila, and Saraswati, all Divine Mother forces. However, it is not until the time of the Puranas that the Divine Mother became a force against evil. The Puranas are a collection of 18 Hindu religious scriptures that were written between c. 400-1000 BCE, which contain stories of creation, destruction, and recreation of the universe, the genealogy of the gods and a number of parables.

Three primary religious texts dealing with the battle between good and evil-the Chandi Path, the Ramayana, and the Mahabarata-inform the celebration of Navaratri. The first and most influential is the Durga Saptashati or Chandi Path. This text is Puranic and is composed of 13 chapters of the Markandeya Purana from Chapter 81 to Chapter 93. The Chandi Path dates back to sometime between 900 to 500 BCE, however, it was probably not written until the 3rd century BCE when writing became widely practiced in India. It probably took its present form during the 4th century when the Gupta kings had scholars collect, edit, and record the oral traditions of the prose and poetry. Because the Puranas have their origins in oral tradition, the roots of the Chandi Path probably go back to a much earlier time, and it would be difficult to say where and when the story and its related celebrations began.

In Swami Saraswati's translation of Chandi Path: She Who Tears Apart Thought relates the story of the story of two individuals, a king and a businessman, who come to an ashram (a religious community) of a well-known saint. The businessman and the king have both fallen on hard times and ask the saint how they can improve their lives. Around a fire, the sage relates the tale of how at one point in time the demons overtook the gods and conquered the world. The gods pleaded with the Divine Mother to save them from the evil rampant around the globe, and each god gave her a special weapon from his own powers to arm her. Known as Durga, this fierce goddess conquered several demons and brought peace back to the earth where the gods could once again rule. (Saraswati 1995).

The story is really a parable about how humans can overcome the demons in their own minds. Durga, also known as "She Who Tears Apart Thought," conquers several evil thoughts like passion and anger, desire, and the Great Ego. It is her battle with and defeat of the Great Ego, Mahishasura, that is most celebrated during Navaratri. The goal of Hinduism is to come to know one's true nature as a spark of the divine connected with all living things. However, it is our negative thoughts and tendencies, which keep us from fully realizing our true nature (Saraswati 1995).

Certainly, the second text, the Ramayana, could lead one to believe that Navaratri could be much older than the dates that the writing of the Chandi Path would indicate. Some speculate that the first telling of this story of Lord Rama occurred around 5114 BCE. Astronomers studying the text claim that the constellations mentioned in the story are precisely what would have been found in that century in the heavens. Considering this as true, this would place the origins of the practice of Navaratri almost 8000 years into antiquity. However, others argue that Rama lived around 2040 BCE. Whatever the true age, the Ramayana, like the Chandi Path, is a story of good conquering evil. While Durga's story is more mythological and symbolic, the story of Rama is considered to be true, although it is also interpreted as offering a model of how to overcome the struggle within one's individual mind. Hindus believe that whenever humanity is in trouble, god incarnates in human form to help overcome the evils that are befalling them and to provide a model for good behavior. Rama was one such incarnation.

In Menon's translation of The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic tells the story of Lord Rama, a prince and incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver aspect of the Hindu trinity, which can be summarized as follows. Because of palace intrigue, Lord Rama is exiled to the forest, where his wife, Sita, is kidnapped by the demon Ravana, who has great powers. With the help of his brother Laxshman and an army of bears and monkeys, Rama travels to Sri Lanka, where Ravana is holding Sita hostage in his palace. In a great battle, Rama conquers the demon Ravana and regains his beloved Sita. It is believed that on their way home from the battle, Rama and Sita worshiped the Divine Mother in thanksgiving for her help during the war (Menon 2004).

The third text, the Mahabarata, tells the story of the five Pandavas brothers (sons of God) and the one hundred demon-born sons of King Dhritarashtra who go to war over their ancestral Indian kingdom. The famous and greatly beloved Hindu god, Krishna, who is an incarnation of Vishnu, lived at this time and was a cousin to both families, although it was he who helped the Pandavas win the war over Dhritarashtra's sons. Indian timelines place the battle of the Mahabarata and Lord Krishna's life, depending on the scholar, somewhere between 2449 BCE and 1424 BCE. Part of the history includes a segment in which the Kaurava brothers cheat and win a game of dice over the Pandava brothers. Their loss brought about the physical abuse of their beloved wife, Draupati, who is married to all five brothers, and also resulted in their exile of 12 years in the forest. On the 13th year, the Pandavas, according to the agreement with the Kauravas, must offer a year of service in disguise so no one will recognize them as princes while they work in bondage. They find positions in the kingdom of King Virat. The quality of the Pandava's weapons mark them as royalty, so before beginning their service, they hide them in a wrapped bag in a shami tree to complete their disguise. Near the end of the time of their service, their cousins, the evil Kauravas attack Virat's kingdom, and the Pandavas retrieve their weapons from the tree and come to Virat's rescue (Rajagopalachari 2006).

Together these stories and texts inform the varied cultural and regional Hindu traditions throughout India and the Indian diaspora as described in Dancing in the Light: The Nine-Day Festival of Navaratri in South Louisiana.


Menon, Ramesh. The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004.

Rajagopalachari, C. Mahabharata, 48th Ed. Mumbai, India: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2006.

Saraswati, Swami Satyananda. Chandi Path: She Who Tears Apart Thought. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas Press, 1995.

Daria Woodside is an independent researcher and college educator in Baton Rouge. This article was prepared in 2006 as part of the New Populations Project. See another article on this community, Satyanarayana Puja: A Hindu Prayer Service in South Louisiana.