By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Indo-Caribbean American Hindus observed the auspicious festival of Navratri, the annual festival that pays obeisance to the universal mother during the Fall and early Spring. The festival was observed from September 20 thru 30 in the western hemisphere with fasting and intense devotion by Hindus globally.
Navratri commences at the end of Pitri Paksh, praying for the souls of the departed ancestors and paying tribute to their contributions to society. The end of Navratri is Dussehra during which an effigy of the evil Ravan is burnt to signify the triumph of good over evil.
There were large Dussehra celebrations in India on Friday evening. Duessehra celebrations were planned for New York, New Jersey, Florida and other states on Saturday and Sunday among the large Guyanese community and Indo-Caribbean communities. Dussehra was celebrated in Guyana on Saturday evening in Guyana with the burning of effigy to signify the victory of Shri Ram, the Hindu God. Dussehra, a holiday in India, sets the stage for Diwali festival.
Navratri is one of the holiest periods in the Hindu calendar that is accompanied with fasts and sacrifices over nine days and a time when Hindus perform special poojas at home and or in the mandirs to purify their minds and bodies. It is an extremely wonderful festival highly inspiring and instructive on how people should live. In spite of the difficulties of life in America, Hindus make time to visit their temples and to conduct poojas at home just as they would do in their home country of Guyana or Trinidad or Surinam. People tend to pray during this period with great fervor and devotion similar to the fasting periods of other faiths.
Navratri is associated with the Universal Mother and it celebrates womanhood. It is the mother who provide her children with sustenance and as such as pandits explained Goddesses and women must be propitiated, respected, honored, and celebrated.
During Navratri, the feminine aspects of the Almighty are stressed and Goddesses are propitiated – Hindus do not discriminate among the sexes allowing for the worshipping of Gods and Goddesses. In New York, almost all of the sixty five Indo-Caribbean Temples were packed with worshippers during the nine nights especially on the final evening on Friday. On the final night, little girls or maidens representing the Devis in Hindu worshipping were honored in what is known as Kumari pooja. People visited the temples where the pandits narrate the thrilling episodes of the ‘Ramayana’. Devotees chant the holy name of Rama and celebrate the return of Goddess Sita from the shackles of the evil Rawan. Worshippers tend to fast for the entire period, offering jaal or dhar which is a mixture of curd, milk, honey, sugar, cloves, tills, and other sweet spices at a sacred place in their home or yard to a lingum – their mandir. At poojas, worshippers make offerings of prasadam (with sugar cane, lapsey with puri, fruits, flowers, bail, tulsi and paan leaves, other paraphernalia such as sandal paste, and chandan, and burn in censes (agarbati, gugul, cloves, camphor, Kasturi) at the feet of the universal mother and Lord Rama. After pooja, there is bhojan or the feeding of the worshippers, an unique tradition of Hindus.
At a special religious discourse in Richmond Hill at the Dr. Jagan Square, over one thousand patronized the katha nightly being conducted by Pandit Rajin Balgobin, a very popular pandit from Guyana. The large site is a spectacle to behold with beautiful decorated murthis, roses, flowers, fruits and other decorations creating an atmosphere of resplendent peace and joy. The stage became an inner sanctum of a temple.
There are several meanings attached to the celebration of Navratri which is directly linked to other Hindu festivals like Ram Leela, Dussehra, and Diwali around this time of the year. One meaning given for Navratri is nine nights which connotes worshipping of the Goddess Durga and her two feminine (Lakshmi and Saraswati) transformations. Each is worshipped for three nights to offer protection, provide wealth and guide the devotee to knowledge respectively. Durga means fort or a place that is protected. She is the General in charge of security of the nation. People pray to Durga for protection, strength and shakti (power) in defense against their many enemies. Durga is the collective manifestation of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (destroyer). As such when people worship Durga, they are worshipping the other manifestations of God and are seeking divine protection and removal of disease. A devotee prostrates to Mother Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity, so that he or she can become wealthy, kind and generous towards others. And a devotee worships Mother Saraswati for wisdom.
According to pandits, during Navratri, a devotee becomes conscious of his/her faults, limitations and internal enemies such as lust, hatred, greed and anger and want to reform his life. People make sacrifices in their fast so they can become conscious of their faults and correct them. By worshipping Durga and her sisters, these internal enemies are destroyed and are replaced by love, cheerfulness, compassion, and devotion.
The person becomes a new individual.
“Nav” is also means new and Navratri is observed twice a year to mark the coming of the two new seasons — spring and fall. People begin the two seasons with new inspiration, hope and enthusiasm and they want a renewal of their lives – one is planting of the harvest and the other is reaping the bounties of one’s labor.
The famed Lord Rama is also associated with Navratri — his appearance, disappearance and reappearance in the holy city of Ayodha. In the spring Navratri, Hindus celebrate the birth of Lord Rama and in the fall, Hindus celebrate the destruction of the evil Ravana by Lord Rama.
The Ramleela celebrations are associated with this period and NY Trinis, Guyanese, Surinamese, Jamaican Hindus held such celebrations in their communities. Ram Leela plays are very popular in Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam and are staged during the entire period in New York among Indo-Caribbeans.
In the Caribbean, it is traditional during Navratri for Hindus to invite priests to conduct poojas in their homes. The same was done in NYC.
The Pundits’ Katha along with the singing of Bhajans and kirtan and the playing of music gave fulfillment to the devotees’ religious aspirations. But it is not enough to think of God only during Navratri. People need to make daily sacrifice and to permanently live a decent life and be kind to others.