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Heroic ShāktismThe Cult of Durgā in Ancient Indian Kingship$
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Bihani Sarkar

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266106

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266106.001.0001

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Navarātra: The Festival of the Nine Nights

Navarātra: The Festival of the Nine Nights

Chapter:
(p.210) Chapter 7 Navarātra: The Festival of the Nine Nights
Source:
Heroic Shāktism
Author(s):

Bihani Sarkar

Publisher:
British Academy
DOI:10.5871/bacad/9780197266106.003.0008

Fundamental in making the myth of civilization meaningful in Indian culture was the performance of the Navarātra, the festival of the Nine Nights, which was intertwined with Durgā's cult. This final chapter deals with how the cult functioned in creating the spectacle of ‘public religion’ through a reconstruction of this ritual in which the goddess was worshipped by a ruler in the month of Āśvina. A detailed exposition of the modus operandi of the Nine Nights shows us how the religion of the goddess was spectacularly brought to life in an event of grand theatre and solemnized before its participants, the king and the entire community. The development of the Nine Nights from a fringe, Vaiṣṇava ceremony in the month of Kṛṣṇa's birth under the Guptas, to a ritual supplanting the established autumnal Brahmanical ceremonies of kingship and finally into a crucial rite in Indian culture for consolidating royal power, formed a crucial motivation for the expansion of Durgā's cult. The chapter isolates and analyzes in depth the principal early traditions of the Navarātra in East India and in the Deccan by an assessment of the available ritual descriptions and prescriptions in Sanskrit and eye-witness sources from a later period, used to fill in the gaps in the earlier sources. The most elaborate description of a court-sponsored rite emerges from the Kārṇāṭa and Oinwar courts of Mithilā, which embody what appears to be a ritual that had matured a good few centuries earlier before it was recorded in official literature. Among these the account of the Oinwars by the Maithila paṇḍita Vidyāpati is the most extensive treatment of the goddess's autumnal worship by a king, and attained great renown among the learned at the time as an authoritative source. His description portrays a spectacular court ceremony, involving pomp and pageantry, in which horses and weapons were worshipped, the king was anointed, and the goddess propitiated as the central symbol of royal power in various substrates over the course of the Nine Nights. Vidyapati's work also reveals the marked impact of Tantricism on the character of the rite, which employed Śākta mantras and propitiated autonomous, ferocious forms of the goddess associated with the occult, particularly on the penultimate days. Maturing in eastern India, the goddess's Navarātra ceremony was proselytized by the smartas further to the west and percolated into the Deccan, where, from around the 12th century, it attained an independent southern character. Whereas the eastern rite focused on the goddess as the central object of devotion, the southern rite focused on the symbolism of the king, attaining its most distinctive and lavish manifestation in the kingdom of Vijayanagara. Throughout this development, the Navarātra remained intimately associated with the theme of dispelling calamities, thereby augmenting secular power in the world, sustaining the power of the ruler and granting political might and health to a community. It remained from its ancient core a ritual of dealing with and averting crises performed collectively by a polis. Such remains its character even today.

Keywords:   Navarātra, Durgā Pūjā, history of the Navarātra, Mithilā, Deccan, Bengal, Nepalese, Vijayanagara

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