Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dasara Mythology

Dasara is one of the most colourful and popular festivals of India. It is also referred to as Navarathri. Though the celebrations manifest themselves in different ways, there is a unity underlying them all and that is the victory over the evil through the goddess. Thus it is a festival of goddess though her name may differ from place to place. Hence, Dasara or Navarathri is a good example of the unity in diversity of Indian culture.

The entire country during Dasara throbs with an unusual religious fervor combined with cultural enthusiasm. Different cultural activities highlighting the greatness of our heritage are arranged throughout the country. However, the Dasara of Mysore has been famous throughout the world and is being celebrated in a grand manner. But what we see today is a highly evolved festival as compared to the Dasara described in mythological works. Thus the origin of Dasara can be traced back to the times of puranas and epics.

Navarathri the forerunner of Dasara is a festival of mother goddess. This goddess amalgamated the power and prowess from no less than Vishnu, Shiva and Agni for the sake of protecting the good from the evil. For this task, the gods thought that Devi was the right person and requested her to take up this responsibility of killing the demons who were a menace to the society. Each one of the gods gave their own powers and weapons to this goddess and she became indomitable energy personified.

This goddess had to destroy many demons. Most of them had obtained powers from Siva, Vishnu and Brahma and hence the goddess had to assume multifaceted forms in accomplishing her goal. Thus she is known by various names and the work Devimahatmya describes all these forms:

Mahakali the destroyer of Madhu Kaitabha; Mahishasuramardini, who killed demon Mahishasura; Chamudeshwari, the vanquisher of Chandamunda; Kali, the destroyer of Raktabija; Durga, the harbinger of the destruction of Kamsa; Raktadanti, the great destroyer of Danti; Sakambari, the goddess who destroyed the demon of famines; Durgi, who killed demon Durga; Bhramani, the killer of Aruna.

However, there is no unanimity among the puranas regarding the above nine names of the goddesses and the demons killed by them. Of these nine forms, the most popular in Karnataka in particular and South India in general is Mahishasuramardini, Durga and Chamudeshwari.

Our land is closely associated with the goddess Mahishamardini, the destroyer of the valiant buffalo - headed demon Mahishasura. This Goddess is said to have destroyed this wicked demon in what we call today Mysore. In fact in ancient records and inscriptions, this city is referred to as Mahishasurapura or Mahishana Uru, meaning the town of Mahisha or it may be construed as Mahisha meaning the vanquisher of the demon. Though this name is believed to have been mythological in nature, it was in use in the early period. Ashoka is said to have sent a Buddhist monk by name Mahadeva for the propagation of Buddhism to Mahishamandala.

Even Mahabharata also referred to Mahishaka. The contemporary Tamil people identified and equated Mahishamandala with Yeumainad meaning the land of Mahisha or buffalo. From all these evidence it becomes clear that contemporary and later people firmly believed that Mysore area was the land connected either with Mahishasura or Mahishamardini. Sculptures of Mahishamardini killing demon Mahishasura have been quite popular in temples of Karnataka. Thus traditionally Mahishasuramardini is closely associated with South Karnataka or former Mysore State.

According to puranas the Devi assumed nine forms to accomplish the task given to her. Hence these nine forms are worshipped during the nine days of festival from Padya to Navami (day 1 to 9 according to Hindu Panchanga). In course of time the worship of Lakshmi and Saraswathi were also added as the two goddesses had become highly popular in Hindu pantheon. Another significant ritual of Navaratri is the exalted position given to unmarried girls (Kannikas) who are supposed to personify the great goddess. It is said, unmarried girls during Navaratri festival take the forms of Kumari, Kalyani, Rohini, Chandika, Sambhavi, Durga, Subhadra and Kali. Each one is worshipped during these nine days and the young girls are fed and given presents.

That Navaratri is not confined to human beings alone is attested to by the fact that gods were the first to celebrate Navaratri to pay homage to the goddess who removed their rivals in the form of demons long long ago. Thus the celebration of Navaratri was inaugurated by gods themselves. When the puranas and epics glorified this festival which was performed by the gods, it had great impact on the kings who considered themselves as gods on earth. Ramayana narrates that Sri Rama invoked the goddess and achieved significant victory over Ravana, the personification of evil, on Vijayadashami day.

Mahabharata also extols the efficacy of this festival. Pandavas who had hidden their weapons under a Shami tree (banni) worshipped them and started their victorious march (digvijaya). In all these context it has to be noted that the goddess was invoked not for any personal gain but for the happiness of the people upholding the moral order.

Naturally the kings of the later days imitated the gods and it became a tradition. Though Navaratri is mentioned in inscription, details are not available. The real Navaratri as we perform today was the contribution of Vijayanagar emperors which itself may be studied separately. Thus the origin of Dasara is shrouded in mythology.

Prof. A. V. Narasimha Murthy,
Former Head,
Department of Ancient History & Archaeology,
University of Mysore


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