Women in the ancient Indian traditions have a rich past. Since ancient times in India, the status of women was no less to a man in many aspects of social life. There was no hue and cry for gender equality as women were considered superior for the higher responsibilities they had in passing on the values and nurturing up a generation. The Indian concept of womanhood is not about transient youth and beauty. It is about power and energy which sustains the world. This feminine power is the instrumental and creative cause for anything to exist and function.
Even the father of this cosmos, the Great Lord Shiva is said to be incomplete without his divine Shakti. One of the 64 manifestations of Lord Shiva is the half man-half woman called the 'Ardhanareeswara' form with Parvati constituting the left half of Shiva. This is the metaphor used to portray the philosophical insight (darshana) of 'Samkhya' where Purusha (male in nature) and Prakriti (female in nature) come together make the cosmos. Shakti is the power of the Purusha and the instrumental cause for anything that we perceive as creation in the cosmos. This is the high philosophy of the Samkhya darshana.
Such was the importance of womanhood that even the great history books of India - the Mahabharata and the Ramayana tell us about the annihilation of the evil doers because a single woman was snubbed by people in power.
No ceremony or Vedic ritual is said to be complete without the participation of the lady of the house. To the great spiritual teacher Swami Vivekananda, the ideal womanhood originates in India where both "men and women were priests, “sapatimini (saha-dharmini)” or co-religionists as the Vedas call them… man and wife together offered their sacrifices, and this idea was carried so far that a man could not even pray alone, because it was held that he was only half a being, for that reason no unmarried man could become a priest."
From the highest reality, according to the Swami there was no distinction of gender. Swami Vivekananda remarked “there is neither man nor woman (in Vedanta) for the soul is genderless… It is a lie to say that I am a man or a woman or I belong to this country or that. All the world is my country, because I have clothed myself with as my body.”
Nine evenings for Shakti and her significance...The festivity during Navratri is around the personification of "Shakti" and her invocation. “Shakti” like many terms in Sanskrit is difficult to translate. Shakti comes from the root word "shak," which means "to be able," "to do," "to act". Hence Shakti in the Indian spiritual traditions is the enabler – the source of all, the universal principle of energy, power or creativity, the very power behind the cosmos.
The Navratri (nine evenings) is dedicated to the worship and invocation of Shakti. The nine days are divided into three sets of three days. On the first three days, the goddess is worshipped as a spiritual force called Durga also known as Kali in order to destroy all our impurities. The second three days, the Mother is adored as a giver of spiritual wealth, Lakshmi, bestowing inexhaustible divine wealth. The final three days is for worshiping the goddess of wisdom, Saraswati. All three aspects of the divine femininity are invoked in worship during the nine nights of worship. The nine days' puja ends in the great festivity on the tenth day - the Dassera Day, the Vijaya Dasami Day – the dawn of self knowledge.
Many lessons on Indian womanhood...Given the exalted status of feminity in the Indian traditions, there are many forms of the divine that women can look up to during Navratri. The divine Indian female with the many hands is visualised to hold many a things from a lotus, a rosary to a trident only symbolic of the responses to the different circumstances. Not to forget the ferocious lions and tigers as Shakti’s vehicles. She takes the form of a terrible Kali sometimes, a nourisher like Divine Annapoorna, a provider of wealth like Lakshmi, a giver of the highest knowledge like Saraswati or even a healer like Siddhidatri (a form of Durga).
Given these divine forms for invocation during Navratri, there seems to be no backstage role for the Indian woman. Restrictions and any form of social constriction is simply a joke and completely man-made. With such a glorious personification of Shakti as a tradition for womanhood, one simply cannot afford to ignore it.
About Indian womanhood, the popular Indian mystic Sri Sri Ravi Shankar remarks, "In India, the female energy is depicted as Shakti the embodiment of strength against injustice combined with beauty, love and compassion. Shakti is also represented in the trinity of Durga, goddess of valour and vitality, Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and well-being, and Saraswati, goddess of knowledge and art. Women just need a reminder that all these Goddesses are holding such important portfolios (Defence, Wealth and Education) and that they better start claiming their own portfolios too."
By invoking Shakti, Navratri reminds us to celebrate the original Indian version of exalted womanhood. To know more about Shakti and her true nature, getting to know the meaning of the popular Devi stutis would be a great start e.g. Annapoorna stotram, Lakshmi ashtakam, Lalitha Sahasranama, Devi Bhaagvatam, Devi Mahatyam, Mahishasuramardini stotram, Mahalakshmi ashtakam, Meenakshi stotram etc.
Jai ambe mata ki Jai. Jai Mata Di.
Ram Lingam blogs his insights on India and Indian culture at www.indiasutra.co.nz