There is an endless variety of modes of worship and observance for Navaratri, the nine nights of Devi. During these nine days and nine nights, Ma Durga is worshiped for the first three days, then Ma Lakshmi for the fourth through sixth days and finally Ma Saraswati for the last three days. Vijaya Dashami (the tenth day) celebrates the triumph of Devi over the Rakshasas, the defeat of Ravana by Rama, and of Dharma generally over Adharma. Ma Durga destroys our enemies and negative tendencies; Ma Lakshmi bestows upon us that which is auspicious and good; and Ma Saraswati illuminates our minds and consciousness with the radiance of subtle intelligence and wisdom and the eternal truths of the Mahavakyas (the great Vedantic aphorisms revealed in the Upanishads) – Tat Tvam Asi, Aham Brahmasmi, Ayam Atma Brahma, etc.
For those who do not already have a specific routine in place for observing Navaratri, here are some general guidelines:
At the beginning of Navaratri (some say on the night of Amavasya or in the morning of Pratipat (the first official day of Navaratri)), one should set up the altar for Devi. This can either be in the puja room, or if not possible, then use a designated space elsewhere in the house. Make sure that the site is quiet and not an area where there will be eating, talking, or noise from the TV, etc. Ritual purity is important in the observance of any vrata (sacred observance / undertaking). When so much energy and tapobala (accumulation of spiritual strength and power) is generated, ritual purity is what seals that energy within and keeps it from leaking away – like if a bucket is filled with water, but if there are holes at the bottom, the water will drain out. Observance of rules of ritual purity – such as showering before cooking prasadam or entering the puja area, keeping a set of special clothes that are used for puja only, washing and keeping puja vessels separately, keeping meticulous cleanliness, etc. – is what makes our sadhana bear fruit.
The altar can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. In South India, a beautiful arrangement of golu dolls are kept on a series of steps especially for Navaratri. These dolls are often handed down, generation to generation, and carefully wrapped and stored during the rest of the year. Banana leaves and rangoli / kolam are used to beautify the altar.
Clean the designated area and the table can be covered by a red cloth. The most important step is the Kalasha Sthapana, establishing the kalasha. Take a copper kalasha, fill it with water, tie a red thread around it and decorate it as you wish, setting it on top of a tray of raw rice. Apply haldi and kumkum to the kalasha, cover it with a coconut and mango leaves (or, if not available, a small plate can be kept on top with a small image of Devi). There is a full puja that can be done for kalasha sthapana, or else, one can simply recite Gange ca Yamuna caiva Godavari Saraswati, Narmada Sindhu Kaveri, jalesmin sannidhim kuru (invocation of the seven sacred rivers, while filling the kalasha with the water.
The kalasha is to be kept like this, undisturbed, for the entire Navaratri. It is a manifestation of Devi Herself. Every morning and night, an oil or ghee lamp should be lit in front of the kalasha. Naivedyam (food offering) should be offered daily, along with flowers. The special naivedyam for Navaratri is sundal (cooked kala chana, chickpeas, whole moong daal, etc., served dry with coconut, curry leaves, mustard seeds, etc.) , but one can simply serve fruits and nuts instead. All worship for Navaratri will be performed in front of the kalasha, and at the end of Navaratri, the kalasha is shaken gently and the water used to sanctify the entire house.
You will be amazed how much power emanates from the kalasha, when properly established. It is magical. All the energies and qualities of Devi are concentrated and embodied by the kalasha. Sometimes the very room feels like it is vibrating from the waves of energy radiating from the kalasha. Such is the power of Devi and Navaratri. This altar will be the center of worship during the nine days, the site where all puja, japa, chanting should be performed in order to concentrate and summon all the energies of Devi that are flowing around us in great currents during these special days. If it is possible to keep an akhanda deepa (lamp that burns 24 hours a day), do so.
The most important time of worship for Navaratri is at night. That is when Devi is at the height of her powers and when the sadhus and rishis are intensely worshipping her – to do puja at this time is to tap into all of those sacred energies when they are at their peak.
Try to set aside one or two hours every night for Navaratri puja. The worship can take many forms – japa, chanting of various stotras (Lalita Sahasranama, Durga Sahasranama, etc.), performing homa (see here for more information) or performing elaborate puja of Devi.
Two special sadhanas are especially recommended for Navaratri –
- Chanting of the navarna mantra (Om Aim Hreem Kleem Chamundaye Vicche) – ideally, one should be initiated into this mantra; and
- Recitation of Devi Mahatmayam (Chandi Path / Durga Saptashati).
To recite the entire text of Devi Mahatmayam, it takes approximately 2 hours (or more if one is not proficient in Sanskrit). In lieu of reciting the entire text every evening, it can be spread across the nine days as follows according to tradition:
Day 1: Chapter 1,
Day 2: Ch 2-4;
Day 3: Ch 5-6;
Day 4: Ch 7;
Day 5: Ch 8;
Day 6: Ch 9-10;
Day 7: Ch 11;
Day 8: Ch 12;
Day 9: Ch 13;
Day 10: Ch 14.
At the beginning of the daily recitation, one should first recite Devi Kavacham, Argala Stotra and Kilaka Stotra. At the end, one should recite Devi Suktam. The entire text, along with the preliminary and concluding shlokas, is available here.
Some extra effort during these nine days really can help one leapfrog ahead in your sadhana, because any worship done during this time is many times more powerful than when performed in normal times.
It is customary to keep a strict vegetarian fast (no eggs, onions or garlic). In fact, this year, Dominos in India is keeping a strict vegetarian menu for Navaratri. For those who are already vegetarian, take it a step further and avoid grains / cereals or try to eat simply once a day and fast on milks and fruits, etc. Do what is a bit of a stretch for you without leaving you feeling too deprived. To explore some different fasting options, read this.
Fasting is not limited to restricting oneself from food. To complete the vrata, one should also abstain from gossip, negative thoughts, useless talks and worldly activities to the extent possible. It is very easy to go into deep quietude and become absorbed in sublime thoughts of the Divine at this time — if one observes restraint and puts in some effort towards sadhana. This is the least we can do and it is our duty to do so.
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