What is the Hindu festival of Navratri?

A depection of the Goddess Durga - worshipped during Navratri.

The festival of Navratri (nine nights) celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Navaratri begins around harvest time in October, and, celebrations last for nine days.

Navarati sits within the wider festival of Durga Puja, which honours the mother goddess Durga. In one retelling of the triumph of good, a demon named Mahisha, who took the form of a buffalo, threatened the gods. To meet this threat, the gods pleaded with Durga to do what they could not – kill the demon Mahisha.

Bestowed with the weapons and strength of the gods, including Shiva’s trident, Vishnu’s disc, Yama’s iron rod, and Indra’s thunderbolt, Durga took on this mission. But it did not prove an easy victory. For the demon Mahisha’s blood created new demons to attack Durga. A prolonged battle ended with the demon’s decapitation.

Another popular story in northern India concerns the slaying of the ten-headed demon King Ravana. In a final and epic battle with Rama, who pursued Ravana in his chariot. Rama’s golden arrows, which transformed into serpents as they reached the demon King. The arrows had decapitated Ravana’s many heads but they regrew in an instant. This prolonged the conflict for many nights as Rama fired hundreds of arrows.

Matali, Rama’s charioteer, advised that he use the divine arrow to end this battle. The ‘dreaded arrow of Brahma’ was a gift presented to Rama by Agastya. Its divinity stems from its capacity to never miss its target. That divine arrow, powered by the gods, pierced the demon King’s heart and killed him. Ravana’s ten heads represent the ten days of the festival. And Hindus use the each day to remove bad characteristics – such as jealousy and lust.

Motherhood is an important festival theme. Stories allude to Shiva’s decision to allow Durga to visit her mother for nine days of the year. Families attempt to follow this tradition and return on the tenth day.

To propitiate the nine planets and harvest season, nine different kinds of food grain seeds are grown in small containers and then offered to the goddesses.

Some devotees fast and offer prayers relating to health and prosperity. Others seek introspection. In Tamil Nadu, celebrations extend to the goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati.

Durgashtami, Mahanavami and Vijayadasami are the names of the final three days of Navarathri. In Kerala, those celebrating worship Saraswathi as the goddess of knowledge. The deity of Gayathri represents the fountain of fine arts and science.

Diverse celebrations take place across India.

Vijayadasami marks the end of the nine-day festival. Across India, effigies are burnt and idols are cast into rivers in the hope of rekindling of the soil’s fertility.

The spectre of a growing Hindu nationalism continues to haunt parts of India and undermines the unifying sanctity of certain religious celebrations. It morphed into a paroxysm of anti-Muslim anger and violence last year. Police had arrested 140 people after violence between Muslims and Hindus broke out in the state of Gujarat.

That violence came in a climate where radical Hindus, spurred on by the success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), lobbied to ban Muslims and other religious minorities from participating festivals like Navratri.

Before his electoral success, the United States had denied him entry in 2005. The State Department can deny foreign dignitaries visas on grounds of “severe violations of religious freedom”. Narendra Modi remains the only person ever denied entry to the United States under this provision.

Modi faced allegations that he failed to stop deadly riots by Hindus against the Muslim minority in the state of Gujarat in 2002. At least 1,000 people died as a result of the riots that lasted a matter of days.  Though the courts later found that Modi had no case to answer.

A reminder of the faultlines of exploited religious tensions appeared in Bishara, near Delhi last week. A mob murdered Mohammed Akhlaq, a 50-year-old labourer, on the belief that he and his Muslim family had consumed beef, an animal considered sacred in Hinduism.

The seductive narrative of religious nationalism can undermine religious cohesion, even in times of celebration.