Adi Sankara in Bhajagovindam (Verse 7 - see end) expresses sadness at our failure to seek to know the Real due to our engaging in trivial pursuits and wasting this precious gift of life. A similar complaint is expressed by the devotee in the famous kriti: tiruvaDi sharaNam enringu nAn nambi vandEn  (see end):
          "Lord! You have blessed me with human births countless number of times which I have wasted;
           I am tired; is it not sufficient if I just take your name, chant Hara-Hara and get deliverance from
           this never-ending cycle of births?" 

The urge to seek the Real arises in many of us around our middle age (40-50) when we start wondering about the true purpose of our life. The scriptures - the Vedas and Upanishads - come to our help and clarify that this purpose is to integrate our individual identity with the Supreme Brahman. 

The maharishis of yore have understood the difficult nature of the task, since we have to  control and tame the powerful ego that we ourselves had nourished and allowed to grow wild earlier in our life. It therefore, demands a resolute will, and determined effort to wage war against a powerful enemy that resides within and controls us and to succeed in completing the journey of life successfully. A famous slokam in Kathopanishad has graphically described the arduous journey thus:

kshurasya dhaaraa nishitaa durathyayaa, durgam pathastat kavayo vadanti.

The path is unlit and dark; it is like a razor’s edge -- difficult to tread, strewn with obstacles …
The Upanishad therefore, advises us to seek the help of a Guru (praapya varaan nibodhata) to educate and enlighten ourselves,
complete the journey successfully and reach the destination - namely Brahman.

We seek this knowledge from the deities whom we worship during Navaratri; it is the school for us beginners on the spiritual path!
Education here, as in the KG class, is combined with entertainment and some discipline. The discipline is the vratams that many observe during the 9-day period. We know the entertainment part through the annual celebration; let us enquire more and look for the spiritual significance behind it.

In the ancient past, habitation and pathways were unlit and dark at night, with lurking danger from animals and criminals. Hence, night was considered as synonymous with danger and evil. In Sanskrit the name for a demon is Nisha-chara meaning one who moves about at night. It was also believed that the demons gained strength at night. What better way to protect ourselves from them than to have bodyguards who would be on the look-out on our behalf? And what better protectors in our spiritual path than the Gods themselves whom we worship? 

Navaratri  aptly commences around the autumnal equinox, on the first day after Amavasya - the new-moon day. The days are now getting shorter and the nights longer. At night, the moon too has lost its bright light from the sun. The symbolism is complete: longer nights coinciding with loss of moonlight, to indicate the loss of the divine knowledge that we were all born with which we substituted with pseudo-knowledge. Noticing the dying light and realizing that we have lost our way and strayed from the right path, we commence praying to the Almighty to restore us to our original state of enlightenment and show us the way to reach our goal in this life. Navaratri festival itself may be considered as this prayer.

On enquiry (vichara), we learn from Bhagavad Gita (Ch.V-13), that our soul rests in a "city with nine-gates" -- nava-dvaara pura, our body; enemies have entered this city and corrupted our intelligence due to our own negligence. (The nine gates are the nine openings for the organs in our body, namely - the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, the mouth and the genital and excretory organs). As in  any fortress, it is necessary to protect the entry gates with Guards who will be always on the alert. Otherwise, harmful agents might enter through the gates - for example, hallucinatory drugs, false knowledge, temptations etc. that cause harm to the body and mind and make us into Rakshasas. For protecting ourselves from this danger, we need a strong will-power which only the Divine Mother, the personification of Shakti can provide to rescue us from the forces of evil.

In the first three days of Navaratri, the Mother is adored as Durga, Chamundi. She is the supreme power and force we need after the realisation that we are at war against evil. We have sought Her help to remove our weakness, destroy the vices, defects and to fight and annihilate the baser animal qualities which have invaded us such as:     


Ostentation    Arrogance     Self-conceit/Anger .  Harshness      Ignorance.  (Gita XVI-4)

We need Durga Devi’s power and support to protect our spiritual practice from many dangers, internal and external.
With complete faith we rely upon Her since She is the one who destroyed the powerful demon Mahishasura
with weapons provided to her by all the Gods. (Music in praise of Chamundi: ChamundiBettadalli
(click on link for audio)

After succeeding at this initial stage, the next step is gaining a sublime spiritual personality, to acquire positive qualities in place of the eliminated demonical qualities. We have to cultivate and develop all the auspicious qualities and earn immense spiritual wealth to enable us to avoid a relapse into the prior demonical nature and to pay the price for the rare gem of divine wisdom to be received. This pleasant side of the aspirant's Sadhana is depicted by the worship of Mother Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, during the next three days. She bestows upon Her devotees who have renounced the five aasuree qualities, the inexhaustible divine wealth: Deivi Sampath - the 26 virtues stated in Gita XVI, 1-3.

Once we succeed in weeding out the evil (aasuree) propensities, and developing Saatvic or divine (daivee) qualities, we are ready to attain to the wisdom-state and  to receive divine knowledge. At this stage we commence the worship of Mother Sarasvati, who is divine knowledge personified and the embodiment of Knowledge-Absolute. The sound of Her celestial veena awakens the notes of the sublime utterances of the Upanishads in us to reveal the highest Truth. She bestows the knowledge of the supreme and the mystic praNavam (OM) from her Veena and imparts full knowledge of the Self as represented by Her pure, dazzling snow-white dress. To propitiate Goddess Sarasvati, the giver of this knowledge, we pray to her in the last three days of Navaratri.

The tenth day, Vijaya Dasami, marks the triumph of the soul at having attained liberation even while living in this world, through the descent of knowledge by the Grace of the three Devis. The soul is now resting in its own Supreme Self or Sat-chit-ananda Brahman. The devotee observes this day to celebrate the victory, the achievement of the goal with the proclamation: so’ham - so’ham: सोऽहं I am He! I am He!

A note on  the significance of the South Indian Kolu of Bommais (dolls):

The Lord - Isvara is both the efficient cause and the material cause of all creation. There is no distance between Him and His creation. Therefore, we may invoke the Lord in any form that we choose, for the He is never away from any part of His creation. As He Himself has declared in Gita VI-30:

yo maam pashyati sarvatra, sarvam ca mayi pashyati;
tasyaaham na pranashyaami, sa ca me na pranashyati

I am never lost to one who sees me everywhere and sees everything in me.

This Truth is reflected popularly in the practice of arranging images of a sample of creation on the nine steps of the Navaratri Kolu. Once placed on the Kolu steps, the dolls represent the idols of the Devis whose Shakti it is that made creation possible. They are then considered and worshipped in the same manner as the idols in a temple. Philosophy, religion and joyous living are thus meaningfully integrated during the Navaratri celebrations. It is for this reason that great thinkers have said: ‘Hinduism is not just religion; it is also a way of life.’

In Delhi, UP and some other places in North India, Vijaya Dashami is celebrated as Dussehra, a word derived from Dasha-hara, which means "victory over the ten-faced one." The ten-faced One is "Dashamukha" - Ravana, Lord Rama's adversary. His ten heads symbolize our ten senses (five of perception and five of action); also our ten negative tendencies: passion, pride, anger, greed, infatuation, lust, hatred, jealousy, selfishness and crookedness . Tall effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakarna and other rakshasas stuffed with fire-crackers are set ablaze in public places on the night of Dussehra to celebrate the victory of good over evil. Ram Leela plays are enacted late into the night narrating the stories from Ramayana.

Bhaja Govindam VERSE 7

balStavt! ³Ifas´>

bälastävat kréòäsaktaù

When a boy, one is attached to sport;

té[Stavt! té[Is´>,

taruëastävat taruëésaktaù |

when a youth, one is attached to a young woman;

v&ÏStavc! icNtas´>

våddhastävac cintäsaktaù

when old. one is attached to anxiety;

pre äüi[ kae=ip n s´>

pare brahmaëi ko'pi na saktaù

to the supreme Brahman, no one, alas, is attached!

At successive stages of life, man is engrossed in play or in sex-love, in family cares and in inconsequential anxieties. Never does he turn to the quest for true wisdom. Sri Sankara bewails this failing in every man, and is concerned to find a remedy for it. Life is wasted in the quest of what is transient and deluding. Though aware of the delusion, at no period of his life does a man seek to know the Real.

Song: tiruvaDi sharaNam (Click for audio)

raagam: kaambhOji
taaLam: aadi
Composer: Gopaalakrishna Bhaarati

tiruvadi sharaNam enringu nAn nambi vandEn-dEvAdi dEva nin  (tiruvadi)

marupadiyum karuvadaiyum kuzhiyil taLLi varuttappadutta vENdAm ponnambalavA nin

yedutta mAnida janmam vINAgi pOguden-kurai tIrtta pAdumillaiyE
aduttu vanda ennai taLLalAgAdu ara-harAvenru shonnAlum pOdAdO
taduttu vandaruLa samayam gOpAlakriSnan santatam paNindu pugazh pOTrum

The devotee, after realising that his efforts at deliverance (moksham) from the samsaric cycle have not succeeded,
surrenders to the Lord and prays for His grace to end his repeated births. 

Ishaavaasyam idam sarvam yat kim ca jagatyam jagat 
tena tyaktena bhunjithaah maa gridhah kasyasvid dhanam"

The entire universe is indwelt, enveloped, covered by the Supreme Being; 
Live a happy life in this world. Enjoy your existence; do not suffer.

A note by Swami Chinmayananda on the above text:

This positive state of harmony and peace, which can be invoked by
an intelligent person of will and courage, is called God.

He is present everywhere --

as the raga in the music, or

the canvas in a painting.

He is the warp and woof of the entire tapestry of life,

as the thread in a piece of cotton.

We must have

the ears to listen to the raga,

the understanding to see the canvas, and

the knowledge to recognize the thread in the cloth.

The hurried existence of busy experiences diverts our attention;

we consequently fail to see, hear, or know Him. ………. 

We can do no better than sing in chorus with Hans Denk: 

“Oh my God, how does it happen in this poor old world

that Thou art so great and yet nobody finds Thee,

that Thou callest so loudly and nobody hears Thee,

that Thou art so near and yet nobody feels Thee,

that Thou givest Thyself to everybody and yet nobody even knows Thy name?

Men flee from Thee and say they cannot find Thee;

Men turn their backs and say they cannot see Thee;

Men cover their ears and say they cannot hear Thee.”  - Swami Chinmayananda