THE GREAT AUTUMNAL FESTIVAL.
The ten days after the new moon of this month – 23rd September to 2nd October 1911 are held sacred to Durga among the Hindus. The Dasara as the celebration is commonly known is of all festivals the most solemn and popular. So dear is the festival to the Hindu heart that it has passed into a proverb that anybody who has not the means of celebrating it should sell one of his children in order to do so. Though in the main the festival is dedicated to the worship of Durga, time and local tradition have introduced into it an infinite variety of detail as to the gods and goddesses worshipped and the amount of homage paid to each of them. In Bengal and in Northern India custom has not deviated from Puranic tradition and Durga is the central and most important object of worship. In Southern India, however the predilections of each religious sect have made their influence is kept up and the victory of Kali over Mahishasura, the buffalo-headed demon who warred against the gods, reduced them to the most object condition of poverty and defied the commands of the creator himself, is celebrated with great solemnity. The worshippers of Siva and the tradition and worship Kali, paying homage to other gods and goddesses also whom time and varying usage have mixed up with the central figure. With the educated classes of the Madras Presidency, the Dasara is generally regarded as constituting the worship of Sarasvati, the goddess of learning and arts. The illiterate and the workmen call it the Ayutha puja or the adoration of tools which are instrumental in supplying them with bread.
Women celebrate it with great delight and it is the women's festival par excellence. The house-hold toys and images of gods and goddesses are arranged in a show so as to produce a most impressive effect. Music parties are held and the guests are served with pan 'supari'. In the display of the dolls prominent positions are assigned to Durga, Lakshmi and Sarasvati. The women suppose that these goddesses performed austere penance during the nine days and won the gods Siva, Vishnu and Brahma respectively as their husbands on the dasami or the tenth day. Near the show, books and tools are also arranged and the goddess of learning is invoked. Usually a goddess is invoked on a copper or silver vessel filled with rice to the brim and having a coconut over it. A simple offering of flowers, fruits and coconut is made. The eldest male member of the house generally conducts the worship. Puja on some scale is made on each day; but on the last three days worship on a grander scale is offered. During the occasions of worship, the rich present married women with clothes.
The Dasara is also the special feast of the scholars. One may see even today the pupils of a village school, dressed in gay apparel parade through the streets during the nine days, singing songs composed by their master who marches at their head. As they sing the songs which are generally in praise of Sarasvati, they dance in a simple fashion, marking time with sticks, before the doors of their relatives and the principal inhabitants of the village. Some of the little fellows carry bows and now and then shoot out from the cups of their arrows, a scented powder. As the procession goes along, people give the children presents of money which the teacher collects for the celebration of the festivities on the ninth and the tenth day.
The festival is made the occasion of great show and pomp by the native princes, Zamindars. The arms and weapons of the state are collected together and arranged in a place. The pourohit sprinkles water on them and makes puja to propitiate them. At the present time the worship is very simple consisting only in an offering of flowers, fruit, coconuts and beaten rice &c. But in former days, after the Brahman had invoked the goddess in the arms and retired, goats and sheep were sacrificed amidst the beat of drums and the blare of trumpets and other instruments. During the ten days of the festival, princes gave entertainments resembling very much the gladiatorial combats of the ancient Romans, consisting as they did of contests between animals or between animals and men or worst of all between men themselves. The bloody fights between the athletes were the most inhuman and revolting and marked the popular taste of the rude times; but they have been supplanted now by music parties and harikathas.
This universal festival of the Hindus is supposed to be the celebration of a portentous event in the history of the heavens, narrated in the Puranas. The kingdom of heaven was in danger, the demons made all-powerful by the sufferance of the Almighty attacked the regions of the gods dethroned them and defied the orders of Brahma himself. In this imminent crisis, help was invoked of Vishnu, the Lord of gods. He grew mightily angry on beholding their wretchedness and streams of glory rushed forth from his face. In them appeared mahamaya. Streams of glory issued also from the faces of the other gods and centered the person of mahamaya who become a body of glory resembling a mountain on fire. The gods then gave their weapons to this lady who in a frightful rage ascended into the air and slew mahishasura, the buffalo-headed demon who led the asura host. The kingdom of heaven was thus redeemed and the immortals were saved from their powerful enemy. The great king Suratha is said to have celebrated the event in the eighth manvantara or cycle of humanity. The Vedas, though they ignore the adoration of any visible gods or tangible forms of modern Hindu idolatry, have sung of the panchasaradiya yajna and vasantotsava or the autumnal and vernal festivals. Not only this, but in the Aranyaka which is a later appendage of the black Yajur Veda, we find hymns sung in praise of Ambika or Durga. The myth of the Puranas regarding the origin of Durga and her worship occurs in a plain form in the Yajur-Veda. Brahma, the creator being desirous of multiplying his progeny, himself became pregnant in a novel form and produced the asuras from the thighs and threw at them eatables in an earthen vessel. Then the form with which he generated the asuras became metamorphosed into dark night. He created the gods from the mouths and gave them nectar to drink in a golden cup and the mouth became the bright day. The gods stand for the day and the asuras, for the night. In the earlier Vedas, light is identified with the gods and darkness or night with the asuras. The figurative story of the battle between darkness and light for the kingdom of heaven has been obscured in the myth of the Puranas. A consideration of these facts has led modern Sanskrit scholars to believe that Durga puja was in its inception a worship of the Dawn. The Dakshinayana (the course of the south of the equator), is the night of the gods and the Uttarayama (the course of the Sun to the north of the equator) their day. The equinoxes therefore are the dawn and the gloaming of the gods the proper moments for worshipping Durga who is the dawn or the goddess of twilight in the vedas. R. K.