In Hinduism’s celebration of Durga, lessons for how to navigate global conflicts

The fight against evil, Navaratri shows us, is a prolonged effort against a shifting foe.

Women dance in front of an idol of Hindu goddess Durga before it is immersed in the Hooghly River in Kolkata, India, Oct. 24, 2023. The immersion of idols marks the end of the festival that commemorates the slaying of a demon king by lion-riding, 10-armed goddess Durga, marking the triumph of good over evil. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

(RNS) — As the nine-day festival of Sharada Navaratri comes to an end Tuesday (Oct. 24), Hindus will mark the holiday Vijayadashami, also known as Dussehra, with devotions and celebrations dedicated to the goddess Durga. Hindu Scripture tells how the Durga, a manifestation of divine feminine energy, battled the shape-shifting demon Mahishasura over nine days before prevailing and restoring dharma, or righteousness, to the world.

As the world appears increasingly consumed with conflict, the themes of Sharada Navaratri, the most widely celebrated of the four Navaratris in India and across the Hindu diaspora, may be a guide for all people around the globe to navigating our turbulent times. It is a clarion call to improve ourselves, to act with empathy and understanding for others and realize that the battles against evil, terrorism and injustice must also be fought with a moral compass.

The divine qualities of Durga, particularly her conflation of feminine energy, or shakti, and strength, have been extolled for centuries. The renowned eighth-century Indian scholar-saint Adi Shankara composed the hymn “Mahishasura Mardini” (“Slayer of the Demon Mahisha”) to honor Durga as one of the strongest deities in Hinduism.

But Durga’s victory reminds us too of evil ability to take many forms, just as the shape-shifter Mahishasura did. Facing down evil, therefore, takes persistence. Even when we have moral clarity and righteousness on our side, our ever-evolving battles against evil, injustice and other ills do not necessarily translate into quick wins. Instead, Durga’s spiritual battle tells us, we need perseverance.

In today’s conflict between Israel and Hamas, the now-18-month-old Russia-Ukraine war and even the polarized political arguments we are having in the United States and around the world, the opponents are often engaged in contests of one-upmanship and moral relativism as fights for the good. Winning the argument, not the moral battle, has become more important than the reward of decency, morality and virtue for their own sakes.

Durga’s nine days of struggle portray the feminine qualities of the divine as a benefit to the world. The fifth day of Navaratri, for instance, focuses on nurturing, kindness and empathy by the honoring of the goddess Skanda Mata, or Divine Mother, underscoring the idea that love must also be a weapon in the fight against hate and evil. As such it reminds us that neither good nor evil is always limited to one side of the fight.

The festival also upholds righteousness, calm, devotion and wisdom, reminding us of humanity’s search for enlightenment in times of crisis. Honoring these qualities aligns with the Hindu philosophy of betterment as cyclical, not linear. It tells us we must constantly strive for the highest versions of ourselves.

The story, like so many across faiths and eras, offers humanity hope that while there is no quick fix, the light can be restored to dispel the darkness.

That light is possible even if the despair seems overwhelming at the moment. Just as Durga did not defeat Mahishasura in one night, our fight against evil and for decency and righteousness must be ongoing to achieve that victory.

(Murali Balaji is a journalist and a lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include “Digital Hinduism” and “The Professor and the Pupil,” a political biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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