An elderly couple lived in great poverty, on the brink of a huge forest. They used to walk through the forest everyday, to gather firewood for their daily needs.
One day, Shiva and Parvati were also walking through the same forest, when Parvati happened to see the couple. She was filled with compassion for them, and also a bit of anger at Shiva. “You do so much for people who are wicked and evil, and here is a poor couple that is suffering, yet you haven’t done anything for them.”
“I tried many times before, but they refuse to accept it”, replied Shiva. When Parvati refused to believe him, Shiva laid a bag full of gold coins on the forest pathway, and taking Parvati with him, hid in the bushes nearby.
“What if we turn blind one day?”, asked the wife as she walked on ahead. “How will we find our way through the forest?”
“You are right, my dear. This could happen, and soon”, replied the husband. “Come, let’s tie these pieces of cloth on our eyes, and start practicing right away!” And so they helped blindfold each other, and with the man leading the way, continued to walk on the forest path.
No sooner had they walked a few steps when the man’s leg stuck the bag, and he shouted in pain. His wife, not knowing what had happened, also dashed her feet against the bag, and felt a surge of pain. “What stupid people leave a stone in the middle of a pathway? This forest is not at all safe for the blind” they said, as they side-stepped the bag and continued on their way.
“Now you know?” said Shiva to Parvati. “I have been trying to help them, but they fail to see”, he continued. Even when they have their eyes open, their vision is clouded by what they think is reality. And that is why, even when what they truly want lies at their feet, they keep searching for it…”
We saw how Madhu and Kaitabha represented mala, and Mahishasura represented vikshepa. The asuras in the third carita are more closer home – they can easily represent any of us. And they are more subtle – they don’t try to seize the Devi at first instance, but send a message trying to convince her.
Śumba is the ego, Asmita (I, me, myself) and Niśumba is attachment, Mamata. Wherever “me” goes, mine follows, and hence Śumba and Niśumba are inseparable. They and their generals represent the limitations of the mind, the buddhi. They first interact with the Devi through Chanda (passionate) and Munda (the one with a shaved head).
Chanda is negative passion, or pravritti. This is about running behind sensory pursuits – rāga.. A shaved head usually denotes vairagya, or withdrawal, but since Munda is an asura, it denotes withdrawal due to negativity, not a genuine withdrawal. This is nivritti, or dvesha.
Pravritti and nivritti are not negative by themselves, but their goal determines their tendency. The same pravritti that can pull us into bondage can initially attract us towards liberation, towards self realisation. Likewise the same nivritti that repels us from things that can cause suffering can bring true detachment or dispassion or genuine vairagya. As long as they serve the false self, the ego or Śumba, they are like asuras. They do bring news of the Devi (the Self) who stays in the Himalayas (the Anna-maya-kosha, or physical body). But Śumba, the false self, takes this as one more ‘jewel’ to be enjoyed, rather than a truth to be realized.
Śumba sends a smooth-talking Sugriva to court the Devi, the Self. Is it possible to realize the true Self just by a few good words? No. But that is what we try to do, with the half-knowledge that we possess. The Devi asks for a battle with Śumba, because only after killing the ego, can the true Self be uncovered. Of course, Sugriva’s words do not help the cause of the ego, and so he resorts to threat. We all want to possess spirituality, the same way we possess a car or a house.
“I want enlightenment, and am willing to pay for it by buying precious gems, and countless japa-malas and books of knowledge”. It does not work.
When smooth talk fails, Dhumralochana (the one with smoky vison) arrives. Dhumralochana denotes a distorted perception, that exists because of false knowledge. Just as darkness disappears instantly, the moment you switch on the light, a mere breath of the Self (Devi) is enough to destroy Dhumralochana, who falls down as a pile of ashes.
Yoga is the state of calming the fluctuations (vrittis) of the mind (chitta).
अभ्यासवैराग्याअभ्यां तन्निरोधः ॥१२॥
abhyāsa-vairāgya-ābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ ॥12॥
The state of yoga is attained by constant practice (abhyasa) and genuine detachment (vairagya).
In other words, a yogic state is achieved using the good aspects of Chanda and Munda. Their transformation from asuras is achieved when Kālī beheads them – Kālī is none other than kālā, or time. It takes a violent Kālī to transform Chanda and Munda, but Śumba and Niśumba are subtler, to a point when it is tough to even recognize them for what they are.
Next, Śumba summons the heads of eight asura clans. Without going into the details (and there are details), suffice to say that they represent the eight pasas, or bonds. To battle them, the Devi calls forth seven aspects of her own consciousness, and together with Chandika and Kālī, these nine Devis denote the navagrahas, or nine cosmic influences.
What comes next? As the Yoga Sutras specify – the vrittis in the chitta. This is Raktabija, who denotes our mind fluctuations, brought about by desire. And Raktabija is described well – the more of his blood spills, the more Raktabijas emerge.
Fulfilling a desire leads to another, and another, and many others. Bought the latest iPhone? Now you need the new case, and the new MagSafe charger, and then the new AirPods to go along with it, and…well the next year, the same cycle repeats. The more we give in to our desires, the more of them spring to life, like Raktabija. And that is why the Devi instructs Kālī to strike at the root of desire – and that is the only way to get rid of Raktabija and his clones.
And now, with all the outward manifestations of the ego gone, only the essence remains. A pitched battle with Śumba, the self, and Niśumba, the attachment.
The Devi kills Niśumba first. And attachment is desperate, coming up with multiple arguments and reasons, much like the ten thousand arms that Niśumba sprouts when attacked. And just like in the case of Mahishasura, the Devi’s spear of piercing insight leaves the asura vulnerable. The form that emerges from Niśumba begs for mercy, like we do in sheer desperation of saving bonds of false attachment, but the only way out is to severe this bond with the sword of knowledge. And so the Devi beheads this form, getting rid of it at once.
Now only the naked ego remains. The sense of “I”, as distinct from “you” and the others. The only hinderance in recognizing the universal nature of our existence, of the collective consciousness. Śumba rises to the sky while battling the Devi, signifying disengagement from the world. And when Śumba is finally slain, the dark clouds of ignorance are finally lifted, and the state of samādhi is achieved. This is the dispelling of avidya, or āvarna, which is the third and final hurdle in realizing the Self, the Devi, the infinite nature of our own consciousness.
Says the Devi to Śumba –
एकैवाहं जगत्यत्र द्वितीया का ममापरा
I alone exist in this Universe, who else is there besides me?
Why get rid of Sattva, did you ask? After all, ins’t it a desirable guna? We praise Sattvic tendencies, eat sattvic food to feel pure…then why do we have to rid of it?
In the words of Swami Krishnananda…
Sattva is also a Guna, unfortunately. We always praise Sattva and regard it as a very desirable thing. But it is like a transparent glass that is placed between us and the Truth. You can see through it, but you cannot go beyond it because though the glass is transparent, it can obstruct your movement. It is not like a brick wall, completely preventing your vision, as Tamas does; it is not like a blowing wind which simply tosses you here and there, as Rajas does; it is a plain glass, through which you can have vision of Reality, but you cannot contact Reality nevertheless. How can you contact a thing when there is a glass between you and the thing? Yet you can see it. So they say even Sattva is an obstacle, though it is better than the other two forces in the sense that through it you can have a vision or an insight into the nature of Reality which transcends even Sattva. There is a glass pane and you can see a mango fruit on the other side of it. You can see it very well, but cannot get it; you cannot grab it. You know the reason. Even Sattva is a subtle medium of obstruction, which acts in a double form – as complacency or satisfaction with what has been achieved, and an ignorance of what is beyond. These two aspects of Sattva are indicated by the two personalities of Sumbha and Nisumbha. They have to be dispelled by the power of higher wisdom, which is Maha-Sarasvati.
We spoke about a lot in these nine days, addressing many topics, and giving many answers. But the biggest question of all remains. All the fasting, all the prayer, all the devotion comes to naught, if there is no new you. And so my question to you (and me) today is…
Are you a new YOU after Navratri? Have you truly transcended all your faults and gunas, and emerged victorious? Will you be celebrating your personal Vijayadashami?