KOLKATA: Shahid Ali is a Muslim priest who will perform the rituals at a Durga Puja this year. But that’s not the only reason we’re writing about him. Like the deity he will worship, Shahid and the humble locality he stays in, are a symbol of the victory of good over evil, of humanity over divisive faith and of the secular mind over zealous theocrats.
Balwant Singh, a member of the puja committee, says: “Shahid fasts for all four days and performs puja according to Hindu shastras“
Every year, my grandparents used to take us to Uncle Devraj’s house in Karachi where together we celebrated the annual full moon sighting, known as Diwali. Devraj was Hindu, and my grandfather was Muslim, but they both spoke Sindhi and shared familial roots. Theirs was not a unique story. Unlike in Punjab, where partition brought bloodshed on an unprecedented scale, the Sindh province to the south saw little or no communal violence. The Hindus of Sindh largely stayed behind. Muslim and Hindu families shared bonds that reached back generations; a sense of respect for community prevailed. My grandfather even had his own collection of Hindu icons in his study. Perhaps I’d taken the Durga from Devraj’s house thinking it would be equally at home with him.
Those memories, long forgotten, came flooding back when I decided to make a trip to the Hinglaj—a Hindu holy site located half a day’s journey from Karachi. The Hinglaj temple is located in a cave in the Hingol mountains. It is where the goddess Sati’s head (one of the forms of Durga) is said to have fallen from the sky after her body was cut into 51 pieces by Vishnu. “The Hinglaj is to us as the Ka’abah is to you,” said my local Hindu guide, Danesh Kumar, referring to the shrine in Mecca toward which all Muslims direct their daily prayers.
MUMBAI: Mohammed Tahir and his wife Zubeida, main organisers of a local Navratri festival, have been celebrating since 1983.
Tahir said that his wife had dreamt of the Goddess and the couple has since been setting up a makeshift temple every year dedicated to Goddess Durga. “Every year, the temple has a different setting. We have made replica of the Balaji, Vaishno Devi Temple in Jammu, Kedarnath and Badrinath,” said Tahir.
Zubeida said the temple was for everyone who believed that all religions taught different paths to reach the same God. “It is for everyone who believes in the unity of religions. We all celebrate it together, be it Hindu or Muslim. In fact people from various religions and regions come here,” said Zubeida.
Mohammad Tahir, 61, is a labour contractor and has been to Vaishnodevi temple 15 times. “I wanted to keep a Bhandara like that temple and asked the goddess for strength to replicate it in my area. People have been very helpful and have donated a lot of groceries. Over 700 people are fed here daily, after the evening Aarti. Till date, I’ve never had to ask for funds. They just come.”
Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh has been the house of communal harmony right from its existence. Here everyone believes in the age old ethos which has led to upsurge the traditional root of the country. One such instance is of Shah Alam Zaidi. Muslim by religion, Zaidi and his family donated a land for building a Hindu temple and a mosque adjacent to each other. Zaidi is famous among the people of the region, as he serves to the temple with utmost devotion and faith. During the occasion of Navratari he takes part in all the rituals performed in the temple. Built two hundred years ago this temple and mosque in its side clearly reflects the fact that the culture of communal harmony still prevails in the country.
TRIPURA: Muslims in two villages bordering Bangladesh in Tripura are jointly celebrating the Durga Puja with Hindus. Dominated by Muslims, the Kulubari and Durgapur villages in western Tripura’s Sepahijala district, attract people of all religions across the northeastern state. Over 90 per cent of the total population of both Kulubari and Durgapur villages are Muslims, who comprise around nine per cent of Tripura’s total of 3.7 million
“The festival is for all. Why should we not organise this with everyone else? This is Tripura. We would like to live here together, die together and also like to share everything amongst us,” said Mujibur Rahman Chowdhury, an elderly Muslim leader in Kulubari village.
“We are really happy that Durga Puja is celebrated in our village with the active help of the majority Muslims. This is incomparable in many parts of our country,” said, Swapan Saha, a Hindu villager and a government school teacher. “Without the sincere support of Muslims, we can’t dream of celebrating the festival in such a big way as the Hindu population is very few.”
KANPUR: City based artisans are busy giving final touches to the effigies of Ravana a day before the festival of Dussehra. These effigies will be set on fire to commemorate the end of Navratri fasting and the victory of avatar Ram over Ravana in war. The craftsmen, all of whom were Muslims said that they have been making the effigies of the Ravana for several years now. They said that they have inherited this work from their parents who used to make these effigies earlier.
“We have applied vermillion on the forehead of Ravana with the help of paint. Also we have pasted a crown over his heads. The task, which still remains to be done is to attach all the three body parts but this job would be done on the day of Dusshera”, said Zahid who was busy completing the effigy of Ravana along with his colleagues.Similarly, the group of craftsmen were witnessed making the effigy of Ravana at Saket Nagar ground.
“Apart from making these effigies we also attach firecrackers inside it. We place lights in eyes of effigies to to attract crowd. This will last for around half and hour after which the effigies will be set on fire”, said Mehraz, a craftsmen.
DHAKA: She gave Dhaka her name (from Dhakeshwari which means Goddess). And though she has been attacked several times she remains an inspiring example of communal integration in Bangladesh. The best time to witness this is during Durga puja. The 800-year-old Dhakeshwari temple is like no other Hindu temple in the world. It is a must-visit for not only the country’s estimated 14 lakh Hindus, but also for the vast majority of Muslims here.
The long queues waiting to be served the rich bhuna khichuri served on Ashtami include Muslims too. “Durga Puja, for us, is an occasion to do some social service and strengthen bonds between members of other communities,” says Bashudeb Dhar, president of the Mahanagar Sarbojonin Puja Committee. Prominent members of all communities, including Buddhists and Christians, are invited to participate in the festivities. But the committee also reaches out to the general public by offering free meals and organizing community initiatives. “There have been attempts to destroy this secular culture. Our participation in Durgotsav is important to defeat these attempts,” says Mohammad ‘Montu’ Naseem, a prominent businessman. Prominent Muslims serve on the organizing committees of most pujas here. “Pujas are an integral part of our cultural and religious heritage and we must fight all attempts to destroy it,” says Awami League leader Abdul Qadir Nissar.
AHMEDABAD: Youths are dancing merrily to the tunes of garba beats, children playing with empty water bottles and people of all ages and walks of life watching the gaiety. One can see nuns taking rounds of the garba venue playing perfect hosts. Yet, few know the man behind this garba event at this Christian college campus.
Naved Siddiqui has been organising the Navratri fest at St Xavier’s College for 20 years now. A Hindu festival, Muslim organiser and a Christian institute as venue. So what is it that keeps Siddiqui organising garbas every year? “I have been brought up in a very culturally accepting environment. My father was a psychology professor at St Xavier’s College. The campus gave me a chance to meet people from all walks of life. I love seeing people dance and their faces light up with smiles once the music starts.”
CUTTACK: The city’s zari pandals (intricately decorated tents) are not only remarkable in their beauty but are also a symbol of communal harmony. 52 year old Salim Khan has been working on Zari Pandalsfor Durga Puja since he was just eight years old. Salim learnt this art from his father and now his 22-year-old daughter, Resham, is carrying forward the family tradition – a tradition where Muslim artisans make the Hindu festival of Durga Puja complete with their hands.
“All festivals are the same be it Eid or Dussehra. We all must celebrate them,” says Salim Khan.
Every Durga Puja, Cuttack city’s Banka Bazar sees more than fifty such Muslim families working in full swing to complete the Zari pandals and each pandal takes at least three months time to make. Incidentally, these Muslim families are also the first ones present at the pandal for the Durga puja ceremony.
JAIPUR: Displaying centuries old ethos of communal harmony through fun and frolic, a group of 15 people – 12 Muslims and 3 Hindus – all hailing from the Walled City are behind the city’s most enchanting Garba nights
Shakeel Khan, one of the organizers recounted, “In my childhood, I actively participated in organizing garbas in my locality. Here I am using all my expertise learnt from organizing the garbas from Mohallas to narrow streets. To maintain the sanctity, they have asked a Brahmin to perform the puja.”
Shakeel believes that taking part in garba is part of the city’s shared culture. “Still in Walled city areas which has a mixed population you cannot differentiate between Hindus and Muslims even after playing garba for the whole night,” Shakeel added. His co-partner, Shashi Soni, came up with the idea of taking it to a different level by organising it at a premier location.
MUMBAI: Terror attacks have occurred in the past during festival season, and though the main objective of these acts of terror is to disturb peace during the festivals, the festivities of different religions continue in full swing.
Recently, Hindus organized their religious festival Ganesh Pooja with full devotion, while Muslims were busy in their pious month of Ramadan. Preparations are being made to celebrate the famous festivals of Dusshehra, the Durga Pooja and the Eid-Ul-Fitr. While the festivals of different communities in India—the nation of unity in diversity—are associated with their religious importance, these festivals at the same time present an example of communal harmony and equality for which the world has perhaps no match. The festivals thrive despite the terrorists’ best efforts to disturb the social fabric.
In this holy land—with its mix of Ramanand, Kabir, Nanak, Chishti, Khusro, Nizam, Sai Baba, Sheikh Farid and Bulle Shah—no terrorist organization can uproot communal harmony. Indian festivals will continue to be models of religious brotherhood and keep alive the country’s unity in diversity.
I bow again and again to the Devi, who lives in all creatures in the form of Mother. In this creation, I am one, and I am many as well, in various forms
– Srimad Devi Bhagavatam 6:11
Tonight marks the start of Navratri, a celebration worshiping Mother Durga in her various forms. Many Hindu devotees embark on a nine night (nav meaning nine, rat meaning night) fast. They conclude the festival with a grand feast on the 10th day of Dassera. The 10th day celebrates the anniversary of Durga slaying Mahishasura, a demon that terrorized both Earth and the heavens.
This narrative is also a metaphor with a deeper spiritual meaning. During these nine nights Hindus appeal for spiritual wealth, knowledge, and strength in slaying their own mental Mahishasuras such as pride, ignorance, or attachment to trivial matters of the world. These internal demons battle to steer the mind and soul away from its Higher purpose.
Learn more about the feminine concept of God in Hinduism and Islam here: Shakti and Sakina
CHANDIGARH: Eid-al-Azha symbolizes the fact that sacrifice of a small group of people can create a new beginning for the entire humankind. Two students of MCM DAV College for Women, are setting an example of such kinship by celebrating the best in each other’s religion.
Motivated by her roommate Nikhat’s enthusiasm in observing all nine fasts during the recent Navratras, Priyanka, a BA-II student of the college, is going to celebrate Eid with her on Wednesday. “When I started reading Namaz with her, Nikhat too began saying prayers according to the Hindu religion,” added Priyanka, who is from Kolkata. With Durga Puja being the most important festival in Bengal, Priyanka also asked the college authorities to hold the celebrations on campus. Priyanka confesses that her Muslim friend’s zeal in keeping all nine fasts left many surprised.
PATNA: Hundreds of thousands of Muslim and Hindu flood victims in Bihar are supporting each other celebrate Eid and Durga Puja at relief camps. Muslims are helping the Hindus offer prayers to goddess Durga by sharing their resources, the nine-day religious festival and Hindus are helping Muslims prepare for Eid.
“Even in time of distress, Hindus and Muslims are living together and celebrating their festivals together in peace in the relief camps and other temporary shelters. It is an example of understanding each other,” said Nitish Mishra, Bihar disaster management minister.
This month Dharma Deen Alliance explores the concept of divinity as being feminine. We will discuss its existence in both Hindu and Muslim traditions and elaborate on its deeper meaning and metaphysical significance. And just as Muslims fast for Ramadan, during Navratri Hindus fast for 9 days.
In this creation, I am one, and I am many as well, in various forms
– Srimad Devi Bhagavatam 6:11
I am the Father of the Universe, the Mother of the universe, the Creator of all
– Bhagavad Gita 9:17
The concept of the Divine being worshiped as a Holy Mother may seem strange as most people would say that God is gender-neutral and lacks human traits. The reality is that people of all faiths ascribe human-like qualities to the Creator. Some see God as vengeful and angry, punishing people through great floods, earthquakes, and plagues. Others view that same God as all-loving and forgiving, bestowing blessings and offering protection in times of need. Then there are those who (unfortunately) view the Absolute as a competitor, commanding followers to take out opponent religions through conversion or suppression. While most people agree that the Almighty has no gender they see no contradiction in using terms like “Father,” “Lord,” or “King.” So if it’s odd that God is worshiped as Mother to some, shouldn’t it then also be equally strange that fatherly characteristics are assigned to something that transcends human characteristics? This will be discussed more later.
The Abrahamic faiths, just like the dharmic religions, also have a concept of female divine energy. In Judaism the Hebrew shekhina means “presence of God” and is described as feminine. As in Hinduism, shekhina is characterized as inseparable from and a functional part of the Creator. When revelations such as the Ten Commandments were delivered to the prophets, it was transmitted through shekhina’s energy. In Catholicism, adherents honor the Virgin Mary as the mother of Divinity. The equivalent of shekhina in Arabic is sakina in Islam (see Part 2 for the Muslim perspective on this).
In dharmic traditions, sakina’s counterpart is referred to in Sanskrit as shakti. Shakti is the manifestation of cosmic power. It’s the divine force that creates and sustains the universe.
What is Navratri?
Navratri is a festival of nine nights. The tenth day generally culminates with feasting and marks the anniversary of when the Goddess Durga slayed Mahishasura, a demon that terrorized both Earth and the heavens. This narrative is also a metaphor with a deeper spiritual meaning. During these nine nights Hindus fast and appeal for spiritual wealth, knowledge, and strength in slaying their own personal Mahishasuras/demons such as pride, ignorance, or attachment to trivial matters of the world. These internal demons battle to steer the mind and soul away from its Higher purpose.
Why worship a Divine Mother?
In Sanskrit nirguna Brahman means the Supreme Divine without form and human qualities. The opposite is saguna Brahman which means Divine form with qualities. Worshipping God as Sacred Mother or Holy Father (saguna Brahman) does not necessarily mean rejecting a gender-neutral, formless Supreme Being (nirguna Brahman). Swami Sivananda once elaborated on this point: “it is easier to establish a conscious relationship…in terms of benevolent fatherhood or affectionate, kindly motherhood than by the concept of an unfathomable void.”
Building up devotional qualities by viewing Brahman in the same way a child adores his/her parents becomes much easier to grasp. Since life comes out of a mother’s womb the Creator is more accessible to one’s mental capacity when the universe is viewed as the womb of the Mother’s creation. For some seekers it would be hard to open their heart and mind to an abstract, formless Being, and since a child calls out for their mother in times of need, worshipers of the Goddess call out to their Holy Mother when longing for protection or peace of mind.
Shakti manifested in human form
South Asia has a long and rich history of women who are living examples of shakti. The Vedas, which are the foundational scriptures of Hindu culture contain several texts and prayers that were written by female sages. The famous mystic Ramakrishna learned meditation and shakti worship through his female guru Bharavi Brahmani. Before his passing, he appointed his wife Sarada Devi, also a devout worshiper of Mother Kali (a manifestation of Durga), to be his successor. Sarada Devi initiated anyone who approached her into the spiritual path regardless of social status or gender. She also made it her life’s work to build Vedanta centers all over the world and spread meditation practice to the masses. Anandamayi Ma, an advanced yoga practitioner set up temples in various cities and attracted students of all religions desirous of divine bliss. She’s mentioned in the book Autobiography of a Yogi. A more recent example is the “Hugging Saint.” Amma has traveled the globe embracing thousands of people for hours on end at public events. She preaches that devotion must be go hand in hand with the karmic act of helping the downtrodden. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva works on behalf of exploited peoples and is author of Vedic Ecology. Many examples of women both out in the public eye to women of strength privately acting behind the scenes abound, each beaming shakti in their daily life, serving humanity and executing dharma.
The Arabic term Allah is in fact a container term that holds within it all the diverse names of the Divinity throughout time. Traditionally Muslims use names for God such as “True”, “Ever-Living”, “Merciful”, “Compassionate”, “Subtle” and so on. These names are called the Asma ul-Husna, or the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. This is by no means an exhaustive list, they are simply among the most prominent names used for God in the Qur’an, and can be used to invoke various aspects of Allah. Like the concept of yin-yang in Daoism, the Asma ul-Husna is made up of two complimentary sides, one being Jamal (Beautiful) and the other Jalal (Powerful). For example, God is both the Creator and the Destroyer, the Punisher and the Pardoner, the Kind and the Avenger, the Hidden and the Manifest, the Constrictor and the Expander, etc. Though appearing to contradict each other, they instead meet in the name Allah, which unites opposites.
Within Islam, God is the creator of everything, even that which we see as negative in the world. As in yin-yang, these can also be considered masculine and feminine aspects of one single Divine Essence, Jamal being in the feminine and Jalal being the masculine. Without reinforcing negative gender stereotypes, it is important to not take this literally to mean male and female in a dogmatic sense, but instead it is a way of unveiling the feminine within the divine, a subject often overlooked in the Islamic discourse. Speaking of and calling upon God using the Jamal names can be thought of as, in a sense, invoking the feminine qualities of God.
Beginning with the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Islamic scholars and sages have expressed the central role of the feminine principle within the Din (religion). The Prophet famously said: “I was made to love three things from your world: women, perfume, and the comfort of my eye is in prayer.” Muslims have taken this hadith (prophetic saying) as one important indicator of the Prophet’s love of the feminine. Women are mentioned interestingly even before prayer, the sacred devotional act in Islam. The 13th century Spanish Sufi Ibn al-Arabi elaborated on this by saying that women are “the most complete and perfect contemplation of Reality”. And Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi says that, “The eternal mystery of Allah’s uncreated Essence is the Divine Feminine.” In another verse he says that “Woman is the radiance of God. She is the Creator.” Taken together, these verses offer a challenge to any patriarchal, male-centered interpretation of the Divine in Islam.
Fasting is Mine and it I who give reward for it. A man gives up his sexual passion, his food and his drink for my sake. Fasting is like a shield, and he who fasts has two joys: a joy when he breaks his fast and a joy when he meets his Lord. The change in the breath of the mouth of him who fasts is better in Allah’s estimation than the smell of musk.
– Hadith Qudsi
For Muslims, fasting is not simply an exercise in bodily cleansing or asceticism. The focus cannot be on the individual’s physical body and health alone. Since Islam is centered on the principle of Tawhid, or Spiritual Unity, the body must of course be taken into account, and yet to focus on it alone is to obscure the profound depth of spiritual meanings within the fast. Unlike a materialistically centered fast, the ultimate goal for a Muslim is to use the experience, not only to benefit oneself, but also to cultivate compassion and love on a global scale.
The Arabic term for fasting, Sawm, is one of the five pillars of the faith, meaning that it is one of the practices that unites Muslims regardless of ideological and geographical differences. The term literally means “to abstain”, what on the most basic level means obtaining from sunrise to sunset from food, drink and sex. From there, one also should control anger and stop all backbiting, lying, cheating, stealing, jealousy, greed and other negative qualities. As one refines their fast, eventually the ego is subsumed and the mind finds tranquility in a state of Taqwa, or God-Consciousness.
Fasting is ordained for healthy individuals old enough and mentally sound enough to practice safely. It is done in the month of Ramadan, when the first verses of the Qur’an descended to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through the Angel Gabriel. It is also practiced before Ramadan in the months of Rajab and Shaban, the month of Shawwal following Ramadan, the Day of Arafat, Ashura, in the middle of the lunar month and each Monday and Thursday. To avoid extreme asceticism, it is not permitted to fast every day of the year. The Prophet (pbuh) said, “There is no reward for fasting for the one who perpetually fasts.”
I pass the night with my Lord: He giveth me food and drink. Hunger is God’s food whereby He revives the bodies of the siddiqs, in hunger God’s food reaches [them].
– The Prophet (pbuh)
To fast truly is to experience nourishment of the spirit, transcending the momentary pains of the body. Since the body exists in time, being born, deteriorating and dying, to live for bodily pleasure alone cannot truly satisfy. The Prophet (pbuh) suggests that intimacy with God provides a type of food that paradoxically feeds one who obtains from external food and drink. Fasting only makes sense from a spiritual perspective since growing the spirit is the goal, even as the body might suffer.
Fasting leads to non-existence, for, after all, all joys are there.
God is with those who patiently persevere [2:249].
– Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi
With patience and perseverance, the initial annoyance, pain and discomfort of fast gives way to a profound inner peace. This tranquility of heart is found only after self-centeredness diminishes. When the endless desires and worldly preoccupations are gone, God is most manifest. The human becomes transparent and the light of God is able to shine through.
The real fast is the blossoming of the inner heart.
– Bawa Muhaiyaddeen
To reiterate, the end goal of fasting for a Muslim must not be simply going hungry or playing up one’s piety for others. Like other religious communities, Muslims fast in community, not for their own reasons, spiritual or otherwise, but for the healing of the world. Since God made us from a single soul, our spiritual path must also be pursued with that singularity in mind. The heart of the world is in the heart of the human, and the heart of the human is in the heart of the world. We fast so that both hearts can be purified and transformed.
controlling the mind with determination, giving up the objects of sense gratification…who eats little and controls the body and the tongue…such a person is certainly elevated to the position of Self-realization.
– Bhagavad Gita 18:52-54
One draws the energy from the vital plane instead of depending upon physical substance.
– Sri Aurobindo, answering a disciple’s question “How is it possible to have such energy without food?”
Before going into the Hindu perspective on fasting here are two things one should keep in mind:
Avoid overeating after a fast: After breaking a fast not only are large food portions an unhealthy shock to the digestive tract, gorging makes one forget about empathizing with the poor. The less fortunate don’t have the luxury of going to a buffet after being hungry all day. In addition, one of the objectives of fasting is to control sense gratification. Overindulgence on food defeats this goal. Instead, try to avoid feasts or buffets and instead opt for a light or regular-sized meal instead.
Avoid fasting for ego: One shouldn’t brag or feel proud about fasting. If a person can fast with ease they should keep it to themselves. Remember – the goal is to serve a higher purpose not impress others.
In Hinduism, fasting is encouraged and prescribed as a means of worship. Sanskrit words for fasting include upavasa (moving up/near God) and vrat (self discipline or vow). Since the body and mind are constantly seeking stimulation fasting gives the senses a break and a chance for the soul to reconnect with the Creator. Disciplining the physical senses leads to spiritual advancement. Practicing the spiritual path on a bloated stomach or with constant attention to food can be a hindrance to progress. On the other hand, fasting done correctly and regularly removes mental, physical, and spiritual impurities.
Hindus are encouraged to fast habitually by picking one day of the week and abstaining on that day throughout the year. Other sects pick 2-3 days out of a month based on the lunar calendar and perform upavasa then. Most people fast on major holidays and festivals.
A general vrat in Hinduism lasts 24 hours, usually from sunrise to sunrise. There are a few holidays that are shorter (sunrise to sunset), and there are some that are much longer. For instance Navratri, which starts 8 October this year, is a festival that lasts for nine days. More dedicated devotees may carry out a 30 day fast for certain auspicious months. Of course, the most ardent, disciplined, and highly advanced seekers have trained themselves to go without food or water for much, much longer periods. Some are so blissful from God-consciousness that they have to be reminded to eat.
In the dharmic traditions there are various degrees to fasting. A practitioner is advised to perform based on what they’re able to handle. Some eat only fruits, nuts, and dairy. Others eat only one meal a day. The more experienced abstain from food and water. Regardless of which method a person chooses, what counts is the sincerity in the devotion and the effort to bring the senses under control.