The Many Legends Behind Dussehra 

By Sandeep Mishra 

It’s called Dasha-Hara in the north, Vijayadashami in the south, and Durgotsava in the east. Whatever the name, one has to agree that the festival of Dussehra is one that unifies the nation celebrating the victory of good over evil. 

The festival is the culmination of the nine-day long Navaratri celebrations. Observed on the tenth day in the month of Ashvin or Kartik (September-October), the most popular legend associated with it is the triumph of Vishnu’s Rama avatar over the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, who abducted Rama’s wife, Sita. However, this is not the only story in Indian mythology that is tied to Dussehra. 

Rama VS Ravana
Illustration: Arijit Dutta Chowdhury

Most of the northern states of India see this festival as the day when Rama killed the ten-headed king of Lanka, Ravana. According to the Ramayana, Ravana kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita. After several years of penance, Ravana had received a boon from Lord Brahma which made him indestructible. Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, circumvented the boon and managed to kill the demon king in a fierce battle on this day. The word ‘Dussehra’ is made up of two Hindi words, ‘dus’ meaning ten and ‘hara’ meaning annihilated. Therefore, when combined, ‘Dussehra’ stands for the day when the ten evil faces of Ravana were destroyed by Lord Rama.

Durga VS Mahishasura 
Illustration: C.M. Vitankar

In many other states of India, the festival is dedicated to the victory of goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura. According to the Puranas, Mahishasura performed severe penance to be immortal. However, when Lord Brahma told him that wasn’t possible, the arrogant demon altered his request, instead, wishing that if he were to be killed, it had to be by a woman. The deeply prejudiced Mahishasura was extremely confident that no woman was strong enough to slay him. Soon, with his newfound strength, he started wreaking havoc in the three worlds, terrifying even the gods themselves. That’s when goddess Durga came to their rescue. She challenged the demon and fought with him in a nine-day long battle, ultimately slaying the powerful asura on the tenth day. This is why Navaratri celebrations are nine days long, with each day dedicated to one of the nine avatars of Durga, culminating with Durga Puja celebrations on the tenth day. 

Arjuna and Saraswati

According to the Mahabharata, Dussehra also marks the day when Arjuna single-handedly put the huge Kaurava army to sleep by invoking the Sammohan Astra. Arjuna was also called Vijaya – the one who is ever victorious. Thus, the day became popular as “Vijaya Dashami”.

In other parts of the country, Dussehra is celebrated as the festival of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. People worship the goddess along with their instruments of trade. 

Celebrations
Illustration: ACK Design Team

Since the festival marks the triumph of good over evil, Dussehra is considered an auspicious day to begin a new venture or start a new investment. Another trend is the immersion of idols, commonly practised across the nation.

In various parts of northern India, to mark the end of evil, huge colourful effigies of the demon king Ravana, his son Meghanada, and his brother Kumbhakarna are set on fire with the help of a flaming arrow. The legend of the Ramayana is brought to life as well through theatrical enactments of the epic called Ram Leela. Further north, in the Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh, one can also witness large fairs and parades as a part of the celebrations. 

Illustration: ACK Design Team

In the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal, fasting and prayers at temples are commonly observed. Dances and folk songs are an integral part of the celebrations, with devotees performing regional dances such as the dandiya raas, garba and dhunachi during the nine nights of the festival. 

Down South, temples and major forts are illuminated, and one can find interesting displays of colourful dolls and figurines called golu or bommai kolu.

The Many Forms of Durga

According to the Puranas, Goddess Durga was born from the powers of the supreme trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, to defeat the powerful buffalo demon, Mahishasura. Because she is a consolidation of their collective energy, she is also known as Shakti and is greater than any of them. Perceived as Devi and the Goddess Parvati, Goddess Durga is the creator and the protector of the universe and the destroyer of evil, the perfect confluence of the Hindu trinity. She is usually depicted as having eight to ten arms, with just as many weapons gifted to her by various gods to destroy Mahishasura. Her mount is usually a lion or a tiger.

Goddess Durga has many forms, nine manifestations to be exact, together called Navadurga. They are worshipped during the nine days of Navratri in the order below, with different prayers dedicated to each Navadurga during the festival.

Siddhidatri
Illustration: Ramesh C.

Siddhidatri is the Adi Shakti avatar of Durga. She existed as pure energy and had no physical form. Lord Rudra worshipped her for  creating the universe and she appeared from the left half of Shiva. That is why she and Shiva represent the duality of the universe in the form of masculine and feminine energies. They unite to form Ardhanarishwara. Devi Siddhidatri sits on a lotus and rides a lion.

Kushmanda
Illustration: Sanjhiya Mayekar

When Siddhidhatri took a physical form, she created the universe from her smile. ‘Ku’ means ‘a little’, ‘Ushma’ means ‘warmth’, and ‘Anda’ indicates the ‘cosmic egg’. Goddess Kushmanda had started living in the center of the sun, helping him radiate energy. She has eight hands and rides a tiger.

Brahmacharini
Illustration: Ramesh C.

Born to Prajapati Daksha, this mother goddess is the form of Goddess Parvati called Sati. She was determined to marry Lord Shiva. In order to fulfil her aim, she performed severe penance. Pleased by her faith and devotion, Lord Brahma stated that her unmarried form will be worshipped as Brahmacharini, the ascetic woman. Eventually, she did get married to Lord Shiva, but during a subsequent ceremony, her father insulted Shiva. Furious, she immolated herself with a wish to have a father who would respect her divine husband and her in her next birth. Brahmacharini is depicted having two hands and walking bare feet.

Shailaputri
Illustration: Ramesh C.

Sati was reborn to Lord Himavan, the mountain king, as Goddess Parvati in her next birth. She was also called Shailaputri, meaning ‘daughter of the mountain’. She later married Lord Shiva. Her vehicle is a bull.

Mahagauri
Illustration: Ritoparna Hazra

When Goddess Parvati went to fight the demons, Shumbha and Nishumbha, she transformed into the dark and fierce Kaushiki, leaving part of herself on Mount Kailasha to protect it. This part of herself, known as Mahagauri, is fair complexioned and very pure and clean. She provides knowledge and is the goddess of all achievements.

Chandraghanta
Illustration: Sanjhiya Mayekar

After getting married to Shiva, Goddess Parvati adorned a bell on her forehead in the shape of a half-moon, signifying the origin of this Navadurga’s name. Her mount is the tigress and she has ten hands.

Skandamata
Illustration: Sanjhiya Mayekar

Goddess Parvati is the loving and kind mother of Skanda or Kartikeya, the god of war and brother to Lord Ganesha. The maternal nature of Goddess Parvati is worshipped in this form. The ferocious lion serves as her mount.

Katyayini
Illustration: Ritoparna Hazra

Goddess Durga manifested in this form to destroy the demon Mahishasura. The warrior form of Goddess Durga, Katyayini is fierce and armed with numerous weapons. Her vengeance led to the ultimate destruction of the powerful demon.

Kaalratri
Illustration: Ritoparna Hazra

The most violent form of Goddess Durga is Kaalratri who manifested to slay the two demons, Chanda and Munda. She sprang from the third eye of Parvati and wreaked havoc until she killed the two asuras and their army. Kaalratri means the night of death. In this form, Goddess Durga rides a donkey and carries a deadly iron hook and a sword in her hands.

Read the stories of the powerful Hindu goddesses in our title ‘Shakti’, available on the ACK Comics app, Kindle, Amazon, Flipkart, and other major e-tailers.

The Tree That Krishna Made

Illustration: Ritoparna Hazra

Krishna’s love for butter is known to all. While his mother, Yashodha, always tried to fill him up with his favourite food, little Krishna never missed a chance to steal more butter. On most of his ‘heists’, he would escape stealthily, but there were some days where he’d get caught red-handed.

On one such day, when little Krishna was spotted running away from the kitchen, Yashodha stopped him and asked what he was hiding behind his back. Showing her a leaf, Krishna exclaimed, “Nothing!” Mischievous Krishna had quickly stuffed the butter into a leaf and rolled it up to hide it better. It is believed that the leaves of this tree since then, have always folded themselves up into a cup-like shape! The tree is called Ficus Krishnii or the ‘Vakhan Katori’ tree.

Where Do The Gods Dwell?

Illustration: Sanjhiya Mayekar

In the Puranas, there are different descriptions of where the gods live. According to the Devi Bhagavata, the mighty creator Brahma lives in Manovati on the mountain Mahameru surrounded by nine towns belonging to different gods which are as follows.

  • Indra, the god of heaven, lives in Amaravati.
  • Feared by many, the god of death, Yama, resides in Samyamani.
  • Krishnanjana is the home town of the goddess of deathly hidden realms and sorrows, Nirrti.
  • Shiva, the destroyer, dwells in Yasovati.
  • Sraddhavati belongs to Varuna, the ruler of the sky.
  • Agni, the god of fire, inhabits in Rajivati.
  • The god of the wind, Vayu, abides in the town of Gandhavati.
  • Mahodaya is the town of Kubera, the god of wealth.

God’s Omnipresence

Krishna says that the lord is present everywhere. One who understands this will always find solace and comfort, no matter how dire and bleak the situation seems to be.

Mokshada Ekadashi

Illustration: Sanjhiya Mayekar

When the Kauravas and Pandavas stood opposite each other on the battlefield at Kurukshetra, Arjuna hesitated. He could not bring himself to lift his bow, the Gandiva, against his own cousins and uncles. It was to clear this doubt in Arjuna’s heart that Krishna the delivered the message of the Bhagavad Gita. Through the Gita, Krishna showed Arjuna how taking the right action was more important than anything else. He taught Arjuna the importance of dharma over karma.

People believe that Mokshada Ekadashi marks the day that Krishna narrated the Bhagavad Gita. People pray to Krishna on this day. They believe that with true devotion, they can free their ancestors’ souls from Yamalok and help them attain moksha.

Karttikeya’s Spear

Illustration: Sanjhiya MayekarThe god of war Karttikeya, also known as Murugan in Southern India, wields a celestial spear as a weapon, one that was given to him by his mother, Parvati, so that he could defeat the demon Surapadman. The day on which the spear or vel was gifted to him is celebrated as Thaipusam by Tamilians all over the world. The word Thaipusam is a combination of ‘Thai’, which indicates the month the festival falls in, and ‘Pusam’, the Tamil word for the Pushya star which is at its highest point during the festival.

On this day, devotees carry large pots of milk on their back as an offering to the warrior god, after preparing for months in advance. It is regarded as a form of penance and Murugan is invoked to destroy all negative traits in oneself.

The Many Forms of Vishnu

Vishnu, the owner of the divine Kaumodaki, is the preserver of the universe. Whenever the balance between good and evil seemed to be weighing on the wrong side, Vishnu would descend on earth to restore cosmic order. As per the Puranas, Vishnu was to appear in ten different forms known as the fabled dashavatar across the four dharmic ages of man also known as yugas. Till date, he has appeared in nine of these forms.

IN THE SATYA YUGA

Matsya – The Fish

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

Depicted as a giant fish or as a half-human torso connected to the rear half of a fish, this was the first of Vishnu’s dashavatar. In this avatar, Vishnu had warned the first man, Vaivasvata Manu, of a great flood which would end the three worlds. He asked Vaivasvata to bring one of every plant and animal species to the shore, and on the day of the great flood, he safely took all of them to a new world in a boat and saved them.

Kurma – The Tortoise

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

Depicted as a giant tortoise or a mixed form of human and tortoise, the Kurma avatar of Vishnu, took form during the Samudra Manthan incident in the Bhagavata Purana, where the devas and asuras started churning the ocean of milk in a bid to obtain the nectar of immortality or amrit. During the churning, Mount Mandara, which was being used as the churning rod, started to sink. Vishnu appeared in the form of the giant tortoise, taking the weight of the mountain on his back. 

Varaha – The Boar

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

When the demon, Hiranyaksha, kidnapped the earth goddess, Bhudevi, and hid her in the cosmic ocean, signifying the end of a yuga, it was Vishnu who rescued her, taking the form of a boar. It wasn’t an easy battle; Varaha battled Hiranyaksha for a thousand years before the demon was slain. Afterwards, Vishnu went deep into the primordial waters and raised the hidden earth back to the surface with his tusks. Varaha is either depicted as a full boar or a human with a boar head.

Narasimha – The Man Lion

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

Hiraṇyakashipu wanted to take revenge for his elder brother Hiranyaksha’s death. After severe penance, Brahma appeared before him. He asked Brahma for a curious boon that rendered him near-invincible.

“Let not death come to me either by man or beast, by day or by night, with a weapon either living or inanimate, indoors or outdoors, on earth or in the sky.” 

Brahma granted his wish, and soon, Hiranyakashipu started creating havoc in heaven and on earth. When he found out about his son Prahlada’s deep devotion to Vishnu, the demon king decided to kill him. To protect his devotee, Vishnu took the form of Narasimha, a human with the head and claws of a lion. Narasimha was Vishnu’s way of countering Hiranyakashipu’s boon from Brahma, killing the asura at dusk under the arch of the doorway, ripping him apart with his claws as he lay across the godly avatar’s thighs, suspended in mid-air.

IN THE TRETA YUGA

Vamana – The Brahman Dwarf

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

Prahlad’s grandson, Bali, was a good and just king who was a great devotee of Vishnu like his grandfather. He also temporarily possessed the nectar of immortality, making him immune to death. Near invincible, the king managed to lay siege to the heavens as well as the earth, taking over Indra’s crown. The gods called upon Vishnu for help, who did not want to be responsible for killing his own devotee. So, instead, he resorted to a less fatalistic approach, appearing in the form of Vamana, a Brahman dwarf. Bali welcomed Vamana to his court, promising to give him whatever he wanted. Vamana asked for three paces of land measured by his stride. Bali agreed and didn’t retract his offer even after being warned by his guru who could see through Vishnu’s disguise. Vamana turned into a giant and covered the earth with his first stride and heaven with the second. With nowhere to take his third stride, he mocked the king for making promises he couldn’t keep. Bali asked Vamana to step over him and complete his third stride. Pleased with this virtuous king’s sacrifice, Vamana made Bali the king of Patala, the netherworld.

Parshurama – The Warrior

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

King Kartavirya Arjuna once visited the sage Jamadagni at his ashram. The saint fed the king and his army with the help of his cow Kamadhenu. The king was pleased by the cow’s yield and took the cow to his palace, against the sage’s will. Now, Jamadagni happened to be the father of Parashurama, the warrior avatar of Vishnu. When Parashurama got to know about the king’s actions, he destroyed the king’s army and killed the king. To avenge their father’s death, the sons of the king killed Jamadagni. An enraged Parashurama then vowed to kill the Kshatriya race twenty-one times over, because that was the number of times his mother had beaten her breast in grief. Parashurama kept his vow and filled five lakes with the blood of the Kshatriyas. He is considered to be one of the seven immortals mentioned in the scriptures.

Rama – The Prince

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

Pictured as the ideal man and the perfect human, Rama’s story is known to many. To keep his father’s honour, Prince Rama gave up his right to the throne of Ayodhya and served fourteen years of exile in the forest along with his wife, Sita, and younger brother, Lakshman. However, during their banishment, Ravana, the king of Lanka, abducts Sita, leading to one of the greatest battles between good and evil as told in the great epic, the Ramayana.

IN THE DWAPARA YUGA

Krishna – The Cowherd

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

Vishnu then took on the avatar of the cowherd prince Krishna, sent to destroy the demon king, Kamsa, who was also his maternal uncle. Krishna then went on to play an essential role in the battle of Kurukshetra between the cousin clans Pandavas and Kauravas for the throne of Hastinapura, in what came to be known as the Mahabharata. It was at the battle of Kurukshetra that Krishna dictated the cornerstone of Hindu philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita, to the Pandava prince Arjuna.

Buddha – The Enlightened One

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

Born as Prince Siddhartha, Buddha became renowned to the world when he gave up his worldly connections to become a monk, eventually attaining enlightenment. Sacrificing the luxuries of princely life, detaching himself from worldly pleasures and practising deep meditation, he spread the message of peace. It is said Vishnu came to earth in this form to make humans see the importance of self-realization and liberation.

IN THE KALI YUGA

Kalki – The Horserider

Illustration: Pratap Mulick

This is the form of Vishnu that is yet to appear. As per the Puranas, the tenth form of Vishnu is to be Kalki, the destroyer of darkness, who shall arrive at the end of the Kali Yuga, incidentally the cosmic age we are living in right now. Riding a white horse with a blazing sword in hand, Kalki will announce the dawn of the Satya Yuga, starting the cosmic cycle all over again.

Read more Amar Chitra Katha stories about Vishnu on the ACK Comics app, Kindle, and various major e-tailers.

Sudarshana

Illustration: Srishti Tiwari

The word ‘Sudarshana’ has multiple references in the Puranas. Here are some of them.

  1. Sudarshana was a tree on the island of Jambudvipa, that was 11 yojanas high.
  2. Sudarshana was one of the hundred Kauravas.
  3. Vishnu’s chakra or discus is called Sudarshana.

The Legend Behind Eclipses

Why do we witness the solar and lunar eclipses?

Here is a story from the Kampa Ramayana and the Bhagavata Ashtama Skandha that explains the reason behind the eclipses.

Illustration and animation: Sanjhiya Mayekar