The festival of Dussehra is a perfect example of the multiplicity of Hinduism, elucidating its various mythological, symbolic, and ritualistic manifestations. To start with, this festival has different names in different parts of India, it is Dussehra in the north, Durga Puja in the east, Vijayadashami in some parts, Navratri in others. The word ‘Dashahara’ is derived from Sanskrit that translates to ten days. Accordingly, there are ten days of festivities but the stories and how the festivities unfold over the ten days vary. Three of the prominent stories are:
– victory of Rama(incarnation of Vishnu) over Ravan(king of Lanka), celebrated as Ram Leela, a play based on the epic poem Ramayan.
– the victory of Durga(goddess) over Mahisasura(demon)
– worship of nine forms of Shakti, or the divine feminine, culminating in Dussehra on the tenth day
Barring the Ramayan story, this is essentially a festival celebrating Shakti, which in Sanskrit translates to power, or energy. The dualistic view of the universe is an cohabitation of energy and matter, and it is this concept that is exploited in the Hindu philosophy of life, universe and everything. The translation in terms of mythology includes a trinity of Gods – Brahma(creator), Vishnu(preserver) and Shiva(destroyer) presiding over the world of matter and Goddess Shakti representing energy. The material world goes over well defined cycles of these three stages of creation, preservation and destruction, which in a way signifies how everything material in life, and the universe goes in cycles and it is our ignorance of the grand vision that makes us indulge in things like material, or emotional possessions and their sustenance. Energy, on the other hand has a transient and less tangible nature, and this fluidic aspect is captured in the numerous forms which Shakti acquires in the forms of various Goddesses. Nine of which are worshipped in the nine days of Navratri, with a tenth, Durga worshipped on the day of Dussehra.
Given the freedom which translates to different branches of the same family celebrating the festival in a different way, one cannot help but wonder at the unstructured nature of the religion. But then, Hinduism has always been more of an interpretative religion than an instructive one. It not only lacks codes of conduct or edicts, but is equally vague in its philosophical implications. What it does have is myriads of options to choose from depending on your disposition, profession or inclination. For the ones looking for something to practice as a way of everyday living, there are the Vedas, and for the ones who look for philosophy as a way of everyday thinking, there are the Upanishads. But for most of Hindus, both these variants are inaccessible due to the lack of knowledge of Sanskrit language. One can subscribe to the translations, but they come the riders of the translator’s opinions inevitably muddling the original text and intent. The saving grace for most Hindus is a rich mythology in the form of epics and Puranas from which to derive stories, and celebrate festivals. Dussehra, for example, is a celebration of the basic element of mythology, the celebration of the victory of good over evil. And it is this simplicity that endows it with acceptability over most of India.
A detailed reading of the epics, stories and mythology, though entertaining, is something I am not going to do here, except the one mentioned in the title of the post – Mysuru Dasara, or Dussehra as celebrated in Mysore over ages. The demon Mahisasura was a shape shifting monster who acquired the form of Buffalo and wrecked havoc on the world, or Mahisuru, the ancient name of the place which was modified by the British to Mysore, and recently restored to a more vernacular Mysuru. Goddess Chamundeshwari, which is another of the forms of Shakti and whose temple is now situated on the Chamundi hills in Mysore killed the demon on the day of Dasara. Celebration of Dasara is therefore a big event in Mysore, or to be more precise a series of events over the ten days. The place is crowded though, so it is enjoyed by people who have an appetite for multitudes, which are usually the same people who have an appetite for multitude of stories that fill Hindu mythology.
Both the crowds and the bizarre stories are however abhorred by the intellectual who finds peace and solace in philosophy and the abstract. WP, for instance has most of its denizens favoring poetry. But poetry was severely criticized by the philosophers of ancient Greek, the way mythology is criticized by the lovers of the esoteric. This interplay of poetry, philosophy and mythology was a vital aspect of the ancient religions, the last of the still followed being Hinduism. With its poetic epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, philosophy of the hundreds of Upanishads and mythology captured in an even more number of Puranas, one is bound to be spoiled with choices. It is therefore sad and also in a way Quixotic that some people engage in imposing norms and try to ordain how to practice this interpretative religion.