The story, if you hail from north, central, or western India, concerns the epic struggle between the evil demon king, Ravana, and the hero, Rama. Ravana, after performing 10,000 years of penance, receives a blessing from the creator-god Brahma that no one—not god, demon or spirit—can kill him. Thinking himself now freed from accountability, Ravana kidnaps Rama’s wife, Sita, refusing to release her to Rama. War ensues, and Rama—who is not a god or a demon or a spirit, but a mortal man—defeats and slays Ravana, ending his tyranny and restoring order, peace and life (summed up in the Sanskrit word dharma) to the world.
In southern, eastern, northeastern and some parts of northern India, the story differs, but the theme is the same: Good versus Evil.
The demon Mahishasura—buffalo-demon—prays to Lord Shiva and is blessed with the power of invulnerability. No man and no god can ever kill him. On a wild rampage, he conquers Earth and then attacks and ravages the heavens where the gods abide. The terrified deities cry out to Lords Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu who create not a man, not a god, but a goddess—the beautiful divine warrior Durga.
The buffalo demon, jeering that Durga was “just a woman,” proposes marriage to her. She replies by routing his demon army on the battlefield and then confronting him one-on-one. Though Mahishasura shape-shifts from buffalo to lion to man to elephant and back to buffalo, he cannot elude the goddess who grasps his head with one hand, deals a death stroke with the trident fashioned for her by Shiva, and with another of her 10 hands beheads him with her sword, another gift of the gods.
What connects the two stories is that Rama, before meeting Ravana on the field of battle, prays to Goddess Durga for victory.
The triumph of Good over Evil is always cause for celebration, and Hindus know how to celebrate. Depending on where you are, you might witness processions to a river where festively-dressed celebrants bear clay statues of Durga and her children to the accompaniment of music and chanting. Elsewhere giant effigies of the evil Ravana are burnt with spectacular fireworks.
In northern India, performances dramatizing the story of Rama are enacted in hundreds of villages and towns, sometimes involving the audience and townsfolk who participate on the spur of the moment, helping the actors with their makeup, setting up the stage, and burning the effigies in a bonfire at the end of the evening.
In western India, a nine-day festival leads to Dussehra. During those nine days, the Goddess Durga and the hero Rama are honored with fasting and prayer. The nights see regional dances with colorfully decorated sticks. In the Indian state of Goa, a special dance celebrating Durga’s victory employs sacred umbrellas—Taranga—symbolizing the village deities. A dance of the Tarangas is held at many temples and a grand procession of deities ensues.
A celebration of the triumph of Good over Evil can only be followed by yet another celebration, the bringing (or restoring) of light into the world. Hence the festival of Dussehra is followed by the biggest and most important holy day in the Hindu calendar, Diwali—the Festival of Lights on November 12.
Good over Evil. Light over Darkness. May they soon be realities that we can celebrate every day of the year.
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