Navratri lasts for ten days and nine nights during which Hindus worship the female expression of the divine, personified in the forms of the great goddesses, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. For those who come from Bengal the focus is on Durga and here in Glasgow a special venue and altar is set up each year to venerate her. Hinduism is a religion of myths, stories that contain a truth and offer hope that good will overcome evil. The story of Durga is that she was created by Vishnu out of the combined energies of the other goddesses to overcome a demon who had won a boon that no male god could overpower him. So during Navratri there’s a lot of emphasis on powerful, positive, female energy that overcomes the negative forces of evil which includes jealousy, prejudice, hatred, anger, greed and selfishness. It’s a time of personal renewal and a wonderful image of the feminine when most religions tend to identify God with the male even when they believe that both men and women are made in the image and likeness of God who, they also believe is above gender. Navratri finishes with the festival of Dusshera and another myth of good triumphing over evil. This one is the story of the Lord Rama overcoming the demon king Ravana which leads the community to look forward to the festival on Diwali in twenty days time when the whole story of Rama and his wife Sita and a new year will be celebrated.
The Jewish community has also been going through a time of renewal. They have been celebrating the High Holy Days which begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah is a remembrance of the creation of the world including the creation of humanity. The ceremonial ram’s horn, the shofar, is blown one hundred times and launches a ten day period known as the Days of Awe, days in which believers review their year, seeking forgiveness and making amends for wrongs done against God and other people. The days end with a twenty four hour fast on Yom Kippur, when God will pass judgement on people and is broken by the blowing of the shofar. And five days later the community celebrates Sukkot. It’s a harvest festival and the tradition is for families and certainly synagogues to build a foliage covered booth under which they eat during the week long festival, remembering how God provided for his people after they escaped from Egypt. And the week ends with the festival of Simchat Torah, a time which marks the end of the cycle of Torah readings in the Synagogue and the start of the new one. The Torah Scrolls are welcomed with singing and dancing and great joy which I can appreciate having been in St Andrews University earlier in the year when the Torah scrolls were welcomed and placed in the rededicated Ark in the university chaplaincy. I saw the joy and delight for myself and was even privileged to hold the scrolls.
The Sikh community is also celebrating – though its celebration is a bit different in that it’s remembering the 550th anniversary of the birth of its founder Guru Nanak. The usual date for the celebration is November but this year the special anniversary has led to a year of celebrations. I’ve had invitations to two this past week and was asked to speak at one of them. Guru Nanak, like all founders, was a religious genius who was able to penetrate beyond the trappings of religious systems and traditions to see the truth that it is conversation of heart that really matters. There’s not a lot known about his early life but the story is told that as a young boy he refused to undergo the traditional Hindu Sacred Thread ceremony, saying that such external rituals were not necessary because God resided in the heart. He was much drawn to prayer and after one religious experience famously declared there is neither Hindu or Mussel man, again seeing an identity deeper than that of religion difference. For thirty years he travelled with two companions, one a Hindu, the other a Muslim. He visited Mecca and a story tells of how he fell asleep with his feet pointing towards the Kabah. Being alerted to this he apologised and asked that his feet be turned to a point where God is not to be found. As his feet were moved so too did the Kabah move – a sign of God’s presence everywhere.
No doubt there will be more to say about Guru Nanak as we get closer to the date of his birthday and there will be the traditional letter from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. But for the moment it’s good to have a little insight into the world of others and to be aware of the stories that give meaning to their lives and contain a message for all of us.