Power Days of October

by Anindita Basu and Maria Barron


The major holidays observed this October, although differing widely in the solemnity or gaiety of the celebrations, seem to share a sense that, in interactions between earthly life and a world beyond, a certain willingness to sacrifice, to give up or offer up something of physical good, is in order.

Chronologically, this particular October, the 10-day Hindu Navaratri-Dusshera festival begins first, in joyous celebration of the righteous influence of the robust and powerful Goddess Durga. The story behind the celebration, like many a western tale, involves a beautiful princess in distress and her noble prince out to rescue her. But in a twist of feminine potency the western tales never take, it is the Goddess who saves the day when the prince, in his entreaties to her, reaches a willingness to sacrifice greatly in the name of his noble goal.

A couple of days into Navaratri, a different long-term observance begins, with the sacrifice of fasting as its central practice. Ramzan, or Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, begins in mid-October. Followers of Islam refrain from eating during daylight hours, in honor of Allah’s revelation of the Holy Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.

Even the humorous, mischievous, costumed fun of Halloween, the one-night blow-out that is the biggest October holiday in the United States and countries of Celtic influence, is linked at its roots to a time when the veil between this world and the next was believed to be at its thinnest. The treats and sweets that neighborhood moms and dads willingly “give up” to the little ghosts and goblins, princesses and pirates who appear on their doorsteps are not so different from the food and drink ancient Celtic people would set out to comfort the spirits of the dead roaming the land on this night as the traditional Celtic year ended.

Navaratri-Dusshera (beginning October 13, 2004)

It once happened a long time ago that Prince Raam, his wife and a brother, during the course of their wandering, came upon a place near the southernmost part of India. Prince Raam had been exiled for 14 years, and almost 12 years were over now. Struck by the beauty of the place, the trio decided to spend the remaining part of the exile here before embarking north upon the return trip home.

Now, this area was very close to Lanka, the neighbouring island where buildings touched the sky and wide streets glittered with gold. It was ruled by the demon Ravan, he who was invincible and whose name invoked fear even in the hearts of gods. It so happened that Ravan came to know that an incomparably beautiful princess — Raam’s wife, Sita — was now staying in the forest just across the ocean with her husband and brother-in-law.

Determined that the place of a beauty was only in his palace, Ravan crossed the ocean in his flying chariot, abducted Sita when Raam and his brother were out hunting, and imprisoned her in the royal garden. The brothers returned to an empty hut and soon learnt (from some monkeys who had seen a crying lady atop a flying chariot in the sky) that Ravan had abducted Sita. Prince Raam gathered a motley army of monkeys and bears, built a bridge of stones across the ocean, and challenged Ravan to a war. (Geologists today point to the chain of natural shoal reefs, collectively known as Adam’s Bridge, on the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, as the bridge associated with this ancient tale.)

Wars, as we all know, always result in casualties. In this one, the mighty army of the demon Ravan seemed to have suffered more. Soon all his generals had been killed and he himself was forced to come out and lead his army. He defeated and wounded Prince Raam and, leaving the monkey-army in a state of utter confusion, retired within his fort. At this juncture, Raam was assailed by doubt and lost his nerve. As he sat dejected, the divine souls (who had been watching the war with a lot of interest) conferred amongst themselves and sent a sage to boost Raam’s courage. The sage met with the prince and suggested that he recite the Adityahridayam mantra (a hymn to Sun) and also invoke the blessings of Goddess Durga, the consort of Lord Shiva.

A surprised Raam said, “But Sage, this is not the time to invoke her. She has to be invoked in her nine different forms during the nine-day period of the waxing fortnight of Chaitra (the Hindu month roughly corresponding to mid-March to mid-April of the Gregorian calendar).”

The sage replied, “O prince, there is no wrong time for invoking the Great One. She is a mother who does not fail to respond to the heartfelt plea of her children, time and place notwithstanding.” While performing ritual worship of the goddess, Raam discovered that he had only 1,007 lotus blooms, one short of the required number. Pained at this and unwilling to leave his worship unfinished, he took up his dagger and resolved to pluck an eye in place of a lotus. “For,” he said, “do not the people say that I have lotus eyes?” Whereupon the Goddess appeared in all her glory, blessed him and promised him victory, without requiring the sacrifice of his eye. Sure enough, the next day when the battle resumed, Raam killed Ravan. It was the 10th day of the waxing-moon phase of the Hindu month of Ashwin (mid-September to mid-October).

This is the event that is celebrated throughout the country of India every year in the form of Navaratri-Dusshera. The festivities involve two parallel events. One is the nine-day ritual worship of the goddess Durga. Huge pandals (temporary structures of bamboo and cloth, the size of a big room or larger) are erected at public places, and idols of the goddess are installed therein. She is worshipped in her nine different forms for nine consecutive days. On the 10th day, her devotees bid her a tearful adieu and beg her to return the following year. The other event is an enactment, by amateur neighbourhood clubs, of the nine-day long Ramlila, the life-story of Raam.

The Ramlila culminates on the 10th day with a grand display of fireworks, which begins when the actor playing Raam shoots a flaming arrow into the heart of a massive wood-and-bamboo Ravan, whose belly has been stuffed with fireworks. The gathered crowds cheer wildly as flaming arrows are also shot into similarly built effigies of Ravan’s brother and son, and the evening sky is filled with firecrackers going off with a bang, signifying the end of the evil forces.

The war of Raam and Ravan is seen as one between good and evil. The demon Ravan was a Brahmin, a member of the priestly class, they who are the keepers and teachers of knowledge, having been born of a Brahmin sage and a demon mother. He was well versed in the Vedas and all other scriptures, an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva (third in the Hindu Triad of creator-conserver-destroyer), and an eminently able ruler of his kingdom, Lanka. Prince Raam was well versed in the Vedas and all scriptures, devoted to the gods, and an eminently accomplished prince. What set the two apart? It is said that when Ravan lay dying, Raam turned to his brother and said, “Go to him. Sit at his feet and learn from him the art of law, administration and politics. For you will not find another who is better versed in these than him.”

And it is said that Ravan received the young man with courtesy, agreed to share his wisdom while his breath lasted, and said, “Your brother is a great being. I too could have been as great as he, but I always did what I thought was right. Your brother does things that he thinks would be right for the world, and not merely for himself. His actions are prompted by a desire to uphold the moral order; mine, with self-serving interest.”

It is interesting to note that the Ramayan, the epic that records the story of Prince Raam, thought to be the oldest and longest epic in the world, records that when Raam was born, the Moon was in Cancer with the Sun exalted.

Ramzan or Ramadan (beginning October 15, 2004)

The Quran is the holy book of the Muslims. It is the word of Allah, the Greatest One, as revealed to His messenger Muhammad. And why would Allah want to reveal such secrets to man? Because He is merciful and compassionate and wishes that every human being follow the right path, the path that He showed to his favourite disciple. It is for this reason that the month of Ramzan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar; also called Ramadan) is holy. Muslims believe that the Quran was first revealed to mankind during this month.

Muhammad was an illiterate caravan trader born in Arabia. He was given to retiring from the rest of the world for extended periods of time and contemplating upon Allah. One of his favourite haunts was a mountain near Mecca. It was to a cave in this mountain that he retired once, during the month of Ramzan, to ponder deeply upon the mysteries of religion. During the course of his fasting, prayers and contemplations, the angel Jibrael (also called Gabriel) appeared to Muhammad and said, “Allah is pleased with you. He will reveal His word through you so that you go forth and spread the Word among all.” And it so happened that on the 27th day, Muhammad became illumined with the first bit of the Quran. He became the Prophet, preaching the Holy Word to mankind, as bits and pieces continued to be revealed to him for the next 23 years.

The Muslims commemorate this pious occurrence by keeping a fast for the entire period from sunrise to sunset during all the days of the month of Ramzan. This fasting, called Rozah, is one of the five pillars of Islam. The other four are Shahda (declaration of faith), Salaat (praying five times a day), Zakat (giving alms) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

The Prophet said that mere abstinence from food and drink is not enough, and if one has lied or has had treacherous thoughts, his fasting will be a waste. Therefore, in addition to fasting, devout Muslims strive to spend this time in forgetting old enmities, reciting or listening to the Quran, donating generously to charities, feeding the poor, and like activities. Quran-reading sessions are arranged, and specially trained people recite the Holy Book from memory. The person doing the recitation is called a Hafiz. Normally, a full recital takes about 25 days. The faithful believe that anything good done during this month will surely be noticed by Allah when He writes their destinies for the following year.

During the month of Ramzan, every healthy adult Muslim is supposed to fast. The sick and the elderly need not do so, provided they feed at least one poor person every day during the month. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and travellers are also exempt from observing the Rozah, provided that they make up, at some other point in time, the days of fast that they have thus missed. The fast begins at sunrise; traditionally, a few moments before sunrise, those observing the Rozah consume a few dates and milk. They will then eat nothing for the entire day, nor drink, smoke or inhale any substance. At sunset, they will break their fast with the very brief Iftar meal and proceed to offer the evening prayer — the Namaaz offered five times a day.

The evenings of Ramzan are the time when the markets come alive. Besides the rather mundane activity of cooking dinner, there are also other matters to be attended to: like getting ready for the day when the Ramzan fast will end in the most important and most joyous of all Muslim festivals, the Id-ul-fitr.

Halloween (October 31 each year)

Halloween customs were brought to America by Irish immigrants in the 1800s, and just as the United States has more people of Irish descent than does Ireland, so too the Halloween holiday is bigger in the United States (among people of all backgrounds) than it is these days in Ireland.

In the calendar of the ancient Celts, this was New Year’s Eve. It was also the eve of winter. Where we begin our calendar seasons now with the spring equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox and winter solstice, the Celts saw those points as the middles, or high points, of each season. Their seasons began and ended on the days in between, known now as the cross-quarter days, one of which was our November 1 — the beginning of winter and, with the sighting of the Pleiades star cluster in the western sky, the beginning of a new year.

It was time to gather the livestock close lest they be caught astray in the frigid night. It was time to remember those who had died that year, offer their souls a last taste of earthly goodness from the harvest, and send them on their way by the light of the shining stars and the community bonfire. It is thought that the bonfires themselves might have been “bonefires,” with the bones of animals added in, echoing the symbolism of the death of the old and its clearing away for a new start … beginning with the long sleep of winter. It was also time to extinguish the hearth fires at home and re-light them from the communal fire, as a symbolic renewal of community bonds while heading into the hardships of winter.

Embellishing from these roots, with the traditional Irish sensibility of being surrounded by “the little people,” fairies, goblins and others of mostly mischievous intent towards humans; this eve of winter, the dying of nature and relighting of the home-fires, when those who had died that year would make their crossing, came to be seen as a time when all manner of supernatural creatures would be out.

It is said that Halloween costumes probably developed as people donned disguises — such as animal pelts — to deceive the supernatural beings walking among them on this evening. At the very least, the pelts would protect one from the sting of the north wind, in her banshee form.

The food and drink their Celtic anscestors offered to their deceased loved ones for their journey between worlds came to be seen as also a way to appease the other spirits of the night. And so our little monsters and fairies today, school children with colorful costumes stretched over bundles of warm clothes beneath, make their neighborhood rounds, promising not to play bad goblin tricks but only if you’ll give them treats.

Jack O’Lanterns glow orange against the black night, and in one of the few opportunities for widespread community bonding left in American neighborhoods in this era, we share a treat and a spark of warmth — at least with each other’s children — as we head into the discomforts and possible hardships of the winter ahead.