When her most cherished religious dance is secularized, one woman objects to its unfortunate Western dilution
FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, The hindu festival of Navaratri has been my most treasured and beloved celebration. It has fit in seamlessly with my personality. Anything that has included dance and spiritual purpose has always led to a deep eruption of love from within me, which in the case of Navaratri would stretch across the full nine days of the festival. Before delving into the purpose of this article, let me start with a brief and simple explanation of Navaratri, garba and dandya raas, for my readers.
Navaratri means “nine nights” in Sanskrit. During this festival, Hindus worship the nine forms of Goddess Devi, the Mother of all consciousness—God not as a He but a She— and the power that the Goddess represents. Energy can be both masculine and feminine. In its feminine form it is called shakti, which is the ultimate and absolute creative force. Praying and engaging in spiritual practices during these nine days are means to further enlighten the soul, raise the energy through your chakras, and burn away your vices. It is a dynamic and beautiful time, when the Mother is truly honored for all that She is. In a world where sexual violence and abuses against women are rampant, this is a vital reminder of the celestial immortality that lies within every female on this Earth and beyond.
In Gujarat, Hindus celebrate Navaratri through garba and dandya raas—two vigorous, intricate and entertaining forms of dance performed by Gujaratis and others across the globe. Garba, literally “womb,” is a spiritual dancing involving circular movements around a statue of the Goddess, or around vessels of sacred water representing the Goddess. It celebrates the Goddess and Her role as the carrier of divine light. Our dancing expresses the cycle of life and death.
Dandya raas, again a folk dance from Gujarat, is performed after the garba, is a reenactment of the leela (divine play) of Radha and Krishna. In simple terms, Krishna represents God, and Radha is human; the two together are complete, the beloved and the lover. It is the union of the human soul finding its own divine Self. Leela refers to this world of relative illusion, a world in which we play through and experience God’s creative force. It is here, in this material existence, that we seemingly separate ourselves from Divinity so that we may dance with Him.
Every year the anticipation of garba has excited me. I always get ready in my Indian garments with a bindi on my forehead, my hair pinned back and my wrists jingling from the sound of bangles. In Chiswick, London, my cousins and I would battle our way through the pouring rain to the garba hall. Entering the hall, we would slip off our shoes to the side, as you would in a temple, and find a place to plant our belongings. As the sound of the dhol (an Indian drum) swept through my skin, I could feel every cell within me vibrating with excitement and a warm sense of familiarity. As we began to dance, my cousins and I would fall into perfect synchronistic movements, our skirts swaying, hands clapping in unison. You could see the mystical thread sewing, binding each dancer to another. I vowed when I was younger that I would never leave a garba dance until the set had finished (as long as 40 minutes or so). This was my gift to the Mother Goddess. I was Hers, and She would have my complete, undivided attention. As I twirled round, I promised I would never be anywhere in my thoughts but present for Her. I wanted my dance to be spiritual; I wanted to dance for Her. I wanted to be still, disciplined and focused whilst in the midst of fast and beautiful movement.
After the garba finished there was a quieting down. You could feel the buzz of energy in the room, electric but silent, and out of that silence came the time for prayer. As the vocalist sang in the slow, melodious fashion of Hindu prayers, my eyes would fill with tears, overflowing with simple joy and gratitude. That moment in a room full of people—whether they believed or not, whether they worshiped or not, whether they felt it or not—just soaking in what had been created through dance and joy was heavenly for me, and this was the culmination.
After I moved to New York, I discovered there was a garba happening in the city. I was elated not to miss the Hindu celebration and quickly roped my one Gujarati friend, Suraj, to attend with me. After all, he and I had met at garba some fourteen years ago. I got ready as I would have at home and skipped my way downstairs to the lobby.
Suraj turned me, “You’re really excited about this aren’t you?” “Yes, it’s garba! Come on let’s show them how we do it back home!”
We entered the hall, that same drum, that same rhythm, and I felt that if I closed my eyes I could be at home. We kicked off our shoes to the side. Suraj moved towards the edges of the circle to observe for a time, while I dove straight into the center. But I could not find Her. Mataji, Mother, was not in the center in any form. Instead there was just a colorful umbrella. I felt like someone had shoved my own parents to the side and put, well, an umbrella there instead! I still danced, though now I wasn’t sure what I was dancing around. Another friend of mine joined me, and as we both fell into step and our hands clapped together, I felt the charge of energy and creation, but when I turned my head to wink at the Goddess, She was not there.
As the garba ended I began to pray, but no worship followed. I ran towards the musicians and asked them, “Where is the arati?” They responded, “No arati.” “But why?” They just shrugged their shoulders. After the dandya finished, I asked Suraj to meet me at the entrance while I went to find the organizers. I had no intention of being argumentative, but everyone I spoke to was as baffled as I was and someone had to pipe up. I wanted to know why I had spent a few hours eating a fruit without its nectar.
“Why is there an umbrella in the middle instead of Mataji, and why was there no arati?” The organizer answered, “It is not a religious event.” “Since when is Navaratri Garba not a religious event? Is it not the celebration and worship of the Goddess? Is it not for Her that we are dancing?” “It says on our website what Navaratri is and that it has religious meaning, but we are not expressing its religiousness here.” I responded, “Just because that’s explained on your website does not mean it is acceptable. You would not find Christians singing songs of Bethlehem and then say it is not about Jesus!” She was adamant, “This is not a religious event; it is a cultural event.” “Ok, where does that culture come from? Does it not stem from the religion? What is the event if you take out the heart of it?” I asked. “We want to welcome all faiths. I am sorry you were disappointed.”
Since when does welcoming other faiths mean excluding our own? I have walked into a church, a mosque, a gurudwara, a Buddhist temple, and celebrated everything with members of those faiths. Why did these Hindus feel the need to eradicate their ancient religion in order to welcome the faiths of others? Garba during Navaratri is religious—it has deep meaning. If we cannot preserve the sanctity of our own celebration, how can we hope to truly share it with others? I brought my Jewish best friend to garba in the UK; it never made her less Jewish or me less Hindu. True sharing does not come from denying one’s own religious customs, it comes from opening them up and making someone understand and be part of them.
Some Hindus complain that the West has polluted yoga and that their centers and events don’t even honor its purpose. This may be true; but if we do not preserve yoga and other Hindu practices ourselves, why should anyone else? Hindus have always been open and welcoming. This is part of our faith. We believe all paths lead to the same mountaintop, but that does not mean that we should turn holy days into unfaithful ones. One garba in San Francisco even introduced meat and alcohol, two things which go completely against the spiritual cleansing and prayer that is associated with the event. Why are we so desperate to be accepted by others that we cannot even honor our own belief system? Are we not capable of educating, inspiring and bringing in people of all different backgrounds whilst retaining our own? You do not have to knock down your own door to let others through, you simply need to open it. There is a clear and distinct difference!
The argument with the event organizer was not going anywhere, and I left it there, feeling empty. Coming home and I felt sorry for my beloved Krishna, my Goddess, my everything. Out of love for the Lord, this beautiful tradition, this spiritual party had been created; and now God was no longer invited.