Navratri (nav - ratri) or nine nights of the Goddess starts today and ends next Wednesday on Oct 24. Generally Navratri is seen as a festival of women, where Hindu women will flock to temples attired in their finest clothes.
From what I have been told, Navratri is considered very important to married Hindu women, it is the time of the year (though not the only time of the year) when they will pray for the well being of their families, the longevity of their husbands, the welfare of their children, good fortune, prosperity etc.
As for unmarried women, they will pray to the Goddess for a fine husband. Once they are married, because I doubt the Goddess would disappoint her devotees, they will pray for all the things listed in the paragraph above, as such the happy circle of life will continue.
I would like to humbly say that I am no expert on Hinduism, but I do voraciously read everything that I can lay my hands on, offline and online. Based on what I have read thus far, it appears that the majority of festivals centered around women, involves them praying for the well being of their husbands, children, and the unmarried ones praying for what the married ones have.
Goddess Durga, the warrior goddess, who is the principal deity worshipped on the occasion of Navratri, is the goddess whom women pray to for marital related matters, for which they do "Durga Pooja". In this way, she can be associated with the Greek Goddess Hera, who governs marriage.
Interestingly though, the characteristics associated with Goddess Durga resembles Athena the Greek Goddess of war more than Hera. Both are powerful warrior goddesses and operate as independent entities.
Origins of Goddess Durga
Once there was a demon called Mahishasura, who undertook great austerities until Lord Brahma finally appeared before him, pleased with his penance, Brahma offered him a boon. The demon then asked that he be made immortal, to which Brahma retorted that " He who is born must die!" Mahisa then asked that he should only die at the hands of a woman. The arrogant demon was confident that in this way no one would be able to slay him, as no woman would be capable of the task. Brahma readily granted his boon.
Mahisa then proceeded to wreak havoc on heaven, earth and all the realms in between. He drove Lord Indra and all the devas from heaven. The defeated devas then approached Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.
As they listened to the stories of Mahisa's atrocities, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu grew enraged, their anger transformed into a brilliant divine light, from Indra and the other devas too issued a great light, this combined force of energy melded together. From it emerged the form of a woman, radiant and glowing - she was the Goddess Durga.
To Durga each of the gods gave their weapons - trident, disc, conch, mace, axe, discus, rope, bow arrows, spear, thunderbolt, bell, sword, shield, staff, string of beads, a water pot and a drinking cup ever full of wine.
Thus armed, the Goddess seated on her lion let out a terrible roar and proceeded to the Vindhya mountains. Hearing of her beauty, Mahisa sent emissaries with a proposal of marriage. Durga responded that she would only marry the man who could defeat her in battle.
Naturally Mahisa thought it would be only to easy to conquer the haughty beauty and make her his wife. So he proceeded to the Vindhya mountains not knowing that he and his whole army were marching to their death.
A fierce battle ensued for nine nights and at the end of the nine nights, Goddess Durga slayed Mahisa. The nine nights came to be known as Navratri and the tenth day was called Vijayadashmi - the day when good triumphs over evil.
What Goddess Durga represents
The name Durga means fortress, the impenetrable one. By virtue of the fact that she was born of the radiant light that issued forth from all the gods, Goddess Durga is seen as mother of the universe and most powerful of divine entities. No God equals her in might. Though she is also seen as a manifestation of Goddess Parvati and hence consort to Lord Shiva. Goddess Durga is an independent Warrior Goddess and a fierce protector of her devotees. Within her lies all power, she is complete on her own.
Considering her origins and what this powerful Goddess stands for, I find it interesting, that she has become associated with marriage and fertility, and propitiated for luck in these matters. Should she not be worshipped for the qualities she represents? Independence, courage, might, justice, honour, the ability to stand alone and fight for what is right? For did the Goddess not take on Mahisa on her own and defeat his ego and arrogance?
Goddess Durga is beautiful, but the beauty that attracted Mahisa, turned into a terrible force that vanquished the demon. And the goddess did not achieve this victory through covet means, she battled him face to face and claimed victory on the battlefield. So complete was her victory over him, that it was acknowledged by all the three worlds.
Goddess Durga in the 21st Century
The days when women needed men to provide for them are long over. In the old days, when a woman prayed for the longevity of her husband ( the head of the household), his long life would sustain hers. Naturally on both sides of the equation everyone would like to see their spouses prosper and live long.
However in this era more than in previous times, women are assuming more male dominated roles and operating as single entities in their social and professional lives. As such the Goddess should be approached to bestow qualities that will enable us to function and prosper in a very demanding 21st century.
I would like to see Goddess Durga become the patron Goddess of the independent 21st century woman, one who is forthright, courageous and not afraid to stand alone, and Navratri to be seen as the festival where the might of a courageous female force triumphs over the inflated male ego.
Let Navratri become less the soiree of married women, and more a gathering of women (married and single) who believe that the female force is one to be reckoned with. For after nine nights of intense battle, Goddess Durga proved just that!
Om Shri Durgayai Namah