The Neuroscience of Navratri
Republished from my article in the New Indian Express on Sunday 20th October 2020
When Rishi Markandeya sat up in the valleys of Yamunotri composing the Puranas named after him, little did he realize that his epic representation of Chandi or Ma Durga would thousands of years later become one of the best handbooks for rewiring our brains and boosting positive psychology. You could say he was one of India’s first and greatest neuroscientist-psychologists.
In the Devi Mahatmya or Chandi Path, derived from chapters 81–93 in the Markandeya Purana, the scientist-sage describes an epic battle over nine nights when the supreme mother Adi Shakti or Parvati has to descend to the mortal dimension as Chandi or Durga to vanquish nine Asuric or dark demonic forces that hold humanity back from harmony and dharma.
In each stage of the epic battle, she takes on an aspect of the Universal Mother and becomes Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi, and Maha Saraswati in turn, all to vanquish the Asuras and bring light back to humanity. And finally, after nine nights of intense battle, she returns victorious to the cosmic sea from where she came, waiting for darkness to befall humanity again.
Seen purely as a psychological narrative, the Chandi Path is an inner battle we all face every day in trying to live a spiritual, dharmic, and righteous life where Ma Durga comes once a year to cleanse and liberate us from the nine Asuric aspects of the Maha Maya or great illusion of life and our egos.
If we go deeper and look at the esoteric and neuroscientific significance behind this story, we realize that what he was describing is the difficulty we all face when trying to meditate or pray or live a good life. The state of divine nothingness of Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness, or Samadhi, requires us to be free of our egos and distractions.
This state is called activating the Default Mode Network (DMN) in neuroscience. Recent studies of deep meditators have shown that those who can activate this area, in particular affecting areas of the brain like the Anterior Cingulate and the Caudate Nucleus, the horn-shaped part of the brain that surrounds the pineal gland, and let us go deep into a no-thought, no-mind state that seems to rise above our normal states of consciousness beyond space, time, ego and attachments. Meditation techniques like mindfulness tend to deactivate the DMN for calmness and peace while Devi devotional chanting, dancing, and Mantras actually activate the DMN inducing states of ecstatic vision, power, and bliss. In that state, we experience divine harmony with everything and feel ready to take on a new lease of life.
Now, what gets in the way of this bliss is a great battle that occurs internally along our spinal cord between the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which controls our feelings and emotions, and the Sympathetic Nervous System or the flight-fight network that harks back to our animal or reptilian origins.
Think Devas and Devis versus Asuras here. If these two can be brought into harmony then something magical happens as the full brain begins to function perfectly well and the DMN is activated and the whole system becomes balanced by the Central Nervous System within the spinal cord.
For those of you in the know, I am describing the Neuroscience of Kundalini Shakti and our Chakra system. We then are balanced again and become light as feathers. No chattering brain, no reptilian cravings, and no ego to hold us back.
In the great battle of Navratri, Maha Maya as Maha Kali first destroys the Asuras Madhu or honey and Kartavya, the housefly that sticks to everything. Both represent our Tamasic nature in the sexual organs, stomach, liver, kidneys, and adrenal glands, all the stuff that controls the 4 F’s — Fear, Food, Flight, and the unspoken F-Word.
Then Chandi as Maha Lakshmi destroys the shape-shifting Mahishasura who represents the vanity and power of the Rajasic nature in us. We want to control everything and we think we are in charge. Here the heart, stomach, and lungs dominate, and all the glands that release the feel-good hormones — dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin — are released when this comes under our control. Maha Lakshmi brings bliss and harmony.
And then finally Ma Durga destroys the final six Asuras, which represent our over-analytical mind. First, she destroys Chanda and Munda — the chattering neocortex and the aimless organs that feed chemicals and information into it. Then she destroys Raktabija, the endless cycle of addiction and stupidity that keeps us making the same mistakes over and over again.
And then as Maha Saraswati, she destroys Dhumralochana, the Asura of foggy unclear thinking. And then as Ma Durga, she destroys Sumbha and Nisumbha, the final barrier of I and Mine; the last obstacle in your ego attachment — the “Me” and “My” identity, which relates to the prefrontal cortex.
Once all the Asuras are destroyed, we sing Ya Devi Sarva Bhuteshu! I praise Devi, the destroyer of all my dark egos. Now I am free! And then if we are lucky through deep meditation, singing, chanting, drumming, dancing, selfless giving, sharing, and loving we enter the DMN or the Turiya state, and we find clarity, bliss, harmony, and peace. The great battle is won. The Mother returns to the base of your spine until she is needed again.
The nine nights of Navratri are the beginning of a great psychological and neuroscientific adventure into healing yourself of the mental blocks that cloak your life as ego attachments in the illusory Maha Maya that brings out Karma or the fruits of ignorant action. It is a wonderful path to becoming Karma-free and to dissolve into the non-dual DMN of the Universe’s infinite stillness, love, and bliss.
Ya Devi Sarva Bhuteshu!
(The writer is a global consciousness teacher, National Film Award-winning documentary filmmaker, TED speaker, digital media producer)