The last week or so of September and the month of October provide us all with a marvelous opportunity to honor the varied ways that different cultures and religious traditions mark the autumnal turning point in our yearly seasonal cycles.
In October, in the wake of the autumnal equinox and the Harvest Moon, the Sun presents itself against the starry backdrop of the constellation Libra, often represented by a woman wielding the sword of free will and discrimination, and holding the Divine Scales of Balance.
Initiates around the world celebrate the feasts of Michaelmas, Rosh Hashanah, Ramadan, and Navratri, sacred to the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu religions.
The paths to the Divine are many, and the faces of the Divine form a multitude, but the Unity of the Divine manifests on every path and in all the masks of God and Goddess.
Cultures all over the world have for thousands of years celebrated religious festivals coinciding with seasonal cycles. These cyclic celebrations depended upon accurate observations of the movements of the sun, moon and planets during the year, and on the ability to track and predict the much longer cycles of the movements of constellations of stars overhead.
The human spirit has since time immemorial sought meaning, order, coherence, and strength in its ability to accurately observe and predict these earthly and celestial cycles, seeking to unite in these community festivals the heavenly and earthly realms, the spiritual and the material worlds.
During seasonal festivals, entire cultures around the world have engaged in communal spiritual practices designed to influence predicted weather patterns, irrigation needs, and agricultural productivity, and to plan communal activities such as crop storage and distribution.
During these festivals communities have enacted rituals that seek to harmonize their earthly social structure with the seasonal and celestial influences that are perceived to embody a Divine order characterized by eternal life, abundance, fertility, and power.
These efforts formed the basis for the earliest recorded civilizations on Earth. Mathematics, astrology, astronomy, agricultural science, hydro-engineering, medicine, meditation, prayer, ceremonial ritual, sacred pilgrimages and ritual sacrifice, sacred architecture, art, music and dance flowed from the individual skills and community interactions that structured these yearly observances.
Many seasonal festivals fall during the month when the Sun is in Libra, and these festivals work to create and restore an individual and collective sense of balance during a difficult transitional period of the year, when days shorten, and in the northern hemisphere temperature falls, crops wither, and the extroverted summer energy of plants in the fields begins to turn inward in anticipation of the little death of winter.
Mother Earth comes to the end of the cycle of spring and summer exhalation that extends the breath of life across the surface of our blue-green planet, and she begins the long inhalation characteristic of fall and winter. The planet’s surface becomes barren, but the interior of the Earth, more receptive now to the light streaming from cosmic sources, is quickening with new life.
At this time of year, the spiritual component in human nature surfaces after a long summer slumber when activities in the physical world captured the energy and attention of the entire community.
The Feast of Michaelmas
[See Autumn Equinox: The Archangel Michael Meditation for more on Michaelmas.]
The mystical Christian community celebrates the Fall Feast of Michaelmas on September 29, one week after the Sun entered Libra. The philosopher, spiritual scientist and Christian mystic Rudolf Steiner granted the Archangel Michael a very special role in today’s world.
Michael’s role is revealed in the Bible’s Apocalypse of St. John (12:7) “And there was a war in Heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. . .and the dragon was cast out into the Earth. . .having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.”
For Steiner, who lived at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the Apocalypse is a metaphor for modern times. Steiner believed the Apocalypse was not a physical war but rather a spiritual struggle between the forces of materialism, represented by the Lord of Darkness, called Ahriman, and the forces of Spirit. The Forces of Light represent humanity’s free will and the Forces of Darkness represent oppression and suppression of that free will.
In this Titanic struggle for the souls of all humanity, Archangel Michael leads the forces of Light, wielding a fiery sword, the sword of free will.
Michael is said to help women and men to find their own spiritual purpose and path in life, and to help, guide, protect and energize them that they may exercise their will forces in the service of the light, choosing to freely walk upon their own personal path of Spirit, and thus advancing their spiritual evolution, and the evolution of all humanity.
For Steiner, the physically compelling forces of the summer season, when heat rises in plants, animals and human beings alike, and the air is saturated with desire, correspond to the element of sulfur, and this element stimulates a wide range of material and emotional excitements, all of which tend to increase the average person’s attachment to the material world.
This presents a danger during these Apocalyptic times, when the Lord of Darkness seeks to entrap all humanity in a purely materialistic existence, devoid of all spirituality. Manifestations of Ahrimanic influence include political systems that seek to dominate through military force, economic systems that seek to enrich the few at the expense of the many, philosophical systems that seek to depict all human activity as neo-Darwinian, psychological theories that reduce humanity’s free will to a set of biologically determined chemical reactions, and all reductionist, purely mechanistic scientific models of the universe.
During the Libran month, early in October, in the northern hemisphere, the Draconid meteor showers are visible. At this time of year, when sensational meteor showers, largely composed of iron, traditionally streak across the night sky, Steiner’s clairvoyant vision saw the traditional flashing iron sword of Michael. The meteoric sword of Michael was thought to cleanse the Earth’s atmosphere of sulfurous influences, allowing the Higher Self to emerge and guide the initiate along the path of Spirit toward the birth of the Inner Christ Light, an event which takes place in December, during the festival of Christmas.
The Festival of Rosh Hashanah
Jewish people celebrate the Festival of Rosh Hashanah around the time of the Equinox. Rosh Hashanah commemorates the Head of the Year, the holiest time of the calendar, marking the first ten days of the Jewish Year. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated with solemn ceremonies, temple observances, purification rituals, and acts of atonement.
In Leviticus 23:24-25, the Bible refers to the holiday as Yom Ha-Zikkaron, the day of remembrance, or Yom Teruah the day of the sounding of the shofar.
The shofar is a ram's horn which is blown somewhat like a trumpet.During this festival, the shofar is sounded one hundred times during services in the synagogue. The sacred sound of the ram’s horn serves to remind the community of G-d’s blessing to the Jewish people when he allowed Abraham to sacrifice a ram in place of his son Isaac.
Members of the Jewish community perform ceremonies designed to balance out old debts during this festival, for a ten day period of interior searching that culminates in the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. During this first ten days of the New Year, G-d judges our actions during the year just past, and decides on our fate during the coming year.
Jewish celebrants search their hearts in a spirit of contrition, and then apologize to friends and family members they may have wronged during the year, and ask for forgiveness. Those who can give generously to charities of their choice, in an effort to give back some of what they have gained through the grace of G-d.
Some observe a ritual cleansing called Tashlich. Celebrants visit a river or other flowing stream of water containing fish, and throw bread crumbs into the water, symbolically cleansing their sins in the process. Ritual bathing and other purification rituals are very important to restore the cosmic and individual balance necessary to achieve G-d’s blessing for the New Year.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, people eat only sweet food thought to symbolize new beginnings, especially fruit that is only just beginning to come into season, and that has not been served until the festival. Pomegranates, pumpkin, dates, and beetroot are popular dishes. Round Challah loaves are served at ritual meals, symbolizing the turning of the year, the completion of the yearly seasonal cycle, and the promise of abundant New Life to come.
The Month of Ramadan
This year, 2012, Ramadan, the most sacred Moslem month of the year, took place in July and August, although it often occurs around the time of the Equinox, or later, in October. Ramadan begins at sunset upon the sighting of the lunar crescent in the twilight sky.
This is a month of purification and spiritual quickening for Moslems worldwide, celebrated by fasting from food, water and tobacco, from just before dawn to sunset, and by reading one of the 30 chapters of the Holy Koran each day of the month.
Fasting is intended to instill the virtue of self-discipline in the community of believers, and is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Fasting involves mental and emotional as well as physical discipline designed to enhance the power of the spiritual aspects of human nature. Bad thoughts, lying, swearing, and arguing are believed to violate the spirit of the Fast. Fights and arguments are forbidden.
When mosques light colored lamps at sunset, the faithful break their fast, often beginning with dried fruit, such as dates, and water.
Community solidarity is emphasized during the festival of Ramadan. Because of the importance of Fasting, friends, neighbors and family often exchange gifts of food each evening in a festive atmosphere.
The seasonal theme of individual purification and community balance is stressed in Ramadan, when many seek reconciliation between rich and poor through charitable acts. Traditionally the faithful greet one another during Ramadan with a request for forgiveness for any wrongs they may have done during the previous year.The traditional Ramadan greeting is “Ramadan Kareem” which means Blessings and Bounty of Ramadan.
The Festival of Navratri
In 2012 the Hindu festival of Navratri occurs between October 16 and October 23, celebrating the triumph of the Great Goddess Durgan over the demoic forces in the Cosmos. Navratri, which means “Nine Nights” in Gujarati, the language spoken by inhabitants of the Indian state of Gujarat, which lies in western India, near the Great Desert, and is the popular Hindu name for the festival properly known as Durga Puja.
Durga, in Sanskrit, means “She who is incomprehensible or difficult to reach.” Goddess Durga is one manifestation of Shakti, the Divine Mother of the Universe. She is known by many other names such as Parvati, spouse of Lord Shiva, and Kali, Goddess of death and liberation.
Goddess Durga, slayer of demons, is pictured as having ten arms holding sword, conch, discus, rosary, bell, wine cup, shield, bow, arrow and spear.Dressed in royal red cloth she rides mounted on the lion, king of beasts. Terrifying in her aspect as a slayer of demons, she appears as a beneficent, sweet, nurturing guide for her ecstatic devotees.
She is the Universal Life Force Energy manifest in the human body, known as the Kundalini, and she lights the seven lamps of initiatic awareness, corresponding to the seven chakras of the subtle body of the human being.
When demonic forces create great imbalance on a cosmic scale, it is Goddess Durga who restores the Divine order by combining all Divine forces within her person and slaying negative thoughts, feelings, and physical manifestations throughout the Universe.
In ancient times, a powerful demon known as Mahishasura performed many austerities and remained so long in meditation that he attracted the favor of Lord Shiva, one of the three members of the Hindu Trinity of Gods -- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Shiva blessed Mahishasura with a boon, that he could not be killed by any male being. Mahishasura took this as a surety that he could never be conquered at all, and proceeded to lay waste the Universe, killing mercilessly and establishing a reign of terror that threatened to undo the balance of cosmic forces and overthrow the reign of the Gods themselves.
After many humiliations, Brahma the Creator of the Universe, Vishnu the Sustainer of Life, and Shiva the Destroyer of Illusion gathered together and combined their Shaktis, their energies, to create a powerful woman Goddess warrior who would be able to defeat Mahishasura.
After a Titanic struggle, Durga beheaded the Lord of Darkness and restored balance to the Cosmic Creation.
Since that time, she has stood ever ready to help her devotees destroy the negative emotions, misleading thought forms and physical desires that enslave them to the physical world and their own lower, animal natures, to free disciples from all encumbrances and obstacles standing in their path of spiritual evolution, to quicken the lamps of Spirit within their hearts, and to crown their meditations with visions of the Truth, called Satya, the Unity that underlies the apparent duality of material Creation.
During the nine nights of Durga Puja, or worship of Goddess Durga, Hindus honor the Mother Goddess in her three aspects: Durga, consort of Lord Shiva, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance, is the consort of Lord Vishnu, and Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom, is the consort of Lord Brahma.
Feasting, fasting and dancing constitute the trinity of observances dedicated to the Mother Goddess during this festival.
In Northern India, devotees of Goddess Durga observe a fast during the festival, to empower them to overcome the desires of the physical body and establish a harmonious balance between body and soul. On the physical level, fasting purifies the body of toxins and gives digestive organs a much-needed rest.
Fasting can mean living on milk, it can mean eating only one meal a day, and many other variants, depending upon where one lives in India and which spiritual path one is following. The Hindu religion has many paths and many disciplines within it.
At the end of the fasting period, devotees distribute food to the poor, another aspect of balancing the energy within the community.
In Western India, especially in Gujarat, devotees spend the nine nights of Navratri in song, dance and merriment. Garba is a graceful form of dance, wherein women dressed in exquisitely embroidered costumes gracefully circle around a pot containing a lamp. The word “Garba” means “womb”, and the lamp in the pot represents new life being birthed within the womb.
Men and women both participate in the “Dandia” dance. Pairs of dancers begin slowly, waving small, decorated bamboo sticks called dandias in their hands. At the end of these dandias are tied tiny bells called ghungroos that make a jingling sound when the sticks hit one another. As the dance progresses, the pairs of dancers break into frenzied movements, striking one another’s dandias in time to the complex, driving rhythms of the festival music.
In eastern India, especially in Bengal, the Durga Puja is the principal festival during Navratri. In this region, community worship is stressed through observances known as “Sarbojanin Puja”. Huge, highly decorated temporary buildings called “pandals” are constructed to house grand communal prayer services, which are followed by mass feasting and cultural functions. The earthen icons of Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati, are taken out on the tenth day in a triumphal procession to the nearby river, where they are ceremonially immersed in a ritual that enacts the transitory nature of all earthly and heavenly phenomena, and symbolizes the purification of creation in preparation for a new turn of the Cosmic Wheel, a new year and a new beginning for the community.
Libra Solar Festival, Aries Full Moon Meditation: UNIVERSALITY AND SECTARIANISM
The only persons who can psychologically accommodate themselves to the kind of world we live in and which is emerging are those who can authentically inherit the whole of human history, even though most of it is unknown to us. Which of us can say: "Everything human is deeply relevant and meaningful to me, and where I cannot know, at least I will not condemn. Even if I cannot understand the myths of particular peoples, the scriptures of other times, the languages, the cultures, the folkways of other men which may be strange to me, let me not mock, let me not make a great thing of my pathetic ignorance.
Let me be silent. Let me be open. Let me in some way that is natural to me show that I too can acclimatize myself to the more rarefied altitudes of world citizenship that are authentic, that are more than mere assertions of goodwill, but are filled with a positive enjoyment and exaltation at every kind of human endeavour, every form of excellence as well as positive appreciation for every kind of struggle and compassion for every kind of failure.”
Unless a man can do this, can he even survive into the future?
October 8, 1971
North American Theosophical Convention
(Note: painting of Durga is from Exotic India Art online. )