The Essence of Durga Saptashati

From the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Often chanted during the Navaratri (nine days of worship in the months of April and October), the Devi Mahatmya or Durga Saptashati is a unique book in the world. It is the base and root of the Shakta tradition. Its reading is believed to give whatever one wants. A powerful reservoir of mantras from the beginning to the end, every verse of this text is a dynamic force.

The Devi Mahatmaya describes how Devi assumes many aspects, according to the tasks to be performed by her, sometimes sweet and tender, and at others terrible and devouring. Devi is the deluding power which binds man to the relentlessly moving wheel of samsara; she deludes even the wisest of men. Yet she is the one who bestows liberation on the devotee who pleases her. For the sake of the continuance of her divine play, she as avidya-maya, has veiled the truth from us and bound us to samsara.

When she is propitiated through the practice of sincere devotion and self-surrender, she as vidya-maya, removes the veil and enables us to perceive the truth. The Saptashati refers to her as Mahavidya, Mahamaya, Mahamedha, Mahasmriti, Mahamoha, Mahadevi and Maheshwari. She is Parabrahma-Mahishi, the queen and sovereign of all existence. Her compassion takes the form of aspiration in the aspirant, sadhana in the sadhaka, siddhi in the siddha. She is the truth behind thought, willing, feeling, understanding, action, name and form. It says (11:6):

Vidyassamastastava Devi bhedah
Striyassamastah sakala jagatsu
Tvayaikaya puritamambayaitat
Kaa te stutih stavyapara paroktih

Mother, all arts and sciences, all branches of knowledge, are your modifications, all women in the world are your manifestations. You alone pervade the entire creation.

The conception of the Infinite as Mother is not a meaningless one. The Riga Veda bears testimony to the fact that even in ancient times there existed the belief that the supreme ruler is the all-compassionate Mother. The conception of divinity as Devi, Durga or Sri, is not merely a theory but a practical way of life. The mother is the personality that appeals most to the human heart, whereas the father is perceived as a hard taskmaster. Even a subtle philosopher cannot dispense with the conception of Shakti, for he is essentially an embodiment of power, and has love for power. The highest intelligence and the most speculative metaphysics is only a manifestation of jnana shakti and is not outside the range of Shaktaism.

The first verse of the text implies that the whole book is an explanation of the root of the Devi mantra, Hreem. There are many commentaries on the text which explain it either in a mystical or a literal way. In whichever way one chooses to see it, the mantras of the Saptashati will have a positive effect on the one who chants it with devotion and faith.

General guidelines for reading Durga Saptashati

In the morning, after taking a bath and finishing one’s daily worship or other rituals, one should sit on an asana facing North or East and try to evoke a state of concentration and devotion. The paath (reading) is most effective when done with firm faith, devotion and correct pronunciation. During the time of reading, one should try not to talk, sleep, sneeze, yawn or spit, but read with complete concentration on Devi in the form which appeals to one. One should not stop in the middle of a chapter. It is good to place the book on a stand, preferably a copper plate. At the beginning and end of each chapter, bells may be rung. Before starting the paath, affirm the purpose for which you are performing it – make a resolve, sankalpa, and perform worship of Devi.

Navaratri is an ideal period for the paath of Durga Saptashati; however, in the other months, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday are considered auspicious days of the week for beginning the reading. The ideal days of the lunar calendar are ashtami (eighth day of the moon), navami (ninth day of the moon) and chaturdashi (fourteenth day of the moon).

The Saptashati may be read daily and completed in seven days in the following manner of division of chapters. Day One: first chapter. Day Two: second and third. Day Three: fourth. Day Four: fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth. Day Five: ninth and tenth. Day Six: eleventh. Day Seven: twelfth and thirteenth. This is the traditional rule. It is believed that whatever sankalpa the Saptashati is read with, will be fulfilled. Since Shakti is the basis for all iccha (desire), jnana (knowledge) and kriya (action), one cannot stay out of the realm of Shakti. An individual is but Shakti, and hence one can have everything through the worship of Shakti. The reading should be in the following order:

  1. Devi Suktam
  2. Devi Kavacham
  3. Argala Stotram
  4. Keelakam
  5. Ratri Suktam
  6. Devi Mahatmya
  7. Kshama Prarthana

Devi Suktam: The eight verses of the Devi Suktam were composed by Vak, daughter of Maharshi Ambharin, and are from the Rig Veda (10th mandala, 10th anuvaka, 125th sukta). These shlokas express the truth realized by Vak, who identifies herself as Brahma Shakti, and expresses herself as eleven Rudras, eight Vasus, twelve Adityas and all the devas who are sustained by her and she is the source, substratum and support of the whole world.

Devi Kavacham: Consisting of 61 verses, Devi Kavacham is in Markandeya Purana. This kavacham (armour) protects the reader in all parts of the body, in all places and in all difficulties. Every part of the body is mentioned and Devi, in different forms, is being worshipped.

Argala Stotram: Here, Rishi Markandeya tells his disciples in twenty-seven inspiring couplets about the greatness of Devi. She has been described in all aspects and names and at the end of each shloka, prayer is offered to Devi for material prosperity, physical fitness, fame and victory.

Keelakam: Here also, Rishi Markandeya tells his disciples in sixteen shlokas the ways and means of removing obstacles faced by devotees while reading Devi Mahatmya. Reading of Keelakam brings blessings of Devi, spiritual harmony, peace of mind and success in all pursuits.

Ratri Suktam: The eight shlokas here have been taken from the Rig Veda (10th mandala, 10th anuvaka, 127th sukta). Devi is described as the all-pervading Supreme Lord of the universe appearing in Omkara. Ratri means ‘she who fulfils our prayers’.

Devi Mahatmya: The text is divided into three parts:

  1. Prathama (first)
  2. Madhyama (middle)
  3. Uttara (final)

The first chapter describes the glory of Maha Kali, the second, third and the fourth chapters glorify Maha Lakshmi, and the last nine chapters from the fifth to the thirteenth glorify Maha Saraswati.

Kshama Prarthana: It is the concluding prayer to Devi seeking pardon for any errors that may have been committed during the paath or otherwise.