Long ago in a time not so different from now, the mighty Asura king Mahishasura was granted the boon of immortality by Shiva, through extreme tapasya and prolonged meditation. Shiv Ji was so pleased with Mahishasura’s devotion, that he blessed him with eternal life, declaring that no man, beast, demon or deity would ever be able to kill him.
Mahishasura’s father, Rambha and his brother Karambha, had also both been great tapasvis. Rambha had done tapasya to Agni Dev, sitting amidst five sacred fires on the banks of the river Indus, he performed the Panchagni sacrifice. Karambha did his austerities standing neck-deep in the Sindu river to please and receive the blessings of Varuna Dev.
Indra, the king of Gods, realizing the feat of the two Asuras, felt threatened by their intense austerities and decided to kill them both. He took the form of a crocodile, slipped into the waters, grabbed Karambha’s feet, pulled him under and killed him.
When Indra tried to kill Rambha, he was saved by Agni because of his intense devotion. Rambha realizing his brothers death increased the intensity of his austerities and was given several boons, most importantly the boon that he could not be killed by any human, God or Asura – demon.
Empowered with his boons, Rambha began a rampage of fear and destruction, killing all living beings to cross his path. One day, roaming the garden of Yaksha, he met the beautiful female-buffalo Mahishi – who was actually the princess Shyamala, cursed to be a buffalo – and fell in love. Rambha, in an expression of love, transformed himself into a male-buffalo and seduced Mahishi. But all too soon a real buffalo discovered Rambha and being without protection against animals, killed him.
Through their union, Mahishi became pregnant and at Rambha’s funeral rites, threw herself into the funeral pyre. Out of the flames sprang a mighty beast with the head of a buffalo and the body of a human. This was Mahishasura.
Mahishasura, having received Shiva’s boon, now considered himself invincible and started a reign of terror and conquest of the three lokas. Slaying and killing mercilessly, he and his army of demons soon conquered earth, and set their eyes upon Devaloka, the abode of the Devas. Mahishasura attacked the Gods, and in a feroscious battle seized Devaloka, driving out Indra and the Devas. He grabed the throne of Indra and declared himself to be the new ruler.
The Devas hurried to seek the aid of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, who were not pleased to hear of Mahishasura’s deeds. The stories of Mahishasura’s violent conquest enraged the three to such a degree that a light of anger sprang out of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The display of anger from the three sent out a light, which illuminated the three worlds and combined to take the beautiful form of the Goddess Durga.
Mahishasura in his arrogance had not considered that a woman could be of any threat, but Shiva, having given Mahishasura his boon, knew that he was only protected against animals, men and Gods, and that a woman, a Devi, with the boons and powers of the three would be able to slay the demon and restore balance and prosperity to the worlds.
When Mahishasura saw Durga on the battlefield, he fell in love instantly, enthralled by her beauty, he proposed to marry her. Durga agreed, but on one condition, Mahishasura would have to defeat her in battle.
Then began a fierce battle between the two and their armies of Devas and Asuras, the fighting continued for nine days and nights with much gore and destruction. Finally on the tenth day, Durga had the upper hand and Mahishasura, desperately trying to avoid defeat, transformed into a wild buffalo. Durga pinned him to the ground with her left leg, Mahishasura shapeshifted back to his human form and leapt up. Durga pierced his chest with her trishul and swiftly beheaded Mahishasura with her sword, liberating both man and Gods of the terrible demon and restoring peace and balance to the worlds.
Thus Durga was given the name Mahishasura Mardini, the slayer of Mahishasura.
The nine nights have come to be known as Navratri, while the tenth day is called Vijayadashmi, the day that brought the triumph of good over evil.
The nine forms of Goddess Durga are worshipped during these nine nights and ten days. Each of the days are devoted to the different aspects of Durga Ma and celebrated accordingly.
The dates for Navratri in October 2012, can be viewed here.
It is a long tradition that one recites the Devi Mahatmyam – Durga saptashati – during Navaratri, to invoke the blessings of Durga Maa. It is recommended that the entire Devi Mahatmya should be read in one sitting. However, if one cannot, then the chapters are divided accordingly.
1st Day – Chapter 1 – Madhu kaitabha samhaara
2nd Day – Chapters 2, 3 and 4 – Mahishhasura samhaara
3rd Day – Chapters 5 & 6 – Dhuumralochana vadha
4th Day – Chapter 7 – Chanda Munda vadha
5th Day – Chapter 8 – Rakta biija samhaara
6th Day – Chapters 9 and 10 – Shumbha Nishumbha vadha
7th Day – Chapter 11 – Praise of Narayani
8th Day – Chapter 12 – Phalastuti
9th Day – Chapter 13 – Blessings to Suratha and the Merchant
10th Day – Chapter 14 – Aparadha Kshamaprarthana
Anuradha Paudwal has made a lovely devotional album on the theme of Durga Saptashati, which you may also enjoy.