Durga and Mahisa
Durga’s battle with the demon Mahisa (1)
Mahisa was a son of Rambha, an asura (2), and Mahisi, the goddess Gauri in her form of a female buffalo. Mahisa, chief of the asuras became, through austerities skilled in magical prowess. Invincible, he threatened the gods who were powerless to defeat him. In desperation, they invoked the goddess for assistance. To resounding incantations and mantras, the goddess appeared as a mountain of light, the colour of gold, with the brilliance of a thousand suns. Her eyes were like the nilotpala flower, the blue lily; her hair was black as night; her high, round, prominent breasts proclaimed her feminine divinity. To her, each god contributed his fiery essence and weapons. Siva, his trident; Visnu, his disk; Varuna, his conch; Agni, a dart; Yama, an iron rod; Vayu, a bow; Surya, arrows; Kubera, a mace; Indra, a thunderbolt; Brahma, a rosary and waterpot; Kala, a sword; Visakarma, an axe; Himavan, a lion.(3) Thus armed, Durga went to her home on the Vindhya mountains,(4) where she was worshipped by the tribes of the Savaras and the Pulindas. Mahisa, hearing of her intoxicating beauty, sent a message to her, claiming her as his own, for was he not Lord of the three worlds? Durga smiled and replied that she would only wed the hero who defeated her in battle.
Boastful Mahisa accepted the challenge and first sent his asura army to war with her. Katayayani (5) lifted her bow and arrow, and mounted on her Sarabha, (6) she defeated the asura hosts. Seeing the slain, she seized a vina and a damaru and laughing in joy, played music. Then Mahisasura advanced, assuming his form of a deep-black, maddened, buffalo, now bellowing, now running, now stamping the ground with his hoofs. A cataclysmic battle commenced. The mountains were rent asunder, the oceans trembled and the clouds scattered in the sky. In vain the goddess used her god-given weapons, but the buffalo hero escaped her. At last, filled with engulfing anger, she flung aside her weapons, dismounted, and with her bare hands, sprang on the back of Mahisa; with her tender, fragrant foot she smote his head. The asura, immune to the weapons of all the gods, fell senseless at the touch of the goddess’ feet.(7) And she, poised in the serene knowledge of her all-consuming power, took her sword and cut off the head of Mahisa. Then, making the gesture that dispels fear with her hand, the goddess appeared smiling. Seeing her victorious, the male gods of the Puranas hailed her:
Whatever gentle forms of thine,
And whatever of thy terrible forms wander in the three worlds,
By these forms protect us and the Earth.(8) (Arthur Avalon, Hymns to the Goddess, p.118)
(Based on the variant recounted in: The Earth Mother, by Pupul Jayakar, Penguin Books 1989)
1. There are many variations of this legend – I prefer the versions whereby Durga is self-existent prior to being called on by the gods, rather than created from their essence. In some versions of the myth, Mahisa is said to become invincible via a boon granted by Brahma – that no man could kill him – and that he could not believe that any woman could kill him so he neglected to include this eventuality in his boon – which of course led to his downfall.
2. The asuras are usually taken as demons.
3. In some variants, Durga’s mount is a tiger. Or see 6, below.
4. Vindhyadevi – goddess of the Vindhya (mountains) is a title of Durga. This region was considered to be populated by wild, hostile tribes and inaccessible to all but the most heroic.
5. ? One of the Nine Durgas (see The Navadurgas).
6. The Sarabha – a mythical animal, half-elephant and half-tiger.
7. The significance of the foot is discussed at some length in Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Kali’s Child. The foot is the transmitter of divine power or grace – further examples being the depiction of Shiva-Nataraja with his foot holding down a dwarf-demon; the tradition of worshipping the feet of a guru, and Ramakrishna’s ‘scandalous’ practice of placing his foot in the lap of one of his youthful disciples.
8. Durga is not only a goddess who responds to threats to the established cosmos, but responds directly to the petitions of her devotees. Moreover, Durga, like all deities, acts from the position of Lila or play. She battles Mahisa because it pleases her to do so. As a battle-goddess, Durga reverses the Puranic stereotype of women as submissive wives or daughters.
See Hindu Goddesses by David Kinsley for more details.