A demon or foe who has acquired a boon which makes them seemingly impossible to kill is a prominent theme in world literature and mythology, and there are plenty of such examples in the Indian tradition. I have previously discussed the case of Namuci, who Indra promised not to kill by day or by night, or using anything dry or wet.
Another interesting story concerns the buffalo demon Mahiśāsura who was granted a boon that he would not be killed by man or by gods. This story is told in the Devī Māhātmya, from which I will draw below, as well as in the Devī Bhāgavatam, and in many other literary texts and folk stories too. The story begins with the granting of this boon by Brahma, who is commonly addressed as ‘grandfather’.
Initially, Mahiśāsura requests immortality so that he can be invincible in battle. However, we pick up the conversation with Brahma’s gentle refusal of this request as follows –
Brahma said –
“Death is certain for those that have born;
Birth is certain for those that have died.
Everywhere there is death and birth for breathing beings.
All breathing beings must be destroyed over time, demon-chief.
And mountains and oceans everywhere.
Give up this one idea about death, earthly ruler.
Good one, ask for [any other] boon that is on your mind.”
Mahiṣa said –
“Grandfather, let my death not be by gods, humans, or demons
Of the male sex; what woman could kill me?
Then my death will really occur only when I want to die, lotus-born one.
How could some weak woman possibly kill me?”
Brahma said –
“Somehow sometime, lord of demons, a woman will certainly kill you.[Devī Bhāgavatam Book 5 Chapter 2 Verses 8-14; my own translation]
Buffalo-demon, your death will not be by any male, fortunate one”
Mahiśāsura now feels fully confident in his invincibility, and as a result, Mahiśāsura is able to conquer the earth, following which he sets his sights on the heavens, sending an envoy to Indra with the following message –
“Quit heaven right now, thousand-eyes, and go wherever you like,[Devī Bhāgavatam Book 5 Chapter 3 Verses 11-13; my own translation]
Or serve the great buffalo, lord of gods.
He will certainly protect you, King, if you seek his protection.
So seek the protection of the buffalo, husband of Śacī.
Or otherwise quickly grab your vajra ready for battle, destroyer of Bala.
You were earlier defeated by our side [the asuras]; I know your [lack of] manliness.”
As the supremely powerful king of the gods, Indra does not take this threat seriously, ridiculing the envoy and sending him back with this cutting message –
“Son of a buffalo-cow, come here quickly if you want to fight.[Devī Bhāgavatam Book 5 Chapter 3 Verses 18-19; my own translation]
Horse’s enemy, grass-eater, stupid-looking,
I know exactly how strong you are.
I will make a nice strong bow from your horns.
I know the reason for your pride is the strength of your horns.
I will take hold of your strength by cutting off your horns,
That strength about which you have become too proud,
With which you can’t strike with cleverly in battle, loser among buffalos!
The situation quickly escalates from there, so Indra gathers together Vishnu, Śiva, Yama and many other gods for war against Mahiśāsura and his fellow dānavas, which lasts for a full one hundred years. At the end of the battle –
That very strong one [Mahiśāsura] hurled mountains with his horns,
And maddened with pride, the Dānava slew whole groups of gods.
Striking gods with his hooves and whipping them with his tail,
That wondrous buffalo, filled with rage, slew them.
Then the gods and gandharvas became very frightened.
When Indra, seeing the buffalo, ran away, there was nothing left.
Yama, the lord of wealth, and all of them
Abandoned the battle overcome by fear like a noose.
Then Mahiśa also went home celebrating his victory,[Devī Bhāgavatam Book 5 Chapter 7 Verses 15-22; my own translation]
Obtaining the elephant Airāvata, abandoned as Indra fled,
And [the horse] Uccaiḥśravas, the milk-producing, wish-fulfilling cow of the sun.
He quickly set his mind to going to heaven with his armies.
Mahiśāsura went directly to the home of the gods,
And seized the divine kingdom, abandoned by the gods who were overcome by fear.
The dānava then enjoyed sitting on Indra’s seat.
He established dānavas in the places of the gods.
The gods are forced to quit heaven and wander around on earth. They then seek advice from Brahma who advises them to summon Devī, the goddess. Doing this, the gods request the goddess, Devī, to defeat Mahiśāsura as follows, and as depicted above –
Favour us, mother; protect us as we are tormented by our enemy.[Devī Bhāgavatam Book 5 Chapter 9 Verses 27-29; my own translation]
Slay the evil and deceptive horse’s enemy with your power of delusion.
Wicked, deceptive, terrifying, conceited with the boon that he can [only] be killed by a woman,
Taking many malignant forms to cause suffering to the gods.
You are the one protector of all the gods, kind to those who worship you.
We are tormented by the dānava; protect us today, goddess; we are bowing down to you.
What happens next will be described in Part Two of this article.