Devī and the Buffalo Demon – Part Two

Durga in Combat with the Bull, Mahishasura – Wikimedia Commons (Detroit Institute of Arts)

In the first part of the story, we saw how the buffalo-demon Mahiśāsura behaved in an extremely arrogant and conceited way due to the boon granted by Brahma that he could not be killed by any male god, demon or human, thinking himself invincible because of this.  He made fun of the idea that any woman could be strong enough to challenge him and even taunted Indra about his supposed lack of manly courage.  Indeed, Mahiśāsura does have quite some early success, defeating the gods and making them flee from heaven.  At the end of that part, we see the gods take advice from Brahma and seek the help of Devī, the goddess.  Indeed, beseeched by the gods to fight and vanquish Mahiśāsura, Devī agrees to their request.

However, when Mahiśāsura discovers the existence of Devī, there is an unexpected turn of events, as he becomes completely infatuated with her, sending his chief minister as an envoy to deliver the following message –

I will joyfully crown her, with gentle eyebrows, the buffalo-queen, if that doe-eyed lady comes here due to feeling love.  As long as my feelings are reciprocated, then do whatever she wishes.  I am infatuated today by hearing about her beauty.

[Devī Bhāgavatam Book 5 Chapter 9 Verses 57-59ab; my own translation]

We can see here that Mahiśāsura may be thinking of the plot of many romantic stories, such as that of Nala and Damayantī, where the couple fall helplessly in love just by hearing about each other. However, unfortunately for Mahiśāsura, although his minister extols his qualities, Devī responds assertively, sending him back with the following message –

Go to Pātāla (hell) now if you wish to live.  Otherwise I will kill you, wicked and sinful, in the battle-field.  Shattered by my arrows, you will go to the house of the dead.  Knowing that I am only telling you this out of compassion, go quickly, you fool!  The gods will return to heaven quickly once you leave it.  So go directly to Pātāla, leaving the earth and its oceans, you idiot!  Or if you want a fight, come here quickly, asura, with your strongest soldiers!  I will send them all to the house of the dead!

[Devī Bhāgavatam Book 5 Chapter 10 Verses 7cd-11; my own translation]

When the message is conveyed to Mahiśāsura, he is highly reluctant to abandon his crush on Devī.  He takes advice about next steps from his advisors Virūpākṣa, Durdhara and Tāmra in turn.  Durdhara’s advice is particularly amusing in its level of wishful thinking –

Afflicted by love, she is using suggestive language, the meaning of which can be inferred.  Ladies proud of their beauty act in this way.  This lady with beautiful hips wishes to frighten you to bring you under her control.  This is what connoisseurs of love call the flirtation of confident women.  This indirect speech of lovers makes their loved ones devoted to them.  A man who has studied the śāstras on love knows this.

So, when she says “I will slay you on the battle-front” … the arrows of beautiful women are their piercing glances … what she means is “Your heart will be stricken by my loving glances.”  … When she says “I will make you fall injured in battle” … she means she will take your energy and leave you breathless in bed …

[Devī Bhāgavatam Book 5 Chapter 11 Verses 18cd-26; my own translation]

Here Durdhara seems to be stereotyping or objectifying Devī in order to caricature her personality as a primarily romantic or sexual one.  Whether fortunately or unfortunately, however, Mahiśāsura ignores the advice of Durdhara, and instead sends Tāmra and his army off to capture Devī and bring her back.  Reaching the presence of Devī, Tāmra too appears unable to take her seriously as a foe, addressing her as follows –

Why are you holding so many weapons in your hands?  Your hands are gentle as lotuses, made only to play with flower-blossoms.  When you have arcing eyebrows, what is the purpose of having a bow?  With your sharp glances, what are these needless arrows for? … Do as I say, goddess, and you will be supremely happy! … You will have a beautiful son who will be king.

[Devī Bhāgavatam Book 5 Chapter 11 Verses 59-67 (parts); my own translation]

Devī again responds equally sharply, and this time adds a deafening roar which sends Tāmra fleeing back to Mahiśāsura.  On his return, Mahiśāsura again takes advice, this time from Viśālākṣa, Durmukha and Vāskala, following which Durmukha and Vāskala are sent out to make battle against Devī and kill her.  However, she kills them, and in the next battle also Asilomā and Vidālākṣa, following which Mahiśāsura himself goes to meet her.

Mahiśāsura admits that he is still completely infatuated with her even though she has killed some of his best warriors.  However, Devī again rejects him and this again leads to another battle, where Devī fights Mahiśāsura and all his armies.  In this battle she kills Mahiśāsura, severing his head with a cakra or discus, thus fulfilling the prophecy from Brahma.

The fact that gods such as Indra and Vishnu could be soundly defeated and driven from heaven by Mahiśāsura and his army of asuras is quite a surprising occurrence.  That Devī, the goddess, could then single-handedly defeat such a formidable opponent is again a surprise.  One way to understand this story is as a paradigm for strong and empowered women in modern societies, and indeed we can take inspiration from the story in this way.

At the same time, however, there seems also to be a deeper metaphysical significance to this story.  The goddess, Devī, Kālī or Śakti, with her manifold forms, is the central figure in Hindu Tantra.  According to Tantra, the intrinsic and primordial nature of reality is beyond duality.  However, apparent duality arises in a way that is analogous to an awareness of the separation between male and female.  Following this, through an elaboration of the female aspect, what arises is māyā, a kind of force of illusion, that gives rise to the appearance of multiplicity.  In this way, as Ajit Mookerjee explains –

“Apart from certain historical factors which may have influenced tantra to adopt practices associated with female worship, the chief reason for giving high status to women and elevating her to the level of a cosmic force is that the female principle is considered to be essentially the kinetic aspect of consciousness. … Tantra holds the concept of a composite female principle which, though running parallel to male, transcends it. … The tantrikas also identify the power of Śakti with the Absolute or One, since she projects the divine bi-unity of male and female principles.”

[Ajit Mookerjee, The Tantric Way, p.16]

As a result of the above events, Devī comes to be known as Mahiśāsuramardinī or the slayer of the buffalo-demon.  Further, her greater strength and power in comparison with the male gods who previously battled Mahiśāsura is consistent with the idea of a composite female principle which transcends the male principle in Tantra.  The dismissive attitude towards Devī by Durdhara and Tāmra is perhaps then a cruder conception of Tantra, which focuses merely on the sexualisation of the female principle.

The manifestation of differentiated reality is sometimes expressed in terms of the dance of the goddess, which breaks the original unity into the diversity of our everyday reality.  We may thus end with a rather musical verse in praise of the goddess by Śankarācārya –

Lover of dance within whom is the dramatic expression (abhinaya) made by playful goddesses, ta-ta-theyi ta-theyi
Lover of songs with intriguing beats, ku-kuthaḥ ku-kuthaḥ gaḍada
Lover of the hum of the deep-sounding drum (mṛdaṅga), dhu-dhu-kuṭa dhuk-kuṭa dhiṁ-dhimita
Victory, victory, slayer of the buffalo-demon, daughter of the mountain, with lovely braided hair.

[Mahiśāsura-mardinī-stotram Verse 9; my own translation]

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