By: Chandra Alexandre
Goddess lore in India seems limited only by individual imagination. With every village comes another variation on basic themes, and every child growing up in India today learns many stories, just as a westerner might be introduced to fairy tales in kindergarten classrooms or as bedtime stories. It is through these myths that the glory of the goddess, and peoples’ love for her, grows. Here are some of her forms and most popular stories from within the Indian context to illustrate the variety of roles She fills.
As Durga, the Goddess is She who is “beyond reach” or “inaccessible.” She is Devi Mahishasuramardini (Goddess Killer of the Buffalo Demon) who appears to her devotees as both saumya (gentle and mild) and ghora (frightful and terrible). It is generally believed that she was a goddess of the agricultural peoples originally, and was later brahminized through the Sanskrit literature because of her incredible popularity. It has also been suggested that Her many battles in the Vedic literature are detailed because “she had to fight her way into orthodox Hinduism.” According to the Skanda Purana, she is none other than Parvati who takes on the role of warrior at Siva’s request to kill a giant demon of the name Durga. The demon cannot be killed by any of the gods because he is protected against the torments of any male by a special boon. Thus, Parvati alone is able to kill him, and in doing so, the goddess herself is named Durga. The demon then takes the form of a buffalo, an apparition that again appears in the famous Devi-Mahatmya tale of the slaying of Mahishasura, the buffalo demon (mahisha means buffalo). This tale begins:
Once in the land of the gods, a huge and terrible battle raged for hundreds of years. The gods were finally defeated, kicked from their celestial abode by the terrible leader of the demons, Mahishasura. The gods, who had fought the battle and lost, appeared before the greatness of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, explaining their defeat. The major gods become furious, and from their faces “came forth a great fiery splendor, and also from the…bodies of all the other gods, Indra and the others…and it congealed into a single form.” A little of Thomas Coburn’s continuing translation of the Devi-Mahatmya at this point will give a feel for the power of the tale of Durga’s appearance:
A stupendously fiery mass like a flaming mountain the gods saw there, filling the firmament with flames. That matchless splendor, born from the bodies of all the gods, came together in a single place, pervading all the worlds with its lustre, and it became a woman…Devi bellowed aloud with laughter over and over again. The entire atmosphere was filled with her terrible noise, and from that deafening, ear-shattering noise a great echo arose. All the worlds quaked, and the oceans shook. The earth trembled, and the mountains tottered. The gods, utterly delighted, cried, “Victory!” to the one who rides on a lion.
And so the Great Goddess is born, ready to fight the enemies of the gods. In her battle with the demons, she easily wins, and must finally confront the general, Mahisha himself. For this battle she is called Chandika, “The Violent and Impetuous One,” in part because Mahisha so infuriates her by changing form every time she attempts to kill him. The goddess charges and he changes into a lion. She cuts off his head, and he emerges from that body as a man, armed for battle. She kills him, and an elephant appears in his place. She chops off the trunk, and the buffalo is once again before her. Needing something to channel her focus, Chandika drinks her fill of wine and becomes intoxicated. She laughs at Mahisha as he roars and throws mountains at her during her break. She yells at him that soon it will be the gods who are roaring over his death and defeat. Downing her last gulp, the goddess leaps across the battlefield at Mahisha, stands upon his neck to stop him from changing into any other forms, pierces him with her spear and chops off his head. She is indeed victorious with this maneuver, and the gods sing her praise. She so loves their devotion that she tells them she will come again to their aid if they merely call. With this boon, she disappears.
The most detailed and glorious tale of Durga’s battlefield prowess comes when the gods, who remember her earlier promise, again call upon her. This time, She is asked to defeat the demons Sumbha and Nisumbha (two brothers). These demons had somehow managed to amass so much power that they deprived the gods of sacrificial offerings for a long time. This caused the gods tremendous stress because the offerings are what sustains their purpose—if they are not honored, they are depotentiated. This had been going on for so long that none of the gods could live in heaven any longer. The gods therefore sung out to the goddess, praising her for all things, hoping that she would help save them a fate of anonymity. When called, She came in her most beautiful aspect as Ambika. When Sumbha’s generals, Chanda and Munda, saw her, however, they immediately reported back to Sumbha of her splendor. They told him that she would be most worthy of his favors. Sumbha, being vain and wanting all things of beauty for his own, decided to have his minions ask for her hand in marriage on his behalf.
The generals then go to the goddess, but she tells them of a vow taken in her youth to only marry the one who can defeat her in battle. Upon hearing this from his emissaries, Sumbha is angry to think that a “mere woman” would thus suggest challenging him. He calls another of his generals, Dhumralochana (Smoky-Eyes), and tells him to take sixty thousand of his forces, grab the woman by the hair and return her to him. Dhumralochana goes forth to Chandika and at first tries to persuade her to come peacefully to Sumbha. She is not so inclined, and when Dhumralochana attempts to attack her, Chandika turns him and his battalions to ashes. The goddess is not easily had.
Sumbha quickly hears about his general’s defeat. He is so filled with hatred and desire to overcome and possess the goddess that he next summons Chanda and Munda, his most trusted officers. These two, acting on their commander’s request head off with the rest of the demon entourage and find Chandika in the Himalayas. They immediately begin firing arrows at her, and with this, the goddess lets her rage be known. She turns black in anger and fury, and from her brow, Kali emerges. This emanation of the goddess is her most fierce and gruesome.
She is depicted as emaciated, with red eyes, protruding tongue set for lapping up blood, black countenance, and wild, long, disheveled hair. She carries multiple weapons, a skull-topped staff, and emits alternatively hideous shrieks and deafening roars. Her only clothing, if any, is a tiger-skin wrapped about her waist, and she wears as ornaments a garland of freshly severed human heads and dead infant earrings. Kali easily slays the generals and offers their heads to Chandika, who then names her Chamunda, or slayer of Chanda and Munda. Then, both Chandika and Kali set out to kill Sumbha and his remaining armies.
The gods at this point send their power, or shakti, to the aid of the goddesses. (These matrikas as they’re known, are described below.) Together, these forces, along with the shakti of Chandika, called Aparajita, decimate all foes while those demons still able to do so flee the battleground in terror. One demon though, named Raktabija (Blood Seed, or Drops of Blood), comes forward again to fight. He has the special gift of being able to multiply wherever one of his drops of blood falls upon the earth. But Chandika and Chamunda team up to defeat him. Chandika lances the demon, weakening him, while Chamunda laps up his blood before it can reach the ground, thus ensuring his death. Now, only Sumbha and Nisumbha are left to challenge the goddesses. To make a long story short, however, devi withdraws Her emanations back into herself, kills Nisumbha first and renders Sumbha powerless, finally destroying him with one fatal pierce of her spear. The Goddess is yet again victorious.