Mahiṣāsuramardini

Durga Mahiṣāsuramardini. Kangra, Himachal Pradesh; Pahari region, circa 1800; The beautiful goddess with all her armory is astride the back of the enormous black buffalo, from whose severed head springs the demon; Durga’s vāhana the lion joining the fray as demon minions flee in fear — while the devas look on.

“May Devī Mahiṣāsuramardini, who hath power to destroy
The proud enemies of the Devas, the slayer of demons,
Ever conquer!
It was She who, having severed the head of the Asura Mahiṣa,
Seized upon him who assumed the form of a buffalo by his magic..
Terrible it was, with the dancing of the weapons and streamers of the enemy.
With a cloud of thrown discus and other missiles.
There the copper-colored weapon dashed and flashed from the enemy’s arrows;
Enemies so stout, strong, and tall, proud of wealth and power,
The field of battle thus seemed to have been swept by a tempest,
A most hideous sight, thickly spread with limbs and dead bodies of Asuras,
In whose blood and flesh birds slaked their thirst and appeased their hunger.
Let the Sādhaka meditate upon Devī Mahiṣāmardinī.”

(from the Mahiṣāsuramardinistōtra of the Tantrasāra)

The Creation of Goddess Durga from the Devi Mahātmya

Long ago, when Mahiṣa was chief of the asuras and Indra was chief of the gods, there was a war between their forces for a full hundred years. The valorous asuras vanquished the army of the gods, and surped the authority of Sūrya, Indra, Agni, Vāyu, and Candra, and of Yama, Varuṇa, and the others devas. Mahiṣa became the lord of heaven. Then led by Brahmā, the lord of beings, the defeated gods went to Viṣṇu and Śiva and related what had happened.

When Viṣṇu and Śiva heard the entreaties of the gods, they knit their brows in fury and contorted their faces, whereupon a great radiance came forth from Viṣṇu’s rage- filled countenance, and so, too, from Brahmā’s and Śiva’s. And from Indra’s body and from the bodies of all the other gods, a very great light issued, and they united and became one. The gods saw before them a peak of light like a mountain, blazing brightly and pervading the sky in every direction with its flames.

Unequaled light, born from the bodies of all the gods, coalesced into a female form and pervaded the three worlds with its splendor. From Śiva’s light came that which formed the Devī’s face. Yama’s radiance formed her hair, and Viṣṇu’s effulgence became her arms. The moon god’s soft light formed her breasts, and Indra’s brilliance became her waist. Varuṇa’s light became her legs, and earth’s splendor formed her hips. Her feet took shape from Brahmā’s light and her toes from Sürya’s brilliance. From the Vasus’ light her fingers formed and from Kubera’s light, her nose. From Prajāpati’s lustre came her teeth, and from Agni’s radiance her three eyes were born. Dawn and dusk became her eyebrows, the wind god’s splendor shaped her ears, and all else born of the other gods’ light shone too as the auspicious Devī.

The Gods Create the Goddess Durga. Deccan, circa 1700

Beholding Her who appeared out of their amassed light, the gods that were being tormented by Mahiṣa rejoiced, and proceeded to bestow upon her their own weapons and adornments.

Goddess Durga on a Lion, being offered obeisances by the Gods — Brahma, Maheśwara, Agni, Indra, Varuṇa, Vināyaka from the Devi Mahatmya, ca. 1690–1710. Princeton University Art Museum

From his trident, Śiva drew forth another triśūla for her, and Viṣṇu bestowed a discus spun out from his own. Varuṇa gave her a conch; and Agni, the eater of oblations, gave her a spear. Vāyu, the wind god, presented to Her a bow and two quivers of arrows. Extracting a thunderbolt from his own, Indra, the lord of the immortals, the all-seeing one, gave it to her along with a bell from his elephant Airāvata. From his staff of death Yama produced another staff, and Varuṇa, the lord of waters, gave Her a noose. Brahmā, the lord of beings, gave prayer beads and an ascetic’s waterpot. Sūrya, the bringer of day, bestowed his rays of sunlight on all the pores of her skin. Kāla, the lord of time, presented a sword and shining shield. The ocean of milk bestowed upon the Devī a necklace of flawless pearls, ever-new garments, a celestial crest-jewel, earrings, and bangles, a radiant crescent-shaped ornament, armlets, a pair of shining anklets, a necklace beyond compare, and bejeweled rings for all her fingers. Viśvakarman gave her a gleaming ax, weapons of all kinds, and impenetrable armor.

Garlands of unfading lotuses for her head and breast were given to Her by the ocean, along with yet another magnificent lotus to grace her hand. Himālaya, the lord of mountains, gave her a lion for a vāhana and jewels of all kinds; Kubera, the lord of wealth, presented a drinking vessel ever-brimming with wine. Śeṣa, the lord of serpents, who supports the earth, gave her a garland of snakes, adorned with precious gems.

Honored in this manner by the Gods, and bestowed with their adornments and weapons, the Devī roared thunderously and defiantly. She filled the entire sky with her terrifying sound, and from the immeasurable din a great echo resounded. All the worlds shook, and the oceans churned. The earth quaked, and the mountains heaved. In joy the gods exclaimed, ‘Victory! ’ to the lion-mounted Devī; and with bodies bowed in devotion, the sages praised her.

The Goddess Matangi being venerated by the Gods; ca. 1760, Brooklyn Museum

“O Caṇḍī! When the syllables, which speak of Thee
Reach the ear, Brahmā and other Devas
Sing the truth, touching Puruṣa and Prakṛti.”

Mahiṣāsura bellowed in wrath. Surrounded by countless asuras, he rushed toward the sound and then beheld the Devī, who pervaded the three worlds with her radiance, bending the earth under her tread, scraping the sky with her diadem, shaking all the nether regions with the resonance of her bowstring; her presence penetrating every direction with her thousand arms.

Thereupon, a frightful battle began between the Devī and the enemies of the gods. Swords and missiles, hurled in every direction, lit up the quarters of the sky. Mahiṣāsura’s general, the great asura named Cikṣura, battled there, and Cāmara led cavalry, charioteers, elephant-drivers, and foot soldiers.

Devi defeats Mahiṣā’s armies; Folio from a Dispersed Devi Mahatmya Series; ca. 1770–1780 Guler, Punjab Hills. Brooklyn Museum

With lances and javelins, spears and clubs, swords and axes, and sharp-edged spears, the mighty asura army fought the Devī. Some hurled spears while others threw nooses; intent on killing her, they began an assault with their swords. But She, the Devī Caṇḍikā, showered down all manner of weapons and cut through their armaments as if it were play.

Praised by gods and seers, She remained serene, even while unleashing her weapons at the asuras. Her lion-mount, shaking its mane in fury, stalked among the demon throngs as fire rages through a forest.

Goddess Durga Slaying Demons on the battlefield, ca. 1690–1710 Princeton University Art Museum

“O Caṇḍī! Wander in my heart,
By whom the act of formidable Asura was shattered,
Destroy the calamities which deeply pierce me,
Arising from the mass of malice and fears (which assail me),
So that, free from danger,
And protected by the lotus cluster of Thy feet,
My swan-like mind may swim and rejoice in the ocean of bliss.”

The Devī, with her trident, club, spears, swords and other weapons, slew great asuras by the hundreds. Binding some with her noose, she dragged them along the ground. Her swordstrokes slashed some of them in two, while crushing blows from her mace brought others down, with those bludgeoned by her club vomiting forth blood. Some fell to the ground, pierced through the chest by Her trident. Her steady stream of arrows made some on that battlefield resemble bristling porcupines, and those tormenters of the gods breathed their last. Torrents of blood, like mighty rivers, gushed from elephants, asuras, and horses there in the midst of the demon army.

In an instant, Ambikā led that vast legion of foes to destruction, as quickly as fire consumes a heap of straw and wood. And her lion, roaring thunderously and shaking its mane, prowled about in search of lifebreath still issuing from the enemies’ bodies. So did the Devī’s hosts wage war against the asuras. So also did the gods in heaven shower flowers onto Her in praise.”

The Goddess in Battle; Folio from a Devimahātmya; Rajasthan, Sirohi, circa 1700. LACMA

The Slaying of Mahiṣa

Durga slaying the buffalo demon Mahiṣāsura, Mewar, circa 1740–60

While his army thus met destruction, Mahiṣāsura terrified the Devī’s hosts with his own buffalo form, jostling with his snout and pawing at others with his hooves. He lashed some with his tail and lacerated with his horns. After destroying the great goddess’s forces, Mahiṣāsura rushed forward to slay her lion. At that, Ambikā became enraged.

But Mahiṣāsura, great in valor, struck the earth angrily with his hooves, flung mountains skyward with his horns, and bellowed frightfully.

Under his frenzied wheeling, the trampled earth broke apart. Lashed by his tail, the ocean overflowed all around. Thrashed by his horns, the clouds fragmented and dispersed. Tossed about on his blasting breath, mountains by the hundreds fell from the sky.

When She saw the great asura approaching, inflated with rage, Caṇḍikā aroused her wrath and prepared to slay him. She threw her noose over him and bound him. Fettered thus in the fierce battle, the great asura left his buffalo form and assumed the shape of a lion. No sooner had Ambikā severed his head than he transformed into the form of a man with a sword and a shield in hand. Instantly, with her arrows, the Devī severed the head of the man. He then took the form of a great elephant and dragged her mighty lion along with his trunk, but while he trumpeted loudly, the Devī chopped off his trunk with her sword.

An Illustration from the Devi Mahātmya Series, Devi vanquishing the Elephant Demon. inscribed “Tham gadga charmana saardham thatha so aboon maha gaja” — “Afterwards the Goddess cut the head of the man with a sword and shield by using swift arrows. Then from that man he became a huge elephant”. Kulu, c. 1720–50

Once more the great asura assumed his buffalo form and caused the three worlds, with all that is moving and unmoving, to tremble. Angered, Caṇḍikā, the mother of the worlds, drank a divine potion, and with eyes reddened she laughed again and again.

“Let the Sādhaka meditate
Upon the auspicious black Bhogavatī, Mahiṣāmardinī,
Holding in Her hands discus, lance, axe, shield, arrow, bow, and trident,
Making the gesture which dispels fear;
Her long, matted hair is like a bank of cloud,
Covering Her face most formidable,
Loudly screaming, now with peals of terrible laughter,
With Her threats, greatly frightening the Daityas.”

The asura bellowed in return, intoxicated with his own might and valor, and with his horns he hurled mountains at Caṇḍikā. Her volley of arrows reduced them to dust. Her face flushed with inebriation from the divine drink, and she addressed him thus.

The Devī said: ‘Bellow, you fool, bellow for now while I drink this potion. After I have slain you, the gods will cheer in this very place.”’

Having said that, She leapt upon the great asura, pinned his neck down with her foot, and pierced him with her spear. Trapped there under the Devī’s foot and crushed by her might, he emerged half-way in his true (human) form from the buffalo’s neck. Half-revealed and fighting still, that great asura fell to the Devī, beheaded by her great sword.

Durgā Mahiṣāsuramardin steps forcefully on to the buffalo while transfixing him with her trident and sword. Company School, circa 1820, Andhra Pradesh. British Musuem

Then crying out in alarm, the whole demon army perished, and all the divine hosts exulted. Together with the great heavenly seers the gods praised the Devī, the celestial musicians sang, and throngs of cloud-nymphs danced.

Devī Māhātmya देवी माहात्म्य Manuscript, Southern Rajasthan or Gujarat, 18th century. British Library

“Let the Sādhaka meditate upon Devī Mahiṣāmardinī.
Rushing now here, now there on the field of battle for the slaughter of the enemies,
Attended by eight companion Mātṛkas,
Ear-ringed with eight-petalled lotuses,
Within each petal of which are writ the eight syllables:
Mahiṣāmardinyai namah.
Formidable was that field with the tossing of the huge curved horns of Mahiṣa,
Deeply black, maddened, wandering to and fro, horribly roaring
Whose instant death was desired of the Devas.”

References:

  1. Hymns to the Goddess, Sir John Woodroffe
  2. In Praise of the Goddess: The Devīmāhātmya and Its Meaning by Devadatta Kālī

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