🦁 Well, if this isn’t the most unusual turn of events!
I have had discussions about this with some of my friends before, but I didn’t have to start from the groundwork. Being Indians, they were already familiar with the characters and the story. With you, it’d have to be different. I’ll need to begin at the beginning, – by introducing her to you.
It is a complex task, though. She is a many-sided character, and her story was not developed by any one person or one community, or even a single time period. Over centuries and centuries, her character was imagined and reimagined, interpreted and reinterpreted, and every age molded her to suit their own social standards.
Robert Langdon, the famous symbologist created by Dan Brown, once showed how the personalities of ancient gods seep into the representation of modern characters. At one place, he familiarizes a Federal official with a little-known statue of George Washington:
Langdon said, “This Rotunda was once dominated by a massive sculpture of a bare-chested George Washington….depicted as a god. He sat in the same exact pose as Zeus in the Pantheon, bare chest exposed, left hand holding a sword, right hand raised with the thumb and finger extended.”
Sato had apparently found an online image, because Anderson was starting at her Blackberry in shock. “Hold on, that’s George Washington?”
“Yes,” Langdon said. “Depicted as Zeus.”
Do you see how it works? In every age, we adapt the myths of the past to suit the tastes and needs of the present. Thus it is that the Greek Zeus became the Roman Jupiter, and when European artists envisioned the Biblical god Yahweh, they gave him the same physical features of a muscular old man with flowing white hair and beard, sitting in the clouds and meting out stern justice. As Dan Brown puts it elsewhere – ‘God is plural, because the minds of man are plural.’
The goddess I am talking to you about is named Durga. You pronounce it with a soft d, and the vowel in Durg is pronounced like Burj (as in Burj Khalifa.)
I shall not go very deep into the historical origins of the goddess. Still, a few short lines are necessary. Early signs of a fertility goddess can be found in pre-Vedic times, in communities that might have branched off in many directions during the Aryan migrations. The stories that came into India developed this character into Durga; other branches that went to the east and the northeast gave rise to iconic deities like Anahita, the old Iranian goddess of the Waters, fertility, and war; and Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of war, sexual love, beauty, and justice. Ishtar is widely known to be a goddess of ‘contradictory connotations and forces.’ Durga, having been developed in India, also retains this particular quality. Of course, it is risky and perilous to discuss a Hindu deity in this manner in the present times (this article here discusses this issue very well, if you are interested,) since India is currently a Hindu fundamentalist state. But we shall do what we can.
You will read stories of Durga in the book by R K Narayan that I have recommended. Here I am going to present an alternative analysis.
There are many versions of the goddess known as Durga, many alter-egos, you might say. Each of these has her own unique personality and profile. There are some common qualities to all of them, but otherwise, they are not the same.
Vedic thinking always made a point to integrate all aspects of life and the world into its description of the Supreme. When Vedic thinking considers any major deity, it takes care to explain that God has a dual nature. While Christianity firmly separates God and Satan as distinct and opposing forces of good and evil, the Vedic view says that both light and dark are essential aspects of the same God,- it is only a matter of relative perception. You might find a semblance of this in the philosophy of the Gray Jedi order. This view holds that the Supreme can manifest as either peaceful or enraged, can embody either war or peace, take part in either preservation or destruction – depending on what the situation demands. God, as it were, has a Right Face and Left Face, and circumstances will tell which face we get to see.
Let us take four alter-egos of the same person – Uma (aka Parvati), Annapurna, Aparna, and Durga.
Uma is the goddess at her most approachable. She is the daughter of Himalaya, king of the mountains (‘parvata‘ in Sanskrit,) which is why she is also known as Parvati. In this form, she is a peaceable person, gracious and kind, an affectionate daughter, devoted wife, and loving mother. She is no pushover, of course, but neither does she intimidate or inspire profound awe.
Annapurna is the quintessential mother goddess. Her name literally means ‘provider of food,’ referring to her nourishing and sustaining nature. She is the embodiment of the fertile plains of old India, the vast valleys of the Ganga-Brahmaputra river system that suckled an entire civilization.
Aparna is a dramatically different character, The story goes that she sat in severe penance for days, desiring to achieve union with her beloved, Lord Shiva. She went on for days, caring not to protect herself from the changing weather, consuming nothing to sustain herself – not even a single leaf. And thus she came to be known as Aparna – ‘the leafless one.’ She is the goddess in the ascetic form of the yogini.
Finally, we have Durga. Durga is complex because she combines the qualities of a strategist, a destroyer, and a seducer. Much like Ishtar, she is a fertility goddess in her original form. But she is really best known as a warrior goddess. And at the same time, she is also the patron goddess of lasya (the female form of Indian classical dance) and the ultimate embodiment of both beauty and strength.
You will read the story of Durga in the book we mentioned earlier. But as I said, I am going to give you a different serving of the dish. Let me tell you the story here, with as much candour as I can.
* * *
There was a villain named Mahishasura, who became the king of the demons by virtue of his massive physical strength and great fighting skills. His name (mahish = buffalo, asura = demon) literally meant ‘buffalo-demon’; it was a reference to the terrifying muscularity and bestial strength he possessed. Moreover, he was blessed to be stronger than any and every male being in the world.
He had taken great pains and done great penance to win the right to a special wish, – a boon that would grant him undisputable power. When the time came for him to ask for the boon, he originally claimed immortality, but that was refused on the grounds that no one can claim to be unkillable. But he was also very cunning. He had played a trick and asked instead that he couldn’t be defeated by any male: that he be made the strongest male that would ever exist. – Mahishasura was a proud misogynist: he figured that since women are the weaker sex anyway, being the strongest male would automatically render him unkillable. How could a mere woman hurt him when the strongest gods could not?
He indeed was unstoppable. He defeated all the other demon lords and established himself as the supreme commander and king. He razed the kingdoms of men to dust and bled the kingdoms dry. And then, he attacked the realm of the gods. The best warriors of heaven fell before him pathetically. He took their fiercest fighters and strongest wrestlers and thrashed them like ragdolls. His army was rather redundant, – he alone was enough to crush all his opponents. He didn’t even bother to wear armour in battle. Blessed to be stronger than any male god, unkillable by any of their weapons, his flesh needed no metal armour to shield it – his muscles were harder than any steel. He made a show of his body to intimidate his enemies, flexing his muscles hard as he broke one god after another. He knew he was a fearsome sight, and he relished it.
The gods were immune to death, but not to injury. Badly beaten and broken, they retreated to secret hideouts here and there. Mahishasura had taken the throne, now he was the king of heaven. He let loose his demons all over the realm, throwing open the treasuries for their animal pleasures. True to his nature, he made a point of rounding up all the Apsaras, who were the celestial dancers of heaven, and raped them for his sexual pleasure. It was probably more sadistic than sexual, since the least exertion of his body would crush any other person, be they celestial or mortal. Lady Shachi herself, the high queen of the gods, served as a concubine at his feet.
At first, the gods did not have a way to fight back in the least. But as their rage grew higher and their frustration grew deeper, they all met at one place as a final resistance, and putting their wills together, they invoked the goddess Durga…
…and she answered.
Her appearance was beyond any powers of description. It was a vision of incomprehensible strength coupled with incomparable beauty. Looking at her, one did not know whether to rush at her in desire, flee from her in fear, or fall at her feet in submission. Her personality overloaded one’s senses at first glance and left them speechless. The gods folded their hands, fell to their knees, and begged the goddess to save them from Mahishasura.
She said yes.
The gods, in a rush of gratitude, offered her all their weapons, and she did not refuse, even though she would not have needed them. She knew that the same weapons had failed to put a dent in the demon-king before. But in her grace, she accepted the gifts offered to her. Then she set off on her mission.
The legend goes that she came to the gates of Mahishasura’s stronghold – a beautiful maiden all by her lonesome, dressed in sheer red. The guards saw her and rushed to bring the news to their master. Mahishasura listened to the reports of this strange woman who was said to ooze sexuality as no Apsara did, who was the most beautiful woman ever seen by anyone. His interest was piqued. He sent a commander of the guards to fetch the woman to his court. A short while later, he received word that the commander had been killed.
This had never happened before. Mahishasura was surprised, but more than that, he was angry. He ordered his forces to arrest the feisty bitch and drag her by the hair to him, and then he would show her in front of the whole court where the place of a woman was. The demon hordes went out to meet the mystery woman, eager to lay their hands on another easy prey. Not a single one of them came back alive. A bloodied demon returned to Mahishasura bearing the news. It had been a massacre. The goddess had battled with Mahishasura’s army all by herself and annihilated them. He had not escaped but was spared so that he could carry the message to his master.
Mahishasura’s face was dark with fury. He left the throne and stood up. He was going to go out to fight this woman himself. He would show this woman who he was, and make her scream his name.
Durga was waiting for him as he came out of the gates to face her. And as Mahishasura’s eyes fell upon the goddess for the first time, he felt his desire catching fire.
She was exquisite beyond words. There was a stateliness to her that stopped him in his tracks, making him pause and take in what he was seeing. She did not look delicate like all the other women. No, it was more than voluptuousness. The way she held herself… the shape of her shoulders… her arms… in some way she radiated power. Her eyes bore into his, making him feel uneasy as if she was reaching into his soul. But her beauty… Mahishasura had never felt so drawn to someone before so uncontrollably. Her sight almost drove the thought of revenge from his mind – he just longed to have her. He drew himself up and approached Durga with eager steps. Walking up to her, he asked her to come and be his escort and sit by him on the throne.
Of course, this was exactly what Durga had wanted him to do. She laughed in his face, rejecting his offer. She said that she wasn’t impressed by what she heard of him. If he was man enough, he could try to take her by force and see if he succeeded. – Mahishasura was stunned. Couldn’t she see who he was… what he was? No one who had ever laid eyes on him could have the courage to speak like that to his face! – And then came his rage. No more; he would not show any more gentleness; he would pull this woman down, break her, and rape her to death. Throbbing with violent desire, he charged at Durga.
As he was about to ram into her, Durga caught him bodily, picked him up, and smashed him down on the ground. Mahishasura’s body hit the earth like a ton of rocks. For a moment he couldn’t understand what just happened. Then, roaring in anger, he picked himself up, bellowed like a beast, and rushed her again. Durga grabbed him again as he came thundering, and flung him across the field, his body hitting the ground hard and tumbling in its momentum. She had started to laugh. Mahishasura heard it ringing in his ears, clear and rich and full of unbearable mockery.
Growling in rage, Mahishasura began to get up, but as he did so, she stepped close and put forth a leg before him. The goddess was dressed only in a short dancing skirt, with gold anklets on her feet. Even as he was on all fours, the sight made Mahishasura heady with desire. As he lunged at her in lust, she laughed and kicked him on his chest, throwing his body a few feet. The demon stifled a whimper of pain, chest heaving as he breathed in gulps. His chest was the strongest… he could crush boulders against it! How was he hurting so badly? And simultaneously he realized how she had kicked him… struck him with just what he was reaching for. The woman was toying with him.
Mahishasura got up in crazed fury. Driven by anger and lust in equal measure, he was seeing red. He screamed as he pumped out and flexed his pecs, beating on them like a maddened gorilla. Durga saw him flex, and smirked. The time had come to make him understand.
This time when he rushed her, she did not throw him. Instead, she tackled him and rammed him to the ground, putting him on his back, and put her left foot on his chest, pinning him. She gave Mahishasura a long moment to take in the sight of her leg planted on his heaving pecs, – and then she began to press. And he let out the first agonized scream of his life.
Durga looked like she was barely exerting herself, her leg over Mahishasura’s chest, her foot pressing deep into his iron-hard pectorals like they were putty. Mahishasura grabbed her leg with his hands to push it away. He couldn’t. The woman looked down at him with a mocking smile on her face. He looked at his limbs bulge with familiar power, his arms growing to gigantic masses of vein and muscle, his chest trying to flex into hard rocks but getting squashed by the sole of that one immovable foot. And the accursed woman even had anklets on, teasing and mocking him even further, reminding him of her femininity, telling him that he was getting trampled under the foot of a dancer!
He cried out as a fresh wave of pain went coursing through him. His ribs had started to bend. He began to freak and beat at her legs with his arms. Durga was unfazed. She was looking at the demon struggling at her feet, failing to resist her. She was taking her time. This one had taken his time with his victims, he had taken his time with all the soldiers he had torn apart and all the Apsaras he had raped. She would definitely take her time with him.
Mahishasura pushed. He was failing to make even an inch of difference, it seemed she did not even register his efforts. He croaked as he arched his back, squirming and struggling. His legs thrashed aimlessly as he desperately tried to push her off balance… but she was too strong. He gritted his teeth and poured everything he had into his arms and his pecs… and as he tried to flex harder, Durga rubbed down with a sudden press, and Mahishasura felt the first rib break under his layers of muscle. Screaming in pain, he saw that the woman was laughing. She was relishing the feeling of breaking him… but it was not supposed to be like this! It had to be him who wins… he who crushes… not her… Mahishasura heard himself cry out again in red pain as Durga pressed down again. She was crushing his pecs with her foot, crushing his cherished pecs… and his cherished pride. His hands groped her leg frantically. He felt something hard and smooth move under his fingers, something he grabbed as if by blind instinct. It was her flexing calf. He heard her voice talking to him. “What do you think, Buffalo-King,” she was asking, “Do you think I can squeeze hard enough to squash your ribs?”
Durga looked down at the demon with scorn. Minutes ago, this brute was raring to make her his whore, thumping his chest and pumping his arms for her to see. And now he was squirming at her feet, getting that same proud chest squashed in. She pushed a little more with her foot, and he let out another wail of pain. To her amusement, Durga saw that he was groping her calf with his hands, trying to get his fingers around it. Did he think he was a match for it? She decided to toy with him a little more. Pressing his chest with the ball of her foot, she turned her leg to give him a better view of the bulging calf.
Mahishasura gasped in fear, or perhaps in shock, he didn’t know. He saw her calf relax and ball up again as he felt another jolt of pain, his eyes widening, looking at the flexed calf that continued downwards until it met his chest in the shape of her foot. His hands were on it… he tried to move it, pushing with all his might… was he pushing? or was he trying to squeeze that calf of hers, trying with all his might, and realizing that he couldn’t? Realizing, at last, that this is how he dies.
His world had been turned upside down. For the first time ever in his life, he was the one getting beaten. In his agony, the demon was now openly sobbing, begging for the mercy of the woman standing over him. Mahishasura tried to beg for his life, but all that came out his mouth was a gush of blood. He tried to beg again. Every time he opened his mouth, Durga pressed her foot harder, and he vomited blood. Yes, this was how she wanted it. This felt right. Let it all out, Mahishasura. Let all that strength, all that muscle, all that proud arrogance out – coughing blood while begging for mercy at a dancer’s foot. She remembered the Apsaras, and rubbed her foot over his chest hard, pulverizing the ribbed muscles. He saw his arms thrash over her leg in vain, and remembered how he had always shown those off while torturing an opponent in battle. She started to tease him; “Show me how strong those arms are, Mahishasura! Show me how powerful this chest is!” – she laughed. She knew he was under the spell of her calves, and she took care to display them to him as they swelled with power.
It took a long while for Mahishasura to die. Rather, it took her a long time to let him die. She kept toying with him, torturing him and letting him loose for a moment before kicking him down again. She made him lie broken, blood flowing out of his mouth, while she danced sensually around his fallen body, giving him the show that he had wanted after all. But he wasn’t roaring and boasting anymore. She could see that he was fully aroused, but she saw his eyes fill with fear as he stared at her legs, her calves bulging and bunching with every step of the dance. And when she danced closer to his body, lifting her foot to place it on his chest, he openly cried and begged for mercy with folded hands. She remembered all the people who had begged him for mercy not so long ago… and blew him a mocking kiss as she started to trample on his chest again.
The Apsaras looked on as Durga trampled Mahishasura to death through her dancing. They saw how his whole torso thrashed in pain, remembering how he had crushed them against it so many times, ignoring their pleas for mercy. They saw his muscular limbs convulse with effort as he tried to beg for his life. Couldn’t they have their revenge? Couldn’t they too do the same thing to the lesser demons, like Durga was crushing the king-demon with her feet? — It did not take long. The onlooking gods saw with astonishment – the Apsaras of heaven had joined their goddess in the dance of death, finally releasing the pent-up rage and anguish of countless tortured days. It was as if they never knew this strength lay dormant inside them. Nobody had ever told them they were anything more than entertainment for the gods. Now, watching Durga, some fire had awakened in their hearts, and they would turn the tables, trampling the demons underneath their dancing feet.
Not just the Apasaras, – the fight between Durga and Mahishasura was taking place in full view of the whole world. The gods watched from a safe distance, so did the kings and warriors who belonged to the race of men.
Durga was very much aware of her audience; in fact, she had counted on it. She was not here merely as an assassin. She was here to make a point, and the lesson would have to be taught in full. Mahishasura was not just an opponent to her, he was a symbol of something very wrong with the world. He had established himself as an icon of arrogance and tyranny, a message to the world that the strong can get away with anything. He had forgotten that strength comes and goes in cycles. He had to be made an example of, one that would be remembered forever.
She found Mahishasura guilty in three ways. He was a self-obsessed narcissist, reveling in the sense of power his fearsome physique gave him. Like a typical macho bully, he prided himself on his iron-hard chest and brawny arms, and he never gave his opponents a clean defeat, always making them suffer more under his muscles. She wanted him to realize that she was picking out those very muscles to toy with, now that he was dying at her feet. This was the physical punishment.
Mahishasura was also guilty of imposing his cruelty on the people and reigning through fear. He had always projected himself as the unbeatable warrior whom no one could escape, no one could defeat. He enjoyed that his name was synonymous with terror and torture, that in the minds of people, he was an immovable nightmare that would never be over. So now she taunted him again and again in public sight, playing with him as a cat plays with a mouse, with all his former victims looking on. She didn’t just want to break his body, she wanted to break his mind. And she wanted everyone that watched to know exactly what she was doing. She wanted them to remember Mahishasura not as a fearsome despot but as a broken, beaten wrestler begging at a dancer’s feet.
And finally, he was guilty of his crimes against womankind.
He had never seen a woman as a person. To him, they were objects of pleasure, mere sex-toys to be used and discarded at will. Beyond that, women were nonentities. He had used the same reasoning when he had asked for his special boon, making sure he was the strongest male warrior to ever exist. Females could be of no consequence. He had beaten all his adversaries by brute force and subjected their women to abusive deaths. He had freely violated the queens of heaven, and endlessly raped the Apsaras any way he liked. Now it was his turn to taste his own medicine. It would not just be a physical and mental conquest… he would be sexually conquered too. After all, Durga was the goddess of sexuality, too. She would not let him forget that.
She knew that by her dance and physical display, she was overwhelming him with desire. She let him ogle at her legs and stare at her calves, flexing them seductively, taunting him to reach and touch them. It was him who was being played like a puppet now, helpless at her hands like he had held others helpless before. She wanted him to experience desire, and at the same time know that he could never have her. She made him feel uncontrollable arousal and utter despair, frying his brain with a sensory overload of lust, pain, and shame.
She hoped that the world would watch, and remember. It was a lesson for everyone – that a question must be answered in the same tongue it was asked in. In life, the physical must be countered with physical, the mental must be countered with mental, and the spiritual must be countered with spiritual. A wrestler cannot be beaten with debate, nor can a scholar be beaten with brawn. Measures and countermeasures must have the same medium if it has to work at all. So, on every level, she was beating Mahishasura at his own game. Mahishasura ruled through physical strength, so she broke his body. He ruled through fear, so she turned him into a humiliated wreck. He imposed his sexuality over everyone else, so she reduced him to her sex-slave.
And now it was time for him to die.
She looked into his eyes as he gazed at her in confusion and fear. She bent forward, closer to him, the pressure on his chest increasing as her weight shifted on to her foot. He was shaking his head, begging wordlessly. Durga saw the blood rise in his mouth again, and whispered, “Die, Mahishasura.”
A horrible, gurgling rattle rose in Mahishasur’s throat as his sternum collapsed. His body twisted and turned one final time, gave a violent shudder… and then lay still.
Durga paused a moment before she took her foot off his body. His dead eyes were fixated on her calf. His hands held on lifelessly to her leg. She smiled in disdain, and kicked him lightly. The body rolled away like a bloodied bag of dirt.
She looked around her and saw the Apsaras at their dance, dying screams rising at their footfalls as they moved over the battlefield. The gods still looked on from afar, not daring to interfere. Let them keep away. The Apsaras did not need others to protect them anymore. The rules would never again be the same. The reign of terror was over. Her work was done.
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So that was the story of Durga, Elizabeth! I do hope that you liked it!
This story, the way I told it, is very different from the commonplace version you’d find if you ask anyone else. I have cleared away all supernatural accessories and tried to put the story in a non-patriarchal frame. The goddess is independent in this version, she follows her own will and does things her own way, motivated by her own reasons. She uses no outside help. She does not act as an agent of the gods, but rather as an example to Apsaras. And she kills Mahishasura in a very significant way.
Next, I will show you some very interesting data from ancient Indian sculpture that will serve to prove that this interpretation of the story does indeed carry weight.
Catch you on the other boat!! 🐡