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The Durga-Mahishasura Debate: Perspective of a Practicing Hindu

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I never thought that I would be writing this article in the first place. But the raging debates in the country along with several interpretations of the story being widely circulated in the media (print, news and social), made me change my view. Yes, I am going to talk about the very common story of Mahishasura and Goddess Durga, since the interpretations of this legend, common to the worshipers of the Goddess (especially in Bengal) are quite uncommon in the media diaspora. I am not a scholar of this subject, but I thought I would take up the challenge and share whatever little information I have, just to respect my “freedom of speech”! May the Divine Mother guide me through this difficult task. To get into business, I have learnt from my school texts that the worship of the Mother Goddess was inherently non-Aryan and was later included into the Hindu pantheon. I have heard people opine that Durga is not mentioned in the Vedas. Well, I do not know whether such beliefs are still prevalent in the current scenario, but yes the Goddess has been mentioned in the Tait- tiriya Aranyaka of the Krishna-Yajurveda in the Maha Narayanopanishada:

Tam Agnivarnam tapasa jwalantim Vairochanim karamaphaleshu jushtam
Durgam Devi’gm sharamaham prapadye sutarasi tarase namah

Unfortunately this (one of the earliest) description of the Goddess does not ascribe any specific form to Her. The above verses just describe Her as One having the luster of fire, Who is the consort of the Illuminated One (Supreme being) and Who helps us safely cross the ocean of life. That is all. There is no mention of any “fair-skinned” lady with several murderous weapons killing a “dark-skinned” king by treachery. Of course there are more esoteric meanings of this hymn but I do not wish to delve into those areas.

Instead I would focus on the present form of the Divine Mother which I guess was conceptualized after the Vedic era – may be during the Puranas. But whatever be the imagery, the underlying concepts remained the same. So much so that one can find in the Siddheshwari Tantra:

Apare mahadustare.atyantaghore
Vipatsagare majjatam dehabhajam
Twameka gatirdevi nistarahetuh
Namaste Jagattarini trahi Durge

Again, the Goddess has been described as some One who guides us through the ocean of troubles-the ocean of life. The Durga Saptashati popularly known as “Shri Shri Chandi” also attributes similar qualities to Her, by describing Her as Durgabhavasagara-naurasangya ie. the boat-person who saves us in the ocean of worldliness.

So does that mean that there has never been any idol of the Goddess, let alone Mahishasura? Of course there has been and there has been many. All the relatively newer texts like the Puranas and the Devi Mahatmyam etc. do have several images of the Devi and many of them depict Mahishasura too. So then who is Mahishasura? And is it very sinful to worship Him? To answer these questions I would like to share a little story from the Kalika Purana– one of the three main Puranas which serve as guide-books for performing Durga Puja, especially in Bengal. This story can be found in the 60th chapter of the Kalika Purana in verses 139 − 164 in the form of a dialogue between king Sagara and the sage Aurva. The story begins with a very pertinent question asked by the king to the learned sage:

Sagara: O! The Learned One! The Divine Mother has slain many demons in the past, but why is it so that She has granted this special status to Mahishasura? Why is it so that She is always seen with Mahishasura in Her images?

Aurva: O! King! Rambhasura, the father of Mahishasura, had pleased Lord Shiva through extreme penance and got a boon that the Lord Himself would take birth as his son in three consecutive lives. And thus was born Mahishasura, an avatara of the Lord Himself, due to the union of Rambhasura with a female buffalo (mahishi). When Mahishasura became a tyrant and got cursed by Maharshi Katyayana, to be killed by a woman, Lord Shiva said lovingly to His consort Parvati :

Shiva: Oh Devi! Presently, Lord Vishnu, in the form of the Great Lion is unable to carry You anymore. Now that My yogic body of Mahishasura has been cursed by the great sage, please be kind enough to slay it down and grant it the mercy of your lotus feet. From now on, I Myself shall carry You in the form of Mahishasura along with Lord Vishnu.

Mahishasura is none other than an avatara of Lord Shiva Himself. The images of Goddess Durga also corroborates this story as She is seen standing with one foot on Mahishasura(Shiva) and the other on the Lion (Vishnu). Now images of Devi (Shakti/Prakriti ) standing on Her consort (Purusha) are not very uncommon in the Shakta philosophy-and this too is supposed to have deep interpretations which are out of scope. The image of Purusha and
Prakriti might also be represented in a position of a sexual union. So if the flag-bearers of “freedom of expression” try to deduce such a meaning from these images they are welcome to do so. Sex was never a taboo in Hindu philosophy-especially in the Shakta schools. But surely, the interpretation of Durga and Mahishasura as a symbol Brahmanical tyranny does not hold ground after this. If one is steadfast in believing otherwise, then I would suggest them to pick up any guideline for performing Durga Puja, available in Bengal. There one would find that on each day of the Puja festival after worshiping the Devi and Her Companions, the Lion and Mahishasura are duly worshiped. The obeisance to Mahishasura reads:

Om Mahishastwam Mahaveera Shivarupa SadaShiva
Atastwam pujayishyami kshamaswa Mahishasura

So every worshiper of Durga, worships Mahishasura too – knowingly or unknowingly! Also the fair skin colour of the Goddess cannot be taken to be a symbol of Aryan dominance. To be very specific, the Dashabhuja murti of the Devi which we are familiar with is supposed to be yellow or reddish yellow in colour according to the Kalika Purana. But as mentioned earlier the said Purana mentions three rebirths of Mahishasura and on the first occasion He was slain by the Goddess in the form of Ugrachanda which is an Ashtadashabhuja murti with dark complexion (Kalika Purana, Chapter 60, verse 124).

In Hindu philosophy, there is no concept of a devil or an anti-god. The Vedas and the Upanishads clearly mention this.

Ekam Vaidam vi babhuba sarvam…………………. Rig Veda (hymn 8.58.2)

i.e. All that exists is One and It has taken all these various forms. Of course we have demons and monsters but they are various forms of the same Brahman. Similar words are echoed by the Goddess in the Durga Saptashati :

Ekaivaham jagattatra dwitiya ka mama para

or Who else is there in this whole universe apart from Me ? Thus it is not very intelligent to portray our various demons as symbols for the oppressed class.

Also finding sexual innuendos or insulting Gods and Goddesses as sex-workers is pretty childish. An insult for insult’s sake. Sex-workers, despite being despicable to most of us – the commoners, are the children of the Almighty too. The Almighty is not partial. Thus such childish blabbering might be laughable but should not be a concern for the practicing Hindu. It only exposes the intellectual impotency of the ones using these adjectives.

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