However, there have been female goddesses too who left their imprint through their fearsome assertive power over malevolent forces.
For example, Sekhmet, one of the oldest known Egyptian deities, was the warrior goddess of Upper Egypt. Her name is derived from the Egyptian word for power and she was known for being fierce warrior. Dressed in red, she was envisioned also as a ferocious lioness and her body was said to have taken on the bright glare of the midday sun to blind her opponents.
In Greek mythology, Nemesis was the ancient goddess of divine retribution often depicted with a sword and scales. She was a feared as well as revered goddess. She was the embodiment of the resentment aroused in gods against those who committed crimes with impunity. As a purveyor of justice, she meted out punishment to those who were deemed arrogant through their evil deeds in the presence of the gods.
In Indian mythology, Durga is perhaps one of the most well-known manifestations of Shakti, who is worshiped during the festival of Dussera/Navaratri. She is also celebrated as Mahisasur Mardini, or the slayer of Mahisasur.
The story of Mahisasuramardini is perhaps one of the best known in Hindu mythology and many us might have heard it from our grandmothers, if not from Amar Chitra Katha! It has its origins in Devi Mahatmya which consists of chapters 81-93 of the Mārkandeya Purana. The framing narrative of Devi Mahatmya is one of a dispossessed king, a merchant betrayed by his family and a sage whose teachings lead them both beyond existential suffering. Its thirteen chapters are divided into three charitas or episodes. The sage instructs by recounting three different epic battles between the Devi and various demonic adversaries and the legend of Mahisasuramardini figures prominently in it.
According to the story, Mahishasura, a demon, obtained a powerful boon from Brahma that no man should be able to kill him. With the power vested by Brahman, he gathered a huge demon army and began harassing the gods. The gods under the leadership of Indra failed to control him. They approached Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva with a request to help them. The three gods joined their power to create the goddess Chandi, or Chandika, a ferocious aspect of Durga. Vishnu gave her the Sudarshana chakra, Shiva gave her his trident, Brahma gave her his kamandalu that held the water of Ganga and Indra gave her his Vajra, his thunderbolt. Armed with these she marched onto the battlefield and waged a fierce battle with the demon Mahisha and slew him after a prolonged fight.
And of course, there are longer and many other versions of this story…
Durga’s encounter with Mahishasura has been a popular subject among artists for centuries. One can find varied depictions of it in the sculptures in Hindu temples, in paintings, murals and even contemporary art like the controversial depiction by MF Hussain. In temples and religious sculptures, she is often depicted as either calmly victorious standing on a decapitated buffalo head or in the act of killing a buffalo-headed figure from whose cut neck a demon in the form of a man emerges. But the most unusual of all depictions is in a small cave in Mamallapuram.
On a hot sunny morning when Ahalya and myself walked into a small cave, we were totally unprepared by what we saw inside. The cave itself is quite nondescript from outside, shorn of any embellishments. There is a small sanctum which is empty, but if one looks carefully, one can have a glimpse of Somaskanda etched on the back wall. On the right wall of the temple is a panel the likes of which we have never set eyes upon.
In a striking contrast to other sculptures that focus attention on an isolated figure of Durga, this panel depicts the battle scene between her and Mahishasura in vivid detail. Durga is adorned with a distinct crown and jewelry including large earrings, necklaces, bangles, armlets, belt, and anklets, all of which demonstrate her divinity and royalty. Calm and confident, she is shown riding a beautifully ornamented prancing lion, holding her bow stretched and ready to attack. In her eight hands, are the bow, sword, bell, discus, knife, pasha (noose) and conch. She is followed by army of nine soldiers, eight dwarf ganas and one female. The female figure is shown carrying a sword, ready to attack. Her eight ganas are also armed with sword and bows, except two who are shown holding a plate of offerings and a parasol.
Mahishasura is depicted with his retreating army. His army, defeated and down in morale, is shown in detail. One soldier is shown falling after being cut in half, a few soldiers are hiding behind the bulky Mahishasura and a few have already tasted the dust of the battlefield. Mahishasura, shown with a large body, is trying to hold his ground and holding a club aloft. His attitude suggests that he has already suffered much at the hands of Durga and her army and now only the final blow is in waiting.
The sculptors have cleverly manipulated the depth of the relief to convey the liveliness of the clash between good and evil; the modulation of shallow and deep carving allow the goddess and her army to materialize from the background in striking detail. An exquisite arrangement of space and volume has done much to convey the excitement of the scene; the lion appears to burst into battle, and we can almost hear a ferocious roar escape his open mouth. The forward thrust of the winning side is facilitated by an arc at roughly the center of the panel. Mahisha and his soldiers seem to be aware that their exit from the battle, the relief, and even the cave itself, seems imminent!
Without doubt, this is the finest depiction of a battle scene, as though the sculptor had a vivid vision of the whole combat before executing it on stone. The only comparison I have seen is on the panels on the outside walls at the temple at Bayon.
The subjects of myths reflect universal concerns of mankind. What cannot be conveyed through philosophical discussions and logical debates can be transmitted more effectively through myth and metaphor. They speak to us in multiple ways. Thus, at one level, the legend of Mahisasuramardini chronicles the battle between the Devi [divine] and the asuras [demon]. At another level, it deals with the ‘inner battle’ that each one of us wage between the divine and the demonic forces within ourselves. The demons we confront are not always outside of us. They are our greed, anger and excessive pride. In the ultimate sense, the dichotomy between the bad and the good may be a false one. Both are part of a single, often paradoxical, human consciousness.
There is also a parallel story, according to which Mahishasura was a great devotee of Durga, and at the time of his death he got a boon from her that wherever she was worshipped his image would be associated with hers and he would be equally well known. Who can miss the ferocious depiction of him on the Chamundi hills in Mysore?
Reality on the ground is far more complex. Myths are not born in vacuum and have their roots in socio-cultural milieu. There have been alternative readings of the Durga-Mahishasur narrative from the perspective of the oppressed and the marginalized. It has been argued that Mahisasur has been unfairly demonized, when in fact he was a much respected and valued leader of the indigenous people, Asurs. Asur as a tribe exist to this day and are found in Gumla, Latehar, Lohardaga and Palamu districts of Jharkhand and in north Bengal's Alipurduar districts. They value their ancestry as descendants of 'Hudur-Durga', a Santhal name for Mahishasur and don’t celebrate Navaratri as it is a period of mourning for them.
India is a living crucible of history, myth, belief and living traditions.
Too sanguine an interpretation of a myth has its own limitations…
Here is a link to some of the images of Mahisasuramardini that I have glimpsed through my travels, including the majestic one at Mamallapuram: photos.app.goo.gl/EJsc3uPXMU5jxeuHA