“In the ecology of narratives, recycling is a very old process. Each telling of a myth draws upon these rags and bones, and each piece has its own previous life-history that it brings into the story.”
—Wendy Doniger, Introduction to Myth and Meaning by Claude Levi-Strauss
On Blasphemy, Book Banning, and Buffalo-Demons
If the Hindu textual tradition is an amorphous, contradictory and unwieldy thing, nobody told its gatekeepers. The self-appointed fundamentalist “Hindutva” movement jealously guards and often demarcates the boundaries of Hindu text, maintaining its hermeneutic hegemony by violently suppressing suggestions of interpretive difference. The Hindutva movement is largely spearheaded by an alliance of organizations known as the Sangh Parivar, organized around the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Their anxious assertion and defense of a dominant form of knowledge takes many forms—attempts to rewrite textbooks, a demand for the teaching of Sanskrit at engineering schools so they can work on Vedic science, the banning of books, and harassment of authors when they do not align with prescribed Brahmanical and often Vedantic narratives. In this context, secular academic attempts to engage with the science or history of the tradition are not simply considered dissent, or even wrong—they are blasphemous.
Before this year, perhaps the most visible sign of the interpretive intolerance of this movement was when the Sangh Parivar labelled a book by Sanskritist Wendy Doniger as blasphemous and offensive to religious sentiments. Her publisher, Penguin, halted the sale of Doniger’s book, which engaged with retellings of Hindu history from the margins of Hindu society.
The role of Indian law within this argument is ambiguous. If an idea (as book, speech, movie etc.) is merely “expected to injure religious sentiments,” it may be subject to censorship. This underscores the idea that there is no defined answer to the question of what blasphemy is, shifting the question to when it arises–when it can be used to characterize a certain kind of speech, to act on it. This reveals an understanding of blasphemy as a discursive function that serves to limit–to close off through the implication of inherent and absolute unholiness.
The accusation of blasphemy has a certain weight—it lifts a discourse beyond the realm of rational disagreement. And the power to determine the boundaries of blasphemy has recently been centralized in an unsettling way with the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a party that began as the RSS’s political wing and is still heavily influenced by its parent organization. When Hindutva enters government, the associations between these two organizations carry the accusation of blasphemy a step further: dissent is not simply viewed as anti Hindu, but anti-national.
“Anti-national” became a buzzword this year as the government cracked down on protests at universities. These flared up on campuses across India following the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University, who hanged himself with the blue banner of the Ambedkar Students Association on 17th January, 2016. Vemula came under extreme pressure from the University of Hyderabad for his political organizing for marginalized communities, including his own. In his suicide note, he wrote “my birth is my fatal acci-
dent.” This catalyzed outrage on campuses across India over the treatment of students from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Castes (classifications used by the government) as well as other groups facing discrimination.
On February 9, 2016 at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi—which has always been politically active—an event was held in memory of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri Muslim, who was hanged in 2013 for his involvement in an attack on Parliament. A week later, three students (including the Student Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar) were arrested on charges of sedition for making “anti-national” statements at the event.
In response to the arrest of the students, Smriti Irani, the Human Resources and Development Minister and a BJP member, made a half-hour speech in Parliament to claim that JNU students were, in some way, anti-national. “The nation will not tolerate an insult to Mother India,” she said of their actions. As one of her arguments, she weaponized a poster allegedly announcing another event at JNU, Mahishasur Martyrdom Day. In this way, the furor over anti-national sentiment turned, unexpectedly, to issues of myth and blasphemy, as Irani brought the question of religious interpretation into a political debate.
Mahishasur Martyrdom Day, held at JNU since 2012, is an attempt to recognize alternative histories through the reformulation of a well known Hindu myth about the victory of the goddess Durgā over Mahiṣa, a demon who is half man and half buffalo. It is held around the time of Durgā Puja, a ritual around the mythology of Durgā, including the Mahiṣa myth (Mahiṣa is often iconographically pictured around or under Durgā), and widely celebrated in Bengal. In the alternative version, activists try to accommodate the historical possibility that Mahiṣa is the ancestor of disenfranchised group who was killed by Aryan invaders, his murder forming a pattern of violence and control that continued through the caste system. This reinterpretation was, expectedly, not well received by representatives of the Hindu nationalist central government.
Irani’s statement denouncing Mahishasur Martyrdom Day can be understood as a reflection of a logic whereby Irani fuses dominant narratives of Hinduism, the political views of her own party, and the nation itself into one. This terrain of associations reveals a construction of Brahmanical Hindu statehood, through the state-making project of a helpless“Mother” India, who, like Durgā, must be protected from slander. Everything that opposes this construction is “depraved,” blasphemous, and, by extension, anti-national. Here is an excerpt from her speech, including dramatic flourishes (a legacy, per-
haps, of her past as a soap star):
“A statement by the SC [Scheduled Caste], ST [Scheduled Tribe] and minority students of JNU. [she is reading from a poster, allegedly distributed by a JNU student group] And what do they condemn? May my God forgive me for reading this. “Durgā Puja is the most controversial racial festival, where a fair-skinned beautiful goddess Durgā is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasur. Mahishasur, a brave self-respecting leader, [was] tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durgā, who enticed Mahishasur into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning during sleep.” Freedom of speech, ladies and gentlemen. Who wants to have this discussion on the streets of Kolkata? I want to know…For these are the students! What is this depraved mentality? I have no answers for it.” [Irani throws away the pamphlet]
Irani doesn’t articulate the source of her distress—whether it is the characterization of Durgā as a sex-worker, or Mahiṣa, an asura or demon, as a brave, self-respecting leader, or the deceit implied in his murder, or the caste implications of the Aryan invasion theory referenced that upper caste Hindus might not be comfortable with. Whatever it is, Irani is clear on one thing—this myth is not up for debate. This is depravity, blasphemy, even sedition. She doesn’t need to tell her audience what is offensive: she implies the outrage is natural, unquestionable.
JNU activists have claimed that the poster she read from was a deliberate misrepresentation of their event. Mahiṣasura Martydom Day at JNU, they claim, is held to honor a historical figure traditionally respected and mourned by castes and tribes who believe themselves to be descended from him, rather than to defame Durgā or even engage with the theological groundings of the myth. The perspective is a historical and genealogical celebration, not a religious one. “The aim was not to have some sort of new prayer meeting,” said a JNU activist.“It was to try and understand contemporary society and why it is a certain way. It was looking at literature and history, and the transfer of societal values. We are not saying that nobody should worship Durgā, it is the people’s right [to worship as they like]. But at the same time, why must you show Mahiṣasura dying?”
This framing of Mahiṣasura Martydom Day as a secular attempt to reclaim an alternative history, however, is undermined by evidence of very real religious praxis outside JNU’s intellectual context, and the very nature of mythology as existing between fiction and symbolic reality. Behind Irani’s disavowal lies a genuine question—by what authority, and to what end, are myths adapted? And, though she would never ask, what frames of history, of action and reaction, regulate the retelling of Mahiṣa-myths? What are the politics of their creation?
MYTH AS MURDER
A myth is not a story but a corpus—a series of connected but distorted characters and events. In his essay on the multiplicity of the Ramayana tradition, A.K. Ramanujan describes “the cultural area in which the Ramayana is endemic” as having “ a pool of signifiers (like a gene pool), that include plots, characters, names, geography, incidents and relationships…These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through a common code or common pool.”
If the idea of a corpus emphasizes the idea of common parts, the question of the origin of difference still remains. In his theories of myth, anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss argues:
“all mythology is dialectic in its attempt to make cognitive sense out of the chaotic data provided by nature…each dualism produces a mediating term which is then found to be one-half of a new dualism…Myth is a form of language, and language itself predisposes us to attempt to understand ourselves and our world by superimposing dialectics, dichotomies, or dualistic grids upon data that may in fact be entirely integrated. And underneath language lies the binary nature of the brain itself. Right and left, good and evil, life and death—these are inevitable dichotomies.”
Here, myths are a series of binary formations, each revision mediates between a previous set of binaries. These binaries, as Levi-Strauss points out, allow for clear distinctions between such things as good and evil. This makes mythology particularly fertile ground for polarized politics, in which the subject of ‘evil’ is constructed, like in mythology, as perfectly opposed to ‘good’ demonized, unnatural, alien to the order of the world. Revisions rework these neat binaries, complicating the notion of evil.
Myth-tellings are constructed to meet the political needs of their listeners, to fit their needs for certain classifications, and to deliver the anxiety that their beliefs might be false. They murder, in their structure, the possibility of oppositional myths. And yet, seen as a corpus, each revision marks a fault-line in a polar and changing discourse. The changing characterization of the various central figures and the causal relations that link their actions produce a distillation of attitudes towards caste, gender, sex, nationhood and power.The Mahiṣa myth itself doesn’t fold neatly into the binary of myth and counter-myth, much as the discourse around JNU seems to suggest. Each retelling contains certain revisions, excisions and additions. By examining what changes in various retellings—which binaries of good and evil are mediated which new ones constructed—I will try to understand the politics of this change, and how it relates to the construction of evil in political discourse.
The first known written Mahiṣa-story in an episode in the Devi Mahatmya, from the 6th century Markandeya Purana. The Devi Mahatmya is a mythic articulation of the nature power bound up in the Devi, or Goddess. Though the Devi Mahatmya is not necessarily an urtext, it is the first known, written version of the myth in which Durgā and Mahiṣa are both present.
It should be noted that I do not begin with this Puranic version of the Mahiṣa myth to validate a claim to a discursive centre desperately fighting off attacks from the political left. I present, rather, a version among versions, a turning toward or away, placed in a field in which each turn has historical and political implications.
This is not, of course, how the myth sees itself—it positions itself as authoritative, the ‘true’ version, through its use of Sanskrit. Coburn explains the significance of the Sanskritization of the Devi Mahatmya in terms of Indian epistemology—knowledge is not to be “discovered” as is sometimes the founding epistemological assumption in “the West,” but “recovered.” In the process of recovery, several “lifelines” exist that connect back to the “original revelation,” and Sanskrit is one of them. Sanskrit, he claims, is one of the “prime methods of restating a tradition in relation to its sacral past.” This Sanskritizing tradition, as Coburn notes, allows forms of knowledge to establish distance from “the uncouth profaneness of non-Aryan hoi- polloi.” This version, then, in its content and its very language, presents an understanding of power, and a claim to power, that is deeply political.
The myth-version from the Devi Mahatmya forms an implicit logic of female divinity and the right to rule through several devices. The goddess emerges to fight the Asuras in a time of crisis for the gods at the hands of Mahiṣasura:
“In days of yore there was a battle be tween the gods and Asuras that lasted a full hundred years,
When Mahiṣa was chief of the Asuras
and Indra (chief) of the gods.
Then the army of the gods was conquered by the valorous Asuras,
And having conquered all the gods,
Mahiṣa became Indra (“the chief”).”
In the Devi Mahatmya, Mahiṣa is more a symbol than a man. He is barely characterized—he has no story of his own, genealogy, or anything beyond his placeholder as chief of the Asuras. In his defeat of the gods, he is not evil, a coward, or individually unworthy. He represents an unqualified transgression; he embodies a rule broken. While he rules in heaven, and the gods walk the earth as “mere mortals,” he is the agent of an acceptable social reversal. The holy trinity’s rage is not a reaction to radical evil but to his transgressive agency:
“Then the conquered gods, having put the lotus-born Prajapati in front,
Went to the place where Śiva and Visnu were.
The thirty (gods) told them of the extent
of the gods’ defeat,
How it all happened, and likewise the
conduct of Mahiṣasura…
We have told you what the enemy of the
gods has done,
And we have taken refuge (in you). Please
put your mind on doing away with him!”
The plight of the gods, who “wander on earth like mortals,” having been established, and intervention having been called for, the “bodies of the other gods” become “unified” to produce the Goddess:
“That peerless splendor, born from the
bodies of all the gods,
Unified and pervading the triple world
with its lustre, became a woman.
From Śiva’s splendor her mouth was
Her tresses from that of Yama, her arms
from the splendor of Visnu.
From that of Soma, the moon, came her
two breasts, from that of Indra her waist.
From that of Varuna her legs and thighs,
from that of the earth her hips….
And whatever was born from the splen-
dor of the other gods, that, too, was the
This is followed by an account of the several weapons the Goddess was gifted—including a trident drawn from Śiva’s own trident, and a discus drawn from Krishna’s own discuss. Then,
“Honored by the gods with ornaments
She bellowed aloud with laughter again
The Entire atmosphere was filled with her
And with that measureless, overwhelming
noise, a great echo arose.
All the worlds quaked, and the oceans
The earth trembled, and the mountains
“Mahiṣasura, having fumed in anger “Ah,
what is this?!,”
Rushed toward the sound, surrounded by
all the Asuras.
Then he saw the Goddess, filling the
triple world with her radiance.”
An extensive and gruesome account of the Goddess in battle follows, with her dragging Asuras on the ground with her noose, smiting them with her mace until they vomit blood, cutting off heads and arms and even slicing them down the middle, so they are left with “a single arm, eye and leg.” She kills several generals in the Asura army before reaching Mahiṣasura, whose own valor in battle is also described.
“When his own army was thus being
In his own buffalo form caused the (God-
dess’s) troops to tremble.
Some he slew with the blow of his snout,
others with the stamping of his hooves;
Others were lashed with his tail, still others torn by his horns.
Others by his sheer speed, his bellow, his
Still others by the wind of his breaths did
he knock to the surface of the earth.
Having cast down the hosts of Pramathas, the Asura
Ran forward to slay the great Goddess’
Having seen the great onrushing Asura,
inflated with anger,
Caṇḍika got angry in order to slay him.
Hurling a snare at him, she bound the
Thus bound in the great battle, he abandoned his buffalo form.
Immediately thereupon he became a lion.
As soon as Ambika cut off his head,
He appears a man, sword in hand.”
Her violence is not justice. It is obliteration and warning. He becomes a lion; she slays the lion. He becomes a man; she slays the man. He becomes an elephant; she slays the elephant. Mahiṣa’s morphing body is destroyed in each of its forms—no matter what he is, he cannot get away. No matter how fluid, he can’t get past the border.
“Thus, he caused the three worlds, along
with what does and does not move, to
Then the angry Caṇḍika, mother of the
world, quaffed a superior beverage
And again and again she laughed with
With passion in her face that was flushed
with intoxication, she uttered fevered
The Goddess said
“Roar, roar for a minute, O fool, while I
drink this nectar!
When you are slain here by me, it is the
gods who will soon roar!
Having spoken this and springing up, she
mounted the great Asura.
Having struck him with her foot, she beat
him with her spear.
Then he, struck with her foot, came forth
out of his own mouth.
Completely hemmed in by the valor of
That the great Asura, who had come
forth halfway fighting, was felled by the
Who had cut off his head with a great
Durgā’s victory over Mahiṣa is sometimes understood as a “victory over ego”—punishment for his presumption in ruling. It is from this disciplining, reinstating anger that Durgā is born, and it is this divine social order she upholds through his murder.
At the meeting points of all the myth’s constituent parts—the rage of the Gods at the victory of Mahiṣa, the (bodily) construction of the Goddess, her embodied fury, Mahiṣa’s fluid physicality, his death at the Goddesses feet, the use of Sanskrit—is formed an implicit logic of female divinity and the right to rule. How these parts relate to each other within this version of the myth, and how they are shuffled and revised in other version or re-tellings, suggests the broader dynamics of negotiating power, theology, and projects of state-building that govern revision. Each of these parts represent a fault-line in the political field of revision, and I will attempt to map them as they change in subsequent versions. As Mahiṣa, Durgā and the social order into which they fit morph in other versions, precise points of political anxiety emerge.
Mahiṣa’s identity beyond Durgā has existed in text and in worship—but at times outside of the Sanskritic tradition, outside the Brahmanical textual space in which he, as a demon, is natural transgressor. Though the historical textual tradition has long been controlled by the literate priest class, various oral traditions have circulated through generations and now make themselves known. These traditions are often rooted in traditionally voiceless communities–including the Dalitbahujans, a dispersed group of people considered untouchable in the Hindu varna (caste) system.
In Dalitbahujan written mythology, a contemporary attempt by Dalit intellectuals like Kancha Illaiah to reinscribe and validate orally transferred myths, Mahiṣa is not merely a symbolic rule-breaker or a mythic anti-hero, but a historical ancestor of variously categorized groups that are marginalized, oppressed and erased from the predominant historical narratives and archive. This version of Mahiṣa comes not from the story of the birth of a goddess, but from the story of the death of a people. Kancha Illaiah, in his polemic against Brahmanical textual supremacy entitled “Why I am Not a Hindu,” connects Indra, the Brahmanical chief of the gods, with the Aryans who some believe invaded India, displacing if not brutally murdering the “Adi-Dravidians,” who the Dalitbahujans consider their ancestors. The very source of Indra’s glory is his ability to inscribe his claim on the land through the spilling of Adi-Dravidian blood. Illaiah’s argument places caste-hatred at the very root of Hindu mythological structure as well as within this myth in particular, which, while imaginary, constitutes a set of very real epistemic violences against India’s marginalized communities. In the tradition that continued from Illaiah’s historical reconstruction, the war between the Devás and Asuras described in the Devi Mahatmya is specifically located in the discourse of Aryan colonization. Mahiṣa is the indigenous king, Adi-Dravidian (a group Illaiah calls Adi-dalitbahujan as a way of demonstrating ancestry), who was killed as part of a program of racialized genocide.
Several ancestral lineages and associations claim Mahiṣa’s patrimony— the Santhals, the Asurs, a tribe of iron-smelters in Jharkhand, even the city of Mysore, the name of which is etymologically linked to Mahiṣa. While the exact history is uncertain and contested, it is the imagination of an alternative history, an alternative understanding of the natural heir to land that is so crucial to Mahiṣasur Maryrdom Day as a political project. This version, is represented in an account published on Dalit-activist magazine Countercurrents in 2014, in which the encounter between Durgā and Mahiṣa takes very different form from the Devi Mahatmya:
“tribals did not pick up weapons against women, children, aged and the weak, [and so] the Aryans sent a woman to lure [Mahiṣa]…. The Aryans came with a proposal of marriage, but they used treachery and a woman called Durgā killed him.”
In this version, Mahiṣa is not the usurper but the inhabitant, not the monster but the upholder of civilized rules. He is the righteous victim; his enemies are the amorphous, invasive “they.” It is the remembering of this version that forms the bedrock of Mahiṣasur Martyrdom Day at JNU.
Yet this political field is not simply populated by two versions in direct opposition, with the Puranas presenting one story and the Dalitbahujan tradition another. The Kālīka Purana, written in the 10th century, about four hundred years after the Devi Mahatmya, also revises Mahiṣa’s characterization—and both validates and domesticates him. It asks the question of why Mahiṣa is so central to Durgā’s worship, when he was among many demons she killed, and answers by providing two versions of the story, both in a single chapter, one following the other. In the first version:
“Mahiṣa has a dream that a terrible Goddess brutally murders him—cuts his head off, and drinks his blood. Knowing that this is his fate, and terrified, he begins to pray to the Goddess. Bhadrakālī comes before him. He asks: I know it is my fate to be killed at your hands, but may I ask a favor of you? He explains that he has been blessed and cursed—he was allowed to reign for several years over the three Manus, but also, because he once distracted a meditating man by coming before him as a woman, he was condemned to die at the hands of a woman.”
At this moment before his death, he says all three worlds have satisfied him equally— he has no regrets and no desires. He asks, as one final blessing in death, to be worshipped in any sacrifice to the Goddess, and not have to leave her feet as long as the sun shines.
She grants him these wishes, and then, turning into her Durgā form, steps on him and spears him to death. She then changes into the form of UgraCaṇḍa. Bhadrakālī with two more arms, holding a club with her right hand below and a drinking cup filled with intoxicating liquor in her left hand, wore a garland of human heads and a snake on her neck, with red eyes and a huge body, atop a lion. She is terrifying.
Then, the second; this version builds, adding layers of context and relation to the first. This version, told achronologically right after the original story, tells us that Mahiṣa is an incarnation of Shiva, and that Shiva asks Durgā for his own bodily death (as Mahiṣa)—
“An asura named Rambha prayed for years to the great God Śiva, who was touched, and offered him a blessing. Rambha asked Śiva for a son. He said “Lord, I have no son. Bless me with a child who will be famous and fortunate, victorious over the gods, and who no man can kill.’
Śiva replied ‘I will be your son,’ and when Rambha had sex with a she-buffalo, Mahiṣa was born. When the guru cursed Mahiṣa—‘you will be killed by a woman’—Śiva approached Caṇḍika and asked her to kill his ‘buffalo body.’
He had been born as Rambha’s son for three births before the guru cursed him. He asks Durgā to hold his body under her feet, so he is never born into the world again until the world’s destruction.”
These versions of the Mahiṣa myth godwash him—he is “rescued” from his demonhood, placed under and within the Brahmanical tradition. He becomes Śiva’s subordinate. In this, Mahiṣa joins several local goddesses—attached to the more centralized tradition through a marriage to the Brahmanical god, Śiva. Yet Mahiṣa is not married to Śiva—he is Śiva. The dynamics of power here are quite different than the Devi Mahatmya—Mahiṣa is no longer the uncontrolled demon, threatening the hierarchy with his presumption. In the Kālīka Purana, he is complicit in his own subjection. His murder is an act of convenience,wrapping things up, not punishment for transgression but an easy death as reward for submission to and recognition of the power of the Gods. This is a strange form of a typically colonial logic—it was for your own good. Yet this version has no easy categorizations. Durgā is terrifying; Mahiṣa is tame. The shift in his characterization reveals a domestication of the threat he presented in the previous version. The evil that Mahiṣa mythically embodied is no longer radical evil—he is reduced to a divine inconvenience.
The ambivalence within this characterization of evil doesn’t carry over into this version’s other major question—of sacrifice, or worship, and of who is remembered. Mahiṣa’s prayer—let me stay forever at your feet—was certainly answered, and yet he is not granted the worship he asks for in the myth in contemporary Durgā Puja. In her Revelry and Rivalry, Rachel McDermott traces the use of political and cultural symbolism in the making of worship spaces in Bengal in the 80s. In this iconographical compound of myth and modernity, Mahiṣa is everywhere and everyone—both slightly farcical in the extent of his transferability and uncomplicatedly malevolent in his openness to symbolic exchange with any representation of evil, whether it aligned with his mythic representation or not. The ambivalence of the Kālīka Purana is not preserved but parodied in modern worship:
“Mahiṣa is sculpted in the likeness of Zinedine Zidane, the French soccer star, head-butting the lion…a spacey-looking Durgā arriving into a spaceship pandal and blessing the illiterate asura with the light of knowledge; an Egyptian theme, with Durgā in the form of Isis, Mahiṣa as the god of death”
Yet the pandal next to the slightly ludicrous football player is the far more insidious political enemy: “Demons of recent years have been Nawaz Sharif, the LTTE chief Veerappan, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.”
Mahiṣa as a representative of different forms of evil forms precisely the mythic tradition Mahiṣasur Martyrdom Day attempts to oppose. Yet the politics of this attempt at counter mythology is incomplete without an understanding of Durgā, and the relationship, the finely wrought balance between Mahiṣa and Durgā that each version of the myth attempts to strike.
In the Dalitbahujan version of the myth, Durgā is the antagonist–and she is weakened, diminished in her wild, disciplining anger from the Devi Mahatmya. In the Hindutva version, she is unquestioned force, tied to ideas of ideal femininity and political sovereignty. Both extremes ignore the subtleties of her mythic characterization. Mahiṣa’s construction as evil cannot be understood without being defined against Durgā, and in her character as much as his the opposition of good and evil is inscribed. Examining Durgā is crucial to understanding the project of political mythology on either side of the political spectrum.
Durgā changes as much as Mahiṣa does—in various versions, she is continuously the site of construction and control, even as she embodies an unstoppable and universal form of Sakti or energy. From the Devi Mahatmya—
“By you everything is supported, by you the world is created; by you it is protected and you always consume it at the end of time. You are the great knowledge, the great illusion, the great insight, the great memory, and the great delusion.”
And then, from this radical dissolution into absolute unity comes a difficult para-
dox: “you are the great goddess (mahadevi) and the great demoness (mahasuri).” In the Devi Mahatmya itself, Durgā is both goddess and demon, both transgressor and enforcer.
The conception of Durgā in the Devi Mahatmya as a source of primordial energy that holds the world together while pushing it towards entropy or unity makes her characterization in the Mahiṣa myth as discipliner–as enforcing social hierarchies and divisions—difficult to reconcile. By what logic is Durgā both an agent of entropy and the anxious, disciplining rage with which she marks—on Mahiṣa’s body—the social difference that makes his rule of the gods
It is in this relationship between goddess and demon, in Durgā’s presence or her absence, her subservience or her explosive power, her shame or her audacity, within which each myth’s conception of evil (or the question of what is to be policed) is encoded. In the Devi Mahatmya, she is a universal Sakti, indefinable in her pervasiveness. In the Dalitbahujan version she is faceless, a foreign woman, marked simply by her instrumentality in a murder orchestrated by men. Her radical, terrifying agency is stripped from her. In the Kālīka Purana, her agency stays, but her anger is muted—she is no longer both goddess and demon, but a benevolent mother-murderer to Mahiṣa. Yet, in all three myth-versions, a precise and oppositional binary of power exists.
A final Puranic version allows us further insight into the nature of Durgā’s agency. The fifteenth century Caṇḍi Purana reveals Durgā as not simply force but forced upon—not just an instrument of power, but as instrumentalized. In this version, the distance between her and Mahiṣa is smallest. She is wild and fierce, the mahasuri (great demoness), but also controlled, oppressed, the victim of a controlling and masculine superstructure that simply weaponizes and sexualizes her female body to seduce and destroy Mahiṣa’s half-bestial one. In the Caṇḍi Purana version, there are no certainties about right and wrong, and no constancy of power. Kālī is controlled as much as she challenges, Mahiṣa is killed as much as he evades.
From Usha Memon’s account of the Caṇḍi Purana:
“Mahiṣasura became so powerful that he tortured everyone on earth and heaven. He had obtained a boon from the gods according to which no male could kill him. All the gods pondered on ways to destroy Mahiṣasura. Each contributed the strength and energy of his consciousness—his bindu—and from that Durgā was created…Durgā … fought bravely, but she found it impossible to kill the demon. The gods had forgotten to tell her that Mahisa could only die at the hands of a naked female. Durgā finally became desperate. She stripped, on seeing her, Mahiṣasura’s strength waned, and he died under her sword.”
Here, it is Durga’s femaleness, not her capacity as a warrior, that is weaponized. Her power lies beyond her–in the male desire for her body, in his weakness rather than her stregnth. She reasserts herself through her rage—
“After killing him, a terrible rage entered Durgā’s mind, and she asked herself, “What kind of gods are these that they do not have the honesty to tell me the truth before sending me into battle?” She took on the form of Kālī and went on a mad rampage, devouring every living creature that came in her way. Now, the gods were in a terrible quandary— who would check Kali in her mad dance of destruction?”
She reclaims her uninhibited power briefly, but is folded back into the controlling social order, the realm of ‘reason,’ through a reminder of her place—
“The gods decided that only Śiva could check Kālī…he went and lay in her path. Kālī was absorbed in her dance of destruction, and stepped on him all unknowing. When she put her foot on Śiva’s chest, she said “Oh! my husband!”. She had been so angry that she had gone beyond reason, but once she recognized him, she became still and calm.”
Here, the Goddess is both Mahasuri (in her mad dance of destruction) and Mahadevi, channeling and respecting divine logic in the form of her husband, at her feet, (in much the way Mahiṣa is at his death). She moves from vulnerable to all powerful and back again. All the identities in this version bleed into each other without presenting, like in, a distinct hierarchy despite the merging forms, like in the Kālīka Purana. The Goddess is shameless and shameful, constructed and betrayed by and betraying the divine logic that created her and in a sense, not unlike Mahiṣa. Like him, she threatens the divine order, and she is disciplined—not through death as a man would be, but through a marriage that chains her “madness” to a disciplining reason.
When Durgā kills Mahiṣa it is a form of suicide, it is a ritual enactment of the same power that is then enacted on her. This version of the myth, then, has less to do with the production of identities of good and evil and far more to do with a critique of how power functions in the world. Here, we see a bodiless power that is invested in not the victory of one side but in the punishment of anyone who shifts, moves, destabilizes. Both bodies are rebellious, transgressive; both bodies are tamed.
PROGRESSING FROM POWER
The question, after all those versions and revisions, remains—what political responsibility remains to counter a dangerous narrative of evil? In what ways can those who wish to desacralize, to blaspheme, to subvert the Brahmanical nationalist claims of transcendent truth use these myths in the construction of a politic?
In an environment in which, in worship, Durgā is deified (and purified, wiped clean of her dangerous associations, her slippage into demon-hood) and Mahiṣa is blank, faceless evil, to turn the myth exactly on its head is a deeply understandable political maneuver. And yet it is this very clear binary structure, this failure to recognize the nature of power as paradoxical and constraining—or rather, the desire to interpret power as morally valid, and undoubtedly binary—is the root of the hegemonic (political) mythology that Irani and her comrades-in-harm perpetuate.
When alternative histories are celebrated, especially at an academic institute like JNU, alternative mythologies should be constructed as well—not just alternative in who they cast as the hero and the villain, but alternative in their willingness to embrace different epistemological (and so, mythological) structures of good and evil, and power at all—to embrace a narrative that is active in its rejection of easy conceptions of agency and victimhood, a mythological discourse that retains the ability to question and recognize power (in its various disciplining forms) while reveling in the power to reconstruct identity.