by Devadatta Kali
There are basically two ways to the Divine. One, called bhaktimarga, is the path of devotion. It concerns relationship. As devotees we seek a relationship with the divine Beloved, which we cultivate through adoration, love, worship, and dedicated service.
The other way is called jnanamarga, the path of knowledge. Here the focus is not on relationship but on identity. Who am I? What is my true being? The practice of this path culminates in the recognition that I am the divine reality, I am Brahman.
In India during the Durga Puja season, elaborate images are displayed that depict the central episode of the Devimahatmya, the great sacred text that is the basis for the worship of the Divine Mother. Its central narrative relates how Durga slew the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Here is how the story goes:
Long ago a battle broke out between the gods and demons and raged for a full hundred years. In the end the demon chief, Mahisha, vanquished Indra, the chief of the gods, and cast the gods out of heaven.
Led by Brahma, the dispossessed gods wandered about the earth as mere mortals. They approached Vishnu and Shiva, to whom they told their tale of woe and appealed for help. A great radiance shone forth from Vishnu’s scowling brow and then from all the other gods, and it coalesced into the form of the Devi, who is the mother of the gods and the source of all creation. Endowed with all powers, she went forth to meet Mahisha’s demon army on the battlefield.
A horrific battle ensued, wherein Durga and her mount, the lion of dharma, slew Mahisha’s demon hordes, destroying all manner of hideous and foul creatures. When the last of these lay dead and only Mahishasura himself remained, the Mother engaged him in a battle to the death.
In the form of a mighty buffalo, Mahisha wheeled about in great fury, crushing the earth under his hooves, lashing the clouds with his tail, and flinging mountains skyward with his mighty horns. Looking on, the Divine Mother prepared to slay him.
First she bound him with her noose, but he quitted his buffalo form and assumed the smaller shape of a lion that easily slipped free. Then as she severed the lion’s head, he changed shape again and appeared as a man with a sword and shield. As the Devi cut him to shreds, he took on the form of an elephant, and while he trumpeted loudly, she cut off his trunk. He returned to his buffalo form, and now Durga, determined to end the play, pierced him through the shoulder with her lance, causing him to reveal himself in his true demon form. Then the Mother slew this fierce enemy of the gods.
What are we to make of this story? As devotees we can appreciate the message that God the Mother is our all-powerful, all-loving protector to whom we can turn in times of need. Whatever is there to fear? No matter how bad things may seem, in the end good will triumph over evil.
As seekers of knowledge we can also find great meaning in this story. There is a saying that myths are things that never happened but always are, and this narrative of Durga and Mahishasura has layer upon layer of deep psychological and spiritual insight.
At the beginning of the story, the gods’ dispossession represents the human condition. All of us are “cast out of heaven”; we have all forgotten who we truly are. Thinking ourselves mere mortals, we become subject to all the ups and downs of life and have no lasting peace.
The source of the trouble is the buffalo demon, Mahishasura, the enemy of the gods. He symbolizes the human ego, the lower self that is consumed by ideas of “I, me, and mine.” His demon hordes stand for all the weaknesses, failings, and faults of human behavior. The gods represent our finer qualities, and the Devi Durga is nothing less than our true, divine nature, the supreme Self.
The battle symbolizes the conflicts and strife that play out daily in human life; it is a spiritual allegory of what transpires in our hearts and minds. The many details of carnage on the battlefield represent our struggles with arrogance, aggression, oppression, depression, immorality, abuse, and all other negativity we might encounter. Conquering our faults is all part of spiritual awakening.
These faults have their origin in what Sri Ramakrishna called “that rascal ego.” That is what Mahisha, the buffalo demon, represents. And so, the final battle plays out as a struggle between the imperfect lower self and the ever-perfect supreme Self, who is the Devi Durga.
The symbolism of their combat is highly revealing. Mahisha engages in shape-shifting, constantly changing his form to evade the Mother’s death-blows. She lets the play go on, and her “failure” to slay him only causes Mahisha to become intoxicated by his own might. His buffalo form represents a proud, aggressive, destructive selfishness. That same ego, when caught in a bad situation, may resort to evasion. The lion form does just that, slipping out of the Mother’s noose. The ego puts up defenses; this seems to be natural to human behavior, and sometimes those defenses are less than honest. The man-form with his sword and shield symbolizes an embattled ego seeking to defend itself by any means possible, but the Devi cuts him to shreds. We can’t go on making excuses forever. When all else fails, we protest loudly and assail the truth, just as the elephant-form drags Durga’s mount, the lion of dharma, along the ground and trumpets loudly until she severs its trunk. With no other recourse left, Mahisha reassumes his buffalo form. “Might makes right,” as the saying goes.
“Enough,” the Mother says. She pierces him with her spear and pins him down. The metaphors hold good today: the penetrating power of spiritual insight will reveal everything in its true light. Mahisha’s own demon form emerges. Only by knowing the real nature of ego can we conquer it. And then, at the last moment before the Mother beheads him with her sword of knowledge, there flashes a look of blissful recognition on Mahisha’s face. The small self, shedding all human imperfection, dissolves into the supreme Self. The knowledge that I am paramatman, I am Brahman, shines forth in everlasting glory.
The story of Durga slaying Mahishasura is a lesson for devotees and seekers of knowledge alike. Ask yourself, am I a devotee? Am I a seeker of knowledge? And is there any difference?
I’ll conclude with a verse meditated on by devotees of the Mother:
I am the Mother and no other,
I am Brahman, beyond all sorrow;
I am an expression of infinite being, consciousness, and bliss;
my true nature is eternally free.
DEVADATTA KALI (David Nelson) has been a member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California since 1967. He is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning, The Veiling Brilliance: Journey to the Goddess, and Svetasvataropanisad: The Knowledge that Liberates. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Arthur Avalon [Sir John Woodroffe], Shakti and Shakta, reprint (New York: Dover, 1978), p. 88.