The Symbolism of Mahishasura Mardini

Mahishasura Mardini

by Jayaram V

In the 15th chapter, titled "Sects and Sex in the Tantric Puranas and the Tantras," of her Book, the Hindus, an Alternative History, the controversial historian, Wendy Doniger speaks about Mahishasura Mardini, the well-known Hindu legend. 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 the three highest gods, 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. She fought a fierce battle with the demon and slew him after a prolonged fight. Hindus celebrate Durga Puja or Navarathri to commemorate the occasion. 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.

While commenting upon the imagery of the legend, Wendy Doniger draws a rather far-fetched conclusion that the confrontation between the two represents an erotic relationship and sexual union between the goddess and the demon Mahisha. She thinks the sexual undertones of the confrontation and the battle have been "downplayed" by the Sanskrit texts, or omitted altogether. Is there any evidence to prove her assertion? Absolutely not. She concocts the evidence by interpreting the texts according to her convenience, inventing a sexual theme in the imagery of the battle scene. According to her the evidence is how the gods bedeck the goddess with various ornaments and empower her with various weapons and energies, as if they are sending her on a bridal sexual escapade.

The author either does not know or does conveniently ignore the ancient Indian customs associated with warfare. It was customary for warriors, both men and women, to go to the battlefield in full regalia, since for them it could be the last day on earth. It was certainly not because they were going to seduce their enemies during the fight or have sex with them.

India had a long tradition of women warriors. They served in the army of Chandragupta Maurya as soldiers and bodyguards and of Sri Krishnadeva Raya. Even Akbar had a bitter taste of their ferocity when he fought with Rani Durgavathi, the Chandela Queen. Rani Rudrama Devi of Kakatiya dynasty and Rani Jhansi were two other important queens who became famous for their valor and leadership. They were not mere queens for namesake like the queens of Europe, but real queens who marched into the battlefields with large armies and fought real battles.

Wendy Doniger ignores such ground realities of Indian history to advance her theories and uses the conversation in the battlefield between the goddess and the demon as the evidence to suggest that there was an underlying erotic message in their conversation. As in most cases her evidence comes from her psychoanalysis of the imagery and her twisted interpretation which she clothes in a scholarly expression to create the myth of authenticity. She also ignores that any conversation in the battlefield between the enemies was part of the strategy to intimidate the enemy and establish dominance.

In a battlefield no one would think of sex. Their focus would be how to kill the enemy and achieve victory. According to our Puranas it is the nature of Asuras to treat the gods and goddesses with contempt and disrespect them by hurling abuses and sexual innuendos. They cannot be taken literally. The Puranas dwell upon such incidences to depict how evil the demons are, and how such behavior invites self-destruction. The stories are meant to inspire people to follow the path of righteousness rather than the paths chosen by the demons.

However, Wendy Doniger tries to probe into the minds of the writers who composed the Puranas to suggest how the battle between the two "by implication" was "a sexual union." According to her, the goddess Chandi riding "astride" (please note the choice of words) on the demon and her "erect" sword are symbolic of her sexual supremacy.

You can understand why Hindus might find such interpretations disturbing. It appears that Wendy Doniger cannot somehow read the sacred texts of Hindus without ascribing to them hidden sexual meanings. Probably someday she would find sex, passion and sexual aggression in the image of the Statue of Liberty also since its stands out "erectly" in the middle of the sea with an "erect" hand that holds an "erect" torch with the flame of passion erectly rising into the sky. She would probably think of the same if she sees a statue of George Washington striding on a "horse" with his "erect" sword and would psycho-analytically suggest that he had some libidinous desire to sexually conquer the Queen of England.

In her opinion, every sexual act "by implication" is "a fatal battle." Therefore, she thinks that the reference to the battle in the legend is actually a reference to what she calls the "Indian thinking about the dangers of eroticism and the need for control." She also believes that every strong emotion, "be it lust or hatred, seeks a conflict that leads ultimately to the resolution of all conflicts in death." For her, the goddess who fought with the demons represents aggressive sex and violence, whereas Durga is gentler and more maternal. According to her somehow Chandika morphed into Durga as part of a transformative process. She also finds a symbolic similarity between the images of Chandika "on the top" (see the use of words) of Mahisha, and Kali dancing on the "corpse" (was it corpse?) of Shiva, and goes on to say that the head held by Kali is that of Shiva.

What is the true symbolism of Mahisasura Mardini?

Now let us return to the conventional interpretation of the episode. The legend refers to the fundamental truth about Dharma that men alone cannot ensure the order and regularity of the worlds and fight with evil. They need the help and support of women to perform their duties, uphold the Dharma and stay on the path of righteousness. This holds true not only in case of men but also in case of gods. As heads of their households, men may manage the affairs of their families, but certain difficulties in life, cannot be overcome by their power and intelligence alone. Hence, they have to consult their wives and resolve them together. The same holds true with regard to sexual desire, which is symbolically represented by Mahishasura. Only women can help them to live righteously by conquering it.

The goddess Chandika represents the transformative power by which men can conquer the beast (Mahishasura) in them. Chanda means ferocity, passion, anger, or cruelty. It represents the impure, animal nature. Those in whom such qualities are in excess are called chandalas. In ancient India the word was used to refer to the outcastes, who were considered impure. It was also used to refer to those who were born in unusual and immoral circumstances. In some communities such as the Telugus, it is still used as an abusive term to refer to someone when people become upset or angry.

Mahisha means buffalo. The buffalo represents brute power and vile human nature. With his two horns, Mahisha personifies the evil hidden in creation. In some respects he is like the Devil in Christianity, who is also shown in the imagery with horns. Thus, the battle between Chandika and Mahisha is symbolic of the battle between good and evil, which takes place at many levels in both the macrocosm and microcosm.

It is also symbolic of the transformative process by which human beings are supposed to purify the animal sexual nature present in their minds and bodies. Since the cleansing requires huge effort and cannot be done entirely by themselves, they need the intervention of the Mother Goddess. Sri Aurobindo highlighted this in many of his writings. He always used to suggest that those who wanted to purify their minds and bodies should unconditionally surrender to the Mother and let her do the work. According to him the transformation would not happen, unless you let the mother do the work on her own. You should unconditionally surrender to her and allow her to descend into every pore of your body and purify it. If you let her do her work without any resistance, she would take up the responsibility of your life and transform you miraculously.

Thus, the story of Mahisasura Mardini represents a hidden truth and a secret lesson for the seekers of liberation. If you have trouble controlling your desires and passions because of the predominance of animal nature (tamas), and unable to find peace and stability in their spiritual practice, you should pray to the Mother Goddess to transform you into a positive person with the preponderance of sattva. The Mother can help you control your animal passions and become a virtuous person. She can also destroy your evil karma and help you achieve liberation.

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