Chapter 10 – Interpretations
10.1–8: The key to understanding the entire third carita lies in the first six verses of Chapter 10. Note that Śumbha addresses the Devī as Durgā (10.3), a reminder that his brother’s slayer is the same supreme Goddess who vanquished Mahiṣāsura. With the many names used to refer to Her—Devī, Caṇḍikā, Ambikā, Kālī, and a profusion of others—it is easy to forget that the Devī is indeed One. Śumbha has forgotten. In chiding Her for depending on the strength of others, he only betrays his ignorance, a refusal to recognize the unity of all existence.
The Devī Reveals that She is One without a second, Saying, “I Am Alone Here In The World. Who Else Is There Besides Me?” (10.5). Following this proclamation of Divine Unity, which has been called the mahāvākya, or Great Dictum, of the Devīmāhātmya, She Explains that All The Goddesses Who Fought Beside Her—Kālī, Śivadūtī, and The Mothers—are but Projections of Her Power, As Are All the Other Forms She Inhabits (10.8).
Still, Śumbha, as the individual ego, can never reach beyond Mahāmāyā’s Deluding Veil, which limits consciousness to the dimensions of time and space and creates the sense of separate but impermanent selfhood. Until Mahāmāyā Lifts that Veil, the truth of infinite being is beyond comprehension.
The structure of the third carita reveals a pattern of parallel challenge, counterchallenge, and escalation. The initial antagonism involves only The Devī and Sugrīva, then The Devī and Dhūmralocana.
When Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa Are sent to Capture Her, She multiplies Her Strength By Calling Forth Kālī, Who Defeats the two servants and earns the nickname Cāmuṇḍā. When Śumbha mobilizes the asura clans, The Devī Calls Forth The Seven Little Mothers and Śivadūtī.
Then the selfreplicating Raktabīja brings the escalation to a climax with the countless asuras born from his blood. His defeat signals the de-escalation that ends with The Devī finally facing Śumbha Alone (10.8).
The parallelism suggests that just as Kālī, The Mothers, and Śivadūtī Are Multiple Manifestations Of The One Devī, the asuras we have met along the way are Śumbha’s—the ego’s—projections.
Are we to conclude that the Devī and Śumbha are equals? Not at all. The Divine Mother Is Infinite Consciousness, And Everything In The Universe Is Her Projection—even Śumbha. He is a bit of finite awareness whose subsequent manifestations symbolize human weaknesses and failings, the further fragmentations of something that is already partial and imperfect. Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa are the ego’s self-aggrandizing and lust-inciting capacities. They drive Śumbha’s crazed desire to possess The Devī’s Lovely Physical Form, and they flatter him with an account of his own dazzling wealth and power, which, stolen from the gods, is not really his at all.
The messenger Sugrīva represents the ego’s capacity for guile in attempting to have its way, and when that fails, Dhūmralocana steps in as the abject ignorance that resorts to brute force. Raktabīja stands for desire pathologized as rampant greed, which befouls the whole world with its presence; and Niśumbha is the sense of attachment that makes all the others possible. He occupies the closest position to ego itself. In these all-too-human asuras we recognize our own faults and shortcomings.
The slaying of Niśumbha is qualitatively different from The Devī’s previous conquests. Earlier Dhūmralocana, Caṇḍa, and Muṇḍa attempted to capture The Devī by Physical Force, just as in the first carita Viṣṇu’s struggle against Madhu and Kaiṭabha involved brute strength until Mahāmāyā outwitted the asura pair. In each struggle, tamas is the predominant guṇa. Rajas becomes foremost in the battle with Mahiṣa, whose rage is fueled by desire, and in the conflict with Raktabīja, who embodies desire out of control. Since Niśumbha symbolizes the more abstract sense of attachment, the battles with him and his brother Śumbha are existential struggles to be won only by higher forms of spiritual insight through The Devī’s Sattvic Power. The struggle with Śumbha is the most rarefied and difficult of all, because the ego, the motivating force behind all the other asuras, is extremely elusive. In total, the battle scenes teach that sādhana involves every dimension of who we are, from our gross (physical) and subtle (mental) components, involving actions and attitudes, to the causal ignorance that masks our true nature.
10.9–27: For the first time in any battle scene, the Weapons—both The Devī’s and the asura’s—are described as Divya, translated here as “Wondrous” (10.12) and “Magic” (10.13). Of course, when The Devī Revealed Herself As The Source Of The Various Gods’ powers in the second chapter, it goes without saying that those, too, displayed a Divine Quality. But the specific mention here of the weapons as Divya (from the same Source As Deva, Devī, and English Divine) indicates a spiritual struggle well beyond the realm of day-to-day existence. This is confirmed again when the combatants metaphorically rise above the earth and fight in midair (10.22) until Śumbha is defeated (10.27).
10.28–32: The figure of Niśumbha taught us that we define ourselves by how we look, what we own, what we do, and what others think of us. Even after his defeat, even after the ego is stripped of all its identifying marks, the sense of individuality still hangs on in the person of Śumbha. Why? Because he still clings to the idea that he is a separate and unique entity. It is not unknown in deep meditation to feel oneself slipping into a still deeper state and to pull back for fear of losing one’s identity or maybe even one’s own existence. But in truth, to let the ego slip away is to relinquish a smaller identity for an unimaginably greater one; in misreading reality, we have also misread ourselves. The “death of ego” marks the passage from ever-changing becoming into pure being.
The Devīmāhātmya expresses this Enlightenment with the beatific image of a universe restored to perfect order (10.28–32). It presents a lovely picture of calm and clarity, wherein everything is exactly as it should be, but those poetic images fall far short of expressing the soul’s release into inexpressible infinitude. Earlier, the Devīmāhātmya itself admitted this inability when it extolled the Divine Reality as surpassing thought (4.6) and “Unfathomable even to Viṣṇu, Śiva, and The Other Gods” (4.7).
Mystical Experience—The Immediate, Unmediated Knowledge Of The Divine— cannot be described, but that has not discouraged people of all times and places from attempting to describe the ineffable with the cultural metaphors available to them. Hindus call it saccidānanda (“being-consciousnessbliss”) or pūrṇa (“full”), referring to its absolute wholeness. Buddhists employ the negative imagery of śūnyatā (“emptiness”), because it is devoid of all form. Kabbalistic Jews use the term Ein Sof (“there is no end”) to allude to the infinite Absolute beyond all qualities. Christians speak of “the peace that passeth all understanding.” In the third century the Neoplatonist mystic Plotinus described the soul’s return to its source as “the flight of the alone to the Alone.” In our present age, we might prefer the psychological objectivity of “unitive dimension of being” or the philosophical abstraction of “Ultimate Reality.”
In the Śvetāśvataropanisad, a text the author(s) of the Devīmāhātmya surely knew, the sage addresses his disciples as “children of immortal bliss” and declares, “I have known the Unchanging, Primeval One, The Indwelling Self Of All, Everywhere Present And All-Pervading, Whom The Wise Declare To Be Free From Birth And Eternal” (ŚU 3.21).