Chapter 2 – Interpretations
Meditation on Mahālakṣmī: The coral complexion of Mahālakṣmī, Who presides over the second carita, identifies Her as the Devī’s Rajasic Vyaṣṭi; and Her Lotus Throne, growing out of the mud but Remaining Immaculate, Symbolizes Spiritual Purity and Detachment From Worldliness.
Mahālakṣmī Holds in Her Eighteen Hands the Symbols of Her Attributes and Powers. Six of them— the Mace, Arrow, Bow, Sword, Conch, and Discus—She Shares with Mahākālī. As for the others,
- the Prayer Beads symbolize Spiritual Knowledge or Devotion.
- The Ax stands for the Ignorance-Destroying Wisdom that Severs Worldly Ties.
- The Thunderbolt, associated with Indra and Storm Gods of other cultures, is a Symbol of Invincibility and Illumination.
- Another Natural Symbol is the Lotus, which in Hindu tradition represents the Auspicious Qualities of Beauty, Prosperity, Peace, Happiness, Eternal Renewal, Purity, and Spiritual Unfoldment.
- The Waterpot can Signify either Fertility and Wealth or Purification; through identification with ascetics it can also stand for Renunciation. In connection with Mahālakṣmī its Primary Meaning is Fertility and Abundance.
- The Staff is a Symbol of Discipline;
- The Lance, of the Penetrating Power of Knowledge;
- The Shield, of Protection.
- Among the divergent meanings of the Bell, the one that best fits the Devīmāhātmya’s narrative is the Power to Inspire Fear in Enemies. Its clear tone Symbolizes the Spiritual Insight that Dispels Ignorance.
- The Wine Cup is linked to Joy or Bliss.
- Usually the Trident’s Three Points are said to Represent the Divine Powers of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction; alternatively they Symbolize the Destruction of Time, Space, and Causation.
- The Noose stands for Worldly Attachment.
While in one sense Representing a Deity’s Powers, These Weapons Esoterically Symbolize the internal functioning of human consciousness.
2.1: Hrīm, known as the śaktibīja or māyābīja, Signifies the Devī’s All-Pervasive Being. In ancient times, the Vedic seers described Brahman as Saccidānanda— Being-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute—a phrase not expressing three separate qualities but attempting to suggest something of the Supreme Reality that is Unitary and Indefinable. We can relate this Vedic locution to the Tantric Bīja mantras that open the Devīmāhātmya’s three caritas. As aiṁ (1.1) declares the Devī to be Pure Consciousness, Hrīṁ (2.1) affirms Her Essential Nature as Absolute Being. In the third carita, klīṁ (5.1) will proclaim that She is Unconditional Bliss. Together, the Tantric bīja mantras aim hrīṁ klīṁ are another way of Expressing the Supreme Reality.
By itself, the bija hrīṁ stands as the Devī’s ‘supreme mantra’, the Śākta equivalent of the Vedic OṀ, the sound-form of the Absolute in Herself, Who is Not Different from Her Energy that Gives Birth to All Creation.
2.2–8: The impetuous, ill-tempered Mahiṣāsura, whose name means “buffalo demon,” is the central demonic figure of the second carita. As told by Medhas, the story of his defeat at the hands of Durgā differs significantly from the only account known with certainty to predate the Devīmāhātmya. That version, found in the third book of the Mahābhārata, makes no mention of the Devī. Instead, during a prolonged battle between the Gods, led by Indra, and the asuras, Mahiṣa emerges as a menacing but heroic figure. He scoops up a great mountain and hurls it down upon the Gods, crushing the celestial hosts in vast numbers. Later, when he attacks Rudra (Śiva), the God refrains from killing him because of an earlier decree that Mahiṣa will meet his death at the hand of Skanda, who then hurls his blazing spear (śakti) and with a fatal blow splits open Mahiṣa’s head.
In the Devīmāhātmya’s retelling, which intertwines threads from several disparate Indian traditions, Mahiṣa is already the established chief of the asuras (2.2) when he defeats Indra—here called Puramdara (“destroyer of strongholds”). The epithet alludes to the power of Indra’s thunderbolt to release life-giving rain from the clouds. Mahiṣa then becomes the lord of heaven (2.3). In Sanskrit the verse reads, indro ’bhun mahiṣāsuraḥ (“Mahiṣāsura became Indra”). To clarify, in the post-Vedic understanding, Indra is no longer the Supreme Deity nor even a Specific Individual God; the name designates instead the presiding position in the pantheon, just as the title manu designates an office occupied at various times by different individuals. The same is true of earthly kingship, and here Medhas intentionally draws a parallel between Indra’s dispossession and Suratha’s. The teaching of the second carita is intended specifically for the king. The beginning part of the narrative (2.2–8) further reflects the transition from the old Vedic religion to the devotional sectarianism of Purāṇic times. When Brahmā leads the defeated Gods to Viṣṇu and Śiva (2.4), the Three Deities named are those who form the Trimūrti of modem Hinduism. The group of Thirty Gods mentioned next (2.5) refers in rounded numbers to the Thirty-Three Primary Vedic Gods, Seven of whom are named in the following verse. The bleak picture of multitudes of the old Vedic Gods wandering dispossessed over the earth (2.7) illustrates the weakened state that leads them to appeal to the two great post-Vedic deities, Viṣṇu and Śiva, for refuge and deliverance (2.8).
2.9–19: Here we come to a nexus that joins two additional strands of Indian tradition to the already intertwining threads of Vedic religion and devotional sectarianism. This passage introduces the Śākta element in the person of the Devī and reveals also a connection to the Hindu law code known variously as the Manusmṛti, the Manusaṁhitā, or the Mānavadharmaśāstra.
This segment runs almost parallel to a portion of the Manusmṛti (MS 7.1–11) that explains how God creates a king to rule over humankind with justice and order, fashioning him from particles of the Vedic Gods Indra, Vāyu, Yama, Sūrya, Agni, Varuṇa, Candra, and Kubera. The first seven of these eight “lords of the Gods” are the same ones named by the Devīmāhātmya in verse 2.6. In the same way as a king is formed from the lustre (tejas) of the Gods and is a Deity in Human Form, the Devī Durgā Emerges in Fiery Splendor from the bodies of the Gods to Assume a Superior Embodied Form.
Although appearing to be modeled on the Manusmṛti, written around 200 CE, the Devīmāhātmya’s account of Durgā’s Emergence does not imply that the Goddess is a Magnified Version of Royal Power. In fact, the opposite is true. Royal power, with its obligation to uphold the dharma, is based on the divine model. What happens in the celestial sphere reverberates in earthly affairs. The seizure of Suratha’s kingdom by wicked foes echoes the woeful dispossession of Indra and the other Gods by Mahiṣa’s demonic forces. In Purāṇic India, the accepted correspondence between Divine and human affairs insured Durgā, the warrior Goddess, a favored position among members of the ksatriya caste, and under royal patronage Her worship spread throughout the subcontinent.
The first sign of Her appearance in our text comes when Viṣṇu, Śiva, and Brahmā contort their faces in fury and a Great Radiance (Tejas) comes forth (2.9–10). Rage and Brilliant Light are both Emblematic of the Rajasic Energy that predominates in the second carita’s characterization of the Devī. Every verse describing Her Emergence (2.10–19) refers to the Divine Light as Tejas. This term, derived from the verbal root tij (“to sharpen, to stir up, to excite”), can mean either the point of a flame, radiance, splendor, brilliance, lustre, magical power, spirit, or essence. Thus, we can understand tejas as an essential quality of brilliance with the power to excite or inspire. Tejas is a rajasic manifestation of spirit.
This Radiance Coalesces into a Female Form, said to be “Born from the Bodies of All the Gods”(sarvadevaśarīrajam) (2.13). Are we to understand that the Devī is somehow derived from the male Gods? The internal evidence of the Devīmāhātmya says “No”.
In Chapter 1, Medhas tells us that the Devī is the Sovereign of All Lords (Sarveśvareśvarī) (1.58), and Brahmā calls Her “the Supreme Mother of the Gods” (Devajananī parā) (1.74), Who Wields the All-Inclusive Powers of Creating, Sustaining, and Dissolving the universe (1.75–76). She causes even Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva to Assume Embodied Form (1.84). Surely the Supremely Powerful Mother of the Gods cannot also be born from their bodies. In the phrase Sarvadevaśarīrajam, the element ja means not only “born” or “descended from” but also “growing in, living at, belonging to, connected with.” The Tejas that emerges from the bodies of the Gods is not their creation but the Devī’s already Indwelling Presence.
In the subsequent verses (2.14–18) that detail the process of Her Materialization feature by feature, note that in no instance is the Tejas that Forms Any Part of Her Anatomy said to be born of the Gods themselves, but only of their Tejas. This distinction is important, because it implies that What Coalesces into the Devī’s Magnificent Form is actually Her Own Power, previously fragmented among the various Gods and now reuniting.
This idea is not original to the Devīmāhātmya. The Ṛgvedic Devīsūkta, presented in full in Part III, makes this same point. Vāk’s repeated affirmations of Supremacy in the later verses impart to Her opening statement the impression that the Gods are Agents of Her Power.
Regarding the Devī’s Three Eyes (2.17), “Three-Eyed” is a common figure of speech that Signifies the Ability to see Past, Present, and Future—a metaphor for Omniscience, also Expressed Visually in Paintings and Sculptures of Hindu Deities. The God Agni, from whose Radiance the Devī’s three eyes take form, reappears four verses later. There He is called the “eater of oblations” (2.21) in an allusion to His role in the Vedic sacrifice, when, as the Sacred Fire, He Consumes the offerings and Conveys their Essence to the Gods and Ancestral Spirits.
2.20–31: In the language of metaphor, the Weapons and Adornments Bestowed Upon the Devī represent Her Diverse Powers as already Manifested through the Gods. Note that the Gods do not relinquish their weapons but give Her duplicates extracted from them. In the same way as the Gods do not relinquish their tejas, because All Tejas Belongs Ultimately to the Devī, so do they not surrender their weapons but continue to act as conduits for the Varied Powers That Are Ultimately Hers, even while those Individualized Powers Reunite in the vastly more potent person of the Devī. In terms of the highest philosophical abstraction, this is a statement of the Śākta doctrine of Simultaneous Divine Immanence and transcendence.
The powers itemized here correspond to seventeen of the eighteen attributes given in the dhyāna on Mahālakṣmī, and we can assume that the missing club (gadā) is included in the “Weapons of All Kinds” not specified (2.28). Besides the predominant martial symbols (and the slightly fewer than half that Represent the Benign Qualities of Creativity, Knowledge, Purification, and Detachment), the recital of the Gods’ Gifts includes Adornments and Clothing Suggestive of Feminine Beauty and Gentleness.
In the description of Durgā’s Fiery Manifestation, we see two sets of intertwined images. One presents A Mighty Female Goddess Whose Attributes Encompass Warlike Ferocity, Feminine Beauty, and Spiritual Knowledge. The Other, Expressed in the Language of Nature, Evokes Solar Effulgence, Cool Lunar Light, Earthly Splendor, and the Auspicious Periods of Dusk and Dawn, when the mind is drawn to Spiritual Reflection. This Connection to Nature Illuminates the meaning of the Devī’s Ever-New Garments (2.25). We still speak of Nature Clothing Herself in Seasonal Array, a metaphor that probably was not lost on the ancients. Under the crushing weight of centuries and millennia, once-great works built by human endeavor lie in ruin, while living nature abides ever glorious in its power of selfrenewal.
All this disparate imagery of the Divine Feminine, which flows from Vedic and various pre or non-Vedic sources, merges here in Durgā’s Dazzling, Syncretistic personality.
Verse 2.30 marks the first appearance of the Lion, Durgā’s Vāhana (“Vehicle”). In Hindu iconography, the Vāhana is a Deity’s Particular Mount, Emblematic of Divine Powers. The Lion Symbolizes either the Devī’s Ferocity or, according to the Vaikṛtika Rahasya, the Principle of Dharma (VR 30).
2.32–39: Ma Durgā’s Ferocity Dominates this passage’s Portrait of Her Immense Power, Which Reverberates Through the Sky and Sends Shockwaves Throughout the Earth. The Natural Imagery of sky, earth, and sea in tumult speaks of Her Awesome Immanence, to which the Gods react not with fear but with rejoicing. The asuras, in contrast, react with angry resistance and gird for battle while Mahiṣa bellows in wrath.
2.40–49: Judging by their suggestive names, the high-ranking demons in Mahiṣāsura’s army are a colorful group. That impression endures in the exquisite Kangra Valley miniature paintings of the 18th century, which depict the asuras as monstrous and bizarre. Although the meaning of the name Cikṣura is uncertain, Cāmara has associations with the yak and suggests a bestial nature. The names of the Devī’s adversaries here and in the following chapter connote either evildoing or physical unpleasantness. Mahāhanu means “large-jawed” and suggests coarseness. Asiloman is “swordhaired,” and Bāṣkala possibly alludes to bellicosity. Parivārita, meaning “covered, concealed, veiled,” indicates a mental state hemmed in by depressive thoughts, pictured here as his “streaming multitudes of elephants and horses.” Biḍāla most likely suggests fetidness and therefore impurity.
2.50–69: For the first time, the Name Caṇḍikā, which we encountered in the Invocatory Mantra, Appears in the text itself, referring to the Immense Power of the Devī’s Ferocious but Splendid Form.
Her power is so great that while the asuras resolutely attack, She Remains Serene, Responding Effortlessly to their exertions as if in play. Her allies mirror Her Own Effortlessness. The Lion, shaking His mane in rage, is compared to fire sweeping through a Forest, an image of Unimpeded Energy. The Devī’s Legions (Gaṇas), arising from Her Exhalations, likewise Suggest a Natural, Effortless Projection of Power.
The word līlā literally means “play, sport, diversion, amusement,” as well as “ease, facility, mere appearance, charm, elegance, loveliness.” This simple term represents an important Indian philosophical concept: the phenomenal world does not follow a rigid, preordained course but at every moment is open to multiple creative possibilities. In contrast to this Divine Playfulness, Mahiṣa and his grim hosts are definitely not playing, any more than were Madhu and Kaiṭabha, who with a little help from Mahāmāyā took themselves too seriously and brought on their own downfall. Mahiṣa and his forces are deadly serious in combat, while the Devī Durgā, never in peril, remains calm and detached.
A second philosophical concept comes into play when we consider that the Devī’s Active Expression as līlā is the reverse of Her Eternal Immutability, described in the first carita by the word nitya (1.64–66). The second carita introduces līlā to make the point that the Devī is Actively Playing in the universe She projects out of Her Own Being. Together the two terms tell us once again that Śakti, the Divine Energy-Consciousness, is One, whether transcendent or actualized.
For all its ease, Durgā’s Power Proves Formidable when unleashed, and scenes of horrendous violence and grisly mutilation follow. Paradoxically, the awful carnage represents the victory of good over evil. While the Devī’s gaṇas zestfully beat upon drums and blow conches (2.55), the asuras are drawn irresistibly into the dance of destruction (2.63–64). If we recall the earlier declaration that the Devī is “The Great Goddess and The Great Demoness” (1.77), we can interpret it here to mean that She Has Power over the Gods and the demons, over the impulses of harmony and cooperation as well as the opposing forces of discord and divisiveness. In the Gruesome Dance of Death that enthralls the asuras, we see that the pull toward Divine Unity is stronger than the impulse to pull away. Considering the dance metaphor further, we remember that in music one always speaks of dissonance resolving into harmony as the natural state of affairs. Ultimately It Is The Devī Who Always Wins.
Interestingly, the name Ambikā (“Mother”) first appears in connection with this gory battle scene (2.53, 2.67). After the terms Devī and Caṇḍikā, Ambikā is the third most frequent name in the Devīmāhātmya, occurring twenty-five times. Used also to address one’s own mother or any other woman respectfully, it Unequivocally Affirms the Devī’s Maternal Nature. Because its frequency and context run parallel to those of Caṇḍikā, Ambikā too refers to the Devī’s All-Powerful Samaṣṭi Form, the point being that The Supreme Goddess is Both Horrific and Benign.
In late Vedic texts Ambikā appears in association with the emergent figure of Rudra-Śiva, and in the Kāḍhaka recension of the Black Yajurveda Her name designates the harvest season as the most productive—that is to say nurturing—time of the year. The connection is clear: parain addition to All Her Other Attributes, Ambikā is the Ancient Mother Goddess, Associated with the Earth and Agricultural Fertility.