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Chapter 9 – Interpretations

9.1–3: The word Māhātmya, which is an element of the title Devīmāhātmya, appears in the text for the first time in verse 9.2 and will recur several times in Chapter 12. Derived from Mahātman (“having a noble nature”), Māhātmya is an abstract noun meaning “magnanimity, majesty, exaltedness.” By extension, it came to denote a kind of literary composition that glorifies the “distinctive greatness” of a deity, a sacred place, or anything else worthy of veneration.

9.4–41: In a long battle sequence, The Devī Fights one-on-one first with Niśumbha, then with Śumbha, and again with Niśumbha. At the end, Niśumbha is slain, and Śumbha lies unconscious. To understand the nature of this battle, we need to know exactly what Niśumbha represents, but by chapter’s end, the slain asura still remains an indistinct personality. The structure of the battle affords an important clue, however. The vacillation, wherein one brother is disabled only as the other rises up again, hints at the intimate connection between the two. At the beginning of the next chapter, which forms a seamless continuation of the narrative, we learn that Niśumbha was to Śumbha “as dear to him as life itself’ (10.2). If we recall also Śumbha’s puzzling marriage proposal, made through the messenger, that The Devī Choose either him or his valiant younger brother, Niśumbha (5.113), we see again an extreme intimacy. From this, we can deduce that if Śumbha is the ego (ahaṁkāra), Niśumbha is its tag-along sibling, the persistent, clinging sense of attachment (mamatva, marnatā).

Niśumbha is as dear to Śumbha as life itself, because the ego cherishes its attachment to body, mind, possessions, and all the other adjuncts that shape its identity. In Sanskrit, such an adjunct is called an upādhi, meaning variously a defining attribute, a limiting qualification, a substitute, anything that may be taken for something else, appearance mistaken for reality. The ego’s sense of identity derives from the totality of a human being’s upadhis: physical appearance, demeanor, likes and dislikes, family roles and relationships, relationships outside the family, and societal roles involving gender, profession, nationality, religious affiliation, and whatever else makes each one of us unique. While Śumbha represents the subjective ego-awareness itself (Iness), Niśumbha symbolizes the attachment to all its objective attributes (me-ness and my-ness). The Devī’s Battle with the asura brothers is the infinite spirit’s struggle with the finite ego’s persistent, borrowed sense of personal identity. Ego and attachment are almost inextricably linked, and when one brother is knocked out, the other rises up again.

Niśumbha, gloriously arrayed, represents attachment to fame, influence, wealth, possessions, and the identity they confer. His shield emblazoned with eight moons is a sign of personal identity. But in the end, all that is of little value; the final meaning of upādhi is not “defining attribute” but “appearance mistaken for reality.” That point is made when Niśumbha, in all his splendor, is knocked senseless to the ground. Even so, he rises up again in horrifying desperation, a monster with ten thousand arms, grasping as it were at the countless pieces of his individuality that, in truth, are worthless tokens of his separation from the Infinite. The Devī Shatters them all.

Then With Her Spear, She Penetrates his heart. Sometimes spiritual awakening dawns only after the experience of great pain, a severe wounding of the heart. The suffering of the king and the merchant over their worldly losses is that pain of Mamatva (“My-ness”), or attachment (1.42, 44). Now Niśumbha’s essence appears from his heart’s gaping wound, still reluctant to let go, pleading for The Devī to stop, but exposed and defenseless before Her Sword Of Knowledge. She Slays him, and with Niśumbha destroyed, only Śumbha remains.