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The esoteric meaning of The Devi Mahatmya – the mahishashura myth


Second Episode-mahishasuramardhini myth

This is the second episode where The Adi Sakti Manifests As The Devi Durga and Overcomes mahishasura, the buffalo headed demon who is half human and half beast. The demon is partly a pasu (animal or beast) and partly a human and thus has the dangerous ability to disrupt cosmic order and harmony. Overcoming this powerful combination of beastly nature and human competence requires a fiery and Dynamic Form of Shakti, one that can combat worldly rajas through Divine rajas.

Technically the Primal form of The Divine Mother that presides over Rajas is referred to as Maha Lakshmi Whose Coral Complexion Identifies Her clearly as The Devi’s Rajasic Vyashti.

mahishasura too is the epitome of Rajas. But unlike The Devi’s Divine Rajas, mahishasura’s rajas is of a negative nature. His rajasic energy controls him and impels him to destructive  acts, whereas Ma Durga Controls Her Own Fiery Splendor. She Is An Embodiment of the wrath of all The Gods. Her Rajas Is Protective of Her devotees and Intent on Destroying evil. Her Anger Is Divine Anger that Fights the demons.

Of the three gunas only Rajas has two faces or two dimensions to it. One is a purely negative and gross expression that seeks material pleasures while the other is a Divine and subtle expression that takes the individual inward, closer to The Supreme Being.

Both are goal oriented except that demoniac rajas seeks only kama (desire or craving) and artha (material prosperity) while Divine Rajas seeks the fulfilment of righteous desires, all round Divine prosperity and eventually moksha (the reference here is to the four goals of life). This difference in the direction of focus or goal is the main difference between the two types of rajas. Rajas can bridge Tamas and Sattva. Lower order Rajas is closer to Tamas, while higher order Rajas is closer to Sattva. Lower order Rajas serves the purpose of Tamas and is potentially in danger of pulling us into the quagmire of Tamas. Higher order Rajas serves the purpose of enabling Sattvavajaya or enabling Sattva to take over the other gunas.

Esoteric meaning of the battle between The Gods and the demons

First let us examine the theme of the battles between the Gods and the demons as revealed in the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and Adi Shankara’s commentary. The word Sanskrit word for Gods is ‘Devah’, which denotes light or the function of illumining. Commenting on the verse “devāsurā ha vai yatra saṃyetire” (Chandogya Upanishad, 1. 2. 1), Adi Shankara affirms that The Gods stand for such functions of the senses (indriya vrttis) as are illumined by scriptures. The demons or asuras who are opposed to the Gods, stand for tendencies that are opposite to the illumining functions, and are of the nature of darkness. Thus the war between the Gods and the demons actually refers to the perpetual conflict between the forces of light and darkness, between righteous and unrighteous urges. Thus there are two opposing psychic forces within all of us. The roots of these two types of urges are traced to the Sanchita karmas of innumerable lives. While we experience only Prarabdha karmas allotted for a particular lifetime, the Sanchita karmas indirectly influence us as our samskaras.

Esoterically speaking the Gods symbolise the positive samskaras of innumerable lifetimes resulting from all the righteous karmas that are oriented towards The Supreme Self, while the demons symbolise the negative samskaras of innumerable lifetimes resulting from all the unrighteous karmas that are contrary and in conducive to our orientation to The Supreme Self. Thus interpreting the battles between the gods and demons on these lines is in order wherever references to the battles between The Gods and the demons occur in the Vedas and the Puranas. The righteous and unrighteous samskaras have also been referred to as daiva sampada (Divine Wealth or Divine Tendencies) and asura sampada (demoniac wealth or demoniac tendencies) in the Bhagavad Gita (in the sixteenth chapter titled ‘daivasura sampdvibhaga yogah’). Here Divine tendencies have been referred to as Divine Wealth (sampada: wealth) and demoniac tendencies as demoniac wealth. Elaborating this idea further the Bhagavad Gita declares that THE Divine are deemed for liberation or Self-realization and the demoniac for bondage.

Returning back to mahishasura’s myth, The Devi Mahatmya tells us that long back when mahishasura was the lord of asuras and Indra the lord of devas, there was a war between the devas and asuras for a full hundred years. Now that we know who the gods and demons are, it is not difficult to understand why the span of the war is for hundred years. This is the approximate upper limit of human life span. Thus, the conflict between the righteous and unrighteous samskaras goes on as long as we are alive. And in that war, as The Devi Mahatmya tells us, the army of The Gods is vanquished by the mighty demons and mahisasura becomes the lord of heaven. he himself assumes the jurisdictions of Surya, Indra, Agni, Vayu, Chandra, Yama and Varuna and of other Gods too. Now what does this mean?

As already stated, The Gods are the presiding Deities for various indriyas and their functions- Surya over eyes, Indra hands, Agni over speech, Vayu over skin, Chandra over the mind, Yama over anus, Varuna over tongue and so on. The Gods stand for the respective indriya vrttis. All these senses and their functions are hijacked by Rajo-guna serving the purpose of nourishing asuric tendencies. This is the meaning of mahishasura assuming lordship over all jurisdictions of The Gods. Under the influence of Rajo-guna all psychological and sensory functions are focused only on the gross and the material, having lost the original orientation to The Supreme Being. The task, therefore, is to once again reclaim the original state. But this can be achieved only by uniting together all the powers of The Gods and orienting them back to The Supreme Being. This is exactly what happens in the story.

The vanquished Gods collectively surrendering to The Devi

The Gods first approach Brahma who leads them to Vishnu and Shiva. There is a significance in The Gods first approaching Brahma. As per Hindu mythology Brahma was born from a lotus that grew at Lord Vishnu’s navel. Here Vishnu signifies Consciousness while the lotus signifies flowering or blossoming of Consciousness. Brahma being born from the nabhi-kamala (navel chakra) of Vishnu is clearly a Puranic allusion to Kundalini and the Chakras. The nabhi is the vedic equivalent to what is known as known as the Manipura chakra in the tantric system. Below the manipura chakra is asura kshetra (field of demoniac consciousness), while daiva kshetra (field of Divine Consciousness) starts from manipura.

Thus, the very awareness of the conflict between the righteous and unrighteous samskaras and the need to overcome asuric samskaras, starts with the manipura. Now that spiritual awareness has started blossoming it will lead to the coming together of all the spiritual samskaras, the coming together of the powers of The Gods. Brahma leads the gods to Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu and Shiva too symbolise specific psychological functions like the other Gods. In the symbolism of The Devi Mahatmyam, The Devi is obviously The Supreme Being or Supreme Self, whereas Vishnu and Shiva symbolise prana shakti and gnana shakti respectively.

What happens when all the powers of all The Gods come together? As The Devi Mahatmyam Reveals, all the radiance from all The Gods coalesced into the auspicious form of The Goddess. The tejas that emerges from The Gods is not their creation but The Devi’s natural indwelling presence. Thus, what coalesces into The Devi’s Auspicious Form is actually Her Own Power.

The Gods do not relinquish their power or weapons, even as their varied powers reunite in The Devi. This is a sublime philosophical abstraction of simultaneous Divine Immanence and Transcendence. Now that the collective power of The Gods is united against mahishasura and his armies, The Gods can be assured of their inevitable victory.

mahishasura and his Generals- Rajo-guna and its asura sampada

mahishasura symbolises the powerful combination of human competence and beastly nature. As already stated he stands for Rajo-guna. While kaitabha is also rajas, he comes as a twin of madhu (tamas), at the level of origination. Unlike kaitabha who is of the nature of rajas, mahishasura is the epitome of Rajo-guna.

He has sixteen asuras who lead various battalions of armies. They stand for various demoniac traits or tendencies and are mahishasura’s assets or wealth. Together they are all asura sampada or demoniac wealth or assets (see the chapter on Daiva sampada and asura sampada for more).

If mahishasura has to be subdued his generals have to be eliminated first, his demoniac wealth has to be destroyed first. But the asura armies vastly outnumber The Gods. Commenting on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad’s (1, 3) account of a similar conflict between The Gods and the demons Adi Shankara tells us that The Gods are always less in number while the demons are more. So what to do? There is only one way out- absolute surrender to The Supreme Goddess. Nothing less than total surrender will bail them out of their difficulty. And this is precisely what The Gods do.

As already stated if mahishasura has to be subdued his generals have to be eliminated first, his demoniac wealth has to be destroyed first. Hence The Goddess and Her lion start destroying these asuras one by one. While each of the sixteen asura generals and their esoteric significance is important in its own way, two among them deserve special mention- durdhara and durmukha who fight till the last. Only after durdhara and durmukha are destroyed can The Goddess finally fight the asura lord mahishasura. In fact they find place even   in   the mahishasuramardhini                              stotram   (‘durdharadhar1iI_i                                   durmukhamar1iI_i har1arate’ ). Such is their negative significance for spiritual life.

If mahishasura is Rajas, durdhara and durmukha are ‘desire’ and ‘anger’. As the Bhagavad Gita (3. 37) affirms, Rajas begets desire and anger. In fact, most often anger is related to desire. When the fulfilment of desire (Kama) is frustrated by an obstacle, frustration turns into anger (Krodha). Desire itself is rooted in Rajas and aggravates it further. In fact ‘durdhara’ literally means ‘irresistible’ while ‘durmukha’ means ugly or hideous or bad faced. True enough it is very difficult to resist desire, while anger transforms the most beautiful face into a hideous one! (‘durmukha’ can also mean ‘bad-mouthed’ or ‘abusive’ which too denotes anger) Desire is by nature insatiable and is the most important of the six inner enemies (arishadvargas) along with its comrade- Anger (Krodha). Since, Rajas begets desire and anger, they are the last to go before Rajas. That is why they fight till the last. Once desire is eliminated, Sattva guna (The Divine Forces of Light) can easily prevail over Rajo guna.

However, do not underestimate mahishasura (Rajo-guna) and his army. Rajo guna (mahishasura) and its associated vrttis (mahishasura’s armies) wield great power over the psyche. They are the result of the impressions of innumerable lifetimes and choices made in those lives, choices that have become embedded in our psyche as stubborn psychological traits. To make matters worse most of us waste away this precious life without any conscious awareness of what is happening within. As the Bhagavad Gita (7. 19) reveals, it is only at the end of innumerable births that the wise person takes refuge in The Supreme Being, realising that the Supreme Being is all that is. And rare is such a great soul. Most of us carry on with our deluded lives without realising that life is not just about relationships, money, power and material pursuits. For the majority Spiritual life is only an extension of the deep-rooted material approach. Even those who are interested have only a shallow interest, quite often it being a mere coping mechanism for the stress of daily living. For some Spirituality is a pursuit that they reserve for their old age, for their retired lives.

Compelled by our asuric tendencies we waste the best time of our lives pursuing purely material goals, wasting away our greatest potential, postponing it continually. It is only a few wise ones who awaken to the truth that The Supreme Being is all that is, that have a conscious awareness of the war between The Gods and the demons. Bringing this inner conflict into conscious awareness, the serious practitioner surrenders completely to The Supreme Goddess just as The Gods did in The Devi Mahatmya.

Progressively, The Gods are reinstated in their rightful place by the replacement of asuric wealth with Divine Wealth. This needs The Grace Of Mahalakshmi who can bestow daiva sampada or Divine Wealth to Her devotee. The practitioner who is endowed with Divine Wealth is now fit for attaining liberation.

Even if one does not attain liberation in this birth, the samskaras and the merit acquired during this lifetime are carried in a potential form into the next lives when they shall bear fruit automatically. However, for those who are unwavering from the goal the accumulation of Divine Wealth shall set them free in this very life. Spiritual victory is in sight.

mahishasura’s eightfold fury

Returning to mahishasura myth, seeing his armies destroyed by The Devi an enraged mahishasura starts terrifying The Devi’s hosts. And how does mahishasura destroy The Devi’s forces?- in eight ways. These eight ways are the purely negative expression of rajas. Hitting some by muzzle, trampling some by the hooves, lashing at some with his tail, tearing others with his horns, by sheer speed, by bellowing, by wheeling, and by the blast of his breath, mahishasura destroyed The Devi’s forces. This eightfold unleashing of mahishasura’s rajas is comparable to eightfold maithuna or eightfold sexual union, which a Brahmachari is strictly advised to avoid. Here a word on Brahmacharya is in order.

Brahmacharya means to move, learn and live in the ‘Way of Brahman or higher Awareness’. ‘Conducting oneself in higher awareness’ is not just about sexual continence, not just about controlling sexual desire but about also about gaining mastery over all the indriyas. Among other things it is also largely about bringing the indriyas (senses) under effortless control. Thus, one of the goals of Brahmacharya is reaching a state where one is not troubled by the indriyas anymore. However, this state of freedom from the indriyas comes effortlessly only after intense practice or abhyasa. Till one achieves effortless mastery over the indriyas one has to make intense efforts. Hence, initially we are advised to avoid eightfold indulgence of the indriyas. The eight ways of sensual indulgence:

  • Smaranam (thinking of it),
  • Kirtanam (talking of it),
  • Keli (playing around),
  • Prekshanam (seeing),
  • Guhya-bhashanam (talking in secrecy),
  • Sankalpa (wishing for),
  • Adhyavasaya (determination towards),
  • Kriyanishpatti (actual accomplishment).

These are the eight ways in which Rajas destroys The Divine Forces before one can even gauge its destructive influence. That is why the unleashing of mahishasura’s rajas too has eightfold fury. After destroying The Devi’s Forces by his eightfold rajas, mahishasura rushes forward to slay Her Lion. The Goddess Ambika Becomes Enraged at this.

The lion as the sadhaka who has taken to the path of dharma

The lion is none other than the sadhaka who has taken to the path of dharma. It is none other than the practitioner, the jiva, you and me. Since the devotee has already surrendered to The Goddess and is on the path of dharma, The Mother will protect him as Her own child. Now starts the real fight between The Devi and the lord of the asuras. To meet the challenge The Goddess Heightens Her Own rajas. However unlike Mahishasura’s destructive and egoistic rage Her anger is divine or righteous anger that counters demoniac or unrighteous anger. Initially the practitioner counters lower order material rajas through higher order spiritual rajas. One has to remove a thorn with the help of another thorn, as the adage goes. We come across instances of the lion’s fury too, in both the second and third episodes though more elaborately in the third episode. This is the sadhaka’s spiritualized higher order rajas or sattvic rajas which counters the destructive influence of material lower order rajas of the asuras. The two faces of rajas is an interesting theme that the Devi Mahatmyam portrays time and again through powerful metaphors.

Mahishasura changing his form many times before finally being beheaded


During the combat mahishasura changes his form many times, undergoing a series of metamorphosis. This is the very nature of desire, of rajas. We think that we have rooted out a particular psychological compulsion only to discover that it still existent albeit in a different form. We move from one addiction to another, from one compulsive behaviour to another, as long as the original inner emotional issue is not resolved.

The Devi’s Weapons appear ineffectual as long as mahishasura keeps changing forms. She Triumphs over him only when  he emerges in his original form, as She Pins him down under Her Foot. Only then does She Behead him finally with Her Sword, Destroying the deadly combination of human competence and beastly nature.

mahishasura’s episode reveals that through active struggle, through divine rajas, we can overcome enslavement to the indriyas, and live righteously in harmony with the world. It also reveals the two faces of rajas and the two kinds of wealth that we may seek in our lives. One is Divine while the other is demoniac.

Those who seek demoniac wealth take to the purely negative and demoniac expression of rajas and are deemed to be bound further and to suffer in the quagmire of perpetual desire, while those who take to a positive expression of rajas seek Divine Wealth and are eventually deemed for liberation from suffering of all kinds.