Hinduism, the world’s oldest living religion, originated in India about 4000 years ago and encompasses a vast array of practices and beliefs. Hindus believe that there is only one supreme God, Brahman; however, the many aspects of Brahman are expressed through other gods and goddesses, including the divine trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). Each of them has multiple manifestations, or avatars; thus, the number of Hindu gods and goddesses may number in the thousands or even millions.
Durga [dur-gah] is one of the most popular goddesses in Hinduism. In Sanskrit, her name means “the inaccessible” or “the invincible”. Sitting astride a lion or tiger, the multi-limbed Durga is the protective mother of the universe who will unleash her anger against the forces of evil in the world.
This sandstone sculpture of Durga at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was made in India about 1300 years ago and may have been part of a Hindu temple. Take a closer look and learn about one of the most famous stories of Durga and her extraordinary power.
The Story of Durga and the Buffalo Demon
Hindu mythology tells the story of Mahisha, the buffalo demon, who had earned a special boon from Lord Shiva – a promise that he could not be killed by man or god. In time, however, Mahisha, now greedy and intoxicated with power, stomped across the world and ravished it by polluting the earth and sea. Terrorized by this demon’s evil force, the people, and even the Earth itself, begged the gods to help.
The gods gathered, and realizing that no male could destroy Mahisha, took their female forms. As the sounds of conchs, drums, and bells filled the air, a light began to emanate from these forms that was as luminous as the fiery energy of a mountain peak on the sun. With bated breath, the gods watched as the light concentrated into one spot and a lone, beautiful goddess began to take form.
“Who are you?” asked the gods. “I am Durga, the inaccessible one,” replied the goddess. “I am the substance that gives form and identity to all things. I am the power that enables all creatures to exist, to feel, think, act and react. I am the delusion that makes life alluring yet elusive.”
The unbridled, untamed goddess was adorned with the crescent moon. Her multiple arms held auspicious weapons and emblems, jewels and ornaments, garments and utensils, garlands and rosaries of beads, all offered to her by the gods. With her golden body blazing with the splendor of a thousand suns, Durga became one of the most spectacular of all personifications of Cosmic Energy.
News of Durga reached Mahisha. “She shall be my queen,” declared the buffalo demon. He ordered his two generals to fetch her. After listening to the marriage proposal, the mighty goddess said nothing; instead, she swung her sword in one grand sweep and cut off their heads.
Enraged, Mahisha send a hundred demons armed with bows, arrows, spears and swords to capture Durga. She cut off their heads.
Humiliated, Mahisha attacked Durga and the great battle began. Her lion’s thunderous roars shook the physical, mental, and spiritual worlds. Oceans boiled and surf poured over the land. Continents tore from their granite foundations as whole new chains of mountains rose; older ranges crumbled, cracked, and gave way to dust in a thousand landslides. The demon rushed towards her again and again, sometimes as a buffalo, sometimes as a lion, sometimes as an elephant. She hurled weapon after weapon at him, but each time he managed to rise up undefeated.
Realizing that the weapons of the gods and of men were useless, Durga understood that she must use her own power to defeat the demon. She dismounted from her lion and, with her bare hands, pounced upon Mahisha’s back. The mere touch of her bare feet, the feet of the goddess who is the embodiment of purity, knowledge, truth and self-realization, paralyzed the demon of selfishness, jealousy, prejudice, hatred, anger and ego. She raised her trident and plunged it into the buffalo demon’s heart. The war between knowledge and brutish ignorance, truth and falsehood, the oppressor and the oppressed was over. Mahisha was dead.
“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” ―Malala Yousafzai
Having just snapped the neck of the demon in a whirlwind of arms and weapons, Durga is shown frontally and in the center of the niche. Calm, graceful, and self-assured, she shows herself to her worshipers in a triumphant pose so that the focus is on her, not the demon. She stands with her weight slightly shifted to her right leg and rests her foot upon the head of Mahisha. Wearing a high crown or halo and heavy earrings, Durga came to battle dressed to kill.
One of Durga’s hands turns the head of Mahisha; the other hands hold weapons:
- Trident (her main weapon; shows her ability to alleviate physical, mental, and spiritual suffering),
- Discus (which she occasionally spins around her index finger to show that the entire world is at her command),
- Bow and arrow (symbolize both potential and kinetic energies; to be effective, they must be used together),
- Cobra (a gift from Shiva, who wears a coiled cobra around his neck, symbolizing his mastery over destruction and recreation),
- Conch shell (the symbol of the sacred sound of ‘Om’, or God in the form of sound), and
Vajra (Sanskrit for both thunderbolt and diamond; a club with spherical head that symbolizes both the properties of a diamond [indestructibility] and a thunderbolt [irresistible force].
In contrast, Mahisha is depicted from behind. With an arched back, his body spreads across the bottom of the niche, cornered. His human body and buffalo head form a composite image that symbolizes the transforming powers of a demonic force that can alter its form at will.
The downward motion of the thrust of the trident into neck of demon is counterbalanced by the fierce strength of demon’s emerging buffalo head pushing upward in resistance.
The unknown sculptor has captured the sense of calm that unites Durga and the demon at the moment she defeats him and releases him from evil. Mahisha gently raises the goddess’s right foot in his hand, conveying the message that even in death, a soul can be saved by recognizing the power of the divine.
Durga is one of the forms of the Great Goddess, a feminine spirit who exists as herself and not as the consort of any god. Invincible and sublime, she contains within her the power of all the gods combined. She is the unconquerable power of Nature who triumphs over those who seek to subjugate her.
*Beyoncé, Single Ladies: https://youtu.be/4m1EFMoRFvY