The Sixth Night of #NavRatri is dedicated to Ma as Katyayani – Mahishasura Mardini Herself, the Devastator of the Demon. And, not at all coincidentally, one of my favourite of the NavaDurga Forms.
In many ways, the tale of Ma Katyayani may be considered emblematic of so much of the Durgan mythic corpus – insofar as She manifests in direct response to a demonic threat most dire (that has been rendered so through the careless Boon-bestowing of Brahma), that has already overwhelmed even the mightiest of the rest of the Pantheon, and whose dark dominion now threatens the very maintenance, manifestation, and upholding of Dharma here in our world. A most potentially injurious and iniquitous problem which is then solved via the judicious application of what can only be called the pulverizing application of “ultra-violence”. “Ultra-Violent Light”, I may perhaps term it 😀
The circumstances and the pathway towards resolution proffered thus help to establish our correct perception of Devi as the supreme force in our universe – although given the previously explored elements of Shakta theology which we’ve drawn upon in the course of this series of commentary, it should come as little surprise that I have pondered whether one of the more common tellings of part of the narrative – that of Devi as Durga being brought into being via the combined forces, powers, and outrage of much of the rest of the Pantheon – is, in fact, “back to front” or “upside down” so to speak.
By which I mean – if we consider the Shakta interpretation as noted in the writeup on Ma as Kushmanda which I prepared two nights prior to this, as well as other supporting evidence from Shakta scriptural sources (and, indeed, from the Vedas Themselves), it appears clear that the Gods and Their Power ultimately emanate from Devi, whether as HiranyaGarbha and therefore Mother of the Universe (and all it contains), or as Adi Shakti as the Cosmic and Pre-Universal Power; in both cases, Brahman.
Therefore, even if it were to be suggested – as these aforementioned “common mythconceptions” do tend to – that Ma as Katyayani might have seemed to some to be a creation contingent upon the will and ’empowerment’ of other Gods (and I cannot help but note that I have previously seen this incomplete line of reasoning pushed by those who wish,for whatever reason, to exalt instead and in Her righteous place ‘male’ divinity and deny and/or denigrate the concept of (self-)empowered (plenipotentiary) female divinity – especially as an apex!) … even in this approach to things, the power and will and directive-force in question would ultimately have originally come from Devi in the first place. Simply being ‘held’ by the rest of the Pantheon, on a more ‘temporal’ and temporary basis. Which thus explains why it *looks like*, within a shorter and narrower frame of reference, the powers and potency in question are flowing from the (predominantly male, in this instance) Gods to Her. Because it’s not an expansive enough perspective to actually encompass said Power’s underlying foundations and causative source.
That is to say, it would perhaps be of greater accuracy within this conceptual framework, to regard it as having been “lent” thencewards (if not necessarily ‘diffused’ per se) … and returned and re-congregated, re-concentrated in a single form with the ecstatic visage of Divine Wrath, as and when She was once again needed and beseechingly called upon.
But I digress.
To return to the MahishasuraMardini narrative thread, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it … one of the foundational principles of Hindu mythography, as with pretty much all other Indo-European mythologies and religions at some point and in some way – is the Divine War against those anarchic (or, I suppose, A’Rtic, A’Dharmic, and thus fundamentally Anarya) forces which seek to usurp both Dharma and the Cosmic Order, the very Fabric of the Cosmos Itself, “fraying” it through their misspent and malevolent actions in a manner that calculatedly disrupts and denigrates the world entire.
This is referred to in the academic literature often with a certain German term – “ChaosKampf”. And while it does rather directly connote what we are about here – the existential (I mean that quite literally) Struggle against Chaos … I must confess a certain preference for another term, (entirely unsurprisingly, of course) of Sanskrit origin: “Dharma-Yuddha”.
That is to say – Righteous War, and also (dependent upon the conceptual, contextual inflection) War *For* Righteousness … the very immanence of which, here in our Universe, is cast into unutterable threat through these Demons and their supporters both (half-)witting and un-.
To this conflict, then, came the buffalo(-headed) demon, Mahishasur – a shape-shifter whose beguiling ability to assume an array of (often more innocuous) forms with his *exterior* nevertheless belied a fixed and abhorrent internal consistency and perverse ‘purity’ of ‘purpose’ to see the Gods cast down.
Prideful and pugilistic, the demon Mahishasur resolved to do this via the by-now time-worn (aha) approach of first performing sufficient rites and rituals of austerities to beseech Brahma to grant him a boon of ‘immortality’/’invincibility’, in order to make himself ‘inexorable’ in his insurgency against the Divine Order and any such Divine Warrior as might endeavour to stand in his toxic way.
However, the ‘rules’ and nature of Hindu ‘divine legalism’ I suppose one might call it, do not allow for any being to be granted such inviolate and perfected implacability. There always *must* be some exception, some loophole – some ‘chink’ in the otherwise plenipotentiary armour granted to them by Brahma, via which they surely shalt crumble apace.
Previous efforts by Mahishasur’s less-than-illustrious forebears had included significantly complicated efforts to get ‘around’ this via manufacturing seemingly absurdly specific ‘conditions’ to their ‘immortality’ that would surely never eventuate: recall, for instance, the Puranic era account of the protection granted to Vritra – whereby he could only be harmed by something that was not made of wood, metal, or stone, was neither dry nor wet, and neither during the day nor night … and thus being killed, in that version, by Lord Indra, utilizing divinely empowered sea-foam at the moment of twilight, or Tarakasur, whom we encountered in last night’s NavaRatri posting on Skandamata – this demon having stipulated that *his* invulnerability-exception would be that he’d only be slayable by a Son of Shiva, a condition he insisted upon on grounds that Lord Shiva was so solitary as the AdiYogi and in such immense state of mourning following Lady Sati’s death that He would surely produce no Sons … up until, of course, unbeknowest to Tarakasur, Sati reincarnated as Parvati and once again married Mahadeva, their union producing Lord Skanda; or indeed the boon sought by and granted to Mahishasura’s father, Rambha – that of only being able to be killed by a dead man … which sounds fine in theory up until Lord Indra attacks with the Vajra made from the bones of the (deceased) sage Dadhichi.
Only Durgamasur had the foresight to approach his quite emphatically impious/anti-pious aims through a more indirect measure, asking for the boon of the knowledge of the Vedas and Their rites and rituals to be wiped from the minds of mankind – and in the process catastrophically disempowering The Gods to stand against him and his armies, until Adi Shakti Herself, unaffected by such things due to Her supernal nature beyond the Universe Itself, at the request of The Gods re-immanentized from Above to personally unmake the vile a’sura would-be emperor.
Mahishasura, however, was not nearly so thoughtful or creative as these others of his kind – and was beset, among other shortcomings, with a chronic overabundance of arrogance and misplaced pride. Nor had he read Lord of the Rings. He therefore selected as his boon from Lord Brahma, that “no man” would be able to vanquish him – thusly phrased because he was disdainful of women, and did not either believe or realize that a woman could ever be a threat to one as self-regardedly mighty as he. (As it happens, Mahishasur turns out to have a “weakness” of “women” in an additional sense as well – that directly contributes to his downfall … but more on that later at the appropriate time)
For a time, this boon allowed Mahishasur and his armies to prosecute their ADharmic and Devacidal acrusade with quite marked success – meeting The Gods in the field and routing Them, eventually coming close to overrunning The Heavens themselves and forcing The Gods to retreat off into the Mountains (which are,of course, HER Realm! – Parvati, ‘Of The Mountains’) in order to contemplate making some form of heroic final stand against the onrushing dark.
As should always be done in such circumstances, The Gods turn to piety – invocations of sternest wrath and vengeance, and the pooling of Their collective essences and empowerments to endeavour to find some solution that will carry the day (in more than one sense of the term). Perhaps, in the manner of many a soldier in what they perceive to be their last moments, They thought of Their Ma (- particularly relevant to the place that They were in). And SHE Answered.
However it transpired, They suddenly found amongst Them, the most Glorious Yet Serene Wrath Of The Gods Made (Wo)Manifest. A most exquisitely beautiful Devi, both radiantly regal and rapturously deadly. (Eighteen Armed) Salvation, in other words – for Gods as well as Mortals and indeed for Worlds Entire.
SHE took to the field of combat, rallying The Gods behind Her, and singlehandedly (well … you know what I mean) laying waste to entire enemy formations and their heavy machinery of war (indeed, there’s a particular Shakta Hymn – the Mahishasura Mardini Stotram, that I occasionally play for people. About the fourth verse or so, they tend to be like “this sounds beautiful. What’s it mean?” At which point I provide the translation of said verse, which is largely about first Devi and then also Her Vahana ripping the faces off the enemy war-elephants, and related acts pertaining to the subjugation and devastation of the demonic foe).
Of course, especially given the craven nature of the demons, She was not simply attracting attention for Her incredible combat prowess, and the steady whirlwind of severed heads and lacerated limbs, fountains of gore and earth-shaking fury which accompanied Her implacable advance across the battlefield.
As mentioned above, She is also indescribably beautiful. And, as is ever the case with the certain sort of male who is utterly dismissive of women except perhaps as trinkets, as pretty-looking things to be possessed in the manner of objects, trifling amusements, or as currency … Mahishasur saw this incredible conflagration of (if She had so willed it) Universe-Destroying potency carving Her way towards him – and rather than doing something sensible or even simply perceiving that Annihilation had literally arrived, he instead basically just thought “nice looking woman .. I shall have her”, and proceeded to make a rather indecent proposal in The Devi’s direction.
Evidently, in his overwhelming arrogance, Mahishasura had forgotten the terms of his bargain with Brahma – that only a woman could destroy him … and that not just *any* woman, but the Destroyer of Worlds and the Unmaker of the Cosmos Itself (at the appointed time) stood before him, bedecked with a most charming smile.
Devi’s response to his insolence was remarkably civil, given the circumstances – as, instead of simply slaying him then and there where he stood, She effectively invited him to partake of a more honourable (for him, anyway) single combat – a Challenge. She did so by stating that She would not allow Herself to be joined with any man who could not best Her martially.
And, with his thinking perhaps I would surmise impaired by a lack of full blood-flow to his brain for some reason (thus causing him to, you know, somehow *not notice* the blood of a pretty sizeable portion of what had up until just recently been his army spattered about Her), Mahishasur chose to accept Devi’s Challenge.
Not least because I opened this piece with mention of the Theonym of Durga – Mahishasura Mardini – it should come as absolutely no surprise whatsoever to the reader to hear that Lady Katyayani eventually killed Mahishasur. Although the “eventually” is not there to indicate any enlengthening of proceedings through Mahishasur staging a valiant-if-futile defence or anything like that. As he couldn’t. Nobody, and *nothing* could have withstood the onslaught that then ensued. For this was not even, except in exterior forms perceived by the entranced witnesses through their eyes, a “combat” or a “duel” – as that would imply the contest of two opposing forces with at least *some* active input, interaction, and perhaps counter-attacking from the other party.
Instead, this was simply an Inevitability. With the only ‘delay’ in the death of the demon being comprised of said Finality taking a certain apportionment of extra time and miniscule effort to *properly* lay waste to Mahishasur in both form and spirit – and in so doing, deliver a most powerful message to any other would-be (usurper-)masters of the universe down the ages.
The Sanction meted out against Mahishasur, then, went well beyond the “clinical” (although both the precision and the overall objective of the protection and maintenance of health with which Her blows were delivered does render this a useful term of description for what had then ensued) , and into the outright ‘cinematic’. By which I mean, She beat down upon him so incredibly severely that She – and this is probably one of my favourite details of the ‘duel’ – basically wound up *tap-dancing on his head* (so to speak – there is also a visual metaphor going on here); a studious and emphatically necessary brutality which persists to the point She literally manages to pulverize the spirit out of him – it leaves via the now-severed neck of the buffalo-form, and then frantically attempts to adopt some shape or guise that would enable it to flee to persist with its evil elsewhere and elsewhen. For renunciation of its evil is not in its nature; meaning that the cessation of its abomination can only be accomplished via the cessation of its very being.
Something which Devi then finally delivers via the points of the Trishula – the Trident (or ‘Three-Spear’, ‘Three-Point(s)’) that represents mastery over the three worlds (and of the three energies), and which is capable of destroying utterly whatsoever may find itself in the Trishula’s path (other than Shiva & Shakti, Whose imperial emblem, ensign, escutcheon, and ekpyrotic tool it is) including the universe itself at the End of Time.
Interestingly, the Trishula is also keyed to the area of the body commensurate with the Ajna Chakra [more commonly referred to as the ‘Third Eye’] which She is also directly associated with – the implication therefore also being that the destruction of Mahishasur was thus an act of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘true-seeing’, while also situating it in the broader context of similar such ann-eye-hilation instances from Hindu mythology, as well as the broad power of Mahadev and Durga as Tryambakam – ‘Three-Eyed’.
In any case, it ought not be hard to see why we honour Ma as Katyayani. As long as the cosmos and its inherent, implicit conflict persists, there shall always be the need for warriors. And when, from time to time, some otherwise unstoppable (which, in this context, is simply another kind of ‘stoppable’, to borrow a phrase) threat should emerge to Creation, She stands ready to do indescribable in both its beauty and in its brutality violence on our behalf so that we may sleep easier and continue to exist out from under the oppression and erasure of those , the demons, who “cannot handle The Truth” [figuratively translating that last word, in a rendering that should be obvious by implication here].
We Thank Her, in other words, for the fact that we are *able* to Thank Her; to think, that we are able to draw breath; and that there continues to exist, however imperfectly, some measure of Justice and Divine/Cosmic Order here in this world. Just as we tend to regard our birth-mothers in our lives and in our households growing up.
We also ask Her to bestow upon us the virtues which She so magnificently embodies – the courageousness, the prowess and adroitness with one’s implements, Knowledge (for such is a weapon and power, too – connoted with Her Name relating to the Sage, and also the Ajna Chakra association of Katyayani) , and the success at the appointed task for which one is created and endowed; as well as to aid and avail us in the defence and more active protection of our families, our communities, and all others we owe duty to.
She is Vengeance, She is Victory; She is (therefore) Justice and also Fairness (in multiple senses of the word); and She Leads Us onto the pathway of Glory , not least through Her Shining Example.
The Path of Dharma, after all, is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyrannies of evil men. Thus, blessed is She who with hands in Varada and Abhaya Mudras [that is to say, ‘charity’ and ‘good-will’] oversees and leads our progress through the valley of darkness [to glorious mountain-heights beyond] – for She is truly the Universe’s Sentinel-Lord and the Guide, Rallier, & Protector of Her Children.
And She Shall Strike Down Upon Thee With Great Vengeance And Furious Anger Those Who Would Attempt To Poison And (Prematurely) Destroy Her Creation –
And You Will Know Her Naman Is Ishvari When She Lays Her Holy Vengeance Upon Thee!
It is also worth noting the ways in which Durga has symbolized (eventually successful) Hindu defiance against would-be *mortal* conquerors and hostile empires from without – whether Muslim armies (there is particular connection occasionally made between Mahishasur and these), or others such as the British. Indeed, through other Aspects such as Bhavani (Who hands Her Sword (well, one of them …), the fabled Bhavani Tulwar, to ShivaJi of the Marathas when mandating Him to war against the Mughals in order to begin the process of re-establishing Hindu Rashtra on the Subcontinent), and most especially through Bharat Mata (Whose incredible salience in the modern age has been brought about at least partially as a direct element of the Swaraj Struggle against the British); it is not at all hard to see how and why the Katyayani Form maintains such an impressive salience in our collective psyche.
And as applies Her place and position within the overarching NavaRatri / NavaDurga Mythic Cycle, She represents the logical continuance of Skandamata – after all, “SkandaMata”, “Mother of the Assault” (‘assault’ derives from the same PIE origin as the more frequently cited root of the term “Skanda”, as it happens) represents the direct pathway into this world of the Lord of War. Katyayani, then, is both the result of this – in the sense of War Made Manifest – as well as exemplifying the most powerful protective instincts and abilities of a Mother over Her Child (with the progeny in question also being, as it happens, Creation at large).
Further, Ma Katyayani’s position equidistant between Skandamata and KaalRatri also demonstrates the fundamental triad of Creation, Maintenance, and Destruction. Ma Kushmanda ‘creates’, whether the Universe at large as Hiranyagarbha or Her Son, Skanda; Ma Katyayani is both the protector, the preserver, the maintainer of the span of existence – indeed, of existence itself ! – between creation and dissolution, as well as being emblematic of the Life which exists between birth and death … not least because She personifies struggle and conflict and the potency inherent in the carrying out of one’s Duty; KaalRatri, meanwhile, is the End – the dissolution, the Pralaya, the death, the Night which follows both Day and Dawn. (Or, perhaps, Katyayani is the ‘twilight’ where demons are slain as part of “not go[ing] gentle into that good night”; with the solar symbolism of Kushmanda the Dawn, Skandamata the Day, and KaalRatri once again the Night – a Night rendered all the safer through the expurgation activities which have taken place against the a’sura – a different kind of “darkness”. ) (And continuing the ‘path of light’ in reverse metaphor which underpins ShailaPutri (the mountains, the terrestrial realm) back to Brahmacharini (the ascent upwards into the heavens), back to Chandraghanta (to the Moon), back to Kushmanda (from Moon to Sun and up into the Supernal), with SkandaMata representing the ‘apex point’ from whence the re-entry of and from the Supernal into the universe as a creative force (HiranyaGarbha opens…) is possible, but also from whence the Supernal descending upon pinions of light to protect the entire structure and safeguard Creation (think also of the Manifestation of Shakti against Tarakasur, as aforementioned – which was exactly this) takes place as its next phase .).
Another approach would hinge around the rising anger and passionate power of Devi, following Her being brought into existence subsequent to the initial Creation phase – This also recalls the most interesting linguistic elements found in an array of ancient Indo-European languages, including Greek – Thumos – wherein the ‘breath of life’ and the smoke of ire , the animus of the ‘soul’ and the animus (yes, this is exactly the same word with different and evidently non-exclusionary definitions) of ‘anger’ … appear to indicate that in a very real, a very fundamental sense : for Ancient (perhaps even Mythic) Indo-European (Wo)Man – To Be Alive was To Be Angry, To Exist was To Burn With A Passionate Intensity, and To Breathe Was To Breath Fire. (‘Fulminating Fury’, the Force of Life!)
It is not hard to see how this then conceptually links with the succeeding Night and NavaDurga of KaalRatri – as Kali is, after all, the supreme rage, the transcendent fury, the anger which burns so incredibly hot that it goes beyond ‘white hot’ and into the blackness, the very absence of light, and is capable of unmaking universes. Perhaps one might suggest, particularly with deference to the descriptions given in scripture of and in sculpture Ma Katyayani on the battlefield, that the serene calm with which She is rather often depicted is the result of ‘possessing that Anger’ – in the sense, importantly, of not ‘letting it possess you’; keeping it as a tool and a most potent and useful one rather than abjuring it, *becoming it* (for this is, among many other things – almost infinite, in fact – what Mata Kali is or can be … ), or ‘transcending’/’sublimating’ it (which is what the *next*, the Eighth Form of the NavaDurgas – the MahaGauri Who succeeds KaalRatri , represents, inter alia).
A similar conceptual spectrum spans from SkandaMata’s presentation as nurturing (and with the violence being mostly that of childbirth .. as well as the Child and the Child’s implicit purpose in later existence), through to Katyayani’s focus of protecting (that which is nurtured) [albeit with perhaps lesser ‘connectivity’ than that between (literal) Mother and (literal) Child], through to KaalRatri’s arguable embodiment of anger and the ever-present danger of the escalating ‘detachment’ from That Which Is Protected/Upheld (to the point, in Ma KaalRatri’s case of blackness rather than light or (much of) the material world – and even, ultimately, via further Kali associations, unmaking the World Entire) rendering one as ‘Violence’ rather than, necessarily, ‘Violence-For-A-Just-Cause’. (More positively, I suppose, one could look upon Katyayani as a honing and refinement of one’s purpose to a sword’s keen edge, a Holy Warrior – which then goes further and beyond to become as one with Annihilation (As Holy) Itself as Kali) Fortunately, The Night is home to many secrets and much wisdom which evince the positive and intelligent nature of KaalRatri … but more on that tomorrow night!
Iconographically speaking, Ma Katyayani tends to be depicted in an array of ways: first and foremost, in a manner often indistinguishable from the ‘conventional’ depictions of Durga – which is appropriate, as Katyayani represents something approaching the ‘archetypal’ mythic representation of Mother Durga. Second, and this appears particularly common in the East, as the generally up to eighteen armed ‘radiant’ form (often standing rather than seated upon Dawon – Her Lion/Tiger vahana/mount) that is depicted engaged in the act of devastating Mahishasur. And third, in a four-armed form specifically identified with this Aspect, bearing a Sword, the poses of Abhaya and Varada Mudras (the gestures of en-courage-ment/fearlessness/removal of fear and charity/bestowage of boons/benificient patronage respectively), and a Lotus, seated upon Dawon (Bravery) – thus representing the elegant-in-its-simplicity Unity of Belligerence, Piety, Devotion/Connectedness (both of us to Her and of Her to us – for SHE is our Ma), … and Eternity -Resurgency.
I have, of course, chosen something slightly different to illustrate this piece – my favourite Depiction of Devi Durga, bedecked in Red (Her favoured colour), wielding the Trishula and engaged in the Destroying of Mahishasura.
While it is not completely in keeping with the previous graphics I’ve used in this series – which have tended toward the scrupulous priority of ‘traditional iconographic figures’, I nevertheless feel that this image most eloquently gets the point across.
All three of them.
As a ‘concluding’ note on this piece … it is unquestionably worthy of note that as applies the myth of Ma Katyayani, the ‘lesson’ for us here is not simply to be found in Katyayani’s conduct and (mythic) personhood (Goddesshood) – although, of course, these are absolutely vital as both moral guide/exemplar and a source of commandive imperative to us in those senses we cannot perhaps directly emulate.
But also, it is to be found in the example of Mahishasura. Or, rather, in its *opposite*.
For you see, the aesop of *his* tale (well, one of them, anyway) is this:
Do Not Denigrate/Underestimate A Hindu Woman.
You May Not Live To Regret It.
जय माता दी ॥
जय जय हे महिषासुरमर्दिनि रम्यकपर्दिनि शैलसुते ॥
ॐ देवी कात्यायन्यै नम ॥