The Sixth Night of #NavRatri is dedicated to Ma as Katyayani – in many ways, perhaps the most iconic understanding for Devi amidst the modern Hindusphere.
When we think of Durga – this tends to be Whom we are praising. For She is MahishasuraMardini – The Destroyer of the Buffalo-Demon – Herself !
However, as with many prominently declared myths, it is an occasionally misunderstood one in various of its key particulars. Particularly by an outside audience or those with an insistent agenda to do so.
So, for instance, you will often find a particular focus upon the notion that She is created, congealed from an emanation of ‘essence’ or ’empowerment’ from various (male) Gods – that They give Her various weapons as parts to Her appearance in amongst Them.
Technically, this is true. It is absolutely correct to state, as it is found quite well attested within the relevant scriptural source-material. However it is something of a limited perspective – one which misses at least as much as it illuminates.
For it leaves unexamined the rather more ‘underlying’ point – where those Weapons, those Empowerments came from in the first place.
We can find this presaged in the Vedas. Long-term readers of my work will instantly know which hymnals I am going to cite in support of this contention. RV X 125 is the obvious – therein, Devi is stated to be the figure Who enables Rudra to wield His Bow to smite the opponents of Gods and our religion; Who supports Varuna, Mitra, Indra, Agni, the Asvins, Soma, Tvastr, Bhaga, Pusan … you get the idea. Devi is not only Uber Alles – but also Underpinning All likewise.
Except how does this generalized conception for ‘Supporting’ the Gods pertain to the rather specific points around Divine Weaponry? Well, other than the aforementioned Bow of Rudra – we find in RV VIII 100 9-10, the situation of the Vajra of Indra being, it should seem effectively granted through Devi’s empowerment. Indeed, per Sayana’s commentary upon the verse, the Vajra is Devi – Thunder is Vak.
We can tell that this interpretation is likely accurate due to the lesser-known situation found in the Greek Indo-European mythos – wherein Athena alone “[knows] the keys to the house where His Thunderbolt is sealed” per Aeschylus’ Eumenides.
I have detailed at far grander length the mythic and theological purports of these understandings elsewhere, and so shall not seek to reproduce that work here. However, to provide the ‘essence’ of the situation –
My position is that what is being expressed here is quite simple. We know that Devi is the Absolute, Cosmic Order – and we know that what is being expressed here is that ‘elements’, ‘shards’, ‘sparks’ of this are being ‘brought in’ to our universe via Her Grace and active bestowal. Hence why the Vajra, as with Vak Devi has its home in amidst The Waters – that liminal sphere which surrounds our universe and provides an evidently semi-permeable barrier from the more ‘unshrouded’ Absolute Order. The ‘Lightning’, if you will, to the ‘Thunder’.
Now, this is vitally important in our discussion of the circumstances pertaining to Katyayani in combat against Mahishasur.
Because consider what a Demon is. It is a Lie given form and flesh.
In one of the rare moments where I say something complimentary about the Zoroastrians – their use of a certain term in Avestan, Druj, is apt. What does this word mean? Just exactly as I have said – “falsehood”, “harm”, “pollution”, “demon”. It derives from Proto-Indo-European *dʰrewgʰ-. In our language – in this case, Sanskrit – we have the similar term and understanding – द्रुह् (‘Druh’ – although it has less of the active sense of a lie and focuses instead on the ‘injury’ and ‘invidious demonic entity’ elements). And in Old Norse, we have ‘Draugr’ (a term most frequently used for a sort of malefic undead spirit – a false mockery of life).
Rta, Orlog – Cosmic Order – this is the Truth. The Demon is, in many ways, defined by its opposition to Rta, its opposition to Cosmic Order. And so therefore, it is quite natural that it is so eminently .. well .. False. Why it seeks to overthrow the Reign of the Gods, and drag the universe entire down to its turgid level.
And hence also how it seeks to do so – via the skillful use of illusion, beguilement, deceit. This is partially why demons are stated to have such great power of ‘maya’ (in its later sense – not quite the original Vedic understanding to the term), and partially why we find Mahishasur, a foremost lord of demonkind, described as such a shapeshifter.
The Demon, it dresses itself and its cause up – it bewitches the minds and senses of various beings (including, one can observe, itself – to delude itself into believing it has not only chance, but virtual certitude of victory) to bend them to its will; all in a bid to undermine and to eviscerate out, the saliency of Cosmic Order here in this universe of ours.
So, if this is the ‘essence’ of the demon – this falseness – then we are unsurprised to find that the supreme weapon with which the Demon is to be combatted … is Truth, is Light, is Law.
What is the Weapon of the Gods?
Just exactly that.
Or, rather, just exactly – Her.
In the Hands of Indra, the Vajra is, indeed, Devi-bestowed Law – a weapon that is an in-universe tangible expression of Her Will, Her Law, Her Force (‘Shakti’). Hence why it is so incredibly effective at smiting the demonic foe that sought to ‘shroud’ away the Truth or the Dawn or the other such elements vitally necessary for the ongoing maintenance and upholding of Existence Itself.
In similar fashions, the various ‘qualities’ represented by the various weapons of the Gods that are given (back) to Devi for Her Fight against Mahishasur are likewise. She granted them to Them in the first instance.
These ‘qualities’ coming back – radiated out from the faces, the mouths, the brows of the Gods – into a ‘mountain of Tejas’ (radiancy, fire). A most eloquent, excellent tool with which to ‘illuminate’ – to dispel the darkness, the shadows, the delusions and illusions and despair.
To dispel, in short, the ‘Dhrewgh’ we have just aforemet.
As Terry Pratchett once observed: “Sometimes it’s better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness.”
Indeed, I suspect that this rather more than partially explicates the root to the name ‘Katyayani’.
After all, the customary interpretation is that She is the ‘Daughter’ of the Sage Katyayana.
The etymology of ‘Katyayana’ is a bit of a complicated topic for another time – although we note with interest the potentiality around Kai (कै), ‘To Sound’. Certainly, in addition to the logical ‘Priestly’ component to this, it should concord rather well with the salient contribution of the historical Katyayana as … something of an etymologist, or perhaps a philologist, and directly acquainted with some of the ‘mysteries’ around Vak akin to those salient in RV X 71 (effectively, that words in the Sacred Speech have meaning a-priori to human utilization – our tongues and minds being ‘guided’ to these via Her Divine Hand).
One way to perhaps interpret this is the notion of the Vedic Ritualist invoking Her – causing Her to become present via the sacral fire and his prayerful Song. The notion of Devi in this form as ‘Daughter of Katyayana’ would accord what we seemingly observe elsewhere in the poetic descriptions of various Gods as being the ‘Sons’ of prominent Vedic Rsis – statements that cannot be taken at face-value and literality for a number of reasons, yet which make perfect sense when we consider the manner of the Vedic rite wherein a God is ‘brought into this world’ through the Priest’s holy formula of invocation.
However, another potentiality for the theonym is also in evidence.
In the Skanda Purana (VI 1 120), we find this most intriguing illustration:
The Gods are said to have been defeated in combat against Mahishasur, even despite being lead by Indra – leading to the woeful state of the Three Worlds as the Demons rapaciously appropriate anything and everything of worth. This lamentable situation is the cause for much anger and strategizing on the part of the Gods – with, and this is of vital importance, this anger and its attendant heat (the Sanskrit word used is Gharma (घर्म) – so ‘heat’, predictably, doesn’t really capture the connotation; think ‘boiling’, ‘brew-up’ – as with various ritual preparations), issuing forth from ‘Vak’s Gate’ (Vaktradvāra – i.e. the Mouth), begins to congeal.
However, it is only once Lord Skanda, Kartikeya, becomes aware of the situation – and joins His vocal expression of Wrath (‘War-Fury’ would be the apt translation for Kopa ( कोप ) here, I think) again out through the voice-gate with those of the rest of the pantheon – that She ‘arrives’ in earnest (the relevant Sanskrit term – Samagata – simultaneously means ‘to arrive’ but also to ‘come together’, ‘conjoin’, ‘unite’).
The Purana then goes on to state (VI 1 120 13) that it is due to precisely this that She becomes known as Katyayani – as She has developed from the Wrath of the Heavens, catalyzed via the Rage of Kartikeya being introduced to this.
Now this opens up some rather intriguing possibilities, in light of the later understanding via Prakrits of ‘Katya’ to pertain to the Krttikas (Pleiades) – however that is perhaps unnecessary to explore at this time.
What we shall instead note is that due to the theonymic for Kartikeya Himself as ‘Katyayanisuta’ – the Issue of Katyayani (i.e. His Mother’s Son) – or ‘Katyayaniputra’ (again, ‘Son of Katyayani’), it is not the case that this sets up the ultimate Invoker of Katyayani as being Her Father. Only Her ‘Caller’ (and here we are pointedly referencing the sense to Goði as the ‘Caller of the Gods’ … as well as, as we have seen viz. Gharma, the Pourer Forth to the Gods – as seen in the underlying sense to होतृ ( Hotr ) and हवन, होम (Havan, Homa), all from PIE *ǵʰew- (‘To Pour’)).
Now, toward the outset of this piece, I declared that the Myth of Katyayani is one that, “as with many prominently declared myths, it is an occasionally misunderstood one in various of its key particulars. Particularly by an outside audience or those with an insistent agenda to do so.”
To which did I refer there? Well, in part it is to a most bizarre and scurrilous spectacle I had beheld some years ago – wherein a group of Bengali animation students had decided to ‘re-interpret’ the myth to be more in line with their own particular flavouring of ‘feminist’ sensibilities. This is affronting on multiple levels – one of which being that the myth needs no reinterpretation to be approached as an excellent ‘feminist’ morality tale. The Demon makes a most indecent proposition indeed toward the beautiful Devi, and following his would-be harassment, objectification, however we wish to term it … She destroys him mercilessly.
However, it is the precise manner of their ‘reinterpretation’ that caused – and should cause – such intemperate outrage. For they had decided to “present” (in truth, flagrantly misrepresent) the narrative in a manner they considered to not have been crafted for the ‘male gaze’ … and so instead of Devi slaying the demon through force of arms, they chose to try and suggest that more “feminine” [their labelling] means that eschewed violence to instead ‘persuade’ and ‘exhaust’ the cretin were deployed.
Perish the thought. This sort of thing is directly opposed by the actual texts themselves.
In the course of the Srimad Devi Bhagavatam, Devi directly tells the envoy of Mahishasur, in reply to an attempted marriage proposal, that she is going to kill him.
In fact, it is not so much phrased as a threat – but rather, an inevitability. She is, as we have said, Cosmic Order – Rta, Orlog – and just as ‘Orlog’ in the later Germanic / Nordic rendering came to mean ‘Fate’ … well, so She is thusly, too.
To quote from the text (V 10; Vijñanananda translation):
“Now see that your master Mahiṣa has shown his intelligence, when he courted his death from the hands of a woman. For that very reason, I have come here in the shape of a woman to effect my purpose; why shall I fear, then, to hear your words, contradictory to those of the Śāstras.
When Fate goes against any one, a grass comes like a thunderbolt; and when fate goes in favour of anyone, a thunderbolt becomes as soft as a bundle of cotton.
What does it avail even when one possesses an extensive army or various weapons in abundance, taking shelter in a wide extending fort? What will his soldiers do to him, whose death has come close at hand?
Know this as certain, very certain, that death will come to him in the manner as written by the hands of Fate; it will never be otherwise.
As the birth and death of Brahmā and other gods are ordained, your death has been similarly ordained; no, there is no need of taking the example further than this.
Those who are tied up by the hands of death are surely fools and of extremely blunt intellect, if they think simply on the strength of their getting some boons “that they would never die.”
Therefore go quickly to your king and speak to him what I have said; you will then surely obey what he commands you to do.
If he wants his life, he, with his retinue, would at once go down to Pātāla; let Indra and the other Devas get possession of the Heavens and their share of Yajñas.
If he holds a contrary opinion, let him be eager to go to the house of Death and come and fight with Me.
If he thinks that Viṣṇu and the other Devas have fled from the battle-fields, he has nothing to boast of; for he has not shown his manliness at all even then; for his victory is solely due to his having got the boon from Brahmā. ””
The message is relayed to Mahishasur … who asks his advisors what it is that he should do with this information.
One of these, Durdhara, offers this counsel (V 11):
“As far as I think, I consider that woman with beautiful teeth as passionate. For that woman of broad hips has expressed a desire to bring you under control by making you fearful; the mistresses, proud of their beauty generally use such words when they become passionate.
When they behave in this way, people call these amorous gestures. These crooked words of mistresses are the chief causes in attracting dear persons unto them.
Those who are skilled in the art of love affair, some of them can know these things thoroughly well.
O King! That woman has said:
“I will pierce and kill you by arrows, face to face, in the battlefield.”
The sense of this is different. The wise persons that are clever and experienced in the art of finding out the cause, declare that the above sentence is pregnant with deep and esoteric meaning.
You can easily see that the handsome women have no other arrows with them; their side-glances are their arrows. And their words carry their hidden meanings, and, expressing their desires, are their flowers.
O King! Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Maheśa even have no powers to shoot arrows at you; how can, then, that helpless woman, who appears so passionate, dart real arrows at you?
O King! That lady said:
“O Stupid! I will kill your King by my arrow-like eye-sight.”
But the messenger was wanting in that power to appreciate; so he, no doubt, understood her words in their contrary sense.
The saying of that lady:
“I will lay your lord in the death-bed in the battle-field”
is to be taken in the light of inverted sexual intercourse, where woman is above the man.
“I will take away the vitality (life) of your lord” – is also significant.
The semen virile is known as the vitality (life). Therefore the above expression means that she will make you devoid of your virility. There can be no other meaning.
O King! Those women that are excellent show by too much of their covert expressions (innuendos) that they select and like very much their beloved. The experts only in these amorous affairs will be able to appreciate these things.
Knowing thus, dealings ought to be made with Her so that the harmony in amorous sentiments be not broken.
O King! Sāma (conciliation) and Dana (gifts) are the two means to be adopted; there is no other way. By these two, that Lady, whether she be proud or angry, is sure to have brought under control; I will go now and bring Her before you by such sweet words.
O King! What is the use of my talking too much? I will make Her submissive to you like a slave girl.”
You can just imagine how this actually plays out in practice.
Violently. For the demons.
As it turned out, Devi meant exactly as She had said when She declared that She would destroy them. Funny, that.
Now as it happens, this mytheme of demon lords deciding they really do rather like the appearance and other such qualities of Devi, and would like to possess Her in most unseemly fashion – is quite a recurrent one. It always ends the same way. We could quote quite a number of further exemplars from the scripture, but this piece has already taken far too long in the writing (we apologize wholeheartedly to Devi for being a night late, even!).
However, we shall quote from the … aftermath of another decidedly ill-considered attempted-marriage-proposal from a would-be demon world-emperor:
From the Devi Mahatmya (Pargiter translation of the Markandeya Purana’s presentation of same):
“Seeing his brother Niśumbha slain, who was dear to him as his life, and his army being slaughtered, Śumbha in wrath spoke thus—“O Durgā, who art tainted with the arrogance of strength, bring not thy pride here, thou who, trusting in the strength of the other goddesses, dost fight in exceeding haughtiness!”
The Goddess Spoke:
Alone verily am I in the world here; what other Goddess is there besides Me? See, vile one! that these Goddesses, Who have their divine power from Me, are entering into Me indeed.
Then all those Goddesses, Brahmāṇī and the others, became absorbed into the Goddess’ breasts; Ambikā then remained alone indeed.
The Goddess spoke:
Whereas I existed with My Divine Power in many forms here—that has been drawn in by Me, truly alone I stand now. Be thou steadfast in combat!”
It is intriguing to note that which happens next:
“Thereupon commenced a battle between them both, the goddess and Śumbha, while all the gods and the Asuras looked on —a battle without quarter. With showers of arrows, with sharp weapons and also with pitiless missiles both engaged anew in a combat which set all the world in fear. And the lord of the Daityas broke the heavenly missiles, which Ambikā discharged in hundreds, with weapons that parried them. And the supreme goddess in merest play broke the heavenly missiles that he discharged, with fierce shouts, ejaculations and other sounds.”
We are unsurprised to find that Vocalization is such a prominent combat-form here. Vak, as we have said (in multiple senses), Over All.
Although, of course, more conventional forms of martial engagement then ensue – which we shall not quote here for length.
Our point in quoting that aforementioned excerpt was simple – as She Herself states: the Powers, the Divinities that had taken to the field … well, She Alone outnumbers the foe, precisely because all of these other forms are expressions, emanations of Her. The various Goddess-forms mentioned are, indeed, Shaktis of the male Gods as well in many of these cases. Just as we had stated much earlier.
Yet let us draw things to their close.
Demons both present and represent Lies. In some cases, these are small and subtle – in others, large and pernicious in their profusion. They may be conceptual delusions – like the idea that one can successfully defy the Will of the Gods (and live …), or for that matter, the notion that a woman cannot possibly be a martial threat or a leader, cannot prove and demand respect. Or they may be other kinds of falsehood – the various and manifold guises adopted by Mahishasur in the course of his attempted combat against the Goddess, as one example; or the lies we might tell ourselves (whether under demonic influence, particularly) about who and where we are ‘supposed’ to be.
However, in order to gain meaningful purchase out here in this world of ours – or even ‘in there’ in these heads that sometimes uneasily coexist with same – they must be listened to, believed, given credence, let in and entertained, tolerated. And slowly but surely, upon our beginning to do so, they become … not ‘true’ – not really – but a sort of twisted simulacra of ‘reality’ that parasitically sustains itself upon the energy of our life’s force, and the stolen valour of Truth, that it can pervert away from its true direction. We’re ‘necessary’ to them, in order to grant them the material support, the material expression, to which they are otherwise – eminently righteously – denied !
The Kingdom of Mahishasur – such as it was – was a fundamentally Delusory one. For it was based, at all levels and in all ways, upon a Lie. It was ruled over by a Liar, whose conquest was only made possible via his Lie that he was invulnerable (and the best lies, as they say, are the ones that are only ‘mostly’ true), garbed up also as another Lie as to his purported superior martial vigour. Devi calls him out on all of the above. But I say that it was a Delusory kingdom, because that is just exactly that which it was – the Heavens, Truth, belong to the Gods. He had not set up a meaningful ruination and casting down to Them – he had, at best, temporarily taken up residence somewhere that he decidedly did not belong. The dreams of empire and imperial dominion he harboured were fantasies – they were defined against the truth, and against Cosmic Law, right there from the outset.
What does all of this lead to?
A ‘snapback’ of sorts.
Reality reasserts itself – sorry, I should say:
Reality reasserts *HERself – violently.
जय माता दी ॥
जय जय हे महिषासुरमर्दिनि रम्यकपर्दिनि शैलसुते ॥
ॐ देवी कात्यायन्यै नम ॥