Read the story of how goddess Durga saved the gods from the demon Mahishasur.
By Deepa Agarwal
Rambha, the king of the asuras, took a liking to a lady buffalo and decided to marry her. After sometime, a son was born to them.
He was named Mahishasur, since Mahisha means buffalo and he was the son of a buffalo and an asura. As an asura or demon, he was born with superhuman powers. At that time the devas or gods and the asuras were bitter enemies.
They were always fighting with each other and it was the gods who usually won. When Mahishasur grew older, he didn’t like this one bit. ‘Father, why do we always lose to the gods? They have begun to think they are too great,’ he would say to Rambha. ‘We have to change this around. If only I could grow so strong that even these snooty gods couldn’t touch me. If only I could become the most powerful being in all creation!’
‘You have my blessings, son,’ said his father. ‘Maybe one day you shall.’
And so, day and night, all that Mahishasur could think of was about how to become more powerful than the gods.
Finally he got an idea.
‘Tapasya!’ he cried. ‘Why didn’t I think of it earlier? Everyone knows that strict fasting and prayer can make a person very strong.’
Mahishasur immediately began a long penance. He stopped eating and began to pray to Brahma, the creator, standing on one foot under a tree. Many years passed and Mahishasur continued to stand there, praying. And the longer he stood, the more strength he gained. Soon the time came when the power he had built up through his penance spread through all the three worlds. Even Brahma the creator felt its presence.
‘Mahishasur has been praying to me with great devotion for such a long time,’ Brahma said to himself. ‘He deserves to be rewarded.’
He set off for the place where the asura was fasting. Mahishasur sensed his presence and opened his eyes. When he saw Brahma standing there, he fell at his feet and cried, ‘Lord, you have honoured me greatly by coming here. It means you have recognised my devotion and answered my prayers.’
Brahma raised his hand in blessing. ‘I am, indeed, very impressed by your long and devoted tapasya. You have fasted for years and prayed to me. I want to grant you a boon. Ask for anything that you desire.’
Mahishasur’s heart leapt with joy. ‘Lord, I thank you for your kindness,’ he replied at once. ‘All I ask is that I should become immortal.’
Brahma smiled and shook his head. ‘My son, what you ask for is not possible,’ he said gently. ‘Every creature that is born has to die. Think of something else. I will be happy to grant you a boon.’
Mahishasur was disappointed at first, but he thought quickly. ‘There has to be a way,’ he said to himself. ‘Maybe I can ask for a boon that will make me as good as immortal.’ After sometime, he asked Brahma, ‘Lord, if you cannot make me immortal, can you grant me the boon that I cannot be killed by either a man or a god? If I have to die, it should only be at the hands of a woman.’
Being a gigantic demon, he was confident that no woman would be strong enough to kill him. ‘It shall be as you ask,’ Brahma said. ‘You will meet your death only at the hands of a woman.’
Mahishasur folded his hands and bowed low before Brahma. ‘I thank you for this great boon, Lord,’ he said.
The moment Brahma departed, Mahishasur bellowed with triumph and waved his trident in the air. ‘Now I will show these weakling gods who the true ruler of the three worlds is!’ he yelled. ‘No one can harm even a hair on my head, ha-ha!’
His terrible laughter rang through the earth. And Mahishasur lost no time in unleashing a reign of terror. He gathered a huge army of fellow asuras and began to torment the inhabitants of the earth. They beat up travellers and robbed them of their belongings.
They broke into people’s houses and took what they wanted. If people fought back or tried to stop them, they killed them without a second thought. Soon, all the inhabitants of the earth were living in fear of the demons.
The news spread everywhere that Mahishasur was invincible and no one could harm him.
After suppressing all the mortals, Mahishasur decided to challenge the gods. He called all his generals for a meeting. ‘The gods have always tried to keep us down,’ he thundered. ‘But it’s a different story now. I have Brahma’s boon. No man or god can harm me.’
‘Get ready for a battle, friends. Tomorrow we will attack Amravati, Indra’s capital,’ he bellowed.
True to his command, the army of asuras stormed Amravati, confident that they would win. The gods had heard about the coming attack and were quite worried. They consulted Brahma.
‘There is little I can do,’ he said gravely. ‘I was the one who granted the boon of invincibility to Mahishasur. If only I had guessed his intentions!’ All the same, he came to the battlefield along with Vishnu and Shiva. Mahishasur had taken the form of a huge buffalo and was leading the demons.
And to their horror, all the divine weapons of the gods proved useless before his strength. Vishnu hit him with his powerful mace. The demon was stunned but rose again, taking the form of a lion. Then Vishnu threw his chakra to cut off his head but it bounced back, unable to make even a slight cut on him. In revenge, Mahishasur butted the god and knocked Vishnu down.
As a last resort, Indra hurled his thunderbolt vajra at the demon. But he was shocked to see that Mahishasur still stood there, laughing! Indra’s mighty thunderbolt passed over him like a gentle breeze. Mahishasur now took the form of a giant buffalo again and redoubled his attack.
The gods began to flee in despair now.
With shouts and whoops of delight, the asura army drove the gods out of heaven. They occupied Indra’s palace and poured into the streets of Amravati, singing their frightful songs of victory.
‘Now I am lord of the three worlds!’ Mahishasur yelled as he sat down on Indra’s throne.
There was no one left to check Mahishasur’s oppression now. He did what he wanted and the people of the earth suffered terribly.
The gods were in a pathetic state. For years they wandered over fields and mountains.
Then, tired of being in exile, they decided to consult the trinity, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma to come up with a way to destroy the demon so they could return to heaven.
Vishnu said, ‘Not a single woman living in all three worlds is strong enough to destroy this evil creature. Let us use our combined powers to create one.’
The desperate gods closed their eyes and began to concentrate all their thoughts on creating this invincible woman. Their divine powers and deep concentration worked, and soon a fiery pillar of light appeared in the sky. It was so bright that even the gods found it impossible to look at it. It was a mass of pure energy produced from their combined power.
From it they created a goddess who would be strong enough to vanquish Mahishasur.
Shiva created her face, Vishnu gave her arms, and Brahma provided her with legs. The god of the oceans of milk gave her a red sari and a diamond necklace.
Vishwakarma presented her with earrings, bracelets and other jewellery he had made himself. Thus all the gods presented her with various ornaments.
Once she was beautifully dressed, Vishnu said, ‘Let us arm her with our special strengths along with invincible weapons.’ He began by handing her a chakra like his own. Shiva gave her a trident and Brahma a kamandal full of the holy Ganga water.
Varun gave her a gift of ever-blooming lotus flowers and a mighty conch. Agni presented her with the sadagni—a weapon that could kill thousands. Vayu provided her with a bow and a quiver holding an endless supply of arrows. Indra gave her a thunderbolt similar to his own. Vishwakarma armed her with an axe, Yama with a staff and Kuber gave her a cup of wine. Surya presented her with his blinding rays. Tvashta gave her the kaumodoki, the divine mace.
In this way, all the gods gifted her different weapons.
Finally, Himalaya, the god of the mountains, gave her a tiger to ride on and she was named Mahadevi or Durga.
With their blessings, Durga mounted the tiger and set out to destroy Mahishasur.
As she approached Amravati, she let out a mighty roar that shook the mountains and created huge waves in the seas. Mahishasur asked his soldiers to find out what was happening.
When he heard that a woman was challenging him, he laughed and said, ‘Tell her that I will be happy to marry her.’
When his messengers brought the proposal, the goddess replied, ‘Tell your king that I am no ordinary woman who would be eager to marry him. I am Mahadevi and my husband is Mahadeva. I have come to ask him to leave Amravati and return to his place below the world. If he doesn’t go, I will destroy him!’
When he heard this reply, Mahishasur flew into a rage. His leading warriors said arrogantly, ‘Your Majesty, we will go and set this silly woman right. She is not worth your attention.’
The asuras went out to fight with Mahadevi. To their astonishment and horror, one after the other the boastful warriors were finished off.
The demon king got the news and became even more furious. ‘Cowards and weaklings! They could not stand up to a mere woman. I will settle this wretched female once and for all!’ he thundered.
Cunningly, he assumed the form of a handsome man to woo Mahadevi.
‘Lovely lady, why do you want to fight like a rough man? Why not marry me, the king of heaven?’ he said in the sweetest tones possible. ‘Throw these weapons aside and come and live like a queen.’
When she rejected him firmly, Mahishasur attacked the goddess along with an army of asuras. But Durga immediately created a huge troop of soldiers from her breath to fight back. Mahishasur tried all the tricks he knew. He kept changing shape to confuse the goddess. From a man he became a lion, then an elephant. But each time, Mahadevi wounded him severely with her weapons.
The battle raged for nine days. Finally the goddess killed the asura, who had taken the form of a huge buffalo again. She beheaded him with the chakra which Vishnu had given her.
Thus she freed the world from Mahishasur’s tyranny. Indra and the other gods returned to the heavens again, and all was well. Since then, Durga is worshipped during the Navratras and is addressed as Mahishasur Mardini.
(Excerpted with permission from the Scholastic Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Retold by Deepa Agarwal, illustrated by Rayika Sen, published by Scholastic India.)
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines