Sucker Punch: The Path of the Goddess (II)

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Salutations to She who is terrible, to She who is eternal.
Salutations to Gauri, the supporter of the universe.
Salutations always to She who is the form of the moon
and moonlight and happiness itself.
Salutations to the consort of Shiva who is herself the
good fortune as well as misfortune of kings.

..

Sucker Punch

Watching a film about scantily clad women fighting demons and monsters might feel a little creepy, as if one had stepped into the fantasy of a pimple-faced boy. And yet, this most unlikely of scenarios has become a staple, as more and more movie screens are filled with beasts and villains being slain by female warriors who don’t mind showing a little skin.

Strange as it may seem, this trend continues an ancient tradition where women – even girls – are praised for their fortitude in battling the frightening and absurd. For example, the Devi Mahatyam (“Glory of the Goddess”), one of the central texts of the Shakta tradition, involves three sets of battles in which the Goddess fights demons from the underworld.

The names of the Goddess reflect a mix violence and sex that seems more at home in comic books than a time-honored spiritual tradition. On the one hand, the Goddess’ names celebrate Her ferociousness: Black Night of Destruction, She Who Creates Fear and Awe, She Who Loves to Drink Blood, She Who Is the Slayer of Demons, She Who Has a Terrible Roar, She Who Destroys Belief, and She Who Destroys Passion. On the other hand, Her names also emphasize Her sensuality: She Who Is Intoxicated with Delight, She Who Enjoys Ecstatic Oneness with the One Who Sees, She Who Overflows with Pleasure, She Whose Eyes are Full of Desire, and She Who Is Absorbed by Lingam and Yoni.

But more important than this, the Goddess is celebrated as the one who brings enlightenment to the devoted. In this quite different vein, she is known as: She Who Removes the Darkness of Mind, She Who Lives between Two Eyes, She Who Gives Ultimate Wisdom, She Who Bestows Moksha, She Who Is the Mother of the World, and She Who Carries Across the Ocean of Samsara.

With this intriguing mix of traits, it might be tempting to pick and choose, hoping for a personal goddess who’s easier to worship and celebrate. But if the sacred texts are to be believed, each of these aspects are necessary since, in the end, it’s the combination of Her Wrath and Her Grace that paves the way to Liberation and Everlasting Bliss.

Pralaya

Meditation of Mahakali
I resort to Mahakali, who has ten faces, ten legs, and holds in her hands
the sword, disc, mace, arrows, bow, club, spear, missile, human head and conch,
who is three-eyed, adorned with ornaments on all her limbs, and luminous
like a blue jewel and whom Brahma extolled in order to destroy Madhu and
Kaitabha, when VIshnu was in [mystic] sleep.

Unlike Sucker Punch, The Devi Mahatyam does not open with a recalled memory or the confines of an asylum. Instead, it begins during Pralaya, the quiet hush between cycles of re-creation when Vishnu reclines on a coiled serpent as Lakshmi massages his feet and Brahma sits on the lotus that’s grown from his navel. Everything else is stilled and quiet: Vishnu (as Narayana) is absorbed in his yogic slumber, caught up in the intensity of Cosmic Union.

A puzzled Brahma looks around at the causal waters, unsure how his re-creation should proceed. In the midst of his indecision, two demons (asuras) emerge from the wax in Vishnu’s ear and harass Brahma, threatening to kill him. Since Vishnu is absorbed in yogic sleep, Brahma turns to the Goddess instead, singing Her praises and pleading for Her help, asking her to bewitch the demons and arouse Vishnu so he can battle the demons.

Being moved by his request, the Goddess withdraws herself from Vishnu’s eyes, mouth, nostrils, arms, heart and breast, whereupon he awakes from his cosmic slumber. Thus awakened, he sees the demons and, using his arms, begins a battle amid the causal ocean that lasts for five thousand years. Bewitched, the demons think they’ve bested Vishnu and offer him a boon. Vishnu says they must agree to be slain by him, to which they say, as long as it’s not on a spot that’s touched by water. Whereupon Vishnu took the demons upon his loins and, using his discus, cuts off their heads.

Madhu and Kaitabh are the names of the two demons, sometimes translated as “too much” and “too little.” More literally, their names are closer to “honey” and “hard” which some interpret as the attachment to pleasure (honey) and attachment to suffering in the name of God (hard). Together they form a polarity, which might be why they form a pair, like two magnets held together by inverted force.

These demons threatened the cycle re-creation. In some versions of this story, they even stole the vedas, the record of the universe and its creation. Moved by this plight, the Goddess withdraws from Vishnu, thereby helping him to Awaken and do battle. By bewitching the demons, She paved the way for the most unexpected use of Vishnu’s loins, the staging area for killing Honey and Hard, bringing their polarity to an end.

The Birth of Durga

Meditation of Mahalakshmi
I resort to Mahalakshmi, the destroyer of Mahishasura, who is seated on a lotus,
is of the complexion of coral, and who holds in her hands a rosary, axe, mace,
arrow, thunderbolt, lotus, bow, pitcher, rod, sakti, sword, shielf, conch, bell,
wine-cup, trident, noose and ths discus Sudarsana (“divine vision”).

After this, Durga is born while She’s surrounded by men. The assembly consists of the Gods, from Brahma on one end to Shiva on the other. Each God contributes his strength in her creation, symbolized by the weapons which Durga carries: Shiva’s trident (representing balance), Vishnu’s discus (power over thought), the conch of Varuna the God of Waters (the power of sound), and a shield and sword from Kala, the Lord of Time. Brahma presented Durga with a water pot and the Vedas (a record of creation), while Kubera, the Lord of Wealth, gave her a cup always full of wine. The mountain, Himavat, provided the lion which would become her vehicle, a signal of her mastery over anger and hostility, the symbol of a wrath Divine.

The extended arms of the Gods are not merely signs of their generosity. They’re also extended in supplication. They’ve been battling the demon Mahishasura (the Great Ego) for one hundred years. In fact, the demon has displaced them, making their kingdoms his own; he’s also supplanted Indra, the Lord of Devas, making himself the king of heaven. Having displaced the Gods, so too has their relationship to the elements and the senses (indriyas) been subverted. The jurisdiction of Surya (sun), Vayu (air), Agni (fire), Varuna (the oceans), Yama (death), Chandra (moon), and all the other gods, has been overtaken by Mahishasura, the Great Ego, instead.

In desperation, the gods went to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva who swelled with anger and rage. An intense light emerged from them like a blazing mountain which then coalesced into a female form: from Shiva’s light came her face, from Vishnu’s light came her arms, from Chandra’s light came her breasts, from Indra’s light came her waist, from Varuna’s light came her legs and thighs, and from Earth came her hips. From Brahma’s light came her feet, from Agni’s light came her three eyes, and from Vayu’s light came her ears.

With the powers of the Gods at her disposal, She roared with laughter. The entire sky was filled. All the worlds shook and the seas trembled, while the Gods exclaimed in joy and the sages bowed in devotion, celebrating Her glorious birth.

Durga Slays Mahishasura 1 Durga Slays Mahishasura 2

Devi, you are the Intellect by which the essence of all scriptures is comprehended.
You are Durga, the boat that takes man across
the difficult ocean of worldly existence, devoid of attachments.
You are Shri who has invariably taken her abode in the heart of Vishnu.
You are indeed Gauri who has established herself with Shiva.

When the demon Mahishasura (Great Ego) heard the commotion and turned to look, he saw the Goddess bend the earth with each footstep, scrape the sky with her crown, and shake the netherworlds with the vibrations of her bow. Recognizing the threat she posed, he mobilized his armies against her, sending his generals and soldiers into battle. She was surrounded by a multitude of asuras, their beasts, horses, elephants and chariots. Some fought Her using iron maces and javelins, others with spears and clubs, still others with swords, axes and nooses.

She defeated these armies handily. The blood from the dead flowed like rivers. Seeing this, Mahishasura challenged the Goddess directly, showering her with a storm of arrows. But each of these and others She countered easily. Which is when Mahishasura took on his buffalo form, bellowing loudly, pounding the earth in his rage and tossing large mountains with his horns. The earth disintegrated from the force of his wheeling and the sea swelled from the lashing of his tail; his swaying horns pierced the clouds which crumbled in fragments, and the mountains, cast about by his breath, came falling from the sky.

Witnessing his rage, the Goddess summoned her Divine Wrath in order to slay him. She flung a noose around his neck, binding the demon to her. He then changed his form repeatedly – at first, a lion, then an elephant, and then a buffalo again – intoxicated by his own strength, unwilling to concede defeat. But the Goddess laughed at his struggle. With her face reddened in intoxication by the divine drink, She said: “Roar, roar, O Fool, while I drink this wine. When you will be slain by me, the devas will soon roar in this very place.”

She then jumped upon the buffalo demon, pressed her foot on his neck and pierced him with her spear. Overcome, the demon emerged from the buffalo’s neck, revealing his true form. The Goddess then cut off his head with her sword, killing the Great Ego that dared to claim the province of the Gods as his own. When the demon fell, the host of devas sang their praises with their necks and shoulders bowed.

Two Water Buffalos

Who was Mahishasura, this buffalo demon?

According to legend, there were once two demon brothers, Rambha and Karambha, sons of Danu, the primeval waters. Each brother performed penances to gain powers from the Gods: Rambha stood amid the five fires in order to appease Agni; Karambha stood neck deep in water to appease Varuna. The Lord of Devas, Indra, was alarmed by this and took the form of a crocodile (Makara) who dragged Karambha away by the legs and killed him.

The fiery Rambha was so furious at the loss of his watery brother that he threatened to cut off his own head. But Agni intervened, saying that suicide was a sin more serious than murder. So Agni offered Rambha a boon. Rambha asked for a son more brilliant than fire, and able to conquer the three worlds; he should be immune from attacks by devas or asuras; he should be as mighty as the wind, handsome, and an expert archer. Agni said that the woman who wins his heart would bear him such a son.

One day, while roaming the garden of nature spirits, Rambha fell in love with a water buffalo. She was smitten with him too. In order to stay with her, he took the form of a buffalo, and they mated. Not long afterwards, another buffalo came along who was also attracted to her. And so, like animals often do, the two males fought for her affection. After a long battle, Rambha was killed, his boon of protection ineffective against an animal; the other male was then killed by Rambha’s army as payment for taking their leader’s life.

Overcome by grief and still pregnant with Rambha’s child, the female buffalo threw herself upon his funeral pyre. And from the fire’s blazing flames, the buffalo demon Mahishasura was born: the progeny of Rambha who, from the anger at losing his watery brother, gained a boon from the God of Fire who said he would beget a indestructible son with the woman who stole his heart.

As for the fiery Rambha, he would later reincarnate as Raktabija (the seed of reddening), perhaps because there was more karma for him to burn.

Sending Sumbha's Messenger Away

Salutation to She who is terrible, to She who is eternal.
Salutations always to Durga, who takes one across in difficulties,
who is essence, who is the authority of everything; who is knowledge
of discrimination and who is blue-black and smoke-like in complexion.
Salutations again and again to the Devi who in all beings is called Vishnumaya.

The last of the three battles is the most difficult, in large part because it’s the most drawn out and subtle. As before, the reign of the gods had been abrogated by a pair of demons, in this case, two brothers called Sumbha and Nisumbha. They send various messengers and stand-ins to fight on their behalf. At first, it’s just a messenger who relays the demons’ invitation to the Goddess to live with them. After being rebuffed, they send various generals and armies until, finally, out of frustration, they fight the Goddess themselves.

After being defeated by the Sumbha and Nisumbha, the Gods went to the Goddess, exalting Her and seeking Her help. Parvati passed by on her way to bathe in the Ganges (which, in religious iconography, flows from Shiva’s head). Puzzled by the commotion, Parvati asks the Gods who they’re praising. Suddenly, a beautiful goddess emerges from her body, answering her own question: “This hymn is addressed to me.” Because she emerged from the Goddess’ body or sheath (kosha), She came to be known as Kaushiki.

Two sentinels caught sight of the Goddess upon the mountains and quickly returned to Sumbha and Nisumbha and spoke breathlessly of their divine vision: Such a rare beauty you must possess; She’d make the perfect addition to the treasures you’ve stolen from the heavens. Sumbha then sent his sweet-talking messenger Sugriva to woo the Goddess, instructing him to speak of their wondrous achievements and their accumulation of wealth.

The Goddess said She couldn’t accept Sumbha’s invitation. Long ago, she made a promise to herself that she’d only marry the one who could match her strength, tame her pride, and defeat her in battle. If Sumbha wished to have Her, either he or his brother would have to come face Her directly and be prepared to fight.

Battling Dhumralochana and His Forces

Meditation of Mahasarasvati
I meditate on the incomparable Mahasarasvati who holds in her lotus-like hands
a bell, trident, plough, conch, mace, discus, bow and arrow;
who is the effulgent-like destroyer of Sambha and other asuras,
who issued forth from Parvati’s body,
and is the substratum of the three worlds.

Enraged, Sumbha called upon his chieftain called Dhumralocana (“obscured vision”) and instructed him to bring that shrew to him immediately. If anyone else stands in Her defense, he should not hesitate to slay them as well.

Dhumralocana offered the Goddess the chance to come peacefully without the use of force, otherwise he’d have to become violent. So, when the Goddess refused the invitation, Dhumralocana rushed at her, intending to strike. But She easily reduced him to ashes by heaving the sound “ham” (I am).

The army of asuras became enraged at this and began showering the Goddess with a torrent of arrows, javelins, and axes. The lion upon which the Goddess sat pounced into action with a mighty roar. With its claws, it tore out hearts; it severed heads with a swipe of its paw. It slaughtered countless demons with its mouth, and trampled others to death with its feet. Reveling in this decapitation and dismemberment, the lion shook its mane and hungrily drank the rivers of blood that began to flow.

In a short moment, the entire army of Dhumralocana was destroyed: first, by the utterance of a sacred mantra, and then by the vehicle of the Goddess representing her Divine Wrath.

Kali Kills Chanda and Munda

When satisfied, you destroy all illness
but when wrathful you frustrate all longed-for desires.
No calamity befalls men who have sought you.
Verily, those who have sought you become a refuge of others.

Infuriated and with trembling lip, Sumbha summons Chanda and Munda, another demon-pair. Some say they represent passion and anger, while others say they stand for Pravritti and Nivritti: passionate activity vs. passive withdrawal from the world. Sumbha tells them to retrieve the Goddess, even if it means dragging Her by the hair. If She refuses to come, let the asura armies strike Her with their weapons and kill her lion.

Chanda and Munda, along with their armies, find the Goddess in the mountains smiling peacefully, seated upon her lion. They rush at her, hoping to make an easy capture. Angered by their audacity, the face of the Goddess became fierce and out of her forehead emerges the terrible Kali, armed with a sword and noose. Frightening in appearance and clad in a tiger skin, she carries a skull-topped staff. Her body is emaciated as if starved of food and water. Her mouth gapes widely with her tongue hanging out, her eyes are red and sunken, and her thundering roar fills the sky.

Immediately, she pounces upon the asura army, devouring one soldier after another. She snatches their elephants and pops them in her mouth; so too does she swallow their attendants, warriors and bells. She took the demon cavalry into her mouth as well – horses and chariots and drivers – grinding them with her teeth. Into her mouth went all weapons and missiles, crunching them as if they were a tasty treat. In this way, the entire asura army was destroyed, some killed by her word, some beaten by her staff, others being ground to tiny bits by her teeth.

Chanda and Munda, seeing their army defeated, rushed at Kali with their weapons, but she just howled with delight, absorbing their missiles into her mouth as if they were disappearing into a misty cloud. Mounting her lion, she lunged toward the demons and cut off their heads with her sword.

Holding their heads as trophies, she approached the Goddess Kaushiki with laughter saying, Here are the heads of Chanda and Munda, two animal offerings in this sacrifice of battle. As for the demon brothers who sent them, you shall slay them yourself.

This was how the force of the brothers Chanda and Munda were defeated. In anger, She created Kali, who emerged from the Goddess’ brow. And when the demon-pair attacked, Kali swallowed them and their armies, using her teeth to grind them to bits.

The Seven Matrikas Join the Battle

All lords are your aspects, O Devi;
so are all women in the world endowed with various attributes.
You have multiplied your form into many in order to defeat the demons.
Who else can do that work?

Overcome by anger, Sumbha amassed the entirety of his forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands, directing all eight asura families to fight the Goddess. When they approached the Goddess, Kali and the lion, they surrounded them on all four sides closing off any means of escape, giddy at the prospect of slaughter.

At that moment, the Goddess filled the space between earth and sky with the twang of her bow-string, and the lion let out a mighty roar. The Goddess magnified this sound with the clanging of the bell. Then Kali opened her mouth wide and filled the four corners with the sound “ham,” overwhelming the noise of the lion, the bow-string, and the bell.

At that moment, seven Shaktis (or Matrikas) emerged from the bodies of the devas, each endowed with tremendous vigor and strength, each carrying the weapons and vehicles of the god from whom they emerged. For example, Maheswari emerged sitting on a bull with a trident, wearing bracelets of great snakes and adorned by a crescent moon; the Shakti of Vishnu (Vaisnavi) came seated upon Garuda, a magnificent eagle, holding a conch, club, bow, and sword. And from Herself, the Goddess issued Chandika (the fierce one), yelling like a hundred jackals.

She then asked Shiva to be Her ambassador and take Her message to the demons: Relinquish the three worlds and let the devas return to their rightful place. If you wish to live, I’ll allow you to return to the netherworld. But if your pride makes you anxious for battle, let my jackals feast on your rotten flesh. (In asking Shiva to act on Her behalf, the Goddess came to be known as Shivaduti, one who has Shiva as her messenger.)

Upon hearing Devi’s message, the eight armies pounced upon Her with a shower of arrows, javelins and spears. But neither these nor the soldiers were a match for the Goddess and her Shaktis, each of them easily disposing of the asura armies. Kali pierced demons with her spear and crushed them with her skull-topped staff. The wrathful Maheswari slew them with her trident and Vaisnavi with her discus. Demoralized by the noisy laughter of the Goddess, the demon forces fell to the ground after which She devoured them all. Those that remained took to their heels and fled.

In this way were the eight armies of the asuras defeated: the seven Shaktis embodying the power of the Gods plus the goddess Chandika whom the Goddess produced out of Herself.

Kaushiki and Kali Battle Raktabija

Who is there except you in the sciences,
in the scriptures, and in the Vedas
that light the lamp of discernment?
Still you cause this universe to whirl about again and again
within the dense darkness of the depths of attachment.

Seeing the asura armies so easily beaten, the reincarnation of the buffalo demon Mahishasura strides onto the battlefield. His name is now Raktabija (Rakta: blood, reddened, passion; Bija: seed, source). He’s a formidable opponent, particularly since he’s received a boon that makes him virtually indestructible: whenever a drop of his blood falls to the ground, another demon of equal stature and capacity is created, as if his blood contained an unending flame, unable to be extinguished but also unable to die.

Thus, when the Shakti of Indra, Indrani, struck him with a thunderbolt producing a gush of blood spilling to the ground, a fresh set of combatants arose. For each drop of blood that fell, another soldier came into being, with the same courage, strength, and determination. Each of these then rose to join the battle, each more dreadful than the first, each wielding a weapon wielded against the Goddess in her fight.

When Raktabija’s head was struck by another thunderbolt, his blood flowed once again, producing thousands of new soldiers to join the fight. When Vaisnavi struck him with her discus, the world was filled by a new multitude. The same occurred regardless of which Shakti or weapon attacked. With each wound – and each drop of blood – the forces of Raktabija multiplied. The Gods were beginning to get alarmed.

But Kaushiki only laughed and turned to Kali saying, Go about the battlefield and devour all the demons that have already sprung up. Open your mouth wide and take in the blood and creatures produced by each of my blows; do not let the blood touch the ground. In doing so, we shall empty the demon so that no others shall be born.

So, Kali opened her mouth wide and drank Raktabija’s blood and devoured the asuras that had sprung up from the blood-soaked ground. Whenever blood flowed from a newly created wound, she swallowed the blood with ease, preventing it from touching the ground. Kaushiki continued her attack on the demon, striking him with all the weapons at her disposal, including her dart, thunderbolt, arrows, swords and spears. Throughout the fierce confrontation, Kali continued to drink.

When the demon was finally sapped of all his reddened energy – drained of all seeds of passion and anger – he finally collapsed to the ground and died. Such was the Goddess’ strategy in ensuring his defeat.

Battling the Forces of Sumbha and Nisumbha

Where Rakshasas and snakes of virulent poison are,
where foes and hosts of robbers exist,
where forest conflagrations occur,
there in the mid-sea, you stand and save the world.

No longer able to hide behind their generals, the demon brothers Sumbha and Nisumbha take to the battlefield, outraged that their armies have been thwarted. The demon brothers are now forced to show themselves, the unseen directors behind the fighting that came before. Their names are translated to mean Asmita (I-am-ness) and Mamattva (Mine-ness) – the most subtle aspects of identity, as well as its core – the (false) ego that establishes itself through identification, perhaps even claiming to be God, and the sense of ownership that accompanies those (false) identities. Because the two demons are so close, as soon as one brother falls in battle, the other takes his place – like a seesaw or whack-a-mole – alternating the face shown to the Goddess in the midst of their furious fight.

Seeing Sumbha approaching with his mace, the Goddess blew her conch and twanged her bow making an unbearable noise that filled the air. To this, she added the ringing of her bell which destroyed the strength of an entire asura army. The lion’s roars pervaded the sky, making the elephants give up their violent approach. Kali sprung up into the sky and, upon her descent, clapped her hands on the earth, drowning out all other sounds. Kaushiki let out an ominous peal of laughter.

The frightful sounds only served to trigger Sumbha’s most violent rage. As he approached, the Goddess stabbed him with her trident, whereupon he fainted and fell to the ground. Immediately, his brother Nisumbha regained consciousness and rejoined the battle, this time with a thousand arms. But none of his weapons found their target. The Goddess took a dart and pierced him in the heart. Another person emerged from this wound, pleading for Her to stop. The Goddess laughed loudly, took out her sword and severed his head whereupon Nisumbha’s body went limp and collapsed to the ground, dead.

The lion then devoured the bodies of the demons it had crushed with its teeth, while Kali and Kaushiki devoured the others. The Seven Matrikas felled other asura soldiers, like Maheswari with her trident, Kaumari (the Shakti of Skanda) with her spear, the discus of Vaisnavi, and the thunderbolt of Indrani – like a process of renovation and restoration – cleaning up the aftermath of this stage of their bloody war.

The Final Battle

You are the power of Vishnu, and have endless valour.
You are the primeval maya, which is the source of the universe;
by you all this universe has been thrown into illusion.
O Devi, if you become gracious,
you become the cause of final emancipation in this world.

In the end, as it always must, the final battle boiled down to two. In this case: the Goddess and Sumbha, the struggle between the false ego and the Goddess fighting on behalf of the Divine.

Sumbha, seeing the lifeless body of his brother Nisumbha, shouted at the Goddess, berating Her angrily: O Durga, who are puffed up with pride, though you are exceedingly haughty, you fight by relying upon the strength of others. The Goddess replied: I am all alone in the world here. O vile one, these Goddesses are but my own powers projected by myself. Whereupon, She absorbed Indrani, Vaisnavi, Maheswari, Indrani and all the other Shaktis back into her Self.

The dreadful battle between Sumbha and the Goddess finally began. The ferocity of their combat frightened all the worlds. When each of Sumbha’s attempts to wound the Goddess were deflected, the demon pounded his fist on her heart after which She used her palm to strike his chest. He fell to the ground but immediately rose up again, jumping into the sky where their fighting continued. Their ethereal battle seemed to last forever, until the Goddess managed to whirl him around and fling him back to the ground.

Sumbha raised his fist and rushed toward to Goddess with the intent to kill. Seeing his approach, the Goddess pierced his chest with a dart and threw him down to the earth again. The dart had hit its target and its force left him crumbling to the ground, shaking the entire earth with its seas, islands and mountains. And when the life left his body, the universe became overjoyed, as the skies began to clear.

The ugly clouds dissipated and the rivers no longer overflowed. The minds of the devas became elated, and the celestial musicians began to sing. Favorable winds began to blow, the sacred fires once again burned peacefully. The sun turned brilliant, and the ferocious sounds of battle subsided to the whisper of tranquility.

Churning of the Ocean

In light of Her victory, it’s appropriate to ask: who were these asuras (demons) that the Goddess defeated?

One place to look is back at the beginning – before Pralaya – to the birth of Lakshmi from the churning of the ocean. At Vishnu’s urging, an alliance was formed between devas and asuras to divine the cosmic waters for the fourteen treasures contained within. They used Shesha (the king of serpents) and Mount Meru (the center of the universe and spine). The devas lined up on one side and the asuras on the other, pulling Shesha in a back-and-forth motion like a giant tug-of-war. This is when the Goddess Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort, was born.

There were other treasures that came from the Ocean, including the the wish-fulfilling cow (Kamadhenu), apsaras (divine nymphs), the physician to the Gods (Dhanvantari), the Tree of Life (Parijat), the sacred conch (Shankha), Chandra the moon (worn by Shiva), and the most valuable jewel in the world, Kaustubha (consciousness; worn by Vishnu). All of these went to the Devas.

Not all of the treasures were so auspicious. The churning of the primal waters also produced the Goddess of Alcohol (Varuni), the Goddess of Misfortune (Jyestha, sister and shadow of Lakshmi), and Halahala, “the most vicious and venomous poison of the universe.” Each of these went to the asuras. But because the poison was so potent, it affected both sides, threatening to kill devas and asuras, which is when Shiva’s assistance was sought. In order to protect the world, he swallowed the poison (which is how his throat became blue). Were it not for Parvati who stopped the poison at his throat, he too would have surely died.

While it would be easy to equate the devas and asuras with good and evil, both were needed for churning the ocean. Their alliance bequeathed the buried treasures to the world. The asuras might be frightening or dangerous, but they’re vitally important in other ways as well. For example, it’s said that the poison (Halahala) must first be digested before the Nectar of the Gods (Amrit) can be enjoyed. It’s also said that the Goddess of Alcohol (Varuni) is actually the nectar of immortality in disguise, which might be why she’s sometimes called the agent of transcendent wisdom, aka Vajrayogini, also known as Sky Dancer or She Who Moves in Space.

If this is true, then the Churning of the Ocean describes the birth of the cosmos or the cosmic body, in which all parts have a role to play. The asuras merely possess the poisons that must be digested (swallowed) before being transformed into something else. The poisons are treasures that are unprocessed, toxic because their riches have yet to be properly tapped. The only problem is when asuras take themselves to be gods, believing the Goddess is theirs to possess, when they should actually surrender to Her, instead.

Demon Army

Jungians and other depth psychologists would likely say that these demons represent the shadow side of the personality, aspects of the self that have been denied and repressed. They might not be wrong, particularly since the shadow can so easily turn ego into a robot, blindly following its orders, even at great cost to others and itself. It might not understand the forces that compel its behavior, knowing only an insatiable drive for more. Anything and anyone will be attacked, driven by an imperative whose source is unknown.

But the fact that some of the Goddess’ fiercest battles involve pairs of demons suggests there’s more going on than what’s been repressed or unleashed. Among the Goddess’ enemies were inseparable brothers, their attachment as evident on the battlefield as in their names. In each pair was a polarity, a coupling of extremes – such as sweet and hard – an illustration of how and why opposites so often attract: a deficiency in one is compensated by the other; an excess tempered by the other’s lack. The Goddess attacks these mutual dependencies, her battle as much about balancing extremes – resolving a polarity – as it is about an asura and his inseparable brother.

It could be also said that the asuras harbor the unfinished business that follows a soul from one life to the next, particularly the portion of karma that’s ready to be experienced, of which there are three kinds: iccha karma (actions that were personally desired), pareccha karma (actions that were desired by others), and aniccha karma (actions that just happened, independent of any desire). When these actions follow the soul, they manifest as unconscious Impressions or Imprints (samskaras). They may even take the form of a demonic transference, an unwanted haunting or compulsion that persists until it’s business is complete, until its poison is properly digested and its treasure is revealed.

Over time, the fighting shifts terrain from gross to subtle, from Vishnu’s loins amid the causal ocean to the final battle in the sky. The nature of the demons shifts as well, from the trance of cosmic union (Madhu and Kaitabh) to the seed of passion (Raktabija) to the core polarity of the false self (Sumbha and Nisumbha). In this way, the fighting tracks the process of unveiling where obstacles and attachments are slowly removed. In the end, only the Goddess in her wondrous singularity is left, unequalled and victorious, standing on her own.

(The fact that Durga emerges from the Gods – as do the Seven Shaktis or Matrikas – does not in any way modify or diminish Her supremacy. A central tenet of Shakta philosophy is that Shakti is the cosmic force of the Goddess that suffuses the universe and empowers the Gods themselves. Which is why Her final battle with Sumbha is so important, demonstrating that the powers of the Gods are merely projections of Herself.)

Suratha and Samadhi Meeting at the Hermitage

This series of battles, the core of the Devi Mahatmyam, is told as a story to two men who find themselves in a forest, on the margins of civilized society and the edge of mind. The story is narrated to them by a sage, an ascetic they found in the forest and to whom they had turned for guidance since both were struggling to come to terms with unbearable loss. It’s as if, hidden like a secret code, there was an object lesson for them, something about the way the Goddess battled demons and the way they were put to rest.

The first man was King Suratha (“good chariot”). He’d lost his kingdom and couldn’t help ruminating about it, endlessly creating scenarios about his dethronement, reliving his anger after being betrayed. In the midst of his brooding, he saw a merchant called Samadhi (“concentration”), stricken with grief. When the King asked what happened, the merchant said he was cast out by his wife and family. Bereft without them, he worried about their well-being even as he struggled to understand, forced to live without news of the ones he loved. When the king asked why he still cared for them, the merchant could only shrug. All he knew was the heavy heart he carried and the sighs of dejection that refused to dissipate.

Together, they approached the Sage Medhas (“buddhi”) and asked for guidance: the King, unable to overcome the loss of his kingdom, was unable to control his mind; the merchant remained attached to the people who evicted him from his home. “How does this happen, then, sir, that though we are aware of it, this delusion continues? This delusion besets me [the King] as well as [the merchant], blinded as we are in respect of discrimination.” The sage replied:

Men are hurled into the whirlwind of attachment, the pit of delusion, through the power of Mahamaya (the Great Illusion), who makes the existence of the world possible. Marvel not at this. This Mahamaya is the Yoganindra of Vishnu, the Lord of the world. It is by her that the world is deluded.
..
Verily, she, the Bhagavati, the Mahamaya forcibly drawing the mind of even the wise, throws them into delusion. She creates this entire universe both moving and unmoving. It is she who, when propitious, becomes a boon-giver to human beings for their final liberation. She is the supreme knowledge, the cause of final liberation, and eternal; she is the cause of the bondage of transmigration and the sovereign over all lords. She manifests in order to accomplish the purposes of the Devas; although eternal, she herself comes to be born in the world.

After this brief introduction, the sage then begins narrating what is now known as the Devi Mahatmyam, the Glories of the Goddess.

Riverbank

Upon hearing of Her achievements, the King and the merchant commit themselves to a different path. Each stations himself on a riverbank to practice penances while chanting hymns to the Goddess, the setting having less to do with providing a scenic location than finding a place to witness the water flow by. Both worship her with flowers, incense, fire, and libations of water. With their minds focused in concentration, they both offer sacrifices sprinkled with blood from their own bodies. This they did for three years.

When she was pleased, the Goddess appeared and spoke to them in visible form, saying she would bestow on them what they were seeking:

The Devi said:
What you solicit, O King, and you, the delight of your family, receive all that from me. Well-pleased, I bestow those to you both.
..
The King chose a kingdom, imperishable even in another life, and in this life itself, his own kingdom wherein the power of his enemies is destroyed by force. The wise merchant, whose mind was full of dispassion for the world, chose the knowledge which removes attachment in the form of mine and I.

Before leaving them, the Goddess said:

O King, after slaying your foes, you shall obtain your kingdom and it shall last with you there. And when you are dead, you shall gain another birth from the Deva Vivasat (Sun) and shall be a Manu on earth by the name of Savarni.
..
And, O the best of merchants, I grant you the boon which you have desired of me. Supreme knowledge shall be yours, for your self-realization.

It may be tempting to see the three figures in the forest as separate persons, particularly since they’re so different: a king, a merchant, and a sage. In fact, it’s probably a reference to the famous simile of the chariot in which the five horses are the senses (indriyas), the body is the chariot, the mind is the reins, buddhi is the driver, and Atman (the Self) is the passenger. Only when the chariot (body) is in order can the reins (mind) do any good. But the mind needs a guide in the form of a driver (buddhi), otherwise the horses (senses) will act on their own accord. When the mind is overwhelmed by grief, it achieves single-pointed concentration; buddhi helps shift the mind from the lost object by turning its focus to Atman, instead.

After years of worship, the Goddess offers boons to the King and the merchant, granting what they truly sought: for the displaced king, an indestructible kingdom; for the merchant ready to relinquish the world, knowledge of the Self. Then She leaves, as much for Herself as for the benefit of those who sing Her praises. For her devotees, their work is best completed in her absence. Watching the water of the river go by, each can contemplate the relevance of Her battles for his own life: the Goddess who first withdraws, then slays the Great Ego, and finally destroys the core supports of identity (Mine-ness) and the false sense of self (I-am-ness).

From Darkness to Light

Salutations be to you, O Devi Narayani, O you who abide as intelligence
in the hearts of all creatures, and bestow enjoyment and liberation.
Salutations be to you, O Devi Narayani, you who have the power of creation,
sustenance, and destruction, and are eternal.
You are the substratum and embodiment of the three gunas.
Salutations be to you, O Devi Narayani, O you who are intent on saving
the dejected and distressed that take refuge under you.
O you, Devi, who removes the sufferings of all!

One reason the Goddess leaves is that there are more battles to be fought. After another cycle of existence, two other demons named Sumbha and Nisumbha will be born and She, dwelling in the mountains, will destroy them both. Then, after a drought that lasts for a hundred years, She’ll be born again, but not from a womb, after which She’ll look upon the sages and saints (munis) with a hundred eyes, after which She’ll be praised as One with the Hundred Eyes.

After this, She’ll maintain the entire world with life-sustaining vegetables born from Her cosmic body until the rains finally return. She’ll then slay the great asura Durga-ma and acquire the name of Durgadevi. She’ll then assume a terrible form upon the Himalaya mountains to destroy the Rakshasas (cannibals) in order to protect the munis, whereupon they’ll bow and praise her as Bhimadevi. Next, when the demon Aruna (reddish sun) comes around buzzing, She’ll slay him for the good of the world. Afterwards, whenever trouble arises, She’ll incarnate and destroy the demons again and again.

While not couched in these terms, this may well describe the emergence of the Fourth. The three previous battles was preceded by a meditation to one of the elevated (“maha”) Tridevi Goddesses – Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Parvati – no longer defined in their relation to their consorts, defeating the demons on their own: for withdrawing from Vishnu and the battle against too much and too little, it was Mahakali, the Remover of Darkness, the elevated and fierce form of Parvati; for battling the great ego, it was Mahalakshmi, the Goddess of True Wealth, the elevated form of Lakshmi; and for the battle against I-am-ness and Mine-ness, it was Mahasarasvati, the elevated from of Sarasvati, the Goddess of All-Pervading Knowledge.

Each of these are different versions of Herself, and each represents a force that contributes to Her victory. And yet, the Goddess reincarnates for another set of battles, as if to solidify her achievements in one life by implementing what she’s learned in another. The hundred year drought represents a different kind of withdrawal – or absence – during which She’ll experience an unusual rebirth, after which She sustains the world with vegetables until the rains return once again. And just as the king and the merchant looked to the Goddess in their prayers, the Goddess will look to the sages and saints, and act on their behalf, as She learns to incarnate to destroy the demons whenever they come and threaten the peace.

Such is the path of the Goddess. For Herself, and for those who follow Her lead.

..

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~ by mistified on January 20, 2013.

One Response to “Sucker Punch: The Path of the Goddess (II)”

  1. I love the movie Sucker Punch. I posted about it today on my blog. I think what I liked about the movie is Babydoll’s willingness to sacrifice herself all for her friends. This is true love and I enjoyed that aspect of the film!

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