Durga Puja held a special charm for me during my childhood days as my best friend was a Bengali girl and her enthusiasm would fill me, too, with zeal. Looking back I find it difficult to decipher that whether it was for the sake of my friendship or the sumptuous prasaad that I got at the temple but going to the Kali temple at Shimla had become a daily routine for me.
I would watch mesmerized the idol of Kali manifested in all its charm. I learnt that deadly can also be beautiful at a very tender age only by watching the ferocious yet gentle, dark skinned yet clear hearted Maa Kali. Her black image with blood stained red tongue protruding out would fill my tender heart with awe and admiration and why it would not as I had started in a way identifying with the Mother. I was always unhappy with my parents to have named me Kaloo during my childhood and the jarring and ridiculing remarks of my friends would upset me to an extent where I sought someone who had the similar name yet was imposing and authoritative and what better analogy than to look forward to and identify with Maa Kali! But during Durga Puja I would wonder as to why the Saare-clad magnificent idol of Durga was so very different from the Kali image where Maa is clad in skulls and arms dripping blood. I would often compare both the images and would find one common element—killing of the demons! The face of Durga Maa would have the glory and beauty in a very different form as compared to Maa Kali. Were they different—the question would haunt my little mind? I would still identify more with the Kali image than the Durga image as Durga idol would be so fair whereas I was not-so-fair as compared to my elder sister and was nicknamed Kaloo! So, Kali image has always infatuated me more than the Durga image and as killer of the demons, when gods failed in killing them, generated a feeling of awe and wonder in my mind.
It was during my Ph.D studies when I read a lot many books concerned with feminine power and Indian goddesses that some strange facts came to my notice. I found answer to the questions that still remained unanswered in my mind since my childhood. The innumerable myths about her origin, instead of satisfying my quest, fill my mind with some more quests.
There are two stories on the origin Maa, and the one from the Durga Saptashati (a poem in praise of Durga Maa), which is part of the Markandeya Puran is more popular. Long ago there existed two powerful demons called Shumbh and Nishumbh. As they grew in strength, they usurped the vast empire of the King of Gods, Indra and dispossessed all the gods like Surya, Chandra, Yam, Varuna, Pawan and Agni. Both of them also managed to throw the god-host away from heaven. Sorely distressed the gods went to the mortal realm (Earth) and began to brood on how to get rid of these demons permanently. The solution was to pray to Durga Maa in her form of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. They reached the Himalayas and prayed to please the kind hearted Goddess Parvati. Agreeing to help, the body of Mother Parvati emerged a bright light in the form of a divine lady called Ambika. The demon kings were infatuated with the beauty of the goddess Ambika and wanted to marry her. But the goddess had taken a vow that she would marry only the person who would defeat her in battle. In the ensuing battle Dhoomralochan, a demon was killed and then Chanda and Munda were sent to defeat the goddess. The Goddess Ambika then produced a black figure of frightening form, called Kali-Devi or Kalika Devi. She destroyed the demons easily, hacked off the heads of Chanda and Munda. Supported by the divine powers, the Goddess began to massacre the demons. At that time the demon forces were led by a demon, Raktabeeja. He had the power to reproduce as many demons of his form and dimension as the drops of his blood which fell to the ground. After a fierce battle the Goddess ordered Chamunda ( Maa) to spread her mouth far and wide and swallow Raktabeeja alongwith his blood. Chamunda did exactly that and hacked off the head of demon. Maa then devoured the slain bodies of the asuras and danced a fierce dance to celebrate the victory. And she started the dance of destruction!
I always wondered as to why goddess Kali would not stop her dance of destruction even when al lthe demons had been annihilated? Why was she bent upon destruction of gods as well? There has to be a thin line separating the dance celebrating the victory over demons and the dance of destruction that frightened even the gods as Maa Kali would not stop. Why won’t she stop? Why would she keep on dancing and destroying whatever captured her attention—this question would haunt my little mind. As I would not be in a position to take all this justification in the reason given for her jubilation and the destruction that followed! And why would she be shown with one foot astride god Shiva was another mystery for me. I found a viable answer to this question while reading a book that dealt with the feminist powers of Indian goddesses.
One particular myth from Orissa refers to the Kali image that we so frequently see in pictures—Maa Kali with one of her foot on the body of God Shiva—and ascribes a reason for the maddening anger of Maa Kali. This reason seems logical enough to me or perhaps I want to believe in the logic that it gives. May be I feel happy perceiving it this way.
According to this myth, Mahishsura had attained a boon from Brahma that no man could kill him. The gods went to Vishnu and at his direction each god contributed his power and consciousness to create Durga. All the gods gave goddess Durga htheir weapons. But when goddess Durga went to the battlefield to kill Mahishasura she found it impossible to kill the demon. It was so because the gods had forgotten to tell Durga that Mahishasura could be killed only by a naked woman! Goddess Durga was desperate and asked Mangla for a way to kill the demon. She was told that the only way was to take off her clothes. Mahishsura was granted a boon that he could only die at the hands of a naked woman! So Durga stripped and within seconds of seeing her, Mahishasura’s strength waned and he died under her sword.
I can only imagine her anger at this duping—was it intentional or accidental? Did gods really forget to tell her of this strange boon granted to Mahiushasura or they deliberately pretend to send her without telling her of the same as what woman would accede to such a condition. I could somehow understand her wrath at being sent to a battlefield without preparing her mentally and physically. What was the use of arming her with all their powerful weapons when all those would be futile unless the goddess stripped off her clothes and what women would strip of her clothes in front of males?
After killing the demon, a terrible rage entered Durga’s mind and she asked herself: ‘what kind of gods are these that give to demons such boons, and apart from that what kind of gods are these that they do not have the honesty to tell me the truth before sending me into battle?’ She decided that such a world with such gods did not deserve to survive and she took on the form of and went on a mad rampage, devouring every living creature that came in her way. Now the gods were in terrible quandary. They had all given her their weapons. They were helpless without any weapons, while she had a weapon in each of her ten arms. How could be checked and who could check her in her mad dance of destruction? Again the gods all gathered, and Narayana decided that only Mahadev [Shiva] could check , and so he advised the gods to appeal to him. This reason for her getting angry and bent upon destroying all and sundry really made some sense to me and I find it logical for a woman to get angry when her trust was broken, deliberately. At the request of the gods, Shiva went and lay in the path of goddess . Kali, absolved in her dance of destruction, was unaware that Shiva lay in her path, and so she stepped on him all unknowing. When she put her foot on Shiva’s chest, she bit her tongue saying” ‘Oh! My husband!’ There is in Mahadeva [Shiva] a ‘tejas’, a special quality of his body that penetrated her, that made her look down, that made her see reason. She had been so angry that she had gone beyond reason. But once she recognized him she became calm and still.
Yes, this explains the picture in a manner that makes sense at least to me. I had tirelessly searched the Devimahatmya published by Gita press Gorakhpur for the origin of Maa but this myth I had never found in the book. I believe that some myths live more in the folklores than in the scriptural texts and when in dilemma I would go by the one that makes sense to me. And in case of Maa it is the myth prevalent in Orissa that makes sense to me and my search for finding a plausible answer to mystery of picture. “Fierce, black in color, large, shimmering eyes, destructive, triumphantly smiling amidst the slaughter of billions of demons, wearing a necklace of skulls and a skirt of severed arms, glowing effulgently like the full moon in the night sky, holding the head of a demon, a Trident that flashes like lightning and a knife etched with sacred mantras and infused with Divine Shakti” stands a woman, used by gods to kill a demon but without sharing with her the secret of his boon!