The origin of the Demon Mahisa, also known as the Buffalo Demon, has many different accounts in Hindu literature. There are varying accounts in the Mahabharata, the Skanda Purana, the Varaha Purana, the Kalika Purana and the Vamana Purana, to name a few of the sources. However, there are a number of central themes that exist in all of the versions. These include: Mahisa having extraordinary power and strength, Mahisa being able to change form, his future act of overtaking heaven and gaining revenge on Indra and allusions to his being slain by a woman. There are fewer accounts of Mahisa’s actions throughout his life until the point when he overthrows Indra and the other gods and expels them from Heaven. At this point, the myths of Mahisa become more uniform in that he is slain by the Mother Goddess Durgain a great battle.
The Birth of Mahisa
The three accounts make it clear that Mahisa’s destiny is to overthrow Indra and be slain by Durga; this is a strong commonality between the Skanda Purana, the Vamana Purana and the Kalika Purana.
The Skanda Purana
At the beginning of time, there was a great battle between the gods and demons where the demons were defeated. Diti, the mother of the demons, was very distraught and told her daughter to go away and perform severe asceticism in hopes she would bear a son powerful enough to gain revenge on Indra and the other gods. Diti’s daughter takes the form of a she-buffalo and goes off to the forest. There she performs such horrible acts of asceticism that it was said that the earth shook and “…the gods were stupefied…” (Chitgopekar 13). Eventually the gods became so afraid that they sent one of the chief sages of heaven, Suparshva, to beg her to stop. In return, she was promised a son with the head of a buffalo and the body of a man, who would be so powerful that he could defeat the gods. That child is Mahisa (Chitgopekar 14). This version foreshadows Mahisa’s eventual defeat of Indra and the other gods as well as infers that Mahisa’s powers were the result of a boon from Siva or Brahma (Chitgopekar 15).
The Vamana Purana
Rambha and Karambha were both sons of King Danu. Neither one of the bothers had sons to continue their lineage so the went away to perform asceticism to try and solve this problem (Berkson 29).While praying near a river, Karambha is killed and eaten by a crocodile that is an incarnation of Indra. Rambha is so distraught that he propitiates Agni and offers to cut his own head off. Agni stops Rambha and grants him a boon in the form of a son that can assume any form and will conquer the three worlds (Dahl 41). After his encounter with Agni, Rambha sees Syama, the she-buffalo, and is overcome with desire, has intercourse with her. Mahisa is the offspring of their coupling and is described as “…a fair complexioned buffalo capable of assuming any form at will…” (Berkson 36). This version also sets up Mahisa’s destiny as exacting revenge on Indra.
The Kalika Purana
The demon Rambha prays to Siva with passion and enthusiasm that he should have a son, “I am without sons, O great god: if you are kindly disposed towards me, you should be my son, O Siva, in three births; a son who cannot be killed by all the living beings, and who will be victorious over all the gods; who has a long life, and who will be famous and fortunate, O Siva.” (Berkson 37). Siva acquiesces to Rambha and agrees to incarnate himself as the son of the demon in three different births. The first birth is in the womb of a she-buffalo, whom Rambha sleeps with out of sheer lust (Dutta 9). This myth also has the inference that Mahisa will one day overthrow the gods in heaven. More importantly, it introduces the idea that it is in the first incarnation of Mahisa that he acquires the curse of only being able to be slain by a woman. This is foretelling of Mahisa’s battle with Durga.
The Death of Mahisa
Mahisa’s death appears to be of more importance in the Hindu tradition than his birth was. While there are many differing accounts of Mahisa’s death in many different texts, the underlying story remains the same. It becomes clear that the creation of Mahisa is secondary to the importance of the events surrounding his death. Mahisa is given great strength and power so he may overtake the gods in heaven but this is for the purpose of the eventual incarnation of Durga and a great battle between the gods and demons. The Vamana Purana, Varaha Purana and the Skanda Purana present the same essential story, a great battle between good and evil personified by gods against demons. The Kalika Purana expands on those versions and adds two previous incarnations and deaths of Mahisa. Perhaps the most vivid account of the demise of Mahisa at the hands of Durga is contained in the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana.
The Kalika Purana
In Mahisa’s first incarnation, he has all the vices of his father Rambha, including lust. Mahisa also has the ability to change form and he transforms himself into a young nymph to seduce Randrasava who is a disciple of the sage Risi Kattyayana. The great sage is so outraged by this act that he curses Mahisa to die at the hands of a woman. Thus, Durga manifests herself as the 18-handed Ugracandi incarnation and slays Mahisa (Dutta 9). According to the boon granted by Siva at his birth, Mahisa is incarnated a second time. This time Swayambhuva Manu is in charge of protecting the universe. Mahisa’s oppressions are so intolerable that once again Durga is called upon to slay the demon. She incarnates herself as the 16-armed Bhadrakali and slays Mahisa once again (Dutta 9). In his third and final incarnation, Mahisa fulfills his destiny of driving the gods from heaven and controlling the universe. This time Mahisa foresees his own demise in a dream where he sees Durga cutting his head off and sucking the blood out of his neck (Dutta 10). Indra and the other gods go to Siva, Brahma and Visnu to plead for help in defeating Mahisa so they regain control of the universe. The trio is so enraged by Mahisa’s acts that energy masses emerged from their faces and the third incarnation of Durga is created. This incarnation, Dasabhuja, possesses 10 arms and all the strength and powers of the 3 great gods. In a great battle between Durga and her maidens and Mahisa and his demon army, Mahisa is defeated and order is returned to the universe (Dutta 11).
The Devi Mahatmya
This version portrays Mahisa as the lord of the demons and Indra is the lord of the gods. There is a great battle between the two sides and Mahisa and his demon army emerge victorious, driving Indra and the other gods from heaven. Led by Brahma, the gods seek out Visnu and Siva for help (Brown 96). From the energy (sakti) of the gods’ fury, an incarnate of Durga is created. The gods then present her with their divine weapons to go battle Mahisa (Dhal 48). Durga then gives a dreadful roar that “…made the worlds shake, the seas tremble, the earth quake and the mountains rock.” (Chitgopekar 23). Mahisa, puzzled by the commotion in the universe, gathers his army and rushes to see who is causing the disturbance. The demon and his asuras meet Durga and her army in a great battle, “Others, though rendered headless, arose again. The headless trunks fought with the Divine with their best weapons in their hands. Some of these headless trunks danced to the rhythm of the musical instruments.” (Chitgopekar 24). As Mahisa’s army fell one by one, he assumed the Buffalo form and killed many of Durga’s troops with his tail, hooves, horns and blasts of his breath (Chitgopekar 25). Durga became enraged and rushed upon the buffalo and he changed shape to a lion, a man and then an elephant. When he could not defeat Durga in those forms, Mahisa returned to his buffalo form. Durga then leapt on Mahisa and holding him under her foot, struck him with her spear. Mahisa then returned to his human form and Durga chopped off his head with her sword (Dhal 49).
The death of Mahisa at the hands of Durga is an important myth in the Hindu tradition. While there are many versions of the story of Mahisa’s birth and death, they all contain the consistent themes of the triumph of good over evil as well as the Great Gods abilities to restore order to the universe. Mahisa becomes a symbol of the dharmic circle of birth, death and rebirth. His destiny is determined from the time of his birth at the hands of the gods, as is his destruction. The lesson to be learned from Mahisa is that the divine is present in everything and one must accept that wisdom and live the Vedic way of live to gain salvation (Dhal 50).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Berkson, Carmel (1995) The Divine and Demoniac. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Bhatt, Dr. G.P. and J.L. Shastri ed. (2002) Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology: The
Skanda Purana. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.
Brown, C. Mackenzie (1990) The Triumph of the Goddess. Albany: State University of
New York Press.
Chitgopekar, Nilima (2003) The Book of Durga. New Delhi: Penguin Book India Ltd.
Dhal, Dr. Upendra Nath (1991) Mahisasura in Art and Thought. Delhi: Eastern Book
Dutta, Abhijit (2003) Mother Durga. Kolkata: Tandrita Chandra Readers Service.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Mother Goddess Durga
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Written by Dione Bansley (Spring 2009) , who is solely responsible for its content.