A rather silly debate has broken out in Parliament. It concerns Durga – who is worshipped each year during Shardiya Navratri by mainstream Hindus as the slayer of a buffalo demon Mahishasur – and a small group that deifies Mahishasur.

The question being asked is: Who has the real right to feel insulted? Is it the Jawaharlal Nehru University student groups from the scheduled castes and tribes who claim Mahishasur is a symbol of the decimation of tribes by caste Hindus? Or is it those led by minister for Human Resources Development Smriti Irani, who read out in Parliament a pamphlet circulated two years ago when JNU students commemorated Mahishasur as a martyr?

It is instructive that neither side denies that Durga is a powerful symbol of non-conformism. She is non-submissive – she will not subordinate herself to a male deity, and she also excels at what is deemed an exclusive male occupation, fighting in battle. What is also noteworthy is that for all her heroic exploits described in both local myths and classics, Durga never lends her power to the male gods of the mainstream pantheon. It is they who lend her their arms like the chakra (Vishnu), trident (Shiva), bow and arrow (Vayu) and so on. They give up their inner strength or fire to create her, and in doing so, surrender their potency to her.

Durga, a pre-Vedic goddess

The chief point of contention seems to lie in the gory end of Mahishasur. The martyrdom celebrators see it not as the killing of what, from most accounts, was an unduly aggressive male, but as a symbol of all marginalised castes under attack from an Aryan goddess. This whole debate, despite its telegenic appeal, is actually based on a narrow understanding of goddess myths created, like the Durga idol, with layers and layers of philosophical clay from various sources – the horns of a bull, the hooves of a deer, loamy soil from fields, and forests inhabited by various tribes and sects of India over the millennia.

It may come as a surprise to many that Durga’s historical origins are embedded firmly among the indigenous pre-Aryan cultures of India. The Vedic tradition has no goddess similar to Durga, the warrior goddess. The early Puranic references to Durga from Mahabharata’s Virat Parva (the fourth book of the epic) to the later Harivansh Purana and Vishnu Purana, also associate her with the Sabara tribals residing among the Vindhya mountains. This was initially an intractable area described as awfully hard to access – Durgen gamyate, hence the name Durga. The mountainous region with thick forests and inhabited by wild tribes and animals, was peripheral to civilised society. It is here that the concept of Vindhyavasini Durga was born. As Kaushiki, or shedder of the chrysalis, this virgin goddess became the mother lode in time, for various powerful goddesses in the mainstream and various substrata of Indian society.

However much Smriti Irani may lay claim to Durga, it is clear that this extremely powerful, militant armed goddess arrived as Durga, the mainstream Hindu goddess of peasants and traders, only during the medieval period. She brought with her her non-Aryan habits from her tribal background and continued to disdainfully fob off efforts by divine and demon male suitors to woo her, and also to enjoy offerings of liquor (madya), meat (maans) and blood (rakt) made in her honour.

Multiple myths were created in time and began to be circulated about Durga by a string of Puranas. In Vishnu Purana, the mainstream male god Vishnu beseeches her out of the mountains and enlists her aid to kill a demon king threatening an infant Krishna. In another text, Devi Mahatmya, her help is enlisted by another male god, Brahma, who is helping Vishnu kill two demons. Durga ultimately kills the demons as Vishnu sleeps. The Skanda Purana shows that Durga is none other than Parvati, a mainstream goddess. It says that when a buffalo demon named Durga threatened the world, Shiva asked his wife Parvati – mother of four (Lakshmi, Ganesh, Kartikeya and Saraswati) – to become a warrior goddess and slay the buffalo demon. After shedding her sheath (remember Kaushiki, the virgin goddess, of the Sabara tribe of the Vindhyas?) as a wife and mother, the myth says Parvati killed the demon as Durga. After braving a cosmic crisis and slaying the enemy, she retained his name along with her newly-rediscovered militancy and many-armed form.

A feminist goddess

The first images of Durga – armed to her teeth – slaying Mahishasur, a semi-male buffalo, begin to be visible throughout India around the fourth century CE. Her festival held at harvest time, the precursor to today’s Durga Puja, also associated her powers of fertility with not so much the womb, but vegetation (as Shakabhari). Motherhood of the genetic sort was not her priority and as an armed warrior and protector of men and women, it became entirely appropriate that this combative Durga be kept energised with blood offerings and wine as vital nourishment for her body and soul. Thus, in many respects, the Durga of the Puranas since the very beginning negates the misty-eyed and maternally inclined Mata Rani model being defended so fiercely by bhakts today.

The clash between Mahishasur and Durga is perhaps a classic clash between a liberated (Kaushiki) female and a powerful male, both loath to give up unfair privileges and ego issues. Both, let us not forget, share the same origins. Their clash is therefore, perhaps, no different from the mythical clash between Saraswati and Brahma, or Draupadi and Bhishma. A privileged and powerful man fails to see that a woman who has similarly arrived is more than a sum total of myths about the archetypal female. So he, intentionally or otherwise, offends her with words and gestures that to her seem insulting, and is astounded as he gets his comeuppance.

Mahishasur, like many others today, seems the archetypal alpha male who acquires considerable powers through austerity and penance, but is finally brought low by his own hubris. He is hit not because he may have actually assaulted her physically but because like many men, he believes and proclaims that delicate and good-looking women are incapable of proper combat and fit only for love-making (Devi Bhagwat Purana, 5.12.14-30). If Mahishasur, like many present-day men, assumes that unprotected by a male, a woman’s militancy must really be a seductive ploy that she will use because she is helpless and must be in need of a male, how do you expect a woman with mercurial Durga’s temper and power to react?

Today, Durga comes across as Everywoman, just as Mahishasur is Everyman. Durga’s peripheral nature that at times seems to challenge even today’s accepted norms of female behavior, and her lack of interest in a passive role as a mother and wife, marks her as a role model for ultimate feminist freedom in the true sense. Herself a tribal goddess, in slaying demons, she merely slays a stupid cussedness around her. Even after her mainstreaming, she will transcend the gods that have lent her their weapons and then slept or run away from the battlefield. The theology of Durga perhaps also hints at the first template for a feminist theory of State: one that creates, maintains and restores harmony and balance by destroying stupidity in the darkest, hardest to access corners of the human mind.