Sunday Storytelling

Remythification: How Mahishan was vanquished, but not his love (and lust) for Durga

An excerpt from a new book of short stories by the Tamil writer Ambai.

Mahishan thought that if she accepted his love, the loneliness he had felt since childhood and the ignominy he had suffered for being an Asura would all vanish and go away. He had never spoken to anyone about the dark sense of loneliness. All that Mahishan needed was a woman to look at him with love and say to him softly, “You are not ugly. So what if you are an Asura, a demon. You too can love. If there can be Devas and Gandharvas who can lust for the wives of sages and others; if saints and Devas can offer to impregnate women of royal lineage; if there can be kings who do all they can to attain the women they want, no matter what clan they are from; if a god can manifest as an avatar who marries a woman in every place he goes to; then there is a place for people like you, too.” If that were to happen, Mahishan felt he would break into pieces.

Therefore, he said to her repeatedly: “Oh, you of large, beautiful eyes! What is your command? I will abide by it. I am enchanted by your beauty. It has cast its spell on me. I have surrendered to you. Isn’t it the highest dharma to protect those who have surrendered to you? Oh, you slender-waisted one! I am your servant. If you command me to die, I will do so without giving it a thought. It is true that I have come bearing weapons to fight. But I am also standing disarmed in surrender before you. I have never begged and pleaded to anyone since my birth, not even to gods like Brahma. But here I am, pleading and begging to you, a woman. Don’t you feel any compassion towards me?”

She replied that she was no ordinary woman. She said that she was not a force that was merely tied to earthly existence. She was Shivashakthi, the force that drives away the cycles of suffering that come with earthly life. Pleasure that is attained through a woman is not real pleasure, she said. If there was anything more powerful than iron chains with which to bind a man, it was a woman, she said. She even considered a woman’s vagina a mere smelly part of the body that was worthy only to channel urine. She said that Mahishan could wander the earth and the netherworld, but he should not come near the Devas and the heavens. If he could abide by this, she said she would spare his life.

Mahishan had always liked to battle. But he could not accept her terms. Nor did he want to engage in battle with her.

He too spoke his mind. She could marry him, or she could retreat.

If she chose to do either, he too would spare her life. His love, and the lust it gave rise to, were intense. They even made him want to abduct her and take her away to his own world. But of what use would that be? How could he hope to gain the pleasure of union by the use of force? He was amazed that she rejected the offer of pleasure and union with a man.

She called him a buffalo again. She said that she manifested herself whenever she needed to clear away the sufferings of sages and saints. “Fight with me or go back to the netherworld,” she said.Was it only the sages and saints who suffered on the earth? Did she think that the Asuras were free of suffering?

Was the godly feast of ghee, rice and meat reserved for the Devas? Asuras were stipulated not to cross the edges of the netherworld and not to enter into relations with anyone else. Didn’t this constitute suffering? Which Devi, which goddess was going to manifest herself to help alleviate the suffering of the Asuras?

All these questions arose in Mahishan’s mind. But he knew that he would not find answers for any of them from her. So he chose to engage in a fierce battle. The Asuras in his army listened to his command and entered the battle. When one of his warriors, Trinetthiran, died, Mahishan took the form of a lion, an elephant, and then an eight-limbed serpent to kill her lion.

Devi too changed form. She became Chandi. From the pitcher in her hand, she drank an intoxicant made of grapes. She lifted up her trident and chased after Mahishan. Devas, saints, yogis and sages started showering her with flowers. Divine instruments started playing. All the gods sang her praise, and the battlefield resounded with the chanting of “Victory is yours! Victory is yours!”

As always, Mahishan stood alone. There was no one to cheer him on. There was no one to chant his glory. He took various forms and kept fighting. At one point, he was pierced by Devi’s trident, and he fell. But he rose from it, roared from the depth of his being, became a buffalo and attacked her unrelentingly. Devi lifted up another weapon, the discus. She said that even if he were to stay still for just a fraction of a second, the discus would kill him.

Mahishan stood still. He gazed at her as if he was taking one last look at her. Words from the future flowed lovingly through his mind. They were the words of Tiruppanazhvar, who, in the future, in another yuga, would be considered of lowly birth, but who would write these great words of devotion:

“Dark, swollen, expansive, and resplendent,
with crisscrossing lines of blood, those elongated large eyes have driven me mad...”

He stood looking at her. With his eyes fixed on her, he said, “Is it such a crime to desire a woman of higher birth?”

Her discus came swirling at him and chopped off his head. Devi’s lion leapt at the people of his clan, and they ran away back to the netherworld. Immortals, mortals, sages and saints, all rejoiced.

Devi rode away from the battlefield on her lion without looking back. In the future, she would be known mainly as the woman who killed Mahishan. His name would get linked to hers forever.

It was Mahishan who was vanquished; not his love. It was not that she did not know this. But then, she too was a function of her circumstances. Perhaps, the fact that Mahishan’s name would forever be attached to hers was a gesture of reciprocation.

In the path she was leaving behind, lay Mahishan, the lover, who was insulted for being ugly, called a buffalo’s son and a demon. He lay there, head separated from the body, in a pool of blood, with no one to lift him up and embrace him. Perhaps because he knew how his name would forever be linked to hers in the future, his face appeared peaceful in death. As if they were trying to grasp at something at a great distance, something unattainable, his eyes stayed affixed at the sky above.


Excerpted with permission from “A Love Story With A Sad Ending”, from A Night with a Black Spider, Ambai, translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Speaking Tiger.

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