The Predicament of Women in Ancient India ► [13] Woman in Hinduism (Varia) ► [03] Hindu Mythology

Posted: 18.06.2008

Mythological themes with a great female deity in the centre are largely connected with Durga (Uma, Chandi, Sati, Parvati...). Interesting is the story of "Sati's" death in the Daksha cycle. The Daksha cycle as such (numerous versions) is ignored by us, as we are only interested in the fate of Sati/Parvati and in the erroneous identification of the suttee custom with the death of the goddess.

Daksha (son Brahmas, father-in-law of the Moon, follower of Vishnu...) is a great performer of sacrifices. He invites eight of his nine daughters along with their husbands, all sages, to his place, to the sacrificial hall. His ninth daughter Sati, not invited, is enraged, repairs uninvited to her father and asks him why she was not called to his place. The reason: Daksha abhors Sati's husband, Rudra, later the god Shiva. Daksha stands for orthodox Hinduism, Rudra is an outsider according to some versions, and of unattractive appearance at that. After a long dispute with her father, Sati (who is nowhere a widow) declares that she is prepared to die. She hopes that she will be reborn as Rudra's wife (again loyally devoted to her husband) in her next existence. She then performs an act of fiery yogic concentration. This produces in the end a real fire which, burning from inside, reduces her body to ashes. Rudra condemns and curses his father-in-law Daksha. ("Daksha will be without success".) Daksha curses Rudra in return. ("Rudra will be excluded from the sacrifice".) Sati will be reborn as Parvati, daughter of Himalaya, wife of Shiva and future mother of Kumara (god of war).

Sati, actually the good, virtuous woman (Mahabharata), is used as the proper name of the above goddess (otherwise known as Uma etc.). Refer for this Sati myth to MERTENS 84-86, 92-99, 100-101, 114 (Brahma Purana and Shiva Purana). Kalidasa's famous court-poem Kumarasambhava deals with Sati/Parvati's biography.

The story of Sati's death has some relationship with the suttee custom. Possibly the death of Sati in the myth was modelled on old forms of widow burning (99-101). The self-immolation of the goddess is reminiscent of the sat-ideology of Rajasthan.

Different from the suicide tradition is the story of the dismemberment of Sati's body:

Shiva is inconsolable because he has lost his Sati (supra). Devi, highest being in the context of the relevant myth, comforts Shiva and asks him to carry Sati's corpse around. Shiva follows her instructions and with Sati on his head he performs his dramatic cosmic dance (different from the South-Indian Nataraja motif). Shiva considers the corpse the real, living Sati, a trick of the Devi. He is filled with joy to the point of sexual excitement. The Devi then asks Vishnu to cut off Sati's limbs with the help of his chakra. This he does, and when falling to the earth, the limbs are transformed into sanctuaries of the Devi. Shiva discontinues his dance, the world is saved. In the end, Shiva and the primordial Devi are reunited on the metaphysical plane. MERTENS 330-342 (Mahabhagavata Purana).

The story is a true myth, but emphasis is on the Devi's sublimity, on Shiva's cosmic dance and on the foundation of the Devi's sanctuaries -- rather than on a logical and transparent interaction of the dramatis personae. The solemn figure of sanctuaries (pithas) is fifty-one: MERTENS 259. Nowadays sanctuaries of Sati/Kali are found in many parts of India (e.g. In Kalighat in Calcutta/Kolkata).

Another, also Puranic, form of the Great Goddess ("Durga") is derived from old art traditions: A goddess defeating a buffalo-demon is already depicted in early Indian sculptures (supra), but not described in the epics. The art theme is later on transformed into an elaborate Puranic myth with the typical multiplicity of gods and demons, of beasts and weapons, with transformations and emanations:

The starting point of the buffalo myth is a comparatively late motif or sub-motif: Mahisha-asura (= buffalo-demon) has deprived the gods of their power. They do not receive their proper shares of sacrifice (ERNDL 24). To overcome the demon (he is invincible to all beings save a woman: KHANNA 111) the powerless gods resort to a stratagem: the creation of an extraordinary deity. They emit from their angry faces supernatural flashes of light, and all the brilliant emissions combine to form a female figure, a great Goddess: her face coming from Shiva, her arms from Vishnu, her hair from the God of Death, her breasts from the Moon -- and so on. Moreover all the gods provide the Goddess with a weapon or emblem: Shiva with a trident, Vishnu with a disk, the God of Death with a judicial staff, the Himalaya with a lion, and so on. The armies meet. One general of the demons musters 60 000 chariots, another general of the demons "millions," yet another general fifty millions. A terrible fight ensues. The Goddess crushes the enemy's soldiers. She also discharges entire armies from her breath. Finally the enemy's forces are destroyed. At this stage the angry generals of the buffalo demon attack the Goddess personally. They have no chance, she prevails. One by one she kills Chikshura, Chamara, Udagra, Karala and Uddhata.

The defeat of the buffalo demon himself is the climax. First the buffalo demon attacks the army of the Goddess, at the same time creating chaos in the world, then he attacks the Goddess herself. He assumes in turn the forms of a lion, of a man-with-a-sword, of an elephant, and again of a buffalo. The goddess defeats all these fiends successively. In the end she jumps on the buffalo and pierces his neck with her trident. Now the demon tries to escape through the buffalo's mouth (buffalo and demon are at this stage separate), but the Goddess cuts off his head when half of his body has emerged. The battle is over. The gods praise the Goddess. (She has saved the world.) The killed demons, purified (!) by the weapons of the Goddess, go to heaven. The Goddess has finished her fight. She withdraws.

The myth shows that the avatara motif (avatara pattern) is not restricted to Vishnu. For KHANNA, the masculinity of the Goddess is relevant: "As a battle queen, she is shown playing a 'male' role and assumes an independent and autonomous status." (KHANNA 111). The myth eventually becomes a horror scene: "Laughing terrifyingly, she 'flung the elephants into her mouth', crunched horses and chariots with her teeth..." -- ZIMMER Ma 480-486; ERNDL 22-25; KHANNA 112; STIETENCRON (Devi Mahatmya and later versions).

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