The myths about Durga (the impassable) are like litmus paper. The paper indicates complete opposites (acid or alkaloid) as well as degrees of either. There are several oppositions: Durga as beautiful, peaceful sister of Vishnu, wife of Siva, or Durga as ferocious, powerful, avenging destroyer. Another opposition is Durga as approved and Brahmanical or Durga as heteroprax, left-handed, bloody, fully sex- ualized. Durga, the litmus paper, is the same. Some of her followers, (saktas, say that she is the Paradevi (the goddess as the Supreme). Some say Durga has manifested in sixty-four different forms (each appearing in many episodes), including Ambika (mother), Dakshina (goddess of the ritual gift), Kamakshi (goddess of love), Kamadhenu (wish cow), Kali (goddess of time), Mukambika (a horrific form of Durga), Parvati (goddess of the mountain), Shiva (goddess of sleep).
There are three living myths, more important than the rest, seen in her images in temples, worshipped daily, or celebrated in her great festival, Durga Puja. All agree that she came as Mahamaya (goddess of cosmic illusion, mystery,
Durga in one of her eight-armed forms rides a tiger. (TRIP)
magic) to slay the personifications of evil formed at creation from the very ear- wax of Lord Vishnu. As Vishnu slept these demons attacked the creative agent, Brahma, who was saved by Durga’s decisive conquest of this outburst of evil. In the brahmanized form of her myth, Durga was produced by Vishnu. However, this myth can also be read to indicate another reality. Durga, in Ssakta texts and their mythology, controlled Vishnu’s sleep, his yoganidra (yogic sleep after each kalpa). She was the active energy (sakti) of creation and the necessary power to thwart evil.
Durga’s most important myth involved her combat with Mahisha-asura. This powerful demon could not be killed by a male—not even by one of the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva). In fact, Mahisha drove them from heaven (svarga), ruling it for several centuries. Most accounts credited the gods with combining all their powers to create a single being of light, a devi of celestial beauty with eighteen arms. She rode her lion to the entrance way into heaven (Devaloka, “place of the devas,” thus svarga) and proclaimed that she would become the wife of anyone who could defeat her in armed combat. Mahisha fell in love and was determined to have her. He sent his seconds, then his army, and lastly himself. Finally he changed into his ferocious form as a buffalo demon, but Durga cut off his head with a discus (Vishnu cakra). Iconographically, Durga, with her lion and perhaps a decapitated Mahisha-asura nearby or underfoot, is known as Mahisha-asura-Mardani and Katyayani with only ten arms.
The third myth about Kali springing from Durga’s forehead, personifying her anger, has been used in some versions of the myths about Durga saving creation and Durga killing Mahisha. The world again was threatened by evil—by the demons Sumbha and Nissumbha. Durga’s avenging energy, Kali, destroyed them.
Durga appears in many modern contexts. Perhaps her most famous devotee was Shri Ramakrishna, guru of Svami Vivekananda. She is central to both Saktism and Sakta Tantrism, where her heteroprax worship involves blood sacrifice, wine, and erotic rituals.