Mahisha, the Asura, was the ruler of Pataal-lok, the underworld and homeland of the Asuras. But Mahisha was greedy for power. He wanted to conquer Bhu-lok, where humans dwelt, and Svarg-lok, the heavenly abode of the Devas.
The devas were powerful, too strong to overcome. But Mahisha was not one to give up easily. He went to the jungle and sat down to do tapas, or penance. He did not get up to eat or drink. With eyes closed, he meditated on Brahma, the Lord of Creation.
How long did he sit in tapas? Ages must have passed. At last his penance bore fruit. Lord Brahma appeared to him.
“Ask for a boon,” said Brahma.
“Make me immortal. Deathless,” said Mahisha.
Brahma knew that giving such a boon to one who was determined to make himself master of the three worlds, was very, very dangerous. To Brahma, Lord of Creation, Asuras were as much his children as the Devas and humans. Hard work done by any of his children had to be rewarded, and the severe penance done by Mahisha was hard work indeed. He had to grant the boon Mahisha had asked for, at least partially.
“All who are born have to die,” said the Lord, cautiously. “I cannot grant you immortality, but I can grant you choice over how you die. Choose how you wish to die.”
Mahisha thought for a while. Then his face brightened.
“If die I must, let me die at the hands of a woman,” he said, looking slyly at the Lord. Mahisha was sure no woman would ever be able to defeat him. A man, might. But a woman? Never!
“So be it,” said Brahma, and withdrew.
Emboldened by the boon, Mahisha marched against Svarg- lok. So ferocious was his attack that Indra, Lord of the Devas, had to run. He fled along with the other heavenly beings.
With Svarg-lok in his hands, Mahisha swelled with pride.
“I’m the master of the universe,” he gloated. “People on earth should know how powerful I am. I’ll make them beg for the very air they breathe!”
Using his great powers, he changed the courses of the moon and the sun and the winds, causing chaos on the planet. Nobody knew when or where the sun would rise or set, whether the moon would appear in the sky or not, or whether it would rain adequately for grain to grow.
The cry of distress from the earth troubled the Devas. Indra approached Brahma, who at that time, was in conference with Lords Shiva and Vishnu. When the Gods of Creation (Brahma), Preservation (Vishnu), and Destruction (Shiva), heard about the misdeeds of Mahisha, there arose but one thought in their minds: Mahisha must be stopped.
They knew that Mahisha could die only at the hands of a woman. They had to create a woman powerful enough to vanquish him. A mass of light emerged from Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, and all the other Devas who were present. The lights merged into a ball of energy that transformed into the shape of a woman of divine appearance. She was Durga, the Invincible One.
Shiva handed out a three-pronged weapon, the trishul, to Durga. Other gods too gave her a weapon they specialized in. Vishnu gave Durga a disc. Indra gave her a rod of lightning. A ferocious lion appeared and Durga, now armed to the teeth, sat astride it.
With the cries of ‘Jai Durga’, ringing in her ears, she marched to fulfil her destiny.
Eyes blazing in anger, the goddess rode like the wind to punish Mahisha, the tormentor of men and the gods. The earth trembled, oceans boiled, and huge boulders fell from the tops of mountains to crash into splinters in the plains below.
Sensing the approach of calamity, Mahisha leapt from his bed, grabbed his weapons, and ran outside the palace with a blood curdling yell.
“Who comes! Who comes!” he roared.
“A dreadful warrior, seated on a lion and spitting fire!” said a guard, pointing fearfully into the distance.
“Spitting fire?” asked Mahisha in amazement.
He went closer to investigate. Closer, closer he went and then he saw her, the fearsome avenger! Eyes blazing like burning coals. Her dark hair flowing like a cloud behind her.
“A woman,” he cried. “A woman! Those cowardly Devas are hiding behind a woman!”
“Go get her!” he said to his men. “Bring her in chains before me!
A part of the Asura army surged forward to stop Durga’s advance, but she was simply unstoppable. She used the weapons she had with devastating effect, sending thousands to their death.
When Mahisha unleashed the rest of his army on her, Durga took a deep breath, and as she breathed out, hordes of soldiers emerged from the exhaled air. The new arrivals fanned out in all directions and scattered Mahisha’s troops.
Seeing that the battle was going out of his control, Mahisha took the form of a huge and menacing buffalo and charged at Durga. She threw a lasso around his neck and yanked. As he fell forward, Mahisha changed form and emerged as a lion.
Mahisha, the lion, could not make any dent in Durga’s defences, so he changed into an elephant. When he could not make any headway in that form either, he changed back into a buffalo. But Durga had had enough. She flung her trishul or trident at the charging buffalo and he dropped down dead at her feet.
Shocked at the death of their invincible leader, the Asuras returned to Pataal-lok. Even as they retired, an Asura Chief Shumbha, took a terrible vow, “My Lord, Mahisha, you have not died in vain. One day I’ll take revenge.”
For the present, however, all the Asuras were back where they belonged, to the great relief of the Devas and people on Earth.
The Devas and humans joined their hands in salutation to Durga.