My own interpretation of the tale of Durga’s prowess is one I have distilled over the span of my life.
Many thousands of years ago, a man called Mahishasura had ambitions of global conquest and amassing immense wealth, not unlike the imperialists of the past few centuries. His physical strength was colossal and his avarice even more so. He laid siege to entire societies. But that was not enough for him: Mahishasura wished to be omnipotent. So he isolated himself for many months and performed physical austerities to strengthen his body, while focusing his mind on one of the most powerful men of his time, Brahma. Brahma had telepathic abilities and knew when others were thinking of him. Mahishasura’s constant one-pointed focus on Brahma for such a long period of time flattered the latter, and so one day he spoke telepathically to Mahishasura.
“Ask anything of me,” Brahma beamed, “for you have pleased me with your unswerving devotion.”
Mahishasura was not bashful, “Then grant me immortality.”
Brahma laughed, “I have many magnificent abilities, but I do not have the ability to make men live forever.”
Mahishasura pondered for but a second before speaking with confidence, “Then endow me with such awesome potency that no man will be able to kill me.”
Brahma smiled and happily fulfilled Mahishasura’s wish.
Armed with this carelessly granted and overly broad license, much like the charters granted by European monarchs to stockholder companies centuries ago, so they could plunder entire continents unopposed, Mahishasura set out to ravage and loot kingdom after kingdom. The rulers of these lands attempted to stop the oppressor, but in vain. As Mahishasura’s tyranny spread, the once mighty kings began to lose hope. The forlorn rulers approached the three most powerful men in the world: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. All three were helpless because they were all men and thus did not have sufficient strength to overcome Mahishasura. Feeling utterly helpless, all of the men assembled lowered their heads in gloom.
“Who is more powerful than we are?” Shiva asked Brahma and Vishnu.
“Shakti,” responded Vishnu calmly.
“We must beseech her to rescue us then,” Brahma said anxiously.
A brief lexigraphic detour follows. Shakti is a Sanskrit word, whose meaning is challenging to pin down, let alone translate into English. A scientific interpretation of Shakti is: ‘the infinite energy that existed as infinite potential in a singularity just before the manifestation of the physical universe upon the occurrence of the Big Bang.’ A metaphysical or transcendental interpretation of Shakti is: ‘the female creative energy that underlies all manifestations, tangible and intangible, in existence.’ A practical interpretation of Shakti is: ‘the creative force that drives all actions and reactions.’ And a religious interpretation of Shakti is: ‘the omnipotent female entity or Goddess who is the creator and protector of all.’ The beauty of sanātana dharma, labeled recently as Hinduism to those who found it necessary to name this ancient way of life of the Indian subcontinent, is that it encompasses all four of these interpretations of Shakti.