The stories that surround the festival of Vijay Dasami, feature cataclysmic battles between good and evil. A demon ravages the earth, and Shakti — in the form of Durga, or another goddess — sets forth with an army to destroy the evil asura. Or war is waged, like in the Ramayana, dominated by death, destruction, blood. Evil is destroyed with the aid of divine weaponry.
How else do we destroy evil? Other myths feature rage as a transformative power or a catalyst. The fiery wrath of Draupadi leads to the Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharata, the anger of Kannaki in the Silappadikaram, transforms a woman into a Goddess who can destroy an entire city. Rage leads, again, to destruction.
Mythology holds important examples, ideas, concepts for us that inform our cultural memory. We assimilate the idea that if there is ever an injustice to be battled, or a wrong to be righted — evil can only be routed through war or great anger, leading to great destruction.
But does mythology also offer other, less destructive, ways to defeat evil and instigate necessary change? This week I have been thinking of the figure of the trickster, who appears in many mythologies. The trickster is often a liar, or a jester — someone who makes fun, who is a source of jokes and humour. A player of games and tricks — like the Greek deity Hermes or our own Krishna.
Silver-tongued and mercurial, the trickster is a boundary crosser, a shape-shifter who can alter form, and can travel between worlds — and in the act of transformation, questions our rigid concepts. The trickster is an agent of subversion and an instigator of change. Mohini, the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of a woman — alludes to the boundary crossing, subversive, shape-shifting nature of the trickster. Mohini is beautiful, charm incarnate, and her weapon of choice is not a spear or a sword, or any other weapon associated with war. Her weapon is seduction. She uses her beauty to trick. During the churning of the ocean, Vishnu transforms into Mohini, enchanting the asuras, and steals the nectar of immortality from them and brings it to the devas.
Another story features Mohini as Devi who must defeat an asura who has obtained from Siva the boon that he can kill anyone by placing his hand on their head and turning his opponent to ashes. Shiva grants the boon — and the demon now pursues Shiva, eager to practise his new-found power on him and turn Shiva to ash.
Mohini intervenes, seeking to rescue Shiva. She approaches the demon, who is so infatuated that — like in the story of Durga Mahishasuramardini — the demon, seized by desire, proposes marriage. Mohini also has a condition but one that is different. Unlike Durga, who insists that her suitor must best her in battle. Mohini says that her suitor must imitate her dance steps. She begins to dance, the demon follows, and then she places her hand on her head. The demon, matching her step for step, mimicks her —and thus destroys himself.
Mohini’s transformation blurs and questions ideas of gender — she seems to be the original ‘gender fluid’ deity. But I find this story inspiring for other reasons as well. Mohini, without weapons and without war, but instead through wit, guile, beauty and dance, defeats her opponent and saves the world.
The writer is the author of ‘The Mahabharatha - A Child’s View,’ ‘Sita’s Ramayana’ and ‘The Missing Queen’