Monday, October 24, 2011

The Buffalo Demon

It’s October again and I have another piece of art on This year’s piece tells an ancient Hindu story in which a demon in the form of a buffalo (yes, that’s right, an evil demon that looks like a bovine with big horns) takes over the world with his army of demons, and has to be taken down.

About the Story

My main resource for the story information was the Devimahatmya, an anonymous text written about fifteen centuries ago in northwest India. The story of the buffalo demon is one of three narratives within this text, and depicts an epic battle on a grand scale. While I chose to reduce the number of characters and scenes for necessary brevity, I have otherwise tried to follow the text fairly closely in my retelling. However, I’m sure I have made mistakes in the way I’ve represented some elements, so if you know Indian culture or this story better than I do, please forgive them.

What’s all the fighting for?

A fierce battle is not a typical subject for me, and, while seated at my drafting table, painting various decapitations and impalements, I did occasionally ask myself why there is so much violence in this story. Although the stories of the Devimahatmya were written down during India’s Classical Age, a time of peace and advancement, they doubtless existed before this as oral traditions, and they reflect the experience of ancient people for whom mortal danger and hand-to-hand combat to the death must have been everyday realities.

As far as I know, the Western view of beings like demons sees them as decidedly evil, and the idea of their redemption is usually not considered. However, in a worldview where all souls are re-born countless times until they reach an ultimate liberation, even demons have a chance at eventual enlightenment. The Devimahatmya’s buffalo demon sequence ends with a long hymn of praise sung by the gods for the conquering goddess Durga, during which they extol her compassion.

…Though they may have committed enough evil to keep them long in torment, even as you strike down our enemies… you think, May they reach heaven through death in battle with me.

Why does your mere glance not reduce all [demons] to ashes? Because when assailed by your weapons and thus purified, even those adversaries may attain the higher worlds. Even toward them your intentions are most gracious. (1)

I find this idea of a transcendent, purifying death in battle sort of chillingly beautiful; it’s inspiring that the demons actually benefit from being killed by Durga, but it still sounds really freaky.

Higher meaning

Like any classic that has withstood the test of time, you can interpret the story of the buffalo demon through several different lenses, such as the ongoing struggle between good and evil in the world, or as a reflection of the individual’s internal battle between the selfish ego and the higher impulses that tame it. There is also something intriguing in the character of Mahisa, the buffalo demon, in that he is not quite what he appears to be (what is his true form, really?). However, even after researching details and contemplating the meaning of this tale for the better part of a year, I still feel like the story is operating at a higher level that I can’t quite pin down.

Click here for more about how I created this piece.

Watch It!

If you haven’t seen Gothtober, the world’s only Halloween countdown Web art calendar, yet, do take a look at some of the other pieces on it… as always, it’s a grab-bag of Web art pieces that range from funny and cute, to gross and scary, to amusingly odd, and are sometimes all three at once.

By the way, as you can probably tell, I did not create The Buffalo Demon with a child audience in mind, so please watch it yourself before deciding whether to share it with a kid.

You will find my piece at the following link; on the Gothtober page, click on the square that says “25.”

(1) Devadatta Kali, translator and commentator, In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning (Maine: Nicholas-Hays, Inc., 2003), p. 84

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