The violence of the Goddess

Myth Theory 16 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, October 11, 2010

Look at the word Ahimsa. It is created by adding ‘a’ before ‘himsa’. It means not being violent. The primary word is himsa or violence, almost acknowledging that violence is the natural state of man and non-violence is a cultural aspiration, a human discipline.

Nature, contrary to popular poetic perception, is extremely violent. She is as the poet said, ‘red in tooth and claw’. Animals and plants compete with each other to survive. A big plant will not let smaller plants grow as it reaches out for the sunlight. A deer will violently uproot grass or shrub. A lion will chase the deer and eat it. An old lion will be torn to pieces by wild dogs. The act of eating is visualized as a violent activity. Nature kills something so that someone else can survive. Life feeds on death. Death nourishes life. And this is visually presented in Tantrik art as the goddess Chinnamastika, who cuts her own head and drinks the blood spurting from her severed neck and offers the same to her handmaidens.

Culture is violent. Culture involves the domestication of nature. And this act of domestication is a violent one. The act of farming involves burning of trees, uprooting of weeds, levelling of the earth, tilling of the soil, and harvesting of the crop. Bullocks used to pull carts and ploughs are created by castrating bulls. Canals are built by building dams, breaking banks and diverting rivers. The act of cooking, so peculiar to humans, reminds us of the violence involved in the procurement and production of food – it involves breaking, smashing, threshing, pounding, cutting, boiling, roasting and frying. This violence is acknowledged in the images of the mother-goddesses worshipped during Navaratri. Durga slays the buffalo, blood flows on the sacred altar, and everyone – vegetarian or otherwise – is expected to bow before the goddess, to remind us all of the violence inflicted by man on nature in the pursuit of culture.

The violence of nature and culture embarrasses us. At the end of the Bhagavad Gita, there is a horrific 18-day war at Kurukshetra. Mahatma Gandhi, the proponent of a-himsa, loved the Bhagavad Gita, but found it difficult to make sense of the Mahabharata bloodbath. He preferred looking at the war as metaphor, as do many scholars today. But the descriptions of the war are far from metaphorical. It is brutal beyond belief. So one wonders if the Bhagavad Gita is actually merely an elaborate justification of violence!

The Bhagavad Gita is not so much a prescription as it is a reflection. The point is not whether one should be violent or non-violent. It proposes neither one nor the other. It prescribes action, whatever it might be. But demands reflection on the chosen action. The point is not whether you are violent or non-violent. The point is to observe the action carefully and figure out WHY are you violent or non-violent?

Animals are violent only in their quest to survive. But humans have a whole range of reason to be violent. We can be violent because we want to control the world around us – domesticate the world around us, tame fellow human beings and train them with rules so that they do our bidding. We can even use non-violence as a strategic lever to emotionally blackmail and manipulate people to do our bidding. That is non-violence in form but not in thought. The most non-violent man can be passively aggressive as he seeks to dominate those around him. Violence here is not physical but psychological. As we worship the mother-goddess who kills the buffalo demon, we have to ask ourselves what makes us violent. In awareness of our own violence, rather than in its denial, lies wisdom.

  • Kishan

    There is another point that the Gita makes about any action.Which is that the intent behind the action will indicate whether it is desirable or not; violent or non-violent is not material.A surgeon cuts limbs to save lives, this action of his cannot be termed violent.
    Blackmail is very common in today’s politics.There is no physical violence involved but this action cannot be called non-violent.

    • ansu

      i think both your doubts have been answered here…just read the article once again and you will get it though….
      your 1st doubt about the intent: that is what being reflective means….you should understand the ‘WHY’ behind your action….and that is ‘intention’ i think….
      and the cutting of limbs being violent or not, in this case we have to redefine for ourselves what violence is first of all….(is everything related to cutting, thrashing, breaking violent????)….as for me cutting of limbs is violent, and operation is part of culture (culture is everything designed by man which is not natural) and it is rightly said culture is violent (the connotation of violence being ‘bad’ always should be dropped in the context of the article)….
      and in the end, are you stating blackmailing to be violent or raising any question on the article, because the article never said it to be otherwise…the article goes a step ahead and states that even emotional blackmailing is violent….


    The creatures who are voilent by nature are so because of survival and have no developed brian like homo sapiense.Human on other hand become voilent to established one’s suprimacy and to fulfill own greed . Some one in lighter sense argued that let the poor die out of starvation/frustration/extortion or otherwise which will ulimately a part of poverty alleviation.

  • Who creates ART for your articles? It is very distinct and adds a lot of flavor to articles and talks. My kudos to the artist.

    Another great article. In awareness lies wisdom. :-)

    • Puja Gandhi

      I couldn’t agree more…:)

      • As far as i know Dr. Debudutt makes his own art :)


        – We sell Patachitra art online. Do visit our facebook page for more information.

  • Religiosity has
    been covered in superstitious rituals.On Sankranti,the farmer offers food as ‘
    naivedya ‘ to the Gods( ?) and sprinkles it in the fields that is
    bursting with the bountiful grain- ready for harvest. This food only
    attracts the birds AND they feed on it BUT their attention is also
    drawn to the numerous insects ( pests ? ) that are all around. The
    birds devour them as well.A natural pest control method – cunningly
    clothed in a religious ritual- to enforce compliance.!
    At the same time ‘ kite -flying ‘ is also indulged in on Sankranti.!The manja will
    only kill these birds, who are flying earthwards and responding to the
    tempting food So, we have two rituals contradicting each other !So,
    Te farmers’ prayer ( bhoomipuja) before tilling the soil is to seek
    forgiveness BEFORE inflicting ‘ himsa ‘ on the soil life.The prayers
    we say before meals etc ARE ALL to express our gratitude (
    krutagnyata) to ALL – living and non-living – that have sacrificed
    their energies so that we have our daily bread !
    The ‘ cow gives us milk’ is only teaching kids falsehood.Don’t we’ grab milk from the cow ?’

  • asrat N A M

    Violence a basic term in language is abhorred in a civilized society.
    Killing for survival is not violent if it is the order of the society.Peace and order cannot be there without avoidance of violence.Nature is violent but is protective and offers sustenance to humanity.Violence in Nature is to inform society how devastating the effects of violence.So violence has no place in human affairs in the world order.

  • Navneet

    In Tantra (especially Buddhist Tantra) the violence/wrath is a metaphor for detachment and the violent acts are akin to cutting the roots of attachment. Maybe Gandhi had a point in his interpretation of the Mahabharata war as well…

  • Thank you Devdutt for making us understand by simplifying the subject by dissecting it out gently and driving it into our minds softly. (all with a-himsa).
    Also your drawings are great.
    I got your Jaya (from flipkart) and am reading out a portion when time permits to my son (who is about 15) and wife. My son is all ears. Thank you for your work.

  • Monish Dedhia

    Its great going through the website & also your methodology is very good. Your Book Myth = Mithya is awesome. I want some good refernece books for All Vedas which are easy to understand.

    Thanks & Regards,

    • Devdutt

      Wait for my book in 2012 :-)

  • Monish Dedhia

    Will definately look out for your book but for Now please give me some reference & also to start with which Veda first.

    Thanks & Regards,

  • God, out of his bounty, has created all essential things of life in so much of abundance, like air, water etc that they never get depleted. Imagine if we were to buy air to breath, how much of humanity can afford it. Though, of course, we are buying water to drink these days, yet majority of the humanity survives on the natural water provided by God. When water rains on the land, the vegetation, herbs, plants and trees grow. God grows these in so much of abundance, even if all the herbivores keep eating 24 hours a day also, they are not going to get exhausted. Carnivores feed on the herbivores. But God has not created carnivores so much in number, because, even if all the carnivores keep eating round the clock also, a lot more of plant eating animals are going to be still left behind. Man, by his intestinal anatomy, is an omnivore, who eats plants, animals both. God says in Koran that I have created everything in this world for Man, and made Man “The Crown of Creation,”. In turn God expects him to be grateful to him and follow his commandments, like helping the co-human beings etc, because God has given the gift of conscience only to Humanity. Though all animals are blessed with brains by the Creator, it is only to Man that He has blessed conscience with.

    The concept of violence and non-violence is relevant and applies only to Humanbeings, who are blessed with Conscience, but not to other creations of God. So extending the same concepts to the whole of creations of God is a little too far-stretched. All the above is called Ecological Balance, which has been created in such exact proportions by God, that there is never any imbalance. For all this, we have only to sing praises of our Lord, and thank him.
    I am reminded of a couplet in Hindi, which I wrote in my childhood. It is:

    “Bhediya kabhee bhediyay ka
    shikaar naheen karta,

    Ajeeb baat hai, aadmi aadmi ke
    khoon ka pyaasa hai.”

    Then, what is the use conscience that God has blessed us with?

  • Prakasha Chandra Sahoo

    Only I can Say ‘Thank you’ Sir, for your magic interpretation of a’Hinsa’.

  • Anil K Mishra

    The ‘who’ and ‘what’ of non-violence is violence, rather, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of violence is non-violence.