“Who runs the world? Girls!” Those wise and catchy words from Queen Bae confirm what most of us already know– women are mighty. We know girls are running the world, but who saves it in times of distress? The Hindu goddess Durga, that’s who! At least that is what we see depicted in this 14th century Javanese sculpture of Durga slaying the buffalo demon.
Who is Durga and what’s her story?
Durga (pronounced DUR-gah) is a warrior goddess within the Hindu pantheon. Her name means “the invincible” and she is just that. The story of Durga begins with the buffalo demon Mahishasura (pronounced MA-hish-AH-soora). In Sanskrit, Mahisha means buffalo and asura means demon. The god Brahma granted Mahishasura a boon (blessing or advantage) that made him indestructible by the hands of a male. To say the least, the power went straight to Mahishasura’s head and unleashed a reign of terror on the entire world. Because none of the gods could defeat the demon, Shiva, Vishnu, and all the male gods combined their energy and formed the goddess Durga. The male gods armed Durga with all of their weapons and she was off to battle. It was a difficult fight, but Durga emerged victorious.
What is an Indian goddess doing in Java?
Hinduism first spread to the Indonesian island from India around the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, but the religion really took hold in Java around the 4th through 7th centuries. Although there are many deities in Hinduism, Durga became quite popular in Central and East Java and depictions of her image still populate the temple complexes that remain today.
Why do sculptures of Hindu gods have multiple arms?
The multiple arms serve as a way to express a god’s supreme power and ability to perform multiple acts at a single time. The objects a deity holds in their hands help the viewer identify what deity is depicted. For example, Shiva holds a trident, Vishnu holds a conch shell, Ganesha holds a bowl of sweet treats, and Durga holds multiple weapons.
So what is so special about this sculpture of Durga?
Javanese sculptures of Durga slaying the buffalo demon depict her with a number of arms varying between 2 to 10. The most common type is the eight-armed Durga, like this one in the BMA’s collection. In fact, there are 48 examples of this variation in Central Java and 56 examples in East Java, where this sculpture is from. But why are the number of arms so important? The more arms Durga is depicted with, the more weapons she can hold in her hands. The more weapons she holds, the more clues we, the viewer, have to identify her as the slayer of the buffalo demon.
This little fact, however, is what makes the BMA’s sculpture so unusual and interesting. Despite having eight arms to hold eight different weapons, her multiple hands grasp only three weapons! In her upper right hand (viewer’s left) she holds a discus (chakra), and the next two hands below grip an arrow (shara). Her top three left hands (viewer’s right) firmly grips a bow (dhanu).Her bottom right hand is holding up the tale of the buffalo and her bottom left hand is pulling at the hair of the demon Mahish. She stands bold and victorious. Why so few weapons? We can only guess. Perhaps the artist was making a statement? The discus was given to Durga by Vishnu and the weapon symbolizes righteousness. The bow and arrow were given to Durga by Vayu and represent energy. Maybe this sculpture of Durga was created to let the Javanese people know that with energy and a righteous cause, you can destroy evil and prevail.
Needless to say, it’s good to have Durga on your side. She combats evil forces that threaten peace and prosperity. She is loving, protective, and above all, fierce.
So remember. Who runs the world? Girls. Who saves the world? Durga!
This sculpture is located at the entrance of the Southeast Asian Ceramics gallery on the 2nd floor of the Museum.
Written by Angela May, Assistant Curator of Education