Mahishasura was a pious devotee to Brahma and was rewarded with a boon that no man or god would be able to conquer him. Thus invincible, he battled the gods and took over the heavens. Helpless against Brahma's boon, the gods appealed to the goddess Parvati, who agreed to harness the shakti of all female celestial beings to fight Mahishasura. She assumed the form of Durga and borrowed weapons from each god. After nine days of fighting, she vanquished Mahishasura and his army and restored the heavens to the gods.
This painting depicts the final moments of the duel between the goddess and the demon. Durga stands on the buffalo, her multiple arms whirling with weapons as she uses her sword to slice the demon’s head off and send him to the netherworlds. Her lion bites into the buffalo’s rump for good measure.
The worship of a mother goddess as the source of life and fertility has ancient roots, but the composition of the text Devi Mahatmya ("Glory of the Goddess") during the fifth to sixth century led to the dramatic transformation of the female principle into a Great goddess of cosmic powers. Durga is the cosmic Magna Mater, and this popular iconic type encapsulates the struggle between the goddess and the demon Mahishasura, who symbolises ignorance, disorder, chaos, and evil. Later textual sources generally refer to the subject as Mahishasuramardini, or "killer of the buffalo demon." She remains the most important and popular form of the great goddess known generically as Devi or Shakti.