Durga: encountering the demon of ignorance

Durga Mahishasura-mardini, the slayer of the buffalo demon, Raja Ravi Varma- 1910 US public domain via Wikimedia
Durga Mahishasura-mardini, the slayer of the buffalo demon, Raja Ravi Varma- 1910 US public domain via Wikimedia

Oneness is defined as a “state of being unified or whole, though comprised of two or more parts.” Oneness is not only a concept, but a potential of the Self. Carl Jung spoke of Self realization in terms of wholeness and integration. Indian spiritual texts speak of the supreme Self (Atman) as One or non-dual.

In becoming aware of the supreme nature of the Self , we are likely to behold the demons and shadows of the individual self. In Indian philosophy, the demon is known to be an image of ignorance and falsehood. Carl Jung believed that an encounter with the demon or monster represented an archetypal stage in the process of individuation. He says, “the initial encounter with the Self casts a dark shadow ahead of time.” In mythic terms the shadow may present itself as a monster, a demon, a darkness or a drought. Here is the full quote from Jung’s Man and His Symbols:

“Many myths and fairy tales symbolically describe this initial stage in the process of individuation by telling of a king who has fallen ill or grown old. Other familiar story patterns are that a royal couple is barren; or that a demon keeps the king’s army or his ship from proceeding on its course; or that darkness hangs over the lands, wells dry up, and flood, drought, and frost afflict the country. Thus it seems as if the initial encounter with the Self casts a dark shadow ahead of time, or as if the “inner friend” comes at first like a trapper to catch the helplessly struggling ego in his snare.” (Carl Jung, Man & His Symbols, p.167)

The emergence of the Self may bring forth the shadows, the monsters, the demons. The shadow betokens a shift in consciousness: we become aware of the demon first; then we battle the demon.

In the painting above, we see an encounter with the demon, as the Goddess Durga slays the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Durga is a Hindu form of the Mother Goddess, or Devi. She is the destroyer of ignorance (Pintchman, p. 198). Mahishasura is an asura: an evil spirit, demon; an “opponent of the gods” [ie, the Self] (e.g.. RV. VIH:96,9 in Monier- Williams). In Hindu iconography the ‘demons’ represent ignorance, the opponents of the Self. To battle the demon is to destroy ignorance.

Carl Jung said that “the shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself.” (CW 9i, para. 513). Jung tells us: “Everyone carries a shadow.” The question is: How aware are we of the shadow?

The more aware we are of the shadows of ignorance, the more freedom we have to perceive the truth–and that truth is the Self. The Hindu Upanishads express this clear understanding of the nature of the Self, which is often called the “supreme Self” (see Shankara, ie p.186). The Katha Upanishad calls the Self, “great and all-pervading” (Part 2, Canto i, Manta 4). The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says the “Self is within all.”

To know the Self we must turn our eyes inward, to perceive the “indwelling Self” (Shankara, p. 186). The Self is “knowledge and light, eternal and undecaying. (Upanishads 1905, p.65) The Self is Sat-cit-ānanda (सच्चिदानन्द) being-consciousness-bliss.

Being aware of the Self, we become “drinkers of truth (rtam)” (Shankara, p.161). More and more, we seek the truth, and we behold the truth. Awareness is truth, truth perceiving truth.  A living and direct understanding of the nature of truth requires the ability to tolerate the paradoxes of being. The supreme Self is “knowledge and light, eternal and undecaying.” And yet, the individual self is bound by temporality, ignorance, decay– all shadows of the true Self.

Jung tells us “the less [the shadow] is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” (CW 11, P.131) This, of course, does not mean we should act out or indulge the shadow, only that we should bring it into conscious awareness, thus freeing ourselves of its unconscious hold on our personality. Jung notes that the shadow “is always thrusting itself upon [us] directly or indirectly–for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies.” (CW 9i, para. 513) The more that we come into awareness of the shadow the less it thrusts itself upon us, freeing us to come into the light and awareness of the Self.

In practical terms, awareness of our inner shadow or demon may come into consciousness as an identification. For example, the awareness “I am greedy” or “I am envious” is an  identifications we make about ourselves. With this awareness we delineate the aspect of the individual self that is greedy and envious, as our shadow or inner demon. This is a part of knowing our self, as an individual and particular self– a human being.

Through this process of delineation a clarity emerges, an awareness. We begin to realize the true nature of the Self. Beyond our greed and envy there is the Self that is aware, and being aware is free of all shadows and demons. This aspect is the Self beyond self: being-consciousness-bliss.

Working with shadow material helps us to become attuned to areas of ourselves that we were not previously aware of, enlarging the scope of the individual self. And knowledge of the individual self is fundamentally related to the integration of the dualism inherent in the personality. Just as we may integrate duality at a conceptual level, we must also integrate duality at an emotional level. In this way, we become aware of both the shadow and light within ourselves, as well as the love and hate, the envy and gratitude. A living experience of the unity of these emotions requires the toleration of paradox. Through awareness, love becomes a place and space where primitive emotions can be felt and worked through. We become Durga battling the demons of ignorance. This is a battle of love, of awareness that transforms both ourselves and others.

Becoming aware of both the individual self and the supreme Self, we become aware of the Self within our self that is more than a self. With this, we realize something essential in our self, something beyond the play of shadows, beyond the decay of time, beyond ignorance: the light of awareness.


Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols

Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East

Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9i: Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious

Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9ii: Aion

Eight Upanishads, with the Commentary of Shankara, translated by Swami Gambhirananda

Sir Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary: Etymologically.


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