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The Reincarnation of Durga

Perhaps the Truest Story of Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen
by Elizabeth Debold

The true story of Phoolan Devi has eluded us. Legendary Queen of the Bandits, whose life was bastardized in a popular Indian film that she loathed, she transcended all limits of gender, low caste status, and even conventional morality to seek justice for herself, for women, and for all of her “backward” class. What was the source of her strength? Limited by the modern mindset, journalists and her biographers seem to have ignored what Phoolan herself has said about her deep devotion to Durga, the Hindu goddess of justice: “For centuries every dacoit [bandit] has honored the goddess Durga,” she told an Atlantic Monthly reporter in 1996. Within the Hindu tradition, intense devotion to a deity is often rewarded by attaining the attributes of that god or goddess. Phoolan Devi's commitment was profound: “She is what sustained me; whatever she has, I have; whatever she wants, I want. And all of the men in my gang considered me to be a reincarnation of Durga.”

Where the myth of Durga meets the legend of Phoolan Devi, a new story can be heard—one that compels us to bear witness to a divine fury that ferociously ignited in her the desire for triumph, the courage to speak the truth, and an unbridled demand for equality and justice.

The Myth of Durga

After years of austerities, Mahishasura, king of the asuras [demons], was finally granted a boon by Lord Brahma: No man or god would be able to kill him. Inflated by the enormous power that this boon gave him, Mahishasura, the fearsome buffalo demon, began to terrorize Heaven, inflamed with the desire to rule the world. For one hundred years, he waged war against the gods, invading Heaven with an army of asuras. Insane with blood lust, he wantonly killed one god after another, destroying everything in his path. Chaos and anarchy reigned. Driving the gods from Heaven so that they were left to roam on Earth as mere mortals, Mahishasura grabbed the throne.

Frightened, the gods begged the Lords Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva to put an end to Mahishasura's tyranny. Hearing their fellow gods' pleas, their faces contorted in rage and they gathered all of their power, creating an enormous glare that lit the skies. Then light issued from all of the gods, uniting in an unequaled brilliance that sent flames into every corner of Heaven. Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma called forth a feminine presence, knowing that Mahishasura's life was not protected from a female adversary. Lo, from this light emerged a woman—fully grown—gorgeous, bright yellow, with many arms. Her name was Devi Durga. Gracefully, forcefully, she rode a lion, a permanent scowl etched upon her beautiful face. Durga was born to kill.

The Story of Phoolan Devi

On a small spot of earth near one of the thousand bends in the sacred Yamuna River, there was a town large enough to have a name but too small to be found on any map of India. Living here were two brothers, born into a caste only slightly above the untouchables (the pariahs below the caste system itself): Bihari, who was sly and cunning and the father of sons, and Devidin, good-hearted but timid, the father of four girls and a boy. Immediately after the death of their father, devious Bihari confiscated the family land. With his wealth, he achieved a level of affluence that gave him influence far beyond his caste. He thereby exiled his younger illiterate brother to a world of humiliation and hunger, left to desperately scratch a living from land too exhausted to yield more than cucumbers. Devidin's wife, Mooli, continuously bemoaned their fate—robbed of their land and burdened by daughters who would need dowries that they could ill afford.

Day after day, year after year, the second daughter, Phoolan Devi—meaning “Goddess of Flowers”—watched her father grow stooped and her mother increasingly enraged as they struggled to support a too-large and too-female family. Small, dark, with a wide, flat nose like her father, Phoolan inherited her mother's anger. It glittered in her eyes, fueled her quick intelligence, and bestowed on her an uncanny confidence. One day, Phoolan convinced her older sister to accompany her to their uncle's land—land that should have been theirs. Laughing and eating raw chickpeas from the uncle's field, the girls drew the attention and ire of their much older cousin, Maiyadin. Phoolan taunted him when he demanded that the girls leave “his” land. As Maiyadin and his servant tried to forcibly remove them, Phoolan bit her cousin's hand and tripped him, watching in satisfaction as he fell in the mud, ruining his spotless white kurta. He beat her unconscious with a brick. The next day, Maiyadin brought the police. For the girls' offense, their mother and father were beaten with sticks.

Phoolan Devi, born a burdensome girl into a life where those of her caste were treated less well than animals, prayed to her father's favorite goddess, Durga, asking her “to show me how to slay demons as she had done, and to give me a stick too, so I could fight back.” Phoolan Devi was born for revenge.

Seeing the goddess born out of their collective brilliance, the gods rejoiced. Each god bestowed upon her his unique power and weapons. Shiva gave her a trident, called forth from his own. Vishnu gave her a discus, and Brahma gave prayer beads and the water gourd of an ascetic. From Himalaya, lord of the mountains, came the gift of the lion that was her mount. A sword and shield, impenetrable armor, a garland of snakes, jewels, lotus flowers, and much, much more were other gifts from the gods. Holding a different weapon in each of her many arms, Durga laughed defiantly.

Mahishasura saw Heaven and Earth quaking, the oceans churning, and the mountains heaving as the Devi roared again and again. Bellowing in wrath, he rushed toward the source of the sound. Then he beheld her: Her radiance penetrated all three worlds—the earth buckled under her feet, her crown scraped the sky, and her thousand arms reached in all directions. Mahishasura sent his demon warriors into battle with the Devi—millions upon millions. But Durga cut them down as if it was child's play. As her thousand arms wielded their weapons and dispatched the demons to their deaths, she remained calm, serene. And each sigh that escaped her frighteningly beautiful lips created throngs of warriors who joined her in the fray.

One day, when Phoolan was about eleven, she was playing with her little sister on the mudbank by the river. Suddenly her mother came and dragged her by her hair back to the village. Her mother and other village women removed Phoolan's little-girl blouse and skirt, bathed her five times using different oils, and then slid silver bangles on her arms and rings on her toes. She was wrapped in a sari with her head covered so that she couldn't see. This was her wedding. Awkwardly walking through the ceremony, Phoolan found her tiny fingers engulfed by the large, plump, and sweaty hand of the man who would be her husband—a man over twenty years her senior whom she had seen only once before.

Her husband, Putti Lal, was supposed to wait before bringing Phoolan Devi to live with him—because she was not yet a woman. Emboldened by her family's poverty, he insisted on taking her with him immediately. And he was most likely encouraged by Maiyadin, the son of Bihari, who wanted his spirited cousin out of his way. Her mother and father protested and cried in vain. Putti Lal persisted, and despite the fact that it was against the law for Phoolan to be his wife at such a young age, her parents relented, hoping for the best. And Phoolan, having no idea why her parents were distressed, comforted them, saying she would be back soon.

She was right. Months later, her family heard that she was ill. Her father went to retrieve her and found her bone-thin, with her hair falling out in clumps, her body covered in boils, and deep racking pain in her abdomen. Putti Lal had not waited for her to grow up. He had used her in every possible way, punched her in the face when she cried out, and beat her repeatedly. And her sighs, moans, and screams did not bring a single soul to her rescue. “There was nothing I could do to stop him,” Phoolan said. “But I swore to the goddess Durga who drank the blood of demons that he would pay for the pain he caused me. . . . He had said himself that I would grow one day. So I vowed that I would survive, and I would have my revenge.”

The blood of the demons and their elephants and horses ran in rivers through Heaven as Durga and her millions destroyed them all. Mahishasura transformed into his buffalo form and trampled Durga's legions. Then he rushed toward her lion. With his horns he threw mountains into the air, while his lashing tail whipped the oceans until they overflowed. He tore the clouds of the sky with his horns and trampled the earth beneath his hooves.

The Devi Durga was roused to fury. She caught Mahishasura in her noose, and he changed into a lion. As she severed the lion's head, he transformed into a man with a sword. After she shot him through with arrows, he became an elephant and grabbed her lion with his trunk. Durga chopped off his trunk, and then he reverted to his awesome buffalo form. He hurled mountains at her, and she turned them to dust. He pounded with his hooves until all of the worlds trembled. Drinking a divine potion, Durga warned him that the place where he stood bellowing would be the place where the gods would rejoice in his death. She leapt on him, piercing him with her spear. Mahishasura emerged, fighting, from the mouth of the buffalo, but Durga beheaded him with a clean stroke of her sword.

By the age of sixteen, Phoolan Devi had lost battle after battle with demon after demon. When she slapped a village councilman's daughter because the girl had assaulted her mother, the councilman flayed Phoolan and her sister with a whip until they were covered in blood. When she complained about being harassed by the council leader's son, the son and a friend scaled the walls of her family home and raped her on the dirt floor in front of her parents. When she dared to seek vengeance on the council leader, her cousin Maiyadin and the council leader staged a robbery and then accused her of being part of a bandit gang. When she protested her innocence in court, the police took her into a room and gang-raped her for three days, warning her that if she told anyone, they would torture her, burn the family's house down, and destroy her family. Because she had been in prison, she was shunned for being promiscuous. Because she refused to be shamed and silenced, she was again gang-raped, this time by Thakurs (upper-caste landowners) in front of her parents, who had been beaten into passivity. Because she had been raped, the rumor spread that she was available to any man for sex, so other Thakurs came from all over the countryside, looking for her. She hid from these demons who appeared out of nowhere and who assumed that their upper caste status gave them a right to use her body as they pleased.

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