In Egyptian myth, Ra is the creator sun god. He ruled over earth and lived among its people but as he aged, humans began to plot against him. Angry, Ra summoned a retinue of gods to his assistance. One god advisedRa to send his divine eye, goddess Hathor, to destroy all mankind. Hathor in the Egyptian pantheon is known as the patroness of lovers. But she is a goddess who can change her form to suit the need of the hour. And as Ra’s private one-woman army, she turned into Sekhmet, a raging lioness who slaughtered rebellious humans and waded in their blood. Her bloodthirst was so insatiable that she refused to give up even when Ra sought to end the destruction. Finally,through an ingenious trick,Sekhmet was drawn away and transformed once more into the beautiful Hathor.

In India, Kali is a similarly complex goddess. She is a form of Durgawho, in turn, is a form of Parvati.But,like all other Indian myths, there are as many interpretations as there are myths about the origins, forms and roles of these threedevis. One strand places Kali, Durga and Parvatias different forms of one goddess – Kali being the most ferocious and violent and Parvati the least.Another version makes out Kali to be the archetype of all fearful goddesses in the Indian pantheon. According to some, Kali emerges from Durga’s forehead, just as Hathor does from Ra’s eye. Whatever the myth we choose to believe, Kali is universally regarded as a demon slayer. She went on a rampage against asuraswho were intent on destroying the cosmic order. But she got drunk on their blood and was unable to stop even when the gods entreated her. Worried that the world would come to an end, Shiva decided to step in. He layprostrate in her path. Kali stumbled upon him and, on realising that she had committed the sin of standing on her husband’s body,was transfixed to the spot with her tongue sticking out and a garland of skulls around her neck. In Bengal, she is worshipped inthis form even today.

Ancient goddesses are double-edged divinities; they wear many faces and can be both benign and ruthless. The same is true of nature, who is also worshipped as a goddess in many civilisations. In India she is Prakruti, who along with Purush (mankind) is one of the primal forces of the universe. In Greek myths, she is Gaia, daughter of Chaos and wife of Uranus. The survival and destruction of mankind are both dependent on her will as was made chillingly evident in the recent devastation in the north Indian hills. Thousands are still missing and many more are dead.

The power to create and demolish is not the preserve of goddesses alone. A similarduality can be found in the Rig Veda where Mitra and his companion Varuna are worshipped as one. The two, although the later Indian texts tend to obliterate Mitra, control the order of nature. Varuna-Mitra is known to be harsh and ruthless towards those who disturb nature’s innate balance.

The principle of duality that we ascribe to ancient divinities is perhaps a remnant of the creation myths.According to Indian, Chinese, Egyptian and Aztec mythologies,the beginning of the universe is associated with a cataclysmic event or chaos. Remember Big Bang? Thus destruction and creation, death and life, light and dark, chaos and order are parts of the same whole.

In the case of goddesses with a dual character, there is no good or evil. But, that’s not the same for Vedic duoVaruna-Mitra. The two are said to punish sinners and reward the faithful. And this is how many commentators have interpreted the events at Kedarnath and Badrinath.Their contention: nature has unleashed her fury against man for his sins. Maybe she did, but an interpretation that classifies nature as a goddess who punishes evil and rewards good ignores the tradition of duality in ancient cultures, especially Indian. Perhaps, this springs from greater emphasis on prayer and rituals instead of understanding the gods. Thus in the aftermath of the disaster, there is a general rush to ensure that the prayers are restarted at the temples but very little discussion on why there was a catastrophe and how it can be avoided in the future.