Eight-armed dancing Mohini. Halebid
|Affiliation||Avatar of Vishnu|
|Weapon||Mohini-astra (seduction), Sudarshana Chakra|
Mohini is the only female avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu. She is a Femme fatale, an enchantress, who maddened her lovers, sometimes leading them to their own doom. Mohini first appears in the Samudra manthan (churning of the ocean) narrative in the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The Mohini legend became popular later retold and was expanded in several later texts and also was celebrated in dance.
In the Samudra manthan episode, Mohini charms the demons and acquires the pot of Amrita, the elixir of immortality. In the Bhasmasura tale, she saves the great god Shiva from the demon Bhasmasura and tricks the latter to bring his own destruction. Similar tales are also told about demons Surpanaka, Nontok, Virochana and Araka.
Besides demons, Mohini often also enchants sages and the great ascetic god Shiva, who chases her wildly abandoning his own wife Parvati. In the process, Shiva is often described to release his unfailing seed. Sometimes, Shiva and Mohini are said to have an union. The seed or the union results in the birth of Shasta, who regarded as the son of both the deities. Shasta is identified with the Keralite Ayyappa as well as the Tamil Aiyanar. Some legends also describe the monkey-god Hanuman or the war-god Skanda, being born. Their union is some legends leads to Harihara, the composite of Vishnu and Shiva. Sometimes, Mohini is regarded as a female form of Krishna, Vishnu's another avatar. Mohini-Krishna is described to marry the Tamil god Aravan. This marriage is commemorated by Alis, the Indian transgender.
Some temples in South India dress their Vishnu icons as the female Mohini on special days. Mohini is also identified with Mahalasa or Mhalsa - the consort of Khandoba (a regional avatar of Shiva) whose temples are found in western India.
According to Goudriaan, the earliest legend of Mohini appears in the Adi Parva (chapter 17, stanzas 38-40) of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. A brief account after the churning of the ocean (Samudra manthan) episode nectars how when the amrita rose, the demons seized it. Vishnu takes a delusive false appearance (mayam ashito mohinim) and enchanted the demons - Danavas and Daityas - who give her the amrita. Later traditions took Mohini (delusive) as the proper name of the female form of Vishnu. Later versions of the Mahabharata, especially south Indian editions, add few more lines about Mohini identifying her as the maya of Vishnu, who carried the amrita jar and served amrita to the gods, while the demons wept. The Mahabharata also has a contrast idea about acquiring of the amrita by Vishnu. It says that the heroic Vishnu used her bow and snatched the amrita jar from the demons in a struggle. Another reading links all the three events in the following sequence: first the transformation to Mohini and acquiring amrita, followed by distribution of amrita only to the gods and the battle between gods and demons where Vishnu abandons his female form and defeats the demons.  The Ramayana, the other Hindu epic, mentions Mohini's story briefly in Bala Kanda chapter.
The Mohini legend became "popular" later retold and expanded in several later texts. The tales of Mohini-Vishnu also increased among devotional circles in various regions. In the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu takes the form of the enchantress, Mohini, in order to trick the Asuras (demons) into giving up Amrita, the elixir of life. Once Amrita rose from the sea, the demons Daityas took it and fled. The gods (Adityas) urged Vishnu to get it back. Vishnu took the form of Mohini, described as "beyond definition" and "ornamentation personified". She charms the Daityas with her sensual walk and asks them if she could serve the amrita. Cunningly Mohini tells them: "How is that the descendants of sage Kashyapa (Daityas) are attached to a wanton woman like me? For the wise never place their trust in a lovely woman." She further compares the friendship of a woman to the temporary relationships of monkeys and jackals. Bewitched by her sultry smile and voluptuous figure, the demons laugh at the warning and hand the Amrita pot to Mohini, who laid the condition that all that she would do will be accepted unquestionably. Mohini made the demon and gods line up in separate lines and distributed amrita to only to the gods. While other spellbound demons failed, Rahu suspected Mohini's intent and sat amongst the gods. Just as Rahu was about to sip the amrita, Surya and Chandra alert her. Mohini cut off the throat of Rahu by her Sudarshana Chakra (discus), avoiding the drink to reach his body. While his body felt dead, his head became immortal. As the trickery was exposed, the demons declared war against the gods. The immortal gods under the leadership of Vishnu and Indra, defeat the demons decisively driving them to the nether world. In the list of 22 avatars of Vishnu, Mohini is also mentioned as an avatar of Vishnu in the Purana. The Mohini legend acquiring the amrita is also told in the Padma Purana.
The tale of Bhasmasura ("ash-demon") is told in Vishnu Purana. The demon Bhasmasura pleases god Shiva by his austerities, the latter bestows on him the boon to turn into ashes anyone on whose head he places his hand. The demon decides to try the boon on Shiva himself. Shiva runs terified. Vishnu, turns into Mohini and charms Bhasmasura, who asks Mohini to marry him. Mohini agrees on the condition Bhasmasura falls her in her dance. In the course of the dance, she places her hand on her hand and thus tricks Bhasmasura to do so, resulting in his self-destruction. According to Pattanaik, Mohini is more than a disguise to delude the demon, rather than a sexual transformation in this legend. Mohini is a disillusion, Vishnu's maya. The legend of Bhasmasura is retold in the Buddhist text Satara Dewala Devi Puvata, with a slight variation. Vishnu assumes his female form (the name "Mohini" is not used) and charms Bhasmasura. The female Vishnu asks Bhasmasura asks him to promise her that he not leave her by taking his hand on his head per the usual practice to swear on one's head. On doing so, Bhasmasura is reduced to ashes.
In an similar legend related to birth of Ayyappa, a demon named Surpanaka earns the power to turn anyone into ashes by his austerities. The tale mirrors all other aspects of the Buddhist version of the Bhasmasura tale, where he is forced by Mohini to severe fidelity if keeping his hand on his head and is burnt.
The prelude of Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana, narrates how the demon Nontok is charmed and killed by Mohini-Vishnu. Nontok misuses the divine weapon given by Shiva. The four-armed Mohini-Vishnu enchants Nontok and then attacks with her/his four arms. In his last moments, the demon accuses Vishnu of foul play saying that Vishnu first seduced him and then attacked him. Vishnu then decrees that in his next birth, Nontok will be born as the ten-armed demon Ravana and Vishnu will be a mortal man called Rama and will fight him and defeat him.
In a less-known tale in Ganesha Purana (900 - 1400CE) tells the wise asura king Virochana was rewarded a magical crown by the sun-god Surya. The crown made him shielded against all harm. Vishnu as Mohini enchanted Virochana and stole his crown. The unprotected demon was then killed by Vishnu.
A legend about demon Araka associates Mohini with Krishna - an avatar of Vishnu, rather than the god himself. The demon Araka had never laid eyes on a woman and the resultant chasity made him invincible. So, Krishna takes the form of the beautiful Mohini and married him. After three days of marriage and destroying Araka's chastity, Krishna killed him in battle. Transgender Hijras consider Krishna as transsexual, rather than female.
The Bhagavata Purana further narrates: After Vishnu deceives the demons by his maya female form, Shiva wishes to see the bewildering form of Mohini again. When Vishnu agrees and reveals his Mohini form, Shiva runs crazily behind Mohini, "bereft of shame and robbed by her of good sense", while the abandoned Parvati (Uma) looks on. Shiva is described as overcome by Kāma - lust or Kamadeva, the god of lust - who is described to be burnt to ashes in another Hindu legend. His "unfailing" seed escapes like that of "a love-maddened elephant chasing a desiring female" and falls on ground creating ores of silver and gold. Afterwards, Vishnu comes to his true form and reveals that his maya can not be surpassed even by Shiva. Shiva then extols Vishnu's power.
Tripurarahasya, a south Indian Shakta text, retells the story with giving importance to the Goddess. When Shiva wishes to see Vishnu's Mohini form again, Vishnu fears that he may be burned to ashes like Kamadeva by the ascetic Shiva. So Vishnu prays to goddess Tripura, who grants half of her beauty to Vishnu, who takes the Mohini-form. As Shiva touches Mohini, his seed spills, indicating the loss of the merit of all his austerities in one go.
In the Brahmanda Purana - another text glorifying the Goddess - when the wandering sage Narada tells Shiva about Vishnu's Mohini form that deluded the demons, Shiva dismisses him. Then, Shiva with his wife Parvati goes to Vishnu's abode and asks him to take on the Mohini form again so he can see the actual transformation for himself. Vishnu smiles and again mediates on the Goddess and in place of Vishnu stands the gorgeous Mohini. Overcome by lust, Shiva chases Mohini as Parvati hangs her head in shame and envy. Shiva grabs Mohini's hand and embraces her, the latter frees her hand and runs further. Finally Shiva grabs her and their "violent coupling" leads to discharge of Shiva's seed which falls "short of its goal" - suggesting no sexual act was consummated. The seed falls on the ground and the god Maha-Shasta ("The Great Chastiser") is born. Mohini disappears, while Shiva returns home with Parvati.
Shasta is identified primarily with two regional deities: Ayyappa from Kerala and the Tamil Aiyanar as well as gods of classical Hinduism: Skanda and Hanuman. In the later Puranic story of the origin of god Ayyappa, Mohini becomes pregnant from Shiva, and gives birth to Ayyappa, who they abandon in shame. The legend highlights Vishnu's protests to be Mohini again and also notes that Ayyappa is born of Vishnu's thigh as Mohini does not have a real womb. Another variant says: instead of a biological act, Ayyappa sprang from Shiva's semen, which he ejaculated upon embracing Mohini. Ayyappa is referred to as Hariharaputra, "the son of Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara)", and grows up to be a great hero. Another tale says after Surpanaka's destruction, Shiva wishes to see Mohini and mesmerized by her looks, has union with her resulting in the birth of Ayyapppa.
Kanda Puranam narrates about the birth of Shasta identified with Aiyanar. The text tells just before the tale that Vishnu is Shiva's Shakti (wife and power) Parvati in a male form. The legend begins with Shiva's request and Vishnu's agreement to show his illusionary Mohini form, that he assumed for the distribution of amrita. Shiva falls in love with Mohini and proposes an union with her. Mohini-Vishnu declines saying that union of two same sex women was unfruitful. Shiva informs Mohini-Vishnu that he was just one of forms of his Shakti. Thereafter, their union resulted in the birth of a dark boy with red locks, who was named Hariharaputra. Further, he was also known as Shasta and Aiyannar.
In the Agni Purana, as the enchanted Shiva follows Mohini, drops of his semen follows on the ground and become lingas, Shiva's symbols. His semen also generates the monkey-god Hanuman, who helps Vishnu's avatar Rama in his fight against Ravana in the Ramayana. Shiva Purana says that by the mere glimpse of Mohini, Shiva spurts out his seed. The seed was collected and poured into the ear of Anjani, who gave birth to Hanuman, the incarnation of Shiva. The latter is retold in the Thai and Malaysian version of the Ramayana. Though Hanuman strings from Shiva's seed, he is also considered as a combined son of Vishnu and Shiva.
The Buddhist version of the Bhasmasura tale continues with Shiva (Ishvara) asking the female-Vishnu, who is seated on a swing, to marry him. She asks Shiva to get the permission of his wife Umayangana to take her home. Shiva returns with Umayangana's consent to find the female-Vishnu pregnant, who sends him back to get permission to bring a pregnant woman home. When he returns, a child is born and female-Vishnu is pregnant again. She requests Shiva to seek approval to bring a pregnant woman with a child home. This happens six more times. Finally, Shiva brings Umayangana with him to witness the miraculous woman. Till then, Vishnu returns to his male form. Umayangana embraces the six youngest children merging them into the six-headed Skanda, while the eldest Aiyanayaka, named "eldest brother" remains intact. Aiyanayaka is identified with Aiyanar.
In rare instance where an "explicit, male homosexual act" is suggested is in a Telugu text where when Shiva is busy lovemaking with Mohini-Vishnu, the latter returns to his original form and still the lovemaking continues.
Mohini plays a lesser role in a Shaiva legend in Skanda Purana. Here, Vishnu as Mohini joins Shiva to teach a lesson to arrogant sages. As a group of sages performing rituals in a forest start considering as equals to the gods. To humble them, Shiva takes the form of an attractive young beggar or religious mendicant and Vishnu becomes Mohini, his wife. While the sages fall for Mohini, their women wildly chase Shiva. When they regain their senses, they perform a black magic sacrifice, which produces a serpent, lion and elephant (or tiger) and a dwarf, all of which are overpowered by Shiva. Shiva then dances on the dwarf and takes the form of Nataraja, the cosmic dancer. The legend is retold in Tamil Kovil Puranam and Tamil Kandha Puranam with some variation. This legend is also told in the Sthala Purana related to Chidambaram Temple dedicated to Shiva-Nataraja.
Another legend from Linga Purana says that the embracing of love-struck Shiva and Mohini led to be their merging into one body. At this moment, Mohini became Vishnu again, resulting the composite deity Harihara, whose right side of the body is Shiva and left side is Vishnu in his male form. In the temple in Sankarnayinarkovil near Kalugumalai, is the one of the rarest exceptions to iconography of Harihara (Sankara-Narayana). The deity is depicted similar to the Ardhanari, the composite form of Shiva-Parvati, where right side of the body is the male Shiva and left side is female. This rare image's female side represents Mohini and it as a whole symbolizes the union of Shiva and Mohini. In a Harihara image, the Shiva side has an erect phallus (urdhva linga) relates to Shiva's love to his left side Vishnu-Mohini. Influence of Shakta traditions on Shaiva ones may have led to the development of composite images like Harihara, where Vishnu is identified with Shiva's consort or Mohini. Like the Kanda Puranam narrative, the Shaiva saint Appar identifies Vishnu as Parvati (Uma) - the female counterpart of Shiva.
Stories in which Shiva knows of Mohini's true nature have been interpreted to "suggest the fluidity of gender in sexual attraction". Pattanaik writes while westerners may interpret Shiva-Mohini union as homosexual, traditional Hindus do not agree to this interpretation. Pattanik writes that those focusing only on homoeroticism miss the narrative's deeper metaphysical significance: Mohini's femininity represents the material aspect of reality, and Mohini's seduction is another attempt to induce the ascetic Shiva into taking an interest in worldly matters. Only Vishnu has the power to "enchant" Shiva, another demon who tried to enchant and hurt Shiva in form of a woman was killed in the attempt.
Another interpretation regards that the Mohini tale suggests that Vishnu's maya even blinds supernatural beings. Mohini is "the impersonation of the magically delusive nature of existence which fetters all beings to the rounds of births and deaths and vicissitudes of life. Mohini also does have an independent existence, in all legends, she is a temporary dellusion and is absorbed back in Vishnu, after serving her purpose.
The legend of the union of Mohini-Vishnu and Shiva may also be written as part of the desire to have a common child of the two cosmic patriarchs of Hinduism.
In Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Mohini tries to seduce the creator-god Brahma. While doing so she says: "A man who refuses to make love to a woman tortured by desire is a eunuch. Whether a man is ascetic or amorous, he must not spurn a woman who approaches him, or he will go to Hell. Come now and make love to me". In one breath, Brahma says "Go away, Mother" and then says that he is too old for Mohini and like her father. Mohini then reminds him that he had already committed incest with his daughter.
Another folk tale tells: the Mahabharata hero Aravan - elevated to the status of Tamil god Kuttantavar - was married to Mohini, before his self-sacrifice. Aravan agrees to become the sacrificial victim for the Kalappali ("sacrifice to the battlefield") to ensure the victory of the Pandavas, his father and uncles. Before being sacrificed to goddess Kali, Aravan asks three boons from Krishna, the guide of the Pandavas. The third boon was that Aravan should be married before the sacrifice so that he could get the right of cremation and funerary offerings (bachelors were buried), is found only in the folk cults. To fulfil this wish in the Kuttantavar cult myth, Krishna turns into Mohini married Aravan, and spent the night with him. Then after the sacrifice, Mohini laments Aravan's death, breaking their bangles, beating their breasts and discarding their bridal finery and then returns to the original form of Krishna. The legend of the marriage of Aravan and Krishna in his female form as Mohini, and Mohini-Krishna's widowhood after Aravan's sacrifice, forms the central theme of an eighteen-day annual festival in the Tamil month of Cittirai (April-May) at Koovagam. The marriage ceremony is enacted by Hijras (eunuchs), who play the role of Mohini-Krishna.
Mohini is worshipped as Mahalasa or Mahalasa Narayani in Goa. She is the Kuldevi (family goddess) of many Hindus from western and southern India, including Goud Saraswat Brahmins, Karhade Brahmins, Daivajnas and Bhandaris. Her chief temple is at Mardol, Goa, though her temples also exist in the states of Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Her older temple in Old Mardol or Velham whose beauty was also described by its destroyed - was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1567, though the icon of Mahalasa was rescued. Later, in the current temple built in the 17th century, the icon was reconsecrated. Mahalasa has four hands, carrying a Trishula, a sword, a severed head and a drinking bowl. She stands on a prostate man or demon, as a tiger or lion licks blood drpping from the severed head. Goud Saraswat Brahmins as well as Vaishnavas from Goa and South Canara identify her with Mohini and call her Narayani and Rahu-matthani, the slayer of Rahu, as per Bhavishya Purana.
Mahalasa is also called Mhalsa, the consort of Khandoba - a local incarnation of Shiva. As the consort of Khandoba, her chief temple is located at Newase, where she worshipped as a four-armed goddess and identified with Mohini. As a consort of Khandoba, Mhalsa often depicted two-armed and accompanying Khandoba on his horse or standing besides him.
In the 11th century Jaganmohini-Kesava Swany temple at Ryali, the central icon - discovered by the king buried underground in the 11th century - represents the male Vishnu in the front, while the back of the icon is female Jagan-Mohini ("one who deludes the world") or Mohini, with a female hairdo and figure. A Sthala Purana records the flower in Mohini's hair fell at Ryali ("fall" in Telugu) when Mohini was being chased by Shiva.
The name "Mohini" मोहिनी - "delusion personified" originates from the verb root "moha" - enchant, perplex, disillusion. The name "Mohini" has also into language as term related to magic. It means "erotic magic" or "erotic magic spell" for the Baiga of Central India. The word Mohini is become synonymous with "the essence of female beauty and allurement".
Mohini has an important dramatic roles in several mythical episodes of South Indian drama like Kathakali, but in Kerala - where Mohini's son Ayyappa is popular - Mohiniattam ("the dance of Mohini") has the status of an independent dance form. The Indian classical dance Mohiniattam ("the dance of Mohini") is named after Mohini - the "seductress supreme" of Hindu mythology. An exclusive dance for women and "an ideal example of the erotic form", the origins of Mohiniattam form are unknown, though it was popularized in c. 1850, then banned as it was used by "loose women" to attract customers, however, the ban was lifted in 1950, after which it has seen a renewal.
The legends of Mohini deluding the demons and Shiva are also being depicted in other dances like Kathak in contemporary times. Another dance Sonal Nati,performed in Saho area of Chamba district, Himachal Pradesh, retells the Mohini-Bhasmasura tale and hence also known as Mohini-Bhasmasura dance. It is performed on festive occasions, especially in the Saho fair held in Baisakh in the precicts of Chandershekhar temple.