Millennium Post

Busting the Mahishasura myth

Union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani was all fire and brimstone while condemning the praise for Mahishasura, the demon who was slain by Goddess Durga, by the “anti-national” JNU students. The Minister wanted to know how the people of Kolkata will react to the eulogies to Durga’s enemy.

Irani probably thought that she had scored a memorable political point. However, for all her passionate denunciation of the Mahishasura “festival” in a university which several of her  party members want closed down and “fumigated”, as Subramanian Swamy has said, what Irani revealed was the type-cast ignorance of the saffron crowd about India’s diversity.

What she is evidently unaware of – presumably because she has read only up to Class XII – is the longstanding view among the Adivasis, Dalits, and sections of south Indians that Ravan and Mahishasura were depicted as demons by the Aryans.

In Periyar’s Sachchi Ramayana, for instance, Ravan is the hero and not Ram. To the Tamil iconoclast, the Ramayana was a story of the battle between the Aryans of north India and the Dravidians of the south. It is a view which is a part of the political philosophy of the DMK and other Dravidian parties.
Interestingly, even in the land of Lord Ram’s worshippers in UP, a Ravanmela (fair) is held where the 10-headed demon king is worshipped as a Buddhist, Vedic scholar and a Shiva devotee.

The annual mela is organised in Pukhrayan village in the Kanpur area by the Bharatiya Dalit Panther Committee where the contradiction between the atheistic Buddhism of Jai Lankesh and his devotion to the Hindu god, Shiva, is quietly ignored in the famed accommodative tradition of Indian diversity.
Not surprisingly, a BJP MP, Udit Raj, who is a Dalit and an alumnus of the JNU, once attended the Mahishasura “festival” at his old university. The BJP says that he did so before joining the party. But will it now expel him for sedition?

According to legend, Mysuru (Mysore) is named after Mahishasura who once ruled the region. There are also wide areas in the tribal belt from Purulia in West Bengal (where a Mahishasur martyrdom day is observed) to Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh where Mahishasura is venerated.

There is even an officially designated “primitive tribe” in Netarhat in Jharkhand’s Latehar district, where people have the surname “Asur”. They do not celebrate Durga puja. The “asur” in the demon’s name recalls the Deva-Asura divide which constitutes the basis of Vedic and Puranic myth. According to Nirad Chaudhuri in The Continent of Circe, the divide “appears to have been due to a family quarrel, which is recorded in Hindu mythology as the war between the Devas and the Asuras ... All Hindu texts are agreed in making the enemies closely related in blood and culture. The Devas, who lost the war, left Iran to the Asuras and moved east” to India. The Devas are also called Surs.

It is this legend which explains why the Asuras are regarded as the good guys in Zoroastrian fable in Iran and the Devas as evil – the opposite of the Indian perception – something which Irani, being married to a Parsi, should know.

It is possible that the Durga legend recalls the battle which took place in Iran in 2000 B.C., prior to the Aryan migration to India – a concept which is an anathema to the saffron brotherhood to whom India is the homeland of the Aryans.

Increasingly, however, the saffron camp is finding it difficult to uphold such weird theories including the claim that there were aeroplanes in ancient India. Since this outlandish assertion was made by a saffron “scientist” at a session of the Indian science congress, the Nobel laureate Venkataraman Ramakrishnan was constrained to describe the gathering as a “circus”.

As for the arrival of the Aryans in India, a genetic study by the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics in Kalyani, West Bengal, has revealed that Indians have four major ancestral groups – the Indo-Europeans (or Aryans), the Dravidians, the Tibeto-Burmans (or the Mongoloids) and the Austro-Asiatic. As historian Romila Thapar, says, there is “evidence of the Indo-Aryan language belonging to the Indo-European family having been brought to northern India from beyond the Indo-Iranian borderlands”.

The resurfacing of the Mahishasura myth is yet another evidence of India’s incredible heterogeneity, which incorporates the conflicting religious beliefs within the Hindu fold, where the villain in the eyes of the majority is revered by a minuscule minority. Yet, the two have coexisted in harmony for centuries – a lesson which the Hindutva lobby will do well to imbibe.

But what is even more intriguing and soul-stirring is that although the goddess-demon divide predates the arrival of the Aryans in India in 1500 B.C., memories of what must have been a titanic fraternal confrontation in prehistoric Persia between two groups of Aryans have survived for millennia with today’s Asur tribe in India adhering to the tradition of invoking charms for protection on the night the Mahishasura is slain. 

(The author is a political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)
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