Goddess Durga, Mahishasur, Caste Politics and Interpreting Mythology
Tyeb Mehta, ‘Mahishasura’ / Christie’s
In the current attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University one crucial aspect related to Indian mythology and its current interpretation came up to the fore. MHRD Minister Ms. Smriti Irani, while defending the actions of her government said that JNU is the den of anti National activities. Adding weight to her argument she stated that the Dalit OBC groups in JNU are celebrating Mahishasur Martyrdom day and had issued a pamphlet, which is derogatory to the Goddess Durga. Goddess Durga worshipped by many as the slayer of Mahishasur.
The issue of interpreting the slaying of Mahishsur; who is projected as demon in the popular narratives has been in the air for quite some time. Before the present unraveling of the issue came up recently, another controversy about Goddess had come up few years ago. In the parliament the issue related to IGNOU book mentioning Goddess drinking alcohol had come up. In response to this Pranab Mukherjee who at that time was a union minister quoted shlokas from scripture Chandi Path which describes the incident as to how the goddess drank once, and then again and again, in the midst of battle, her eyes bloodshot—as red as the rays of the rising sun.’
In 2014 the special issue of Forward Magazine (October) which was carrying the Bahujan understanding of Mahishasur and Durga was seized by the police on the complaint from some sections that this issue will precipitate the hatred between Brahmans and OBC’s. This matter is in the court at the moment. The celebrations of Durga Puja in its present form began not too long ago. Durga worship is dated just 260 years ago. Nawab Krishnadev of Calcutta; after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 organized the first Durga Puja. This was to honor Lord Clive. As an inference one can say that in its roots, this festival is not only very new but it is also anti-Muslim and pro-imperialism by implication.
As such though there are communities which have been celebrating Mahishasur, its celebration as Martyrdom day came to the fore just few years ago. From 2011 a group of students organized the celebration in JNU. Udit Raj, who has now joined BJP was also a speaker at one such program later on. Now one realizes that this celebration had been taking place amongst Adivasis communities in various places particularly in Bengal. Last year roughly over 300 such community festivals honoring Mahishsur had taken place. Many Bahujan scholars, including the one’s writing in Forward magazine issue have been arguing that projection of slaying of Mahsishsur is not in a good taste on two counts. One it celebrates death and the other it is the Brahmanical interpretation of the incident as Mahishasur is projected as the demon while he was a tribal king.
The interpretation of the mythology is mired with numerous issues. The presentation of events cannot be accurate as this is pre-Historical period and rigorous and usual tools of history cannot be applied easily. As such the dominant narrative is that Goddess killed the demon and so this day is celebrated as a victory of good over evil. This version mentions that Lord Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh had to come together and put together all their might to create Goddess Durga endowed with supreme powers as the demon was not easy to defeat. This narrative also presents demon king as half man half buffalo.
Adding to what Irani read from the alleged leaflet in which Durga is said to be a sex worker who was commissioned to kill Mahishasur. She honeymooned with him for nine nights and then killed him in sleep. One recalls that the city of Mysore is named after him. A friend brought to my notice about Tyeb Mehta’s painting from Kali series, showing Goddess in deep embrace with Mahishsur, which sold for astronomical price.
As such the first mention of Durga comes in Markandey Purana, written somewhere around 250 to 500 AD. While the popular celebrations and perceptions are in tune with what Irani is asserting. This is the Brahmanical or dominant versions. Many communities celebrating the same day as Mahishsur day is not much known. This has come to light in the so called mainstream only very recently, more so with these celebrations in JNU and the Forward magazine issue. I may add here that the dominant discourse is always of dominant castes/classes.
The interpretation of this good versus evil, Gods versus Asuras is what is prevalent and this hails the coming of Aryans here. The other interpretation was brought to fore by Jotirao Phule who stands the Brahamanical interpretation on its head to point out that Aryabhatt Brahmans invaded this land and defeated the native, tribal’s by force and deceit at times. This interpretation also comes up with the social change which came with the struggle of downtrodden to come out of the caste slavery. Extending this further Ram-Ravana, duality has also come under reinterpretations. It may be a surprise to many but true that many communities celebrate Ravana. They present him as one who was a great soul full of wisdom.
While Hindutva politics has constructed their campaign around Lord Ram, same Lord comes under heavy criticism from Ambedkar and Periyar both. Ambedkar takes him on for killing the popular King Bali and that too by shooting an arrow from behind his back, something totally unethical. Bali was a popular king, who is celebrated even today and his rule is hailed as a period of happiness for non Brahmans. Killing of Shambuk by Lord Ram since he was doing penance, which was forbidden to the Shudras is again a Brahmanical ploy to retain social hegemony. Banishing of pregnant wife Sita by Lord Ram is unforgivable on any ground. So interpreting Ram-Ravan story has caste/race and of course gender dimensions added on to it.
One must clarify that the very theory of race has been superseded by now and rather than arrival of Aryans or invasion of Aryans what seems more apt is the intermixing of communities over a period of time. One major dimension to Goddess Durga mythology is the gender aspect. Mrinal Pandey in her Scroll essay presents the issue as the one of assertion of women against the might of patriarchy. So the plate is full. There is race, there is caste and there is gender! In a society full of diversity where transition to egalitarian society is painfully slow, these multiple narratives should be part of the menu and compete with each other.
Irani-BJP-RSS are opposed to the coming up of subaltern narratives as it a threat to their hegemonic project, project of upper caste/upper class hegemony over the society. For them neither prevalent pluralism nor interpretations of dominated castes can be tolerated, so the super charged attack by MHRD minister in the parliament and equating the alternate version as undesirable-anti national.
First published in The Citizen.
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