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
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
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.