Mahishasur’s Melancholy

Counterpoint: The bulldozing of alternative narratives will only reaffirm the new struggles, a new history crafted by the most marginalized
Vinod Kottayil Kalidasan Delhi

As an offshoot of the JNU issue, a debate on the Mahishasur-Durga worshipping traditions of India was initiated with the Delhi police finding Mahishasur Martyrdom Day celebration in JNU, along with students demanding beef in the mess (also note that ‘beef’ that can be bought in Delhi is only buffalo meat and it was, however, never served in a JNU mess), as some of the reasons to notoriously incarcerate students on a sedition charge. For the caste-Hindu society Mahish, buffalo, is not a sacred animal as Professor Kancha Illiah has observed, and Mahishasur is a demon to be destroyed. Further, Union HRD minister Smriti Irani was heard wondering in Parliament, “What is Mahishasur Martyrdom Day Madam Speaker?’ 

In her speech in parliament, laced with melodrama, she also contemptuously read out a pamphlet published by a pro-Dalit student group two years ago in JNU: “Durga Puja is the most controversial racial festival, where a fair-skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasur. Mahishasur, a brave self-respecting leader, was tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex-worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasur into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning during sleep.” She could read out the above quoted passage not without uttering her guilt-filled soliloquy first: “May my God forgive me for even reading this out”! 

While one is never certain about the authenticity of the pamphlet that the minister has read out, if one takes it at face value, one can certainly discuss the issue at length as debate is an important part of the tradition in JNU and, historically, in India. The minister’s ‘shock’ and ‘disbelief’ do make one wonder, in a country of numerous belief systems and immensely complex cultural diversity, whether she expected the dominant reading of the Mahishasuramardini myth (the myth of the goddess defeating Mahishasur) as the only and the authentic one to which everybody subscribes? 

The people who wrote the magnificent pictures and messages in the Edakkal and Thovari caves thousands of years ago were bought and sold like animals and rendered migrants in their own land -- an experience from which resistance to majoritarian and colonising cultures emerged. This is probably why the Mahishasur myth and the tribal myths of Mahabali must exist

If she did so she is either plainly ignorant or, worse, she treats myths as history and officially endorses the dominant interpretations of myths -- sources ‘informing’ most of India’s popular festivals such as Durga Puja -- as the narratives to be followed unquestioningly in the country. Both ways, her preference of one belief system over another, as HRD minister, can set a wrong and unwelcome precedence. This is so because her action amounts to not only rubbishing marginalized narratives and pushing the mainstream beliefs down the throats of the Dalit-Adivasi people, but it also amounts to threatening the freedoms to believe/not believe and follow/not follow religions and cultures that are enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Such a situation will be nothing but just another sign of the persisting culture of intolerance the Hindutva elements have been indulging in ever since the Narendra Modi government has been sworn in. 

This is especially so as Ms Irani’s speech and the JNU incidents are both within the contours of the looming presence of the wider issue at stake -- the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad -- which refuses to die down despite best attempts by the government to push it under the carpet. 

The issue, if looked at from an Adivasi perspective, attains greater significance. Adivasi histories, traditions, cultures, languages, belief systems and rituals still remain in the periphery, heavily marginalized and hardly understood. Ms. Irani, nevertheless, is not alone in her ignorance of people who live outside the caste-Hindu mainstream. From the pre-colonial feudal times to the times of colonization, to this day, the governmental policies on land, legality, cultural and political systems and practices have all been formulated for the benefit of the mainstream society without sparing thoughts on how the Adivasis might be coping with them. It was always ‘supposed’ that the Adivasis will and must follow the ‘rules of the land’ for ‘their own benefit’.

However, a mere cursory look at the operational logic of such systems will tell us a different story altogether. 


The Great Andaman
Trunk Road in the Andaman Island running through the Jarawa territory, the notorious vasectomy programme the Adivasis, already threatened with cultural and biological extinction, were coerced to undergo in the Wayanad district in Kerala and other places during the Emergency, the large scale alienation of tribal land across the country and rabid deforestation and environmental mutilation done in the name of ‘development’, the loss of tribal languages to invading mainstream languages, the plight of unmarried tribal mothers exploited and humiliated by non-tribal men, the situation of Adivasis getting stuck in a world of alien words, deeds and meanings, the persisting effect of tribal slavery and the violent slave trade that lasted for centuries, the loss of tribal systems of worship to the invading Hindu mainstream systems orchestrated and propagated by Right-wing groups have all been done certainly not for the benefit of the aboriginal peoples. But, we only suppose so and, occasionally, express our ‘shock’, ‘disbelief’, arrogance and ignorance -- something that often accompanies these feelings on the Adivasi cultural practices. The rulers, their upper caste and elite subjects are often heard wondering why the Adivasis are incapable of making use of the ‘benefits’ that our democracy condescendingly bestowes upon them. 

In other countries such as Australia, an entire generation of the aboriginals was violently ‘stolen’ by the white supremacists. The Inca and the Aztec traditions, known for their great civilisational heritage, were wiped out. From all these experiences, protest and resistance movements that re-claimed lost aboriginal identities emerged. In India, the onslaught on the aboriginal communities continued unabashedly to this day in one form or other -- not only do we send our mining companies to Adivasi regions such as Niyamgiri in Orissa and uproot the aboriginal life-worlds, our modern cinema still show them as uncivilised rustics. A recent film from south India that became a national hit, Bahubali, for instance, too divided the battle between good and evil as between the fair-skinned Aryans and the dark skinned barbarians, whose funny language seems inaccessible. The Mahishasur issue can be seen in this context. 

Hindu values, pantheon, morality, history etc. are often forced on the Adivasis as they are, again, supposed to be, automatically, ‘Hindu’. Right-wing groups’ increasing patronization in tribal areas to covert them as vote banks, to render them as mere pawns of the Sangh’s street battles, and to ‘bring them back home’(‘Ghar Wapsi’) from other religions such as Christianity, without paying attention to what Adivasis actually want, does not fail to remind one of how, when the animals establish their own farm in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the non-domesticated animals with whom the domesticated ones have no means to communicate -- such as rats completely outside the discourse of ‘self-rule’ -- were addressed as ‘our wild comrades’ as they run away into their own safe havens from the domesticated animals’ ‘revolutionary speeches’. 

The Right wing, like the British in the past, who notoriously endeavored to ‘civilize’ the Adivasis, cannot accept the Adivasis as they are but they want the Adivasis to be culturally converted into Hinduism or to its extreme and monolithic interpretation – Hindutva. For them only then they become ‘normal’. In the play named Nadugaddhika by renowned writer KJ Baby, a tribal mother warns her children of school-going age about the pitfalls of such a civilising education thus: “Do not go to the scribe for he will strike your words to death with his writing rod… Do not go to the musician for he will strike your music to death with his musical rod…’ 

Specifically speaking, the Mahishasur myth and similar parallel versions of popular myths are prevalent among many Dalit and Adivasi communities across the country such as the Asurs and Santhals. The myth of a Brahminical god/goddess killing a Daitya (Asura/demon) character to cement his/her domination -- political, religious or both -- is, thus, a pan-Indian folkloric motif. In the mainstream legends and epics, the Adivasis and ‘forest dwellers’, Nishadas as they are called, peeped in and out either as antagonists or as insignificant ‘filler’ characters -- the Surpanakas, Hidimpis and the Eklavyas. They were portrayed as unsophisticated and uncouth characters to whom Vedic philosophy, such as the mantra, Ma Nishada, must be taught. 

In the mainstream legends and epics, the Adivasis and ‘forest dwellers’, Nishadas as they are called, peeped in and out either as antagonists or as insignificant ‘filler’ characters -- the Surpanakas, Hidimpis and the Eklavyas. They were portrayed as unsophisticated and uncouth characters to whom Vedic philosophy, such as the mantra, Ma Nishada, must be taught

However, there have always been parallel readings available of major legends, myths and folklore. This is how tribal Ramayanas evolved. In one such Ramayana from the Wayanad district in Kerala, the entire story takes place within a unique tribal universe. And this is just one narrative; there are many such enabling narratives. In many parts of India, especially in Kerala, the Mahabali myth has it that Mahabali, an Asura king, was pushed into netherworld by Vishnu disguised as a dwarf Brahmin. His return is celebrated as Onam -- Kerala’s ‘national festival’. Though the myth, which has numerous Brahminical elements still intact in it, is often critically interpreted, it is fascinating to observe that numerous parallel myths of Mahabali exist among the Paniya and Adiya Adivasi communities in Wayanad. 

This is all in the background of a tribal slavery that existed in this district for centuries under the aegis of feudal landlords. The people who wrote the magnificent pictures and messages in the Edakkal and Thovari caves thousands of years ago were bought and sold like animals and rendered migrants in their own land -- an experience from which resistance to majoritarian and colonising cultures emerged. This is probably why the Mahishasur myth and the tribal myths of Mahabali must exist. Mahishasur has not only left his legacy across the country with the city Mysuru getting its name from him, his sister Mahishi is believed to have carried her brother’s struggle forward after his death, according to a myth prevalent in Kerala.

Ms. Irani must know that the myths of ‘mainstream gods’ such as Durga were used by the feudal lords to enslave the Adivasis and this is exactly why parallel stories and heroes such as Mahishasur are important. In the Wayanad district, an ancient temple, Valliyoorkaavu, was used as a slave fair for hundreds of years until slavery was abolished after independence in India. The goddess of the temple, Maali, still evokes terror amongst the former slaves as she was the most powerful colonising tool the feudal masters had ever used.

The writer is an academic who holds a PhD from the Centre for English Studies, JNU. His thesis is on the ethico-poetics of subaltern and Adivasi cultures and literatures in Wayanad, Kerala.

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