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Myth against myth

  • Published at 12:02 am October 2nd, 2019
Mahishasura Durga

The politics of worshipping Mahishasura instead of Durga

It is often said that history is written by the victors. Who, then, writes the mythology?

Mythologies are literary devices and literature, especially when it can claim to have come from a higher authority, can be used as a tool for creating cultural hierarchies. Which is definitely what the upper-caste Hindus did in subjugating the lower-castes and the Avarnas/Dalits (untouchables). 

The oft-cited myth that the Brahmins were cast from the Brahma’s mouth, rulers and warriors from his arms, merchants and traders from his thighs, and workers and peasants from his feet was employed as a tool to establish the hierarchy of castes of the Hindu society. 

Also, the Brahmins and other upper-caste Hindus framed themselves as descendants of the Aryans and projected themselves as the Suras (gods) of the mythology and labelled the lower castes as Asuras (demons). In reality, Asura may not really mean demon at all. It is probably just a name of a nation. Some anthropologists say Asurs were among the proto-Australoid groups inhabiting areas like Jharkhand and the western part of West Bengal.

However, they were framed as demons who regularly waged war against the gods. Their subjugation, therefore, was reframed as a penance for the crimes they had committed against the gods. And this subjugation was further cemented by infusing the caste custom into the whole religion, now rebranded as the Sanatana, or the eternal.

Scholars from the lower castes, including the Shudras, a community that I was born into, however, re-read this divine mythology as history and highlighted the legacy of the oppression of their community. Contrary to the colonial and nationalist scholars, who had characterized the Aryan race as a founder of Hindu civilization, Jotirao Phule created a counter-narrative that projected the Aryans as foreign invaders. All non-Brahmanas, including the Shudras and untouchables, were identified as original inhabitants (Adivasis) of India.

In Phule’s historiography, Brahma is seen as a war leader of the Aryans, who invaded India several times, and enslaved the Adivasis. After his death, the Aryans assumed the name Brahmana after him and invented strange myths about Brahma that he gave birth to four varnas from his different body parts to subjugate those who were defeated, a point that I have made previously.

This is the politics of narratives. When history and evidence are not presented, myths must be fought back with myths and fiction must be countered by fictions. If the Brahmins could extrapolate a divine origin of their superiority from the myths, the Sudras and avarnas could definitely find a history of subjugation from the same source. The way a story is told can define if it would be used as a tool of subjugation, or rebellion.

Therefore, Shudra and Avarna scholars like Phule reverted the Aryan conquistador image and exposed them, at least in their counter-narrative, as oppressors. They reinterpreted Puranic mythology by interpreting various incarnations of Vishnu as various stages in the Aryan’s conquest of India. In their writings, therefore, demons were transformed into Adivasi kinds or warriors.

This politics of narrative and counter-narrative still continues today. Those of us who are used to scientific historiography, that relies too much on facts and evidence, often overlook the building of histories over narratives and interpretations. We overlook that even with evidence, it is possible to come to different historical conclusions via different types of interpretations. 

As such, it is important to pay attention, not to the objective truth, but the subjective truth that the people build for themselves. For that, we must take a step back from the evidentiary and look into the literary. That is why the people who have been subjugated for hundreds of years defy their oppressors by finding alternative gods. They hail the demons of the popular culture as heroes and the gods of their oppressors as exactly what they are. 

Therefore, when the caste-Hindus celebrate Ram, the Avarnas and Shudras worship Ravana. And when all of Bengal is indulging in the grand celebration of the Durga puja, the Adivasis are worshipping Mahishasura, the demon who was defeated by the goddess.

The original myth of Durga’s triumph over Mahisashura goes like this: Mahishasura was a king of the Asuras who got a boon from Brahma that no man or animal could kill him. Mahishasura, high on his power, attacked heaven, Earth, and the underworld with his army. 

The gods, then, waged a war on him, he was unable to defeat him. The gods thus approached Lord Vishnu for help. After considering the situation, Lord Vishnu decided to create a female form to defeat Mahishasura. Then, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva combined all their powers together to give birth to Durga. Durga, then, lead an army that defeated and killed Mahishasura.

Now, let us historicize this myth. In this history, Mahishasura was the king of the Buffalo herders in Mysuru ( a name derived from Mahishasurana Ooru or Mahishasur’s country) and was a fierce warrior who was given immunity by the Aryan King Brahma because he could not be conquered. 

However, Mahishasura grew very strong and reclaimed much of the Aryan empire and declared himself an emperor. The Aryan Kings Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva then combined their armies and lead a charge on Mahishasura and took over his kingdom. The army was lead by a female general, who came to be represented by Durga.

This is, of course, all fiction. But it would be wrong to dismiss fiction as falsehood. Myths are fictions and they empower and suppress. As the Brahmins decided to suppress the lower-castes with their myths, the lower caste must fight back by creating their own myth.

That is exactly what the Adivasis are doing when they are worshipping Mahishsura during this Durga puja festivities. They believe exactly in what I fictionalized. They think that Mahishasura was an indigenous king who was killed during the invasion by the upper caste Hindus. 

Unlike Durga followers, their festival begins when Mahalaya ends. On the day of Vijaydashmi, Mahishasura’s followers start a two-day festival to worship their king or kulguru (clan teacher). The Asur tribe, living in Gumla, Latehar, Lohardaga, and Palamu districts of Jharkhand, and in north Bengal’s Alipurduar districts believe that they are descendants of Hudur-Durga -- the Santhal name for Mahishasur.

The Adivasis, therefore, has done much more than the post-colonial elites that rule the sub-continent. They have learned to dismantle the master’s tools, knowing that it can never dismantle the master’s house. 

The upper classes however are still submerged in the imagination of the colonizers. They still dress like them, speak like them and think like them. We all want to be white and want to erase our brown face and brown mind.

When will we throw away our own white demons, revered as gods, and find a god in our own brown brawn self? 

Anupam Debashis Roy is a columnist and sub-editor for Dhaka Tribune. He can be reached at [email protected]