What is the controversy over the myth of Mahishasura, the half-Asura, half-buffalo demon that Goddess Durga slayed?
On February 24, HRD Minister Smriti Irani referred to a pamphlet pasted in JNU commemorating “Mahishasura Martyrdom Day”. She read from the pamphlet, which described Durga Puja as “the most controversial racial festival where a fair-skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasura, a brave self-respecting leader tricked into marriage by Aryans”, who “hired a sex worker called Durga who enticed Mahishasura into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning during sleep”. She dared her Trinamool critics to discuss this “freedom of speech” in Kolkata, and said the contents of the pamphlet reflected “depravity” and a “depraved mentality”. She referred to the pamphlet again in Rajya Sabha the following day. The Opposition reacted strongly, with Anand Sharma of the Congress saying the Minister’s reading of the document in the House was “blasphemous”, and could inflame religious passions.
So, is it “depraved” to look at Mahishasura as the victim in the legend of the Goddess, as the Minister said?
In the North and East, the majority probably wouldn’t look at Mahishasura as the victim. The language of the pamphlet could seem distasteful or offensive to some. And yet, it can hardly be called depraved.
The main body of the Hindu religion, let alone its many sub-sects and offshoots, is probably the most complex collection of thoughts and philosophies in human history, including a bewildering range of contesting narratives, each one of which holds special significance for the social groups that subscribe to them. Some of this would be obvious to anyone: thus, Ravana, personification of Evil in the dominant narrative of North India, is not universally depicted in that way — compelling counter-narratives exist in the Tamil classics and in several versions of the epic other than Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, which, despite being the most widely read and revered version, was composed only in the 16th-17th centuries. The joyous celebration of Durga Puja, accompanied by endless feasting in West Bengal, contrasts with the austere vegetarianism and, in some cases, fasting, by North Indian Hindus during Navaratri. And as Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) pointed out in Parliament, the biggest festival of Malayalees, Onam, celebrates the Asura king Mahabali, sent to the nether world by the Vamana avatar of Vishnu.
Within the framework of the Vedic religion, the relationship between the Gods and the Asuras is complex and multilayered — Mahishasura, Ravana and Mahabali, for example, were among the greatest devotees of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, but who ultimately met their ends as a result either of their sins, or of circumstances that they brought upon themselves. And as A L Basham recorded in his classic The Wonder That Was India, Varuna, described as omnipresent and omniscient in the Atharva Veda, was in an earlier period known as an Asura — a term that came to be used for a demon only later. Basham also noted that it was the term Asura that was adopted by Zarathrusta in Persia “as part of the title of the great god of light, Ahura Mazda”.
How then do these contradictory narratives sit with each other in the larger framework of the Hindu religion?
For much of India’s history, they have largely co-existed in peace, and contributed to the extraordinary religious, social and cultural diversity of this land. Despite some of its clearly oppressive aspects, classical Hinduism has a great capacity to tolerate, and even condone, dissent — indeed, The Buddha, whose philosophy was based on a fundamental denunciation of the Vedic religion, was several centuries down the line, co-opted into that same Vedic religion as the ninth avatar of Vishnu! Within mainstream Hinduism, contradictory philosophies such as asceticism and materialism have co-existed, as have kinds of theism with varying degrees of scepticism. Outside mainstream Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism stood in opposition to the Vedic religion, and sects such as the Ajivikas were clearly atheistic and rejected the philosophy of karma.
There has, of course, always been a dominant narrative — often directed by the state. To take some well-known examples, Buddhism and Buddhists were patronised by Asoka (3rd century BC) and persecuted by Pushyamitra Sunga (2nd century BC), and in the 6th-7th centuries AD, even as Harshavardhana of Kannauj showered support on Buddhism, the Huna Mihirakula and the Saiva Sasanka of Bengal unleashed terrible violence on them. In modern India, the dominant narrative has worked steadily to take over the smaller, parallel narratives, resulting in a situation in which many independent traditions of tribals and other groups on the fringes are now on the verge of disappearing.
Isn’t the current controversy similar to the one a few years ago over the philosopher A K Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana?
Yes. The essential disagreement on that occasion too was over contesting narratives, and certain portions of the epic in some “tellings”, as Ramanujan called it, which the ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, found offensive and “malicious”. The essay in question, written, in 1991, was called Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, and spoke of “hundreds of tellings of the story (of Ram) in different cultures, languages, and religious traditions”, and laid out the overlaps, disagreements and contradictions among Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, Kampan’s Tamil Iramavataram, a Kannada bardic version, a Thai version, and a Jain telling. “For every Rama, there is a Ramayana”, Ramanujan wrote.
In 2008, a couple of years after Delhi University included this essay in its undergraduate Hons. course, ABVP protesters stormed the office of the Head of the Department of History, demanding that the essay be dropped. That same year, Dinanath Batra’s Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti moved Delhi High Court seeking orders that the essay be removed. In 2011, under directions from the Supreme Court, Delhi University constituted a four-member expert committee to recommend on whether to continue with the essay; this committee recommended, by a majority of 3-1, that the essay should be retained in the syllabus. However, the university’s Academic Council still voted in favour of dropping the essay. While the Department of History and hundreds of teachers and students protested the AC’s decision, the BJP and ABVP applauded it, and condemned the “anti-Hindu” and “perverted mindsets” of “some teachers”.