The Indian nation contains multiple communities within its folds and each of these communities is rooted in distinct cultures and traditions. The nation constantly strengthens itself by internalising strands of different cultures and traditions. The idea of India emerges from this heterogeneity of cultures. Most of the marginal communities in India have developed countercultures to the Brahmanical culture: Their gods are in stark contrast to the Brahmanical deities.
Historian Ranajit Guha’s essay, “The career of an anti-god in heaven and on earth”, offers insights about this world of countercultures. The myth-making process of subaltern communities is different from that of the social elites. The subaltern communities worship some of the personages established as evil by the great tradition as gods. The Indian astrological system consists of nine planets (navagrahas) among which Vrihaspati and Shukra are considered to be Brahmins whereas Rahu, Ketu and Shani are deemed to belong to the marginal or the mlechha castes. On the wooden patta, Rahu, Ketu and Shani are depicted in black colour while white, yellow or red coloured materials mark the other planets.
During my ethnographic studies in various parts of UP, Bihar and elsewhere, I found that there are many marginal communities who are worshipers of Shani, Rahu and Ketu. Rahu, considered to be an evil graha, is worshipped by the Doms, the Dusadhs, the Bhangis and the Mangs. Shani, another evil presence, is not only accepted and worshipped by certain communities but it also defines the religious identity of many lower and subordinate castes. In Madhya Pradesh’s Baghelkhand region, especially in villages around Satna district, there is a Shanipujak community. As the name suggests, this community, originally Telis, an OBC group, worships Shani. Among Dusadhs, the Bhagat who performs the worship of Rahu is always a Dusadh.
The recent controversy over the worshipping of Mahishasur, a demon in the Brahmanical spiritual universe, must be understood in this context. Union Minister of Human Resource Development Smriti Irani raised strong objection in Parliament against the alleged depiction of Mahishasur by some Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students as a “martyr” who was lured to his death by goddess Durga.
There are two aspects to this controversy. The first concerns the alleged involvement of the JNU community. Only a small section of JNU was involved in the celebration of Mahishasur. Second, there are numerous communities which worship Mahishasur.
Historians remind us that Mysore was named after Mahishasur. In Hindu mythology, Mahishasur is both an asur (demon) and a mahisha (buffalo). His father Rambha was the king of asurs. The folk legend of Mahishasur is associated with the birth of goddess Durga, who takes birth to slay him. Many marginal communities worship this demon god and consider him their protector. The Santhals in Jharkhand consider themselves to be members of the asur community.
They worship Mahishasur and mourn his death. In Bundelkhand villages, Yadavs, a pastoral community, worship and associate themselves with Mahishasur because he symbolises the buffalo. The priest of a Mahishasur temple in Bundelkhand once described Mahishasur as a valiant god of Yadavs. There are songs commemorating Mahishasur among the primitive Asur tribe of the Chhotanagpur hills. Tribal communities in West Bengal, too, have songs about Mahishasur. In short, Mahishasur Jayanti is celebrated by many communities across India. Similarly, Jarasandh, who fought Krishna, is worshipped by many communities. Numerous jayantis are organised to honour him.
The Dalit communities also have the practice of worshipping their warriors. For instance, the Dusadhs worship Chuharmal, the Musahars Dina Bhadri and Murkatwa, Shobhnayaka Banjara is worshipped by the Banjaras and Natua Dayal is worshipped by the Godhis. The Dalit history is also about the conflict between the Raksha culture and the Yaksha culture. The people who belonged to the Raksha culture were agricultural in nature and the protectors of grains, whereas the people of the Yaksha culture did havans and sacrifice. The latter burnt the grains and took away animals which belonged to the people of the Raksha culture for religious purposes. Ravan is considered a hero in the Raksha culture. Radical thinkers like Jyotiba Phule, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar rewrote counter histories in which many anti-gods of the Brahmanical milieu have been reinvented and projected as heroes. Historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have documented the process of “the invention of tradition” in detail.
Communities that have stood against Brahmanical Hinduism should be allowed their rightful share of space and expression in the Indian nation. The state should not seek cultural homogenisation. Instead, it must allow smaller cultures to flourish. It should not strive to crush countercultural interpretations of faith and history because that would destroy the idea of India imagined by its founding fathers.