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01 March, 2016

Echoes of ancient battles

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s attempt to silence alternative voices and establish a single Hindutva narrative has unwittingly revived memories of battles fought in the distant past which have remained buried in myths and folk tales.

One of the events cited by Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani as evidence of anti-national activity in the Jawaharlal Nehru University was the observance of Mahishasura’s martyrdom anniversary on the campus by the All India Backward Students Forum.

In Hindu mythology, Mahishasura is an asura (demon) whom Goddess Durga killed in a nine-day battle. In tribal lore, he is a hero who died valiantly resisting enslavement of his people.

Durga is a very popular and powerful goddess. Smriti Irani, who described herself as an ardent Durga devotee, read out in Parliament extracts from what she said was an AIBSF pamphlet eulogising Mahishasura.

AIBSF said those passages were taken not from its pamphlet but from one produced by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student body, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, to malign it.

Mahishasura is a revered icon of many marginalised communities, including the Santhal tribes spread across the states of West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand. There is a small tribal community known as Asur, whose members worship Mahishasura.

A newspaper quoted the head of the Santhals, 80-year-old Nityananda Hembram, who, incidentally, is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and a retired Chief Architect of the Defence Ministry, as saying Mahishasura was not a mythical character but an historical figure who had repeatedly beaten back the Aryans before a woman sent by them defeated him through deception.

According to local tradition, the southern city of Mysuru got its name from Mahishasura, who once ruled over the region. He provided a good administration but was killed by Goddess Chamundi at the instance of those who were envious of his popularity.

Both Durga and Chamundi are equated with Shiva’s consort, Parvati.

In his book “Riddles of Hinduism,” BR Ambedkar observes “the Brahmins do not seem to have realised that by making Durga the heroine who alone was capable of destroying the Asuras, they were making their own gods a set of miserable cowards.”

Functions to commemorate Mahishasura’s martyrdom have been taking place in different parts of the country without facing any serious hostility from the Hindu mainstream until the RSS launched its nationalism project.

Near the Chamundeswari temple on the Chamundi Hills outside Mysuru city stands a statue of Mahishasura. Speaking at a function held there last year to honour the slain ruler’s memory, Mahesh Chandra Guru, Professor of Journalism at the University of Mysore, said Mahisha was a Buddhist king, who respected human values but was depicted by the priestly class as a demon.

Like Mahishasura, Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, whom Rama kills in the epic Ramayana, and Duryodhana and his brother and sister, who are on the losing side in the other great epic, the Mahabharata, too have many devotees.

Five Ravana temples exist, four of them in the Hindi heartland. One of them, located in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, was constructed only about 125 years ago. It opens only once in a year.

There are Duryodhana temples in Uttarakhand in the north and Kerala in the south.     

Unlike in other parts of the world, where the gods of victorious tribes ousted those of the vanquished, in India the gods of both winners and losers were accommodated in the pantheon.

An interesting fact that emerges from a study of the ancient texts is that the Vedic community gave up most of the gods to whom they had paid homage in their early days and adopted the gods of the other communities. They readily accepted all gods in exchange for the right to officiate as their priests.

As the process of assimilation of the belief systems of the different communities progressed, a host of religious texts like the Puranas were produced to integrate all of them into what came to be known as Hinduism.

Many scholars now interpret the battles and killings described in the Puranas as records of the conflicts between the Aryan and non-Aryan communities. However, there is reason to believe that some of the events happened before the arrival of the Aryans.

Mrinal Pande, author and journalist, has pointed out that Durga’s historical origins, like Mahishasura’s, are embedded firmly among the pre-Aryan cultures of India.

However, it needs to be noted that in the process of gathering and retelling the tales, the authors of the Puranas fashioned them in such a manner as to serve the needs of the casteist society that was established in India after the decline of Buddhism. -- Gulf Today, March 1, 2016.

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