Dalit-Bahujan Perspective On The Mahishasura Debate
By Braj Ranjan Mani
02 March, 2016
A statue of Mahishasura near Sri Chamundeshwari temple off Mandya-Santhekesalagere Road
at Santhekesalagere in Mandya Photo: MAHADEVA B./The Hindu
The ruling party’s despicable invocation of Mahishasura and Durga legend in Parliament recently and its castigation of the JNU students who organised Mahishasura Martyrday Day as a case of depravity and treason represents the belligerent brahmanic politics of the RSS-BJP that wants to muzzle all dissenting voices of dalit-bahujans. Such politics reduces arguments to bluff and history to myths in order to equate brahmanism with nationalism so that the dalit-bahujans can be kept enslaved to the historical frauds. But things are changing now, as a new generation of dalit-bahujans, inspired by the emancipatory ideology of Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar, are rereading history and rejecting the brahmanic deception that passes off as Indian history. This is the backdrop in which the raging debate over the Mahisha-Durga myth should be grappled and grasped.
We have several partial and contesting visions of the Indian past. But they can be broadly categorized into the two—brahmanic and dalit-bahujan. The reality of this longstanding divide is in sharp contrast to the dominant elitist discourse that serves the upper-caste interests in several ways. The brahmanic, as we know, represents the orientation of the powerful and privileged sections, while the term dalit-bahujan (under which we include the dalits, adivasis, OBCs as well as common women) stands for the perspective of the demoralised and fragmented majority. The brahmanic and dalit-bahujan visions of the past are so contrary and contemptuous of each other that the real history of India will perhaps never be authoritatively known or reconstructed. This is the tragedy of India because its troubled history is not going to become history in near future. As the past shapes our present and future in significant ways, history continues to evoke conflicting emotions in the privileged and the disadvantaged. In fact, the contest over the past is the contest over the affairs of the present that mirrors the real social fissures and distrust that divides the Indian society. Some may argue, and quite rightly, that such contestation over the past and present is not unique to India, but few can deny that social conflicts tend to turn more bitter and vicious in a more hierarchical and patriarchal society like ours.
Thus, it is not surprising that the mystery of history, as reflected in the ongoing Durga-Mahisha controversy, continues to haunt a new generation of defiant dalit-bahujans who want to grasp how and why did they become enslaved to the oppressive caste culture. But as they still continue to be by and large absent or excluded from the professional domain of knowledge-construction and history-writing, they often fall back on the stories of their remembered past that have been handed down to them from generation to generation. Such visions of their oppressive past are buttressed by the contemporary reality of discrimination and marginalization that they face in their everyday life. In my view, the remembered past and lived experience of the dalit-bahujans are much closer to the socio-historical reality than the sum and substance of various brahmanic narratives that generally pass off as standard history in the mass media as well as academia.
It is a revealing fact in itself that the modern historiography in India, save some exceptions, continues to be the fiefdom of the caste elites who variously concoct an imaginary ‘Hindu-national’ or ‘liberal-progressive’ history based on the selective and cunning reading of the ancient texts and sources. In their breathtaking exaltation of ancient India as a uniquely non-violent society, even the liberal-secular pundits like Amartya Sen and Romila Thapar, despite their obvious scholarly excellence and superiority over the Hindutva-type hacks, envision a make-believe past that effectively hides the historical violence of caste and brahmanism. Liberals like them glibly argue that India has a glorious history of being a wonderfully tolerant and liberal society and the problem lies only with the RSS-type distortion of this glorious history. By normalising the longstanding oppressive history of caste and brahmanism, the privileged-caste liberal scholars do not touch the fundamentals of brahmanic Hindu assumptions about Indian history. (For this point, and especially the exposure of Sen as a closet brahmanic apologist, see my Knowledge and Power .) It is admirable that they oppose the hate politics of Hindutva against Muslims and Christians, but they remain blind, like the Hindutva rascals, to the sinister politics of Varnashrama Dharma and the unparalleled brutalities of caste and its consequences. Their privileged caste-class position—and the lure of getting easy praise and prizes from the brahmanic intellectual establishment—make them obscure what is obvious to the dalit-bahujans who are at the receiving end of the most brutal hierarchy ever known to humanity. In other words, we see the normalisation of caste and brahmanism even in the best of social science writings. It can be argued that it is this stubborn refusal to recognise the brutalisation of the lowered-castes majority under the culture of caste and brahmanism in the liberal-progressive scholarship that has contributed to, if not paved, the way for the BJP-RSS’ rise to power and the macabre Hindutva dance that we witness today. This also makes clear why the liberal caste elites are utterly ineffective in countering the menace of Hindutva forces, and the Hindutva rascals fully enjoy and exploit this hypocrisy of their liberal caste cousins.
It seems as if the entire burden of the established knowledge and historiography about India is to somehow converge on one or other kind of brahmanical conclusion, and, thus, to variously discredit and destroy the dalit-bahujans’ memory of their oppressive past and their own lived experiences of caste and discrimination. This, however, is not surprising, given the fact that almost all academic researches and writings still remain the fiefdom of the caste elites. The tendency to belittle and dismiss, directly or indirectly, the dalit-bahujan perspective on history (pioneered in modern times by the rebellious thinkers like Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar) as ‘sectarian’ and ‘unscientific’ is pervasive in the elite-controlled academia. Such academic blindness to the historical injustices of caste and brahmanism—and a longstanding struggle against them—has strengthened the Hindutva forces and deepened the distrust between the brahmanic and dalit-bahujan minds.
This, I think, is the broad historical context in which the raging debate over the Durga-Mahisha myth should be grappled. Let us first know the basic facts related to the myth and the controversy about it before we try to comprehend the larger meaning hidden behind the symbol of Mahishasura.
The religio-mythical device to conceal historical reality
The legend of Durga’s killing of Mahisha, which forms the basis of Durga Puja, is fairly well known. Its foundational text is Devi-Mahatmya (Glorification of the Goddess), a long poem in the Markandeya Purana, written between the fifth and seventh centuries AD. The narrative and complexity of the myth suggest that Devi-Mahatmya incorporates the accounts of some earlier texts in Sanskrit or Prakrit languages. In the Puranic account, Durga (which literally means ‘hard to get [to]’) first appears under the name of Chandika (the Fierce). This warrior-goddess takes to a violent height the tradition of earlier supernatural enchantresses such as Mohini (Vishnu in disguise) and Tilottama (a celestial beauty) who merely seduce the Asuras (‘non-Aryans’) so that the Suras (‘Aryan-brahmans’) can overpower them. What makes Durga remarkable is the fact that she is the first goddess who herself kills the Asuras and their leader Mahisha.
The legend of this lion-mounted magnificent goddess with eight arms, each of which carries deadly weapons, with which she makes mincemeat of the Mahisha and his army, is celebrated in the brahmanical tradition as a triumph of virtue over the forces of darkness. In modern times, Durga, who symbolizes shakti (power) and beauty, has also been resurrected as an unparalleled feminist icon in the writing of many brahmanic-minded men and women scholars. India, they claim, is the only country that has produced an amazing range of gorgeous and powerful goddesses, who are even superior to the male gods.
The above assumptions, however, throw up the following questions.
Does Durga really represent the forces of good? Or, was she just a willing tool in the hands of the scheming gods who wanted to kill Asuras by hook or by crooks?
Was Mahisha a cruel monster, as shown in the brahmanical lore? Or, was he the righteous leader of the non-Aryans who were treacherously annihilated?
And, does the claim of feminist power hold any water, or is it just a figment of brahmanic imagination or an exercise in self-congratulation?
Above all, is it desirable to religiously perpetuate and celebrate the politics of violence and killings?
And these are the questions or suspicions that agitate many dalit-bahujans, and they articulate them angrily and variously, often linking the oppression of the past with that of the present.
It seems quite plausible that the myth of Durga is a redacted and garbled account of some real historical events, as the brahmanical sources themselves reveal. Many Sanskrit texts also divulge the erotic relationship between Durga and Mahisha. Devi-Bhagavat Purana, for example, explicitly states that the Suras created Durga, and she seduced and then killed Mahisha. It is this treacherous killing of Mahisha that infuriates the dalit-bahujan and animates their subversive reading of the myth. They argue that the demonized Asuras such as Mahisha were actually their honoured ancestors who fought against the Aryan-brahmanic onslaughts. They link this fact with their larger argument that the brahmanic social order was constructed through a violent process, which the Puranic legends such as Durga-Mahisha try to conceal through the rigmarole of supernatural accounts. They conflate their subversive re-reading of the mythology with other brahmanic texts such as Dharmashastras which proclaim and preach that knowledge, power and prosperity of the brahman and allied castes must rest on the enforced ignorance, powerlessness and poverty of the shudra-atishudras.
This is what the students of JNU who organised the Mahishasura Martyrdom Day were trying to do by presenting a trenchant counter-narrative of the Mahishasura-Durga myth. And this is what several incisive articles in the Forward Press, a prominent dalit-bahujan monthly, had variously tried to underline. This perspective finds resonance in several dalit, OBC and adivasi communities across India which celebrate Mahishasura as their hero. And this perspective finds reflection in several historical sites in several states that have memorials built in honour of Mahishasura. Even a city like Mysuru (known as Mysore in its Anglicised form) is named after Mahishasura, as compelling historical sources prove. In other words, the brahmanical version of the Mahishashura-Durga myth is nothing but a historical misrepresentation in the eyes of dalit-bahujans.
What particularly rankles the dalit-bahujans is the fact that their shudraization or social enslavement was given a religious gloss in the brahmanical cultural tradition. But as the caste subjugation of the toiling masses was turned into the sacred laws of the brahmanic culture and religion, there has also been a long tradition of struggle against brahmanism, as the dalit-bahujan ideology variously and powerfully underlines. It is in this longstanding anti-brahmanic tradition—the tradition nurtured in modern times by Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar—that informs the new generation of dalit-bahujans who see the Durga Puja as a living symbol of the violent anti-dalit-bahujan tradition. Opposing such sacralisation of violence, they revere the martyrdom of Mahisha, who was seduced and deceitfully murdered, as many brahmanical sources themselves suggest.
Similarly, it can be argued that the claim of Durga—and other goddesses—as an unparalleled symbol of stree shakti (feminist power) in ancient India is based on dubious logic. First of all, Durga’s power, as Devi-Mahatmya and other texts inform us, comes not from within herself but from the energy (tejas) of the male gods. Secondly, she is not an autonomous force but merely a willing instrument in the hands of the scheming male gods who cunningly employ her to defeat their arch-rivals. To seek feminist salvation in the bosom of such goddesses is like asking for the moon which no one is going to ever get. As Wendy Doniger, who has incisively researched Hinduism and its mythology, astutely observes, “The pious hope of goddess feminists, and others, that the worship of goddess is Good for Women is dashed by observations in India, where the power recognised in goddesses certainly does not necessarily encourage men to grant to women—or women to take from men—political or economic powers. Indeed we can see the logic in the fact that it often works the other way round (the more powerful the goddess, the less power for real women) …In taking the mythology of goddesses as a social charter, the goddess feminists are batting on a sticky wicca.”
Above all, it is not hard to find that the brahmanical tradition recognised and glorified goddesses in the Puranic period when it was assimilating a lot of indigenous and tribal practices in its fold in order to entice the reluctant masses to the brahmanical social order. The non-Aryan communities, many of whom had a marked matrilineal orientation, had already been worshipping their goddesses, and among them were Chandika and Durga. In other words, these names were current in the non-Aryan tradition before their brahmanic appropriation. It is notable that the Kushans, centuries earlier than the Aryan-brahmans, had put goddesses on their coins. As Doniger has pointed out, at some moment in the Puranic period, which also marked the rise of cult of devotional bhakti, the critical mass of Devi (goddess) worship already current in the local indigenous cultures forced the brahmanical custodians of Sanskrit narratives to acknowledge it. Thus, the reinvention of the goddesses in the brahmanical mould and turning them into a war machine against the Asuras (which indeed seems a code name for the ancestors of dalit-bahujans) was a masterstroke that worked excellently for the Aryan-brahmans. It helped them immensely in killing the memories of the violent Aryan-non-Aryan warfare that stretched over the centuries, the garbled and distorted accounts of which we find in the Veda-Purana and other brahmanical texts.
Conspiracy to lock up the mind and society in caste prison
It would be in order here to make some pertinent points about myth and history that can deepen our understanding of India’s troubled past. Of course, myth is not history, but myth is not simply the opposite of truth either. Intermingling fiction and fact, fantasy and reality, myth is a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. Abounding in symbols, allusions and fantasies, mythology both reveals (leads) and conceals (misleads), and alongside the historical sources and writings helps us understand and reconstruct the human past. But the problem in India is peculiar. The ancient India has only mythography in the form of Itihaas-Purana (myth-history and legends) and hardly any historiography in the dominant brahmanical tradition. It is interesting to explore why didn’t historical-mindedness develop in India? The fact that the study of history flourished in other countries such as Greece and China but not in India is quite revealing, and lends credence to the dalit-bahujan suspicion of a political-intellectual conspiracy to lock up the masses in the prison-house of caste.
It seems that the brahmanic choice of mythography over historiography was deliberate and a crucial part of a sinister strategy to suppress or misrepresent the historical events in order to keep the society closed and enslaved in the caste mould. It is true that all societies have undergone and experienced some form of hierarchy in the past, but as Donald Brown shows in his important work Hierarchy, History and Human Nature (1988), the degree of hierarchy is not the same in every society. Less hierarchical societies tend to be more open and inclusive, with more avenues and scope for social mobility, whereas rigidly hierarchical societies like India’s are by and large closed, where only those from the privileged families or castes are able to get ahead. In more open societies, success depends in a large measure on an individual’s skills and initiatives, giving rise to an interest in history as a repository of facts and interpretations about why certain individuals succeeded and others didn’t. Open societies have a propensity to be interested in the accurate recording of chronology, biography, and realistic portraiture as well as a common educational philosophy, social and political science, the pace and direction of change, the shape of things to come, and, above all, belief in the idea of universality of human nature.
By contrast, closed societies—of which pre-modern and caste-ridden India is a prototype—tend to represent individuals symbolically, identifying persons through the symbols of their caste or rank rather than depicting their individual characteristics. A classic example is the legend of Mahisha itself, as his very name makes clear. Mahisha is a human being, but in the brahmanical eye, he is no different from the buffalo (the bovine which apparently occupied a vital place in the then pastoral society). He is reduced to a buffalo: his very name is Mahisha (Sanskrit for buffalo). In producing images, art and literature that are highly stylized, symbolic, and non-representational (which are, again, vividly visible in the art and literature on the Durga-Mahisha legend), the objective of the ruling castes in closed societies is to perpetuate illusions and mystification about society and culture, thus keeping people away from the reality of historical truth. For this reason, closed societies like India have traditionally elevated myths and legends over historical facts, hagiography over biography, iconography and symbolism over realism, superstition over rationality or science, education of the few over education of the many, and above all, casteism and sexism over humanism and egalitarianism, etc.
This explains why the brahman in India wrote only Itihasa-Purana, which, unlike historical narratives, are a make-believe account that conceals the reality far more than it reveals. The point is not that mythology is undesirable or inferior to history—it may not be an inferior mode of thought either, as many critical traditionalists argue—but it cannot be a substitute for history. By mixing the natural with supernatural and fact with fiction, myths allow us to read whatever we like to read. But if a society is left only with myths, it will be well nigh impossible to understand the past—anyone could read anything into those myths. This was however the precise purpose of the brahman literati—to hide actual history and destroy as far as possible the evidence of real events and their nefarious role therein so that real history could not be reconstructed.
This understanding gives a plausible explanation to why did the brahman fictionalise and do not historicise their—and India’s—history. It reveals the reason why they wrote all kinds of myths and legends, but no history or narrative of what had actually happened. For example, the very origin of caste was explained through a myth in the Purusha-sukta of the Rig-Veda. The tendency to base the origin of caste on a supernatural agency, fictitious claims of descent from mythic figures and similar mythifications were essential to the bigger ploy of keeping the people in the dark about how they were enslaved in the caste system. Opting for myth over history (where accurate names, facts, and chronicles are needed and understanding of the past is animated by an objective concern about what exactly happened) became necessary to hide the hideous historical truth. The literati who wrote misleading accounts kept their own identities hidden from the public eye. It is striking that most brahmanic works remain either anonymous or attributed to fictitious or false authors. Manu, for example, is not the real name of the man who wrote the Manusmriti (see my Debrahmanising History  2015: 131).
By filling the public space with misleading stories and legends, by blurring the difference between myth and reality, the brahman destroyed the very possibility of any meaningful discussion about society and its actual functioning. In many of the Puranas, statements about events were made in the future tense, although they were written much after the events had happened. Similar falsification–mystification are evident in the Dharmashastras, the Sanskritized epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and other sacerdotal texts in which the general design is to confuse brahmanic prescription with social description. So fraudulently was fiction interwoven with selective facts that the anti-caste and non-brahmanic traditions, especially the Buddhist-shramanic movements, were erased, suppressed, or at the best, grossly misrepresented in some fleeting references. For example, a Puranic text depicts Ashoka, one of the most benevolent kings in history, as a hated Buddhist and a despised shudra. In brahmanic eyes, the Mauryas, the dynasty to which Ashoka belonged, was shudra-prayastv-adharmikah—mainly shudras and un-righteous. The brahmanic records completely ignore Ashoka until the time when, ten or twelve centuries afterwards, all danger from his influence had passed away. Expunged from the Indian history, Ashoka had to be discovered on the basis of his rock edicts and the Ceylon chronicles.
Ashoka’s icon, Gautam Buddha fared no better as the brahmanic forces tried to destroy the Buddhist ideology and movement through a criminal conspiracy and large-scale violence that stretched over centuries, as my Debrahmanising History ( 2015) and Giovanni Verardi’s Hardship and Downfall of Buddhism in India (2011) have compellingly demonstrated, showing also the complicity of modern elitist historiography to hide the real history of India. Brahmanism not only succeeded in banishing Buddhism from India but also in destroying the very historicity of Buddha. So much so that there was a raging debate among historians in the first half of the nineteenth century about the historicity of Buddha and whether he was an Indian! Buddha had to be rediscovered after centuries of forced oblivion in a country whose pundits take great pride in advertising their brilliant intellectual legacy.
Not only did the brahman not keep any specific chronologies or sequences of events, they also destroyed the records and literature of their supposed adversaries. They indulged in massive forgeries to recast Indian culture in the brahmanic mould. They suppressed facts, changed names, confused places and periods, proffered false data, created fictitious dynastic pedigrees, frequently revaluated and tampered with their Vedas and Puranas, Sanskritized the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and above all, brutally censured all oppositional voices and events. (For elaboration and illustration of this point, see my Knowledge and Power (2014:194-209) and Debrahmanising History  2015: 134-8).
By obliterating historical facts, records and events when Buddhism opposed brahmanism, and the memories of the people—considered ‘enemies’ and hence lowered and ensnared in the caste hierarchy—the brahman destroyed the possibility of a realistic understanding of what really happened. Instead, they (mis)represented India through the rigmarole of myths and legends which served the purpose of hiding the real history. Besides, Shastras and Puranas were frequently altered and rewritten over the centuries to incorporate elements (that were felt necessary for the brahmanic supremacy) that in historical terms were simply lies.
Summing up, brahmanic misrepresentation of Indian history and culture was driven by a ruthless politics of power, the kind of politics we see today in the obnoxious politics of RSS. For all this, it was essential that the people lived in ignorance and remained uninformed of historical truth. In order to establish caste order and a religion based on it, brahmanism had to promote mass ignorance and prohibit emancipatory learning for the lowered castes and women. This is the tradition the RSS valorises and wants to perpetuate under the cover of Hindu nationalism. Its aggressive reinvention and dissemination of old and new brahmanical myths about Indian society and culture constitute the new oppressive power. For the struggling dalit-bahujans, a cutting-edge understanding of this oppressive power and its outright rejection is essential for launching a liberating cultural movement. And its counter-narrative of the Mahishasura-Durga legend is a part of this liberating cultural struggle.
Braj Ranjan Mani is the author of Knowledge and Power: A Discourse for Transformation (2014). His earlier and challenging work Debrahmanising History (2005) has undergone many reprints, and is now available in an extensively revised edition (2015).