Who Was Mahishasura? A Santhal Poet Explains


Mahishasur being worshiped in Purulia, West Bengal
Mahishasur being worshiped in Purulia, West Bengal

The real disdain for Hindu folk tales, oral ballads and other practices of many, many communities of believing Hindus is shown by the political face of the Hindutva project. Hindutvavaad is shamed and embarrassed by the glorious pagan aspects of Hinduism, and the refusal of Hindu practices to be tamed into the pallid, rigid North Indian upper caste version that is the basis of the Hindu nationalist project


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n Parliament the other day, Minister for Education Smriti Irani emotionally prefaced her reluctant reading of an alleged Jawarhal Nehru University poster with “May my God forgive me for even reading this out”. I am mildly envious that she has a personalized god to take care of her doubtless, more weighty requirements than an ordinary citizen (an anti-national at that) can claim.

Be that as it may, what she read out purported to be from a poster about an event in JNU organized by “SC, ST and minority students”, an event that celebrated Mahishasura:

“Durga Puja is the most controversial racial festival, where a fair-skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasur. Mahishasur, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasur into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning during sleep,”

Now, she does not show us that poster. Does it really use the term “sex worker”? I have seen posters for Mahishasura Diwas on JNU campus and never noticed this phrase. However, if it has indeed been used, we could have a discussion around the gender politics of that term and of that poster. Moreover, reading (in translation) the tale of Mahishasura from Santhal poet Bajar Hembrom will also give us a sense of how and why that phrase could have been used, if it was.

Actually, the only place I have seen the words “sex worker” in conjunction with “Goddess Durga” was in an ABVP poster that accused All India Backward Students Forum (AIBSF) of describing Goddess Durga as “a sex worker, seducer and prostitute” in their account of Mahishasura Diwas. Just as I have heard the slogan Pakistan Zindabad only in the mouths of Hindutvaadis who accuse us of chanting it.

[As an aside, let me say that we have noticed that under the sophisticated training of the RSS, that rumor machine par excellence, BJP folk have evolved from simply ranting and frothing at the mouth, to solemnly reading out pure glorious inventions from pieces of paper, making it all appear official and authenticated. Like our favorite MLA who carried out the survey that established the exact number of condoms used per day in JNU – newspaper reports say that he read the figures out from a a paper in his hand. (That his claims about JNU are the displaced products of his own sexual fantasies became clear after photographs emerged, that showed him dancing with women and showering them with money. It is not an unrelated matter that these sons of Bharat Mata play out their nationalism on the bodies of women, with rapes, rape threats and rape fantasies forming the core of their devotion to their Motherland. Also, in this context, see Shilpa Phadke on how such fevered claims of condom usage actually reflect long-held anxieties about the education of women.) ]

Returning to Mahishasura Diwas, what we must take seriously is the fact that there is a vast repertoire of heterogeneous practices that are brought under the label ‘Hinduism’. So there are very varying accounts across the Indian subcontinent and South and East Asia, of all the gods that Hindu Right wing politics or Hindutvavaad, attempt to establish in particular forms as the only true Hinduism. (Of course, I distinguish between Hindutvavaad as politics and Hinduism as the set of practices we call ‘religious’ or ‘cultural’.)

If we look at the histories of these gods across Asia and on the Indian subcontinent, we find that the indigenous dark skinned gods and goddesses as well as animal spirits, have gradually been incorporated into the Aryan pantheon as wives and children of the Aryan male gods. But the earlier practices continue in large parts of the subcontinent, especially among subaltern groups.

Everywhere in the South, for example, you will find small or big shrines to female powers, mother goddesses or goddesses of fearsome powers; you find gods that are not from the Aryan pantheon, but somehow brought into the mythology of it (for example Ayyappa, an ancient forest god, who is brought into the Aryan pantheon by a story that he is the son of Vishnu in the form of Mohini, and Shiva). These shrines are far from abandoned, still seen as consecrated, and widely worshiped.

Coming specifically to Mahishasura, the Asur tribe of Jharkhand of over 10,000 members is classified as a “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group” by the Indian government, and their language—spoken by some 7,000 individuals—is described by UNESCO as “definitely endangered.”

The Asurs, who claim ancestry from Mahishasura himself, believe that the Devi Mahatmya story of the Markandeya Purana, which describes the birth of Durga and her nine-day long battle with Mahishasura, is biased. According to the Asurs, the birth of Durga from the conjoined powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was a “crooked conspiracy” hatched because their king Mahishasura was blessed with a boon by Brahma that no man or god could kill him. Hence, the more traditionally-inclined members of Asurs sometimes even choose to completely isolate themselves and mourn Mahishasura’s death during the period of the Durga Puja.

The Santhals of Bengal too, have their own story about Mahishasura. This is how Santhal musical genius Bajar Hembrom described the origins and meaning of the Dashoi festival, which Santhals observe on the last day of Durga Puja, to Kunal Deb (translated from Bengali by Madhusree Mukerjee).

It is clear that the mythology is a deep sorrowful acknowledgement of the dispossession of adivasis from all that was once theirs – jal, jangal and jameen.

A long, long time ago there was the Har kingdom on earth. That is, a Santhal Raj. Our king was Adur. He was also called Raja Debi. He was as famed for his governance–for the way he looked after his people–as for his heroism. He could fight a tiger with his bare hands; he could alone stop the rampages of crazed elephants. His soldiers too were very fierce. Nobody could beat them in battle. Raja Indra had been crushed many times in battle against him.

But Indra too was not someone to give up. This time, in order to defeat Raja Debi and seize the Santal kingdom, he resorted to deceit and trickery. He sent the dancer Durga from his heavenly court to earth. [You can see here one possible route to her being termed a sex worker today]. One of her assistants put her on elephant back and sent her to the jungle palace of Raja Debi. Another of her helpers covered the skies with an intoxicatingly beautiful moonlight, yet another spread music in the air. A fourth filled the surroundings with dancing peacocks. In such a heady atmosphere, Durga had no difficulty in seducing Raja Debi with her beauty and dance.

Not long after Raja Debi got married. His queen was Durga. She started sending news to Indra about when the raja slept, when he was unarmed, when festivals preoccupied his soldiers and commanders, and so on. Indra linked these snippets of intelligence with one another to formulate a plan. He decided the day and time, and one day he imprisoned Raja Adur in a sudden attack. The soldiers were taken by surprise and could not recover from that assault. Debi’s kingdom was easily seized. Our Santal ancestors lost their king and their kingdom. Everyone scattered where they could.

The trusted guards and friends of the king started to look for their beloved monarch. Disguised as women, their weapons concealed, they wandered and danced in villages and towns, in many places, always searching. If they hear the faintest reply to their mournful song, from the imprisoned raja, out will come the weapons from under the feminine clothes of the warriors. They will fight and recover their lost kingdom. And when Raja Adur Debi returns, they will get back their Santal Raj, their lost wealth, their forests, their rivers, everything.

The Dashoi dance is on the last day of Durga Puja. You worship Durga. We search for, we still search for, our lost Raja Debi. You call him Asur.”

The real disdain for Hindu folk tales, oral ballads and other practices of many, many communities of believing Hindus is shown by the political face of the Hindutvavaadi project. Hindutvavaad is shamed and embarrassed by the glorious pagan aspects of Hinduism, and the refusal of Hindu practices to be tamed into the pallid, rigid North Indian upper caste version that is the basis of the Hindu nationalist project.

And to conclude by going back to Smriti Irani’s statement in Parliament, one could ask, if indeed, Durga was denigrated or any Hindu practice impugned in JNU – how does that come under the provision of sedition and anti-nationalism? Causing hurt to religious sentiments, yes, but why is it being brought under anti-nationalism? This conflation is only possible if you assume that only a particular kind of Hindu constitutes the nation, and that no other religious community can be a legitimate part of it.

The Hindutvavaadi project is to sanitize Hinduism of all aspects and practices that are anti-patriarchal, anti-Brahminical, and anti-hierarchy, and to make this Hinduism coterminous with the Indian Nation. We may have our opinions on whether this project is legitimate or whether it will triumph, but at least let us not deceive ourselves about what the project is, and what its implications are.


Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.

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