Mahishasur: A people’s Hero

Alternative Readings of the Durga-Mahishasur Myth. A Revolt Against Brahmanical Epistemology: The beginning of a new cultural renaissance in India

The alternative readings of myths from Brahmanical mythological reservoir mark the beginning of a new cultural consciousness among the Dalits, Adivasis and other deprived sections of the Indian society. The deprived peoples have realized that the Brahmanism has been able to maintain its ideological hegemony through monopoly over knowledge based mainly on epical & mythological constructs of the history. The cultural domination is reciprocitively related to politico-economic domination. Hence to deconstruct the myths is an important facilitative factor in the struggle of cultural emancipation. The alternative reading of the Durga-Mahishasur myth, Mahishasur: A People’s’ Hero is a part of the process, says Ish Mishra.

There is a popular African proverb, “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunting shall go on eulogizing the hunter”. Historian Gyanendra Pandey has aptly written in his celebrated work, Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India that the history is “the past recollected” and that depends upon the subjective biases of the one who recollects it. The mythological constructs play an important role in determining the directions and dimensions of the socio-cultural history of a society. Myths are born out of vacuum but abstracted from the reality, at times the excess of the fantasies and exaggerations imbued into it make the reality obscure and invisible. But the reality does not disappear and can be seen by removing the smoke screen over it, i.e. by demystifying it myth. The mythological construct of Mahishasur Mardini or Chandi Durga is abstracted from the historical conflicts between the Sur and Asur (the Aryans and the non-Aryans). Consequent to the unprecedented march of the Dalit scholarship and assertion over the past 2-3 decades, to counteract the Brahmanical cultural domination,  some Dalit and Adivasi intellectuals have undertaken the alternative readings and interpretations of the myths as part of the movement to take. The beginning was marked by organization of Mahishasur Martyrdom Day for the alternative reading of this myth in JNU in 2011, disrupted by ABVP, the student wing of the RSS, followed by protracted debate on the issue in the media and the social media.

mahishasurThe speech of the then union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani on 24 February 2016, in Parliament that lasting over 4 hours in defence of the government sponsored crackdown against the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and the JNU is part of history by now. As a proof of her allegation regarding JNU being “the den of anti-nationals”, she waved a pamphlet issued on the occasion of the observation of the Mahishasur Martyrdom Day in JNU in 2014. With ‘hurt’ sentiments and with an expressed sense of sinful guilt conscience, she read out few portions from it after seeking the pardon of the Goddess for that ‘sin’.  The pamphlet was an alternative reading of the Durga-Mahishasur narrative from the perspective of the oppressed. With reference to the above proverb, the lions began to have their own historians to counter the glorification of the hunters. According to the pamphlet, Mahishasur was a mighty, just and popular Asur (non-Aryan) ruler. when the Surs (Aryans) found it impossible to defeat him in battle, they killed him by deceit using the charms of a woman whom they subsequently called her Chandi or Durga, mythologized the incident and began to worship her as Goddess.

As has been well debated now in media in general and in social media in particular, the Asurs, one of the aboriginal tribes, some other tribes and deprived communities, away from the media glare, have been commemorating the death of Mahishasur on the Durga Puja day. They claim to be the descendants of Mahishasur. The issue raised the controversy and became the topic of the debate since some groups of students in JNU began observing Mahishasur Martyrdom Day publicly since 2011. Expectedly, the alternative interpretation of the myth by the ‘historians of the lions’ irked the ‘hunters’ and their ‘historians’, and as mentioned above with reference to the then HRD Minister’s statement in the parliament, they cite it as an evidence of anti-nationalism. The book under review, Mahishasur: A People’s Hero, is a compilation of the articles by various authors on the Mahishasur-Durga controversy, written over the last five years. This is an important contribution in the initial phase of the rewriting the cultural history by providing alternative interpretation of the prevalent myths by the ‘historians of the lions’, refuting the ‘tales of the hunting’ by the ‘historians of the hunters’.

The observation of Mahishasur Martyrdom Day by different Dalit, Tribal and OBC groups in different parts of the country over the last four years has become a part of the ongoing cultural movement against Brahmanism. “When, on 25 October 2011, a handful of students of Jawaharlal Nehru University celebrated Mahishasur Martyrdom Day for the first time was, no one could have imagined that movement would spread like wildfire. In just four years, these events have not only created nationwide stir but have provided a common basis for unity between Tribals, OBCs and Dalits. This year (2015), Mahishasur Martyrdom Day or Mahishasur Remembrance Day was celebrated at more than 300 locations in the country.” (p.81)

Why a re-rending or alternative interpretation of mythological tales? Pramod Ranjan, the editor of the book, convincingly answers this question. “To understand the implications of any story … one needs to deconstruct it. If you deconstruct any Brahmanical mythological story, you will find that it admits the injustices and deceits perpetrated by the heroes and heroines without demur, portraying them as acts of valour to glorify the characters. It is clear that for the Brahmins, everything that the powerful did was moral. They didn’t have the concept of ‘justice’.” (p.14).

Across the historical ages, the myths and their celebrations have been the important ideological tools of ideological and cultural domination. “This re-rendition is aimed at establishing the concept of justice and of humanist morality – to prove that ultimately truth prevails over power.” (P.14) Many scholars like Rahul Sankrityayan have categorically stated that the Sur-Asur conflicts are the mythological constructs of the historic wars between the Aryans and non-Aryans. “Descriptions of wars and deceits in mythology suggest that Mahishasur was a valiant socio-political leader of that section of society whose life values were different from those of the Surs (Brahmins/Aryans). They were more powerful, resourceful and prosperous than the Surs. They were the rulers of their kingdom and the Surs were finding it impossible to defeat them. Ultimately, the Surs used a woman to trick and conquer them.” (pp.14-15)

From time immemorial, the ruling classes have been using cultural dominance to establish economic and political dominance. As has been rightly pointed out by Karl Marx in German Ideology, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas. That is, the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. Capitalism does not produce only goods. It also manufactures the ideas.” He calls it the idea of the age that greatly influences the social consciousness. For the annihilation of castes, radicalization of the identity-based Dalit consciousness is necessary and for the radicalization of the social consciousness the annihilation of caste is essential. Myths and mythological stories nurture Brahmanical cultural dominance. Pramod Ranjan rightly points out that the re-rendition of the Mahishasur’s tale is the declaration of a cultural revolt against Brahmanism”. As has been stated above, the lions have rejected the history of the hunters and have started writing their own.


After the informative, introductory, editorial essay on and about the book and its subject matter, re-rendition begins with a powerful, well-researched, analytical writ-up by Premkumar Mani titled, ‘Who are the Bahujans really worshipping?’ “In India too there is a long history of worshipping Shakti. But this history is not so simple … The symbol of Shakti evident in the Indus Valley Civilization is not the same one we see after the arrival and settling of the Aryans. The centres or symbols of Shakti kept changing with the pre-Vedic, early-Vedic, Vedic and post-Vedic periods. As the influence of Aryan civilization increased, its various forms also came to light … (p.18). Taking Indus civilization as that of Dravidians, he writes, “and there was no Shakti worship in the civilization of these Dravids.” He further adds, “It was the arrival of the Aryans that set the stage for Shakti Puja. The peaceful, civilized, Dravidian cow-rearers of the Indus Civilization were destroyed and pushed back by comparatively crueller horse-riding Aryans. Dravidians would not have given up easily. The battle between ‘gods’ and ‘demons’ is the same Aryan-Dravidian battle”. (p.18) The following article is also by Premkumar Mani, in which he raises a valid question in the title itself, ‘Why this celebration of death?’

Despite the differences in the interpretation of the symbols of Mahishasur and Durga in various alternative readings to Brahmanical ones of the myth, there is a concurrence among them on the point that Mahishasur was a non-Aryan, popular, pro-people king, or the community leader of the indigenous people – the Asurs. The  Aryans (Surs), unable to defeat him in war, they killed him by deceit, using a woman agent. In her well researched and meticulously documented article, Durga the Santal Slayer, Madhusree Mukerjee concludes, “In sum, the story of Durga and Mahishasur is at the first sight a tale of prehistoric conflict between Dravidians and Austro-Asiatic peoples. It is possible, however, that by the time, this epic encounter took place, Durga had already been incorporated into the mainstream and represented the dominant culture”. (p.30)

Braj Ranjan Mani’s article Dalitbahujan perspective on the Mahishasur debate launches a frontal attack on the Brahmanical sense of history. “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. ……. This warrior-goddess takes to a violent high 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 (‘Aryans-Brahmans’) can overpower them.” (p.38)This well-researched article makes valid point. “It seems that Brahmanical choice of mythology 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.” (pp.41-42)

The historical fact is that Brahmanism, in order to maintain and perpetuate its hegemony, laced history with mythical, mythological and divine characters and imaginary, charismatic events and fantasies, overtly-covertly manifesting into prolonged economic and intellectual stagnation of the society. It could successfully do that by defining knowledge within the constrained paradigm of its own vested interests and its monopoly over knowledge through an exclusive education system. To ensure universal cognisance of its version of knowledge, it was necessary for Brahmanism to destroy other symbols and definitions of knowledge and the educational systems. It is the well-known historic fact that it Pushyamitra Shung, the Brahman army General of the last Mauryan Emperor, Brihadrath, after deceitfully assassinating him, occupied throne of the Magadha Empire. It is equally well-known that after rising to power, he undertook to decimate the texts, literature, symols and institutions of Buddhism materialistic school of philosophy, the Lokayat and their knowledge systems. began. Well-known thinker Ram Puniyani, in his article Durga, Mahishasur and caste Politics, while acknowledging the complexities involved in the interpretation of mythological legends and texts, but with the help of varied readings and analysis arrives at the conclusion that the city Mysore has been named after Mahishasur. In his critique of Brahmanical interpretations of myths, he echoes Karl Marx. “The dominant discourse is always of dominant castes/classes.” (p.93). He considers these alternative interpretations of the myths as integral part of the discourse against the Brahmanical hegemony. “This interpretation also brings up the social change that resulted from the struggles of the downtrodden against the caste slavery.” (p.94).

The book comprehensively documents the programmes organised to commemorate Mahishasur in different parts of the country since the above mentioned event in JNU in 2011 and the discourses on the subject in the media and the social media. Premkumar Mani’s appeal Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to come out of his fortress lies and mythological prejudices to realize the reality, in his article, Understand India, Modi ji, is doomed to fall on deaf ears as the Brahmanical version of mythology is serving his political interest. Nevertheless, he goes on educating him.   “Durga and ahishasur are not part of our history; they are part of our mythology. And Prime Minister Sir, not only dominant sections have their history, their mythology and their culture. Those who are ruled, those who are the members of the so-called lower castes – one of which you had become before elections – to have their own history and their own mythology. If the dominant classes have their mythological Durga, the backward classes have their mythological Mahishasur.” (p.100) He describes the alternative interpretation of the mythology as a constituent of the culture of protest. “The dominant class uses its mythology to strengthen its stranglehold; those who are left behind reinterpret their mythology to put up cultural resistance. The dominant class asks us to worship Rama; we are reminded of Shambuk whose head was severed by Ram because he wanted to gain knowledge.” (p.100)

Pramod Ranjan, the editor of the book, wishfully seeks to keep this cultural movement away from Brahmanical and Marxist interference and influences. But in my view, as expressed in my articles on JNU episode (The Idea of JNU and RSS jingoism & JNU Mrches On [Counter Current, 4 May & 27 May respectively]; Bharat mein NavMcCarthyvad: JNU Aur Deshdroh & NU Ka Vichar Tatha Sanghi Rashtronmad [Samkaleen Teesri Dunia, April & May 2016 respectively]), the much awaited symbolic unity of the slogans of Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam, emanating from the martyrdom of Rohith Vemula and the ongoing students movement against the fascist designs, marks the beginning of a new cultural revolution against the Brahmanism and the neoliberalism. The newly constituted Bhagat Singh-Ambedkar Students’ Organization is the symbolic beginning of the ideological journey of this new revolution with slogan – No Revolution without Caste Annihilation; No Caste Annihilation without Revolution. Ever since the fascist onslaught on education is becoming more and more intense with vocal aggression of Hindutva right wing extremism, the need for theorising and realizing in practice the symbolic unity of the slogans – the unity of social justice and economic justice, has acquired additional urgency.

I fully agree with Ram Puniyani’s observation that the alternative interpretations of myths are the precursor of the rise of a new Dalit consciousness. The deprived sections of the caste system have realized the necessity to deconstruct and reconstruct the scriptures, on the basis of monopoly over which, the Brahmanism could keep the society under the caste-slavery. The new interpretation of the myths is a part of this process.

As domination is multifaceted — economic, political, intellectual/cultural…., the resistance too must be multifaceted but not in dissociation from but in association with each other. The unity of the slogans of Jai Bhim and Lal Salam symbolizes the unity of the struggles for social justice and economic justice. In Gujarat and Punjab, the recent Dalit movements achieved substantial success as the struggle of dignity (social justice) was linked with the struggle for the land rights.(economic justice). The leftists and the pioneers of social justice, both have to take the cognisance of the historic fact that in India the ruling castes and the ruling class were the same and hence the need to synthesis of class and caste struggles. As Bhagat Singh has rightly said that the ideologies of communalism and castieism can be combatted only by the expansion of the class-consciousness.

Mahishasur: A people’s Hero
Edited by Pramod Ranjan
Marginalised, Vardha, 20016

Ish Mishra, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Hindu College, University of Delhi

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