Why JNU’s Mahishasura Story Is An Intellectual Travesty And Not Alternative Reading

Why JNU’s Mahishasura Story Is An Intellectual Travesty And Not Alternative ReadingDurga Mahishasuramardini (DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Even alternative interpretations of a story have to stand objective analysis to be seen as legitimate. Here Aravindan Neelankandan proves the alleged ‘alternative reading’ of the Mahishasuramardini story in JNU to be nothing but hate speech peddled the under the garb of critique

During the Durga Puja in 2013, some pamphlets and posters appeared at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus. One of them read as below:

The Shudra (and perhaps the unadulterated) reading of Mahishasur–Durga story goes like this. Mahish means buffalo. Mahishasur means the Buffalo Demon. Demon (asur) is different from god (sur). Sur means god. God means Brahmin or Swarna (upper caste). Surs do not work. Asur means those who work – in today’s parlance, workers. Mahishasur means people who rear buffalo, the buffalo-rearers, those who trade in milk -the dairy people. Asur may have changed to Ahur and then to Ahir (the present-day milkman caste). Mahishasur or the buffalo-rearers must have been the people dominating the Banga region. Racially they must have been Dravidians. They must have also been opponents of the Aryan culture. Aryans had to defeat them. These people used Durga. In the Banga region, prostitutes mention Durga to be of their clan. Even today when one makes the Durga idol, some soil must be brought from the house of a prostitute. It took Durga nine nights to kill Mahishasur. The Brahmins who sent her waited nine nights with bated breath. This was a difficult task. If not force, deception – Force of deception. On the ninth night Durga tasted success, she killed Mahishasur. As they heard the news, the Aryans (Brahmins) were all agog. They swooped at Mahishasur’s people and cutting their heads (munda) off made a new kind of garland. They put this garland around Durga’s neck. Even Indra couldn’t do what Durga had done. But Durga was distraught by the genocide and committed suicide by jumping in the river. Thus, the tradition of immersing her idol in the river was born. The festival is the celebration of genocide of the natives. It’s a celebration of murder unlike in any other religion. It promotes hatred and justifies caste violence against bahujans which is the continuation of the old racial war. It must be banned. [1]
The infamous JNU poster about Mahishasur Martyrdom Day
The infamous JNU poster about Mahishasur Martyrdom Day

The Neocon Heartbeat of the Indian Left

The above passage was penned by Prem Kumar Mani, a party hopping politician, who is currently with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD (he was with JDU before) though he started his political career with the Communist Party.[2] He had also dabbled in ‘progressive literature’ with establishment blessings. The passage was originally written for a caste magazine ‘Yadav Shakthi’.

It was translated and published in 2012 by an anti-Hindu propaganda bi-lingual magazine ‘Forward Press’ in November 2011. Following this, a ‘Mahishasur Martyrdom Day’ was organized by ‘All India Backward Students Forum’ (AIBSF) at JNU campus on 17 October in which among the main speakers were Prof. Kancha Ilaiah, a former professor at Osmania University and Prem Kumar Mani.[3]

Prof. Kancha Ilaiah has a gifted mind for churning out crackpot reconstructions on Indian mythology, often portraying it as a collection ‘Aryan’, ‘Brahminical’ conspiracies against the down-trodden. That is understandable given the fact that he is with Dalit Freedom Network (DFI) which is a front of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) whose honorary president is Jonathan Aitken, a politician charged with ‘perjury and perverting the course of justice’ in 1999, who then served seven months in jail. In jail, Aitken discovered evangelical fundamentalist Christianity as a means of comeback. [4] It is interesting that the anti-Hindu shows staged in ultra-left wing citadels in India have their ultimate string pullers in the Christian Right of the West.

Coming back to the original duplicity of making a martyr out of Mahishasura and peddling a racial interpretation of a Hindu myth as the ‘Shudra’ reading, one finds an immense ignorance of not just Indian history but also a colossal insensitivity to the local traditions that exist throughout India.

Asuras are a Race?

Let us start with some hard facts.

There is a tribal community called Asurs who venerate Mahishasur. Can this be taken as the proof of the speculation that the slaying of Mahishasura was indeed the slaying of aboriginal tribes by invading Aryans?

The answer can be easily gleaned by looking at Ravan, another valiant anti-hero of pan-Indian epic Ramayan. After the advent of colonial narrative, the anti-Brahminical Dravidian movement had been projecting Ravan as the non-Brahminical Dravidian hero who was defeated by cunning Aryan Rama. However traditionally it was Kanyakubja Brahmins, a Brahmin sub-sect in Madhya Pradesh, not non-Brahmins, who have been venerating Ravana as their ancestor. [5]

There are temples for Duryodana, the anti-hero of the other pan-Indian epic Mahabharatha at both Uttarakhand in the north and Kerala in the south. Hence it should not be surprising that in India which has traditionally nurtured diversity and pluralism, every anti-hero in any mythology would also be venerated by some community somewhere in the country. To construe a racial interpretation to the mythology based on the existence of such communities is not just bad academics but also hate mongering.

Harappans Stand Accused?

Further, there is not an iota of evidence that buffalo was not venerated by Vedic civilization. There may be a correlation between the buffalo like head-gear of the Harappan ‘yogi’ seal and the hymns of the Vedas invoking the imagery of buffalo with regard to Vedic divinities. Indologist Stella Kramrisch pointed out in her authoritative work on Siva:

The buffalo horns gracing the head of this figure and other figures in human shape in Harappan art impart bovine grandeur and significance to their appearance. …Though the collection of the hymns of the Rig Veda was not completed before 1000 BC. Some of its myths originated in a far remote past. In the Rig Veda the bovine species whether as buffalo or bull, lends its glamour to the evocation of the gods. Agni, Indra, Soma, and Varuna, the principal Vedic gods are invoked as buffaloes. Much less frequently are they invoked as bulls Indra is once praised as a buffalo great in bull powers (RV. 3.46.2), the buffalo obviously taking precedence over the bull. [6]

So much for the so-called ‘Aryans’ of the Vedic society detesting the buffalo rearing native Dravidians. But what is even more interesting is that the slaying of Mahishasura myth has its origin in the Harappan civilization itself. Jane McIntosh an archaeologist from Cambridge University specializing in Harappa states:

It seems that bovids and tigers, magnificent and powerful creatures, played a major and balancing role in the iconography of the Indus civilization, both individually and in combination. Both appear in later Indian religion, as vehicles of deity, as manifestations of gods in their more terrible forms, and as their opponents: for example, the goddess Durga riding a tiger and slaying the buffalo demon, Mahishasura. While the buffalo and bull, as well as unicorn, are depicted as unmistakably male, tigers are not and may perhaps have been female, another significant duality. [7]

Soviet scholars, who attempted the deciphering of Harappan seals, also had observed the depiction of an earlier version of the slaying of Mahishasura, not by Durga but by Skanda (as narrated in Mahabharatha):

In the scene depicted on the seal MII, 279; XCII, 11, one finds a personage slaying a buffalo with his spear. An evident parallel to this scene is found in an episode from the late mythology of the killing of the demon-buffalo Mahisha. This motif has many variants in the ancient Sanskrit monuments. The feat of killing Mahisha is ascribed to several deities, Skanda among them. According to the myth related in the Mahabharatha, Skanda appeared in this world in order to head the army of the gods in their struggle against various demons. Among other demons slain by Skanda one finds Mahisha. The details given in the Mahabharatha’s version of Mahishamardana (the killing of Mahisha) exactly correspond to the scenes on the Proto-Indian seal. [8]

So, if the worthies at JNU who celebrated the imagined martyrdom of Mahishasura are right, then as a logical extension they should also claim that the architects of Harappan civilization were the original perpetrators of the massacre of native ‘Shudras’.

Ilango Adigal an Aryan Stooge?

Even more damaging to the crackpot conspiracy theorists is the account of tribal worship described by Chilapathikaram – an ancient Tamil epic. Definitely not later than 3rd century CE and authorship attributed to Ilango Adigal, a prince who renounced crown to become a Jain monk, the epic described the Goddess worship ritual of the tribes found deep inside the Tamil landscape. Illango Adigal speaks of the Goddess through the tribal ritual litany, which is worth quoting in a somewhat detailed way:

The demon of two forms with strong formed shoulders

On his head She stands

And all worship Her as

The Immortal the Youthful, the Shining, the Warrior,

She with the trident, She who is dark cued

She the younger sister of Vishnu

Warped in elephant skin and with

The skin of tiger adoring the hips

You stand on the

Dark head of the forest buffalo

With celestials venerating You as

The essence of scriptures

With no flickering

You stand as the Flame of Gnosis, Lo!

Sword held in the hands wearing bangles and

Vanquishing the buffalo demon

You stand on the strong horned reindeer

You also are in the hearts of

Hari, Haran and the lotus dweller

The lamp of ever expanding light, Lo!

And there

With the garlands of

Golden shower flowers and Ocimum

Adoring your shoulders

You battled for the Celestials

Against the Asuras [9]

If Prof. Kancha Ilaiah and the other assorted crackpot theorists are right, then Ilango Adigal, considered a Jain monk, should be accused of being an Aryan stooge deluding the Tamil Shudras with the worship of an Aryan prostitute who killed the leader of the Shudra-Dravidians.

This a modified version of a piece written by the author in 2013 for Centre Right India


[1] Twish Mukherjee, The ‘Myth’ in Mythology, roundtableindia.co.in published: Published on 11 November 2012: accessed 17-Oct-2013

[2] http://blc.bih.nic.in/Members/PremKumarMani.htm: accessed 17-Oct-2013

[3] JNU group to observe Mahishasur’s ‘martyrdom’, Times of India, Oct-15-2013

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Aitken : accessed 17-Oct-2013

[5] In MP’s Ravan village, the demon king is a revered deity, Hindustan Times, 14-Oct-2013

[6] Stella Kramrisch, The Presence of Siva, Princeton University Press, 1994, p.13

[7] Jane McIntosh, The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO, 2008, p.283

[8] B.Ya.Volcok, Interpretation of the Proto-Indian figures, in The Soviet Decipherment of the Indus Valley Script: Translation and Critique, (Ed. by Arlene R. Zide, Kamil V. Zvelebil), Walter de Gruyter, 1976, pp.115-6

[9] Ilango Adigal, Chilapathikaram: Madurai Canto: Vettuva vari


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