During the course of Smriti Irani’s powerful speech at Parliament on the issue of Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ sedition, a reference was made to some derogatory religious posters, which were put up in the said university premises on the occasion of a festival they termed as the Mahishasur Shahadat Diwas (day of the so-called martyrdom of Mahishasura). This festival has apparently been in vogue since 2011 in JNU. Not surprisingly, given the delicate nature of this topic and its inflammatory potential, opposition members like D Raja were seen trying to create a commotion and get the House adjourned. Meanwhile, a few newspapers that are known to have an anti-BJP agenda rose to the defence of the Mahishasur celebrations by referring to some Adivasi practices along those lines. How much of this is true? What is the line that divides the truth from agenda? Let us examine these.
Mahishasur in tribal religion
Indologists, like NN Bhattacharya in his History of the Tantric Religion, profess the idea that the worship of Shakti was popular among indigenous people of India before it became an accepted part of ‘Brahminical Hinduism’. A first-hand experience of tribal religion in this country shows that a majority of them worship various Hindu-like deities, and are quite polytheistic in their religious temperament. The Santhals worship the sun as Sing Bonga, the mountains as Marang Bonga as well as the earth as a mother [The Earth Mother by Pupul Jayakar], which incidentally is no different from the mainstream Hindu religious perspective of the earth.
In a palaeolithic site in central India, mother goddess shrines were discovered with iconographic similarities with current worship of Durga. Historian Koenraad Elst mentions in his informative blog that a Flemish expert found the members of the Gond tribe in Bastar holding impromptu worship when a triangular stone was dug up during excavation. Triangles, as any student of Shakti Puja will confirm, are an important and integral symbolism/yantra of the goddess.
The Oraon tribes that follow Sarnaism consider their chief deity to be Dharmesh or Mahadeo, not very far from the classical Hindu deities of Dharma and Mahadeva. The similarities between the tribal religions and Hinduism in its totality were so strong that the colonial rulers considered the former to be a form of Hinduism. Only after the advent of missionaries and their proselytism from mid-1800, these were considered separate religions. Is there any record or racial memory of religious conflict between these Adivasi religions and mainstream Hinduism? No.
If we accept for the sake of argument that these religions were/are distinct from Hinduism, we can still safely conclude that there was never a case of religious animosity between the two. That, however, cannot be said about Adivasi religions and Christianity. We have the not-so-ancient record of the legendary Birsa Munda fighting the British as well as urging his fellow tribesmen against Christian evangelism.
This point is crucial in decoding the politics of Mahishasur Shahadat Diwas of JNU.
There is a tribe in and around Jharkhand of not more than 10,000 people, who take the surname Asur. They consider themselves the descendents of Mahishasura, and mourn the demise of their king who they believe was killed by some trickery Durga resorted to. Since they have no written records of their beliefs and practices, whatever little is known about them comes to us from a few living members of these tribes. KK Leuva’s “The Asur” published in 1963 is one of the few authoritative works on the culture and life of this rare and primitive tribe of iron smelters. They have a unique language known as Asuri and differentiate themselves from the neighbouring tribe of Mundas. Till even two decades ago, a majority considered themselves as Hindus.
The religion of asuras revolves around the worship of the most prominent tribal deity Singbonga and as well as other deities such as Dharati Mata, Duari, Patdaraha and Turi Husid. The Asurs also believe in “black magic” and “witchcraft” and, by some accounts, earned a fearsome reputation among the other tribes in that area for such practices. Again, to reiterate, even authoritative works of anthropologists a few decades old have no mention of a religion developed around any specific animosity towards Durga and glorification of Mahisasura. Maybe their penchant for witchcraft practices earned them the epithet of Asur among other adjacent tribals groups. We can only speculate.
For the sake of argument, however, if we assume that this practice of Mahisasura mourning has been in vogue for a long time, it must be pointed out that there is, again, absolutely no verbal and racial memory of them having faced any sort of persecution due to the fact that they worshipped Mahishasura. Quite likely, the limited scope of their own distinct way of connecting to their sense of divinity was easily absorbed and tolerated by the larger Hindu mainstream. After all, the one thing that separates Hinduism from Abrahamic faiths is tolerance of opposing views in the former.
Hindus have no concept of a singular centre of evil unlike the Christian devil or Islamic shaitan, but merely dharma–the right path–and a flurry of religious philosophies, deities and practices surviving with each other. Worshipping Mahishasura or Bali during Onam in Kerala, or oracular possession of people by the much disliked Kuru prince Duryodhana around festivals in a temple in western Garhwal region is quite an acceptable practice as long as it not made into an excuse for abusing other religious figures. Tolerance is inherent in the Hindu spiritual fibre.
Mahishasur of JNU
Since 2011, in the communist-dominated JNU campus, there has been a yearly celebration of Mahishasur Shahadat Diwas with much zeal until they started plastering the campus with obscene posters and outrageous, malicious narratives about Goddess Durga being a “prostitute”.
This was quite beyond the limited information about Mahishasura worship that the original tribe used to subscribe to. The organisers addressed the lack of any recorded material substantiating the JNU lore with a booklet from the Forward Press, claiming to be a Dalit publishing network. This pamphlet was used as a source to create such obnoxious propaganda material clearly aimed not only at the celebration of Mahishasur, which apparently the ‘Asuras’ have been doing for ages, but additionally and purposefully desecrating a much-revered Hindu deity. It is available freely on the internet. A complaint was filed by some students, after which the police shut down Forward Press for hate speech and disrupting communal harmony.
Forward Press was a publication of the Aspire Prakashan Private Limited (APPL), run by Dr Silvia and Ivan Kostka. Ivan Kostka and Dr Silvia are evangelists associated with the Bramalea Baptist Church, Toronto, whose stated aim was to “publish Biblical magazine for Dalits”. The particular booklet on Mahishasura was edited by one Pramod Ranjan who, along with Ivan Kostka, has now gone into hiding.
In short, the vociferous revival of Mahishasura in JNU was actually a case of unethical Christian evangelism firing guns from Dalit-Maoist shoulders. Anybody who has studied evangelical methods in India would be aware of the kind of deception, lure, subterfuge and hateful propaganda employed by missionaries. In order to ensure that the converted do not revert back to their ancestral religion, these Christ-peddlers encourage new converts to destroy and denigrate the idols of their older gods. Changing the original theme of Mahishasura veneration of an obscure tribe into an aggressive, abusive festival of Hinduism denigration is right up their alley. It is doubtful how many of the actual members of the Asura tribes ever participated in these JNU Mahishasura festivals but Maoists, Dalit activists and sundry leftists vigorously did so using a junk, malicious booklet penned by a few non-tribal missionaries with dishonest agendas.
Assertions were made that the traditional worship of Durga required the use of mud from the house of a prostitute and that justified the alternative narrative. This is superficial at its best. Indeed, a bit of mud from the house of a sex worker is needed in the creation of a Durga idol, along with a variety of other ritualised ingredients based on the Tantric philosophy of worship. This has got nothing to do with any salacious alternative reading apart from being a fine example of egalitarianism inherent in the worship of the goddess, where even fringe sections of society are not ignored. Unknown to these half-baked propagandists, any worship of Durga requires also nominal worship of Mahishasura, just as a Chandi homa requires an offering to be made to the Mahisha (the buffalo from which the asura emerges) as well. The idea is that death at the hands of the goddess liberates the asura and makes him a part of the pantheon of Durga. There are some Shaktya rituals that even require the presence of dogs. Wonder what ‘alternative’ story they would spin of it if it could have been used for political mileage.
When they claim that this is the voice of the Dalit-OBC, a counter-question must be asked: What about the thousands of other tribes across India who subscribe to the veneration of Durga/Shakti? Forget Hindus, these are equally offensive to them as well. The ‘Asuras’ mourn Mahishasura; they do not vilify and abuse Durga, and that is why they have never faced opposition for their alternative beliefs. Hinduism, unlike Abrahamism, is vast and can contain contradictions within itself. The sad fact is that the JNU pseudo-intellectual mafia converted this into an occasion of vengeful anti-Hinduism and added all sorts of obscene vilification of a Hindu deity to serve their own political agendas.
Therefore any claim of this being some sort of an Adivasi uplift regime is just unadulterated horse poop!