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Asur Rendition of Durga Saptashati: The Clarion Call for Cultural War

Dr Ambedkar raised important questions about the rise of Adi Shakti or goddesses during the Puranic era. He says that in the Vedic era, it is the gods who fight battles. They are all men. Their wives do not join the wars

Almost all of us are acquainted with the story of Durga Saptashati, as rendered in Markanday Purana. We have either read it or heard it. All of us are also acquainted with the celebrations of Durga Puja or Navratri.

We will like to introduce you to a Munda tribal story. The story goes like this. In the forest, a pair of male and female wild buffaloes find a new-born girl. They take her to their home and bring her up. She grows into a young lady with a golden skin and dazzling beauty. The king, through hunters, comes to know of her ravishing beauty and her golden skin. The king sees her from a hiding and is besotted by her. When he tries to abduct her, the buffalo couple reaches there. On seeing them, the king takes the girl captive, drags her inside the house and bolts the door. The she-buffalo shouts from outside and asks the girl to open the door. But how can she? She is held captive. Crying bitterly, she asks the king to open the door. But he refuses. Ultimately, the buffaloes start banging their heads against the door in an attempt to break it open. The door doesn’t give way and the buffaloes die trying to set the girl free. After their   death, the king forcefully makes the girl his queen.

You may think how is this tribal tale related with the story of Durga Saptashati or Durga Puja, in which Adi Shakti Durga slays Mahishasur? Before we talk about this, let us hear another tribal story, virtually unknown to the world outside. This is a story of Santhal tribals. There is a Santhal festival called Dansaya, which is celebrated at the same time as Durga Puja. During this festival, young men, dressed as warriors, march in a group, led by an elderly person. They enter each house and pretend to search for someone. They are looking for their chief, who has got separated from them. The group moves from one house to another, their dance movements resembling that of a war. In this Santhal tribal tradition, the chief whom the group tries to locate is called Durga, who fought a battle in his disum (country) against the dikus (outsiders), who dominated them and committed atrocities against them. The dikus were no match for his strength and his valour. They were mortally afraid of him. Ultimately, the dikus decided to use deception. They seek the help of a prostitute to take the chief captive through trickery and kill him. The prostitute wants to know what she would gain by being party to this conspiracy. The priests convince her that if she helps in this endeavour, people will worship her for the coming ages. Thus the Santhal chief is caught and killed. As she killed tribal chief Durga, the prostitute herself was give the title of Durga and Mahishasurmardini. It took her nine days and nine nights to capture and kill the tribal chief. Thus began the celebrations of Navratri. Bengal became its centre because Santhals originally inhabited the area called Manbhum, near Bang. And that is why a fistful of soil from the quarters of a prostitute is to be compulsorily added to the clay before using it to construct an idol of Durga.

From the second story, you must have realized the relationship of the first one – with allegorical references to forest, buffalo and girl with a golden skin – with the story of Durga Saptashati. In fact, both these stories are the tribal renderings of the Manuvadi Durga Saptashati – renderings which were not allowed to come in the public domain by the priestly class, which dismissed them as folk tales of little or no worth. In their bid to culturally colonize the tribals, the priestly class and the education system devised and run by it, refused to lend any credibility to folk beliefs and crushed the history of dissent and opposition under the weight of Vedas and Puranas.

Dr Ambedkar raised important questions about the rise of Adi Shakti or goddesses during the Puranic era. He says that in the Vedic era, it is the gods who fight battles. They are all men. Their wives do not join the wars. But in the Puranic era, when the gods or devas have already established their rule, we suddenly find their wives in the battle field, displaying their valour. In a sarcastic tone, Ambedkar writes, “The Brahmins do not seem to have realized that by making Durga the heroine who alone was capable of destroying the Asuras, they were making their own Gods a set of miserable cowards. It seems that the Gods could not defend themselves against the Asuras and had to beg of their wives to come to their rescue. One illustration from the Markandeya Purana is enough to prove how imbecile the Puranic Gods were shown by the Brahmins against the Asuras” (Riddles in Hinduism, p. 75).

The Durga Puja of Bengal has an abominable history. Till the 18th century, Bengal had no history of Durga Puja as we see today. Many Hindus will be shocked to learn that the first time Durga Puja was held in Bengal, it was as a victory celebration of the British. The British established their rule over Bengal by vanquishing the Nawab of Bengal in the battle of Plassey in 1757. It was to celebrate this occasion that Raja Nabakrishna Dev, who was a friend of Lord Clive, organized Durga Puja on his premises at Shobhabazar on 17 June 1757. Even today, Bengalis describe the puja held at 36, Nabakrishna Street as Company Puja. Subsequently, the Bengali landlords started organizing Durga Puja in their Thakur Dalaans and in the areas they lorded over. The tradition of Durga Puja also had an element of communal enmity. It must not be forgotten that Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, whom the East India Company had defeated in the battle of Plassey was a Muslim. In Indian history, it is not Siraj-ud-Daulah, who fought against the British, who is considered a patriot but the Bengali Kings and landlords who prostrated before the East India Company were described as harbingers of the so-called Bengali renaissance. This celebration of ethnic genocide is a reminder of the slaying of Asurs by Durga through deception thousands of years back. The Bengalis resurrected Durga 250 years back as part of their anti-Muslim agenda and as an expression of their love and admiration for the East India Company. After Independence, the government and the Hindu society exported Durga Puja to the tribal areas in the name of development and industrialization. And the cultural annihilation of tribals continues to this day.

Published in the November 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

Forward Thinking: Editorials, Essays, Etc (2009-16)

About The Author

Ashwini Kumar Pankaj

Ashwini Kumar Pankaj, a poet and short-story writer, edits the fortnightly multilingual tribal newspaper, Johar Disum Khabar, and the quarterly magazine on theatre and performing arts, Rangvarta

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