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Unearthing history by reinterpreting myths and traditions

Brahmanical history is based on myths. It neither has been constructed chronologically nor is factually correct. It has eclipsed the reality with a cobweb of myths. To establish a new creed, established dogmas must be disproven. Ish Mishra reviews ‘Mahishasur: Mithak va Paramparayen’ :

The book Mahishasur: Mithak va Paramparayen (Mahishasur: Myth and Traditions), edited by Pramod Ranjan, is a book of great import. This book takes the re-rendition of the myth about Durga and Mahishasur and the discourse that began with the celebration of Mahishasur Day in Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2011 to new heights. The book is made up of writings that bring together various dimensions of this discourse. Mahishasur: Ek Jannayak (Mahishasur: A People’s Hero), also edited by Pramod Ranjan, was published a year earlier, in 2016.

Divided into six sections, Mahishasur: Mithak va Paramparayen (Mahishasur: Myth and Traditions) is a compilation of writings based on research and investigation of traditions, symbols, myths and festivals from different parts of India. The appendix contains facts related to “Mahishasur Day”. Section 6 is also effectively an appendix, which contains the “Prayers of Jotirao Phule” to works of contemporary literature like Sanjeev Chandan’s play “Asur Priya”. I had reviewed “Mahishasur: Ek Jannayak” under the title “A cultural revolt against Brahmanism”. The writings in the present book are proof of a transformation of the revolt into a widespread cultural movement. It is worth repeating an African proverb here, which I had quoted in that earlier review: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

The writings in this latest compilation are not declarations of the birth of the historians of the lions. Rather, these writings are declarations of their laying claim. As the introduction on the book says, “The Mahishasur movement, which stands on the base made of Asur myths, wants to take Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar’s perspective on history to the vast majority of the population, which encompasses Adivasis, Dalits, Backwards and Women.”

The central function of this cultural struggle is to uncover Bahujan history from the cobwebs woven by Puranas – to bring forth the real character of the great heroes who were humiliated and disgraced as “Asur”, “Rakshasa” and “Daitya” in the Hindu myths.

Brahmanical history is not chronological or factual. Rather, it is based on mythical legends and conceals the reality with mythical secrets. New creeds cannot be established without disproving established beliefs. Unless the cultural structures presented as established and ideals are broken, the present-day domination cannot be broken.”

A Bhainsasura memorial, preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India in Chowka, Kulpahar, Mahoba (Photo: FP on the Road, 2017)

Each of the six sections is a book in itself related to the others. A consolidated, detailed review of all these sections is thus out of scope but what I will do is briefly discuss the facts and arguments unveiled in this book. I agree with the claims of the editor and writers of the book that the re-evaluation of Puranic myths, research and presentation of the symbols and traditions of Asurs and the celebration of “Mahishasur day” has taken the form of a cultural movement to counter the brahmanical cultural beliefs. It has become a counter revolution to the brahmanical ideologue. Bereft of chronology and facts, brahmanical history is wrapped in mythical legends and descends from Satyug at the top to Kaliyug at the bottom. Therefore, the logical unmasking of myths and fantasies is no less than a cultural revolution. Pramod Ranjan, in the preface to the book, links the cultural domination with the production system – in other words, the political and economic dominance – and argues, “The issue is not just cultural, but it is also economic and political. A class has maintained economic and political dominance using these stories [p i].” In India, the ruling castes have also been the ruling classes.

The first section contains three research-centric travelogues, which in academia, more specifically in sociology, may be called field studies. This section commences with Pramod Ranjan’s “Mahoba mein Mahishasur ki Khoj” (The search for Mahishasur in Mahoba, p 17-50). He has provided convincing proof that Mahishasur is being venerated in large parts of Bundelkhand, including Khajuraho, as “Maikasur”, “Bhainsasur”, “Karasdev”, “Gwal Baba”. He has drawn this conclusion after exploring local symbols, traditions, idols and temples, and fairs and festivals.

Asur women, fetching water from a handpump installed on the premises of a Devi temple, built recently at Jobipat village of Jharkhand’s Gumtala District (Photo: FP on the Road, 2016)

After extensive search, he spied a board that said “Bhainasur Memorial Temple Chauka, Kulpahar tehsil, Archaeological Survey of India”. “That structure of stones sitting on a high mound does not look like a temple from any angle. The main structure appears to be an ancient monument. On peeping inside, a triangular object can be observed, which looks like a Shivling. It is the same ‘pindi’ which is part of Asur-Adivasi traditions [p 20-21].” Ranjan found another Mahishasur temple in Mahoba district. It is on Gorakhnath hill, where on the sixth day of the month of ‘Bhadon’ a celebration is held, because “Mahishasur is revered as a livestock god. Every year ‘Yadavas’ come here to pay homage [p 25].” He discovered remains of various ‘Maikasur’ and ‘Mahishasur’ temples in this locality.

It would not be irrelevant to conclude the discussion of the first article of the first section with a question that the author himself has asked. “Why did they lose? Most of the literature of the Shraman-Bahujan tradition is oral. This culture has been opposed to private ownership, whether it was material resources or knowledge. [p 50]” This reminds me of the dialogue between rebel leaders, Spartacus and David, in James Frost’s novel, as they are hanged from the trees after the defeat of slave revolt. David asks, “Why did we lose?” but Spartacus stops breathing before he can answer.

Workers of Amitapani bauxite mine, Jharkhand, preparing for the celebration of the Environment Day (Photo: FP on the Road, 2016)

Nawal Kishore Kumar’s travelogue, “Chota Nagpur ke Asur” (Asurs of Chota Nagpur, p 51-76), is an interesting sociological account of Adivasi society in the plateau of Jharkhand, their traditions and customs, especially the traditional rights of women’s freedom, and a brief history of their political economy.

He explores various sites of Mahishasur worship and talks to various people, including those associated with the Mahishasur movement like Anil Asur and Sushma Asur, and presents a vivid illustration of the democratic communal values of the Asur community. An article written by Sushma Asur was part of the book, ‘Mahishasur: Ek Jannayak’. There is an article by her in this compilation too, in the second section. There are mentions of “Dhol Jatra” or “Asuron ka Swyamvara” and the “Ghar Duku shadi” the democratic marriage customs that confer equal rights on men and women. “Those who champion the discourse on the dignity of a woman throughout the country will be surprised to know about a tradition in which if a girl likes a boy, she can enter his house forcibly. The permission of the family members is not mandatory. This is a unique tradition of ‘Asuras’ [p 65].”

The Forward Press team posing in front of the Mahisha statue in Mysore (Photo: FP on the Road, 2017)

In the final chapter of this section, Anil Varghese recounts a road trip, “Rajasthan se Karnatak via Maharashtra: Talash Mahishasur ki” (Rajasthan to Karnataka via Maharashtra on the trail of Mahishasur, p 77-90). Starting in the Raja Bali temple of Bilara, Rajasthan, it continues to many places in Maharashtra and Karnataka. The main entrance to the temple had “Raja Bali Vaman Avtar Dham” written on it. “It was no longer the temple of King Bali. It was turned into a temple of Vaman.” The brahmanization of the Bahujan symbols continues.

After travelling further south through Rajasthan to Gujarat and crossing over to Maharashtra, Varghese writes about a Mhasoba temple on the road from Shirdi to Ellora. He writes, “We came across a small temple in Vaijapur while we were driving from Shirdi to the Ellora caves. The road junction at which the temple stood had been named after Mhasoba too.” Varghese refers to D.D. Kosambi’s book ‘Myth and Reality’, in which he “has written that the horned buffalo deity Mhasoba is another name for Mhatoba and Mahishasura, who was killed by the goddess Durga.” Varghese talks about “this unheralded, minimalist temple, with a ‘pindi’ – a mud/rock object painted reddish orange – shaped like a milestone and an oil lamp”. This journey ends in Mysore, where a statue of “Mahisha” is situated on the top of a hill. I will discuss the connection between Mysore and Mahishasur later.

After exploring the places possibly associated with “Mahishasur” and giving evidence of Mahishasur’s symbols and traditions of worship in different parts of the country through local narratives, the reader is led to the second section, “Mithak va Paramparayen” (Myth and Traditions, pp 91-180). It is a collection of articles on the review and reinterpretation of myths and traditions. As I pointed out earlier, brahmanical history is based on myths, so that the pseudo divinity of the Puranas can hide the reality. I agree with the interconnections between cultural domination and political and economic domination that the editor, Pramod Ranjan, has drawn. However, I believe that political and economic domination was not achieved through cultural domination. Rather, cultural domination was achieved through political and economic domination. Furthermore, cultural hegemony serves as a tool to perpetuate the political and economic domination.

Idols of Mahavir, Ganesh and Buddha found at the fort of the Netam Gondi dynasty in Balaji, in the Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh

In the first article of this section, “Gondi Punem Darshan aur Mahishasur” (95-144) (Gondi Punem Philosophy and Mahishasur), Sanjay Jothe asks a valid question: “Why mythology is written instead of history?” If history has been written as a mythology, it has to be decoded to understand the real history. The mythical mask of divinity would have to be broken and the reality uncovered. In my review of ‘Mahishasur: Ek Jannayak’, I had observed that the Mahishasur movement was the beginning of a cultural revolution through the reinterpretation of the Puranas. This book is the next step in the cultural revolution. But the revolution could begin only when deprived Bahujans were able get access to intellectual resources through education. “It is both surprising and disheartening to see that in India the history was not written. Instead Puranas filled with myths and fantasies have been written [p 99].” Though it is dismaying, it is not surprising. For it is a historical fact that if a community is to be enslaved, it has to be deprived of its history. A recent example of this truth is the setting up of a committee by the present government to rewrite history with the objective of re-mythicizing it. On the basis of elaborate research and studies, Jothe concludes that in the Adivasi areas “Mahishasur is a reality. He is not only an august king, ancestor and mythical character but also a powerful, brave hero. [p143]”

Sushma Asur says, “When the Hindu community celebrates Navaratri, the Asur community mourns the death of Mahishasur, the Asur king. [p 146]” Ashwini Kumar Pankaj points out Ambedkar’s reference to “Durga Saptasati”: “Brahmins did not even think that by portraying Durga as a brave woman who massacred Asurs on her own, they were wrapping their own gods in a dress of cowardice [151].” Friend and martyr Gauri Lankesh, who became a victim of Hindutva barbarity for being a vocal critic of bigotry, writes in ‘Mahishasur: Ek Punarkhoj’ (Mahishasur: A rediscovery): “Mahishasura, from whom Mysuru derives its name, is a fascinating character. Though mythology depicts him as a monster who was rightfully killed by Chamundi, folklore has a different take [153].” Based on the study of facts and historical evidence, B. P. Mahesh Chandra Guru, in “Karnataka ki Baudh Parampara aur Mahish” (Buddhist tradition of Karnataka and Mahish), says that Mahishasur was a progressive ruler of Mahish-Mandal, Mysuru (Mysore), who empowered every section of the society. “Facts have been twisted. People need to know the truth [157-60].”

After decoding ‘Markandeya Purana’, Cynthia Stephen, in her work “Adivasi Devi Chamunda aur Mahishasur” (Tribal goddess Chamunda and Mahishasur), concludes, “The myth of Chamunda and Mahishasuramardini is yet another example of brahmanical forces applying Puranic gloss to the conquest of native, indigenous population’s belief systems, temples, and cultural and political spaces.”

Nawal Kishore Kumar and Hareram Singh, in “Bihar mein Asur Paramparayen” (Asur traditions in Bihar), analyze popular brahmanical and Asur traditions (p 165-71) and emphasize: “We should accept the egalitarianism of Asur tradition and its focus on preserving nature but leave out things that have become redundant. Also, a complete disdain for brahmanical culture and its rituals is indispensable. [171]” In the last article of this section, Ambedkar aur Asur (Ambedkar aur Asur, pp 176-180), Dr Siddharth writes that, “ … after treating Anarya, Asur, Dasa, and Naga as synonymous, Ambedkar dwells on the relationship between Asurs and Dravidians and concludes that ‘Dravidians of the south originated from Asurs’ [180].”

Section 3, titled Andolan kiske, kiske liye” (Who’s movement and for whom, pp 185-239) comprises four informative, analytical and succinct writings based on debates and discourse that emerged after the Mahishasur Day celebrations in Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2011. In my opinion, this is an important contribution of this discourse. In the article, Mahishasur Andolan ki Saidhantiki: Ek Sanrachnatmak Vishleshan” (The Theory of Mahishasur Movement: A Structural Analysis), Anil Kumar writes, from the perspective of Gramsci’s principle of domination, about the inevitability of a cultural revolution for economic struggles. “Cultural domination is the conceptual basis of domination over material resources. Even Marxism accepts this principle. Marx refers to the dominance over the means of production as the substructure and the ideological instruments that legitimize it as the superstructure. He makes it clear that emphasizing the substructure does not mean underestimating the superstructure. Gramsci takes this further and says that dominant class makes its own culture a matter of general consciousness. [193]” Hence, Mahishasur movement is a revolt against the consciousness formed by Brahmanism.

Om Prakash Kashyap, in Sanskriti ka Abrahmanikaran: Barasta Mahishasur Andolan(De-brahmanization of Culture through Mahishasur Movement), says, “For transformative forces, creating a parallel culture is as essential as understanding the weaknesses of Brahmanism [202].”

Nivedita Menon has been an integral part of the whole movement and has been at the receiving end of Hindutva wrath. In her article, “Bharat ki Mata aur uski Bagaawati Betiyan” (Mother India and her Unruly Daughters), she links the Mahishasur movement to women’s wisdom and their rights. She considers the girls who refuse to become mothers and seek independence from their own parents as being part of the ongoing cultural movement against Brahmanism. After tearing apart the Hindutva concept of ‘Bharat Mata’, she writes, “Bharat Mata in the hands of the RSS is merely a sly and deadly weapon in the armoury of Hindutva, as is the cow…. these unruly daughters remind us that the Nation does not precede its people, but is shaped by them. [p 238]”

Section 4, titled “Asur: Sanskriti aur Samkaal” (Asur: Culture and Contemporary Times, pp 243-97) contains informative and analytical articles on existing Asur cultures and their Vedic portrayal. “Asuron ka Jeevanotsav” (Life and Festivals of Asurs, pp 247-272), by Suresh Jaganatham, puts together interesting information about folklore, folk songs and customs of the Asurs of Jharkhand. Vikas Dubey talks about the continuous plundering of the resources of Asurs and the brahmanical cultural assaults on them in the modern age.

As I mentioned above, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The historians of lions have already been born. Section 5 covers the alternative literature of the lions’ historians. I wrote in an article in 1991: “Kabir was not demanding the rights of the Dalits to read the Vedas. Instead, he was appealing for the creation of alternative Vedas.” This is a compilation of the new verses of the alternative Vedas. This book is an important link in the cultural and intellectual movement against Brahmanism.”

(This review first appeared in the August 2018 issue of the monthly journal Samayantar. It has been translated and republished here with author’s permission.)

Book: Mahishasur: Mithak va Paramparayen

Editor: Pramod Ranjan

Price: 350 (Paperback), 850 (Hardback)

Imprint: Forward Press Books

Publishers and Distributors: The Marginalised, Wardha/Delhi, Mob: +919968527911 (VPP facility available)

Buy Online: https://www.amazon.in/dp/B077XZ863F

Translation: Lokesh Kumar; copy-editing: Anil

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                                                                      

About The Author

Ish Mishra

Ish Mishra is active in social movements and has taught political science in Hindu College, Delhi University.