Facing Demons

The reclamation of Mahishasur as a heroic figure

Each autumn, in festivals such as Durga Puja, Navratri and Dussehra, Hindus across India celebrate the slaughter of Mahishasur at the hands of Durga. tanmoy bhaduri / pacific press / lightrocket / getty images
01 March, 2016

On 15 February, three days after Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union, was arrested on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy, the Delhi police submitted a report to the ministry of home affairs. As The Hindu reported on 18 February, this report alleged that various “hidden groups” of JNU students were “indulging in anti-national activities” because they “mourned the death of Afzal Guru,” “demanded beef” and “worshipped Mahishasur in place of Goddess Durga,” among other actions.

News outlets across the country puzzled over the Mahishasur line in particular. Mint cited it as proof of the police’s “moral panic”; the Bangalore Mirror called it evidence of the report’s focus on the “bizarre to innocuous.” Those bemused dismissals, however, sidestepped a large part of the story of Mahishasur’s recent revival at JNU, and also elsewhere in India. Commonly portrayed as a demon in Hindu mythology, Mahishasur is at the heart of a growing, country-wide movement of marginalised people defying prejudice and asserting their cultural histories.

In October, at the height of the autumn festival season, Hindus across India celebrated the slaughter of Mahishasur—who, according to legend, was half-man and half-buffalo, and could not be killed at the hands of any man. So, the belief goes, the deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva combined forces to create the goddess Durga, who came to earth specifically to kill Mahishasur. Durga Puja, Navratri and Dussehra all commemorate a variant of this myth, often with idol displays depicting the killing itself. Typically, these show a fair-skinned, decadently dressed Durga, armed with a long spear, stabbing a dark-skinned, half-nude Mahishasur.

But on 1 November, in Bhagwanpur—a block of villages 40 kilometres north of Patna—about a thousand people gathered under a large tent for an alternative celebration. Seated in pink plastic chairs, they faced a stage on which several speakers sat at a long table. A banner above the stage read, in Devanagari, “Amar Shaheed Mahishasur”—immortal martyr Mahishasur. Starting at 11 am, the crowd listened to speeches and discussions on Mahishasur’s legacy and caste injustice. Udayan Roy, who was present at the function, and who has helped organise two similar ones in Patna, told me the speakers exhorted listeners to “get educated, give up religious dogmas and rituals, break the stranglehold of superstitious beliefs and priestly classes,” and, finally, “not to spend lavishly on death of individuals.” After the speeches ended that evening, a musical group performed until 1 am. Many of their songs praised anti-caste heroes such as BR Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule.

Many Dalit and Adivasi communities have honoured Mahishasur as a real-life historical hero, and not a mythical demon, for thousands of years. In recent times, some have tied his story to the “Aryan invasion” theory, which posits that, several millennia ago, a group of Indo-Aryan people conquered the subcontinent and enslaved its indigenous inhabitants. Today, though the theory remains deeply contested in academic circles, many believe that India’s present Dalit and Adivasi residents are the descendants of those indigenous people. Many Dalits and Adivasis consider Mahishasur to have been an indigenous king who was killed during the supposed invasion, and accuse upper-caste Hindus of demonising him as part of an effort to suppress narratives of resistance against Brahminism. By way of example, Anil Asur, a social activist from Jharkhand, told me that schoolbooks often glorify myths of Hindu gods killing people from his Adivasi community, the Asurs, who are portrayed as demons. In fact, he said, these “were mass murders of our valiant ancestors.”

The Asurs often claim Mahishasur as an ancestor, as do Adivasi groups such as the Santhal and Bhil, and the Yadav, Kushwaha and Kumhar castes, among countless others. Naresh Kumar Sehni, a social activist from Bihar, put forward one possible explanation for Mahishasur’s broad appeal. “I don’t think the caste system existed in Mahishasur’s time in the present form,” he told me. And because “his caste cannot be determined,” he said, Mahishasur “is the hero of all indigenous inhabitants of India.”

A major catalyst to the celebration of Mahishasur came in 2011, when students from the JNU chapter of the All India Backward Students Forum held a Mahishasur Day function in a hostel mess hall. This was one of the first recorded instances of a formal Mahishasur Day celebration. Before the event, the students distributed posters with an excerpt from an article titled “Who Are The Bahujans Really Worshipping?” The posters angered members of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, who reportedly assaulted some of those who attended.

The AIBSF students inspired many to follow their example. Charian Mahto, a community organiser based in Jhalagaowda village in West Bengal, told me, “We started celebrating this day here after we heard the news of the celebrations in JNU.” Interest in such events has snowballed ever since. In West Bengal alone, Mahto said, there were 24 functions in 2013, 74 in 2014, and 182 in 2015. A function that Mahto held last year, the organiser said, drew a crowd of 20,000.

So far, most Mahishasur Day events have been held on the Sharad Purnima harvest festival, which takes place about five days after Durga Puja. All the organisers I spoke with said that these events are non-religious, and never exhort people to regard Mahishasur as a god—calling into question the Delhi police’s claim that JNU students “worshipped” him. But the secular nature of these events does not stop them from being emotional affairs; attendees are often moved to tears by these expressions of solidarity amid injustice.

The functions have spread widely beyond Delhi and West Bengal, particularly in north Indian states with large Dalit populations, such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Ashwini Pankaj, a Ranchi-based journalist, told me that last year, more than 350 Mahishasur events were held throughout India. Organisers of such celebrations have also told me about programmes in Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, and even in Nepal. This entire movement has gone virtually unnoticed by the press.

Sadly, these events often encounter antagonism from authorities. In West Bengal last year, local police asked Sursenjit Vairagi, an organiser, to cancel a function he was coordinating. In response, Vairagi asked them why official permission was needed to “hold a condolence meeting after the death of a loved one.” After that, the police did not intervene.

Others have not been as successful in dodging censure. Student organisers told me that at JNU in 2014, responding to complaints from the ABVP, the university administration issued a last-minute notice to block a Mahishasur celebration. When the students went ahead anyway, the ABVP gate-crashed the event and reportedly caused another scuffle. The ABVP then filed a police complaint accusing the organisers of distributing a pamphlet with supposedly derogatory images. These, they claimed, showed Durga “indulging in sexual intercourse” with Mahishasur, which could create a “serious law and order” problem. After this confrontation, the university administration reiterated its ban on Mahishasur Day, and in 2015 no such event was held at JNU. Jitendra Yadav, who was the president of the AIBSF in both 2011 and 2014, attributed the university’s actions to “pressure from the RSS and the ABVP.”

JNU’s example highlights the precarious position of those who choose to celebrate these events in defiance of an often hostile dominant culture. Still, many, such as Heera Yadav, an anti-caste activist from Bihar, remain committed to remembering Mahishasur. “When I started organising this event, in 2011, even my family members opposed it,” Yadav told me. “They argued that Durga is the goddess of the Hindus; how could I go against her?” Now, he said, “everyone has understood that it was not a religious war. It was a battle between the Aryans and the non-Aryans. Hence, it is a historical incident. It had nothing to do with religion. Brahmins do not represent all Hindus.”