Why you should care
Because a nation’s telling of its history defines its future.
Depraved! Antinational! Demon worshippers! So decried a prominent Indian political minister, Smriti Irani, earlier this year, describing the students at a major liberal arts university. As her criticisms mounted, they seemed increasingly absurd. The devil as these kids’ deity? Really?
Well, kind of.
Irani, the minister of human resource development who didn’t comment for this article, was referring to a genuine mythological battle playing out across India today — a kind of cultural-historical war between those who support one version of the Hindu gods and others, who are throwing their love behind rakshas, or demons. In one corner of the ring: the goddess Durga, favored by many in the northeastern corners of the country. And across from her? Mahishasura, the demon she famously killed, in one of many Hindu stories of good defeating evil. Except that some say Mahishasura doesn’t get a fair shake, both in the old stories and in the constant celebrations that venerate Durga today.
Fans of Mahishasura argue that rakshas are layered characters. (Indeed, in some Hindu stories, rakshas are devotees of the gods, and receive their blessings.) They also claim that adivasis, or tribal folks, are descendants of Mahishasura — which makes Durga a genocidal murderer. And they suggest that each celebration of the goddess’s victory is a crude cheer in favor of the murder of their ancestors. This growing controversy is bubbling up amid a larger national debate over Hinduism and which narrative of Indian history the country should carry forward. A new generation — among them the students Irani criticized, who held a college event to discuss alternate narratives of the Durga tale — hopes to create another set of stories alongside what they call a Brahmin (upper caste)-biased version of the religion.
It’s the kind of symbolic debate reminiscent of those around the world — people who’d have us tear down statues of Cecil Rhodes and wipe Andrew Jackson’s face from American dollars. A wave of Indian liberals is congregating around new images and stories to, in their eyes, reclaim Indian history from oppressive forces. One major face: B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit (untouchable caste) lawyer who helped write India’s Constitution, who was a firebrand on caste issues — the rhetorical Malcom X to Gandhi’s MLK. An outsider would need a thorough etymological dictionary or genealogical tree to parse these debates fully. They are esoteric and ancient — and yet, in a uniquely Indian fashion, they are mainstream. And why?
“India has always had a two-dimensional history,” says Kancha Ilaiah, political science chair at Osmania University in Hyderabad and a Dalit activist. Ilaiah is a leading voice in the attempt to identify new rallying symbols to counter those of standard Hinduism. His suggestion, along with Mahishasura and Ambedkar: the buffalo. He argues that tribals venerated buffalo long before Hindus pedestaled the cow. Now, he says, it’s time for a kind of “buffalo nationalism,” in a nation that just instituted a religion-infused beef ban to protect cattle.
The war between Durga and Mahishasura is less a war between goddess and demon, between high and low caste, between Aryans and tribals, and more an interpretive public brawl.
But others, like scholar Michel Danino, a Frenchman who’s worked extensively on Indian archaeology, say tosh to it all. (“He’s so foolish,” Danino says of Ilaiah. “He shows very poor scholarship.”) Activists who want to defend adivasis and Dalits, Danino says, have seized onto an easy but historically inaccurate narrative — that they were here first, like the U.S.’s Native Americans or Australian Aborigines, and were victims of a genocide by a group of Aryan invaders. “It has always been a political conversation,” Danino says.
That word — Aryan — alone perks up our ears. In the 19th century, discoveries about linguistic parallels between Sanskritic and European languages gave rise to a theory (propagated by the British, Danino argues) that some North Indians shared a genetic “Aryan” past with European whites, while South Indians and low-caste peoples were of a different racial background. Since then, genetic theories of race have lost favor in the academy, and most scholars agree the Aryan Invasion Theory is null. Even during Independence times, Danino points out, Ambedkar himself criticized these ideas.
Let’s take some steps back, though, away from the historical nit-picking. Whether you side with Ilaiah or Danino, one thing is clear: The war between Durga and Mahishasura is less a war between goddess and demon, between high and low caste, between Aryans and tribals, and more an interpretive public brawl. Almost 70 years after Independence, India’s intellectual class is finally able to start musing on which version of the past should propel the nation forward. Ilaiah and his ilk want reparations from a class of privileged people who have oppressed and abused lower castes. (Dalit-abuse horror stories rival the Jim Crow South — lynchings, burnings alive, gang rapes, people being forced to eat human shit.)
Others, like writer Aravindan Neelakandan, co-author of the 2011 book Breaking India (written with Rajiv Malhotra, an American-dwelling Indian who might be called a modern Hindu version of William F. Buckley), have their own passionate fears — that all the gazing backward into India’s past is dividing the nation, accomplishing exactly what the British sought to do throughout colonial times: split the country into Hindu and Muslim, along caste lines, into North versus South. Stick together, they cry, for the sake of this rising nation’s future!
One can find the faces of Durga and Mahishasura in the northern corner of Kolkata, where artisans craft the idols that are paraded through the streets each year — during that celebration of the demon’s defeat. Gopal Paul, a 65-year-old who has been making gods and rakshas for decades, looks quizzical when I ask if he has thoughts about the demon whose face he has stared into over and over again. “Why should I?” he says. “These characters are just a part of life. They are more complex than good and evil in our epics.” He turns back to the beginnings of a Mahishasura statue, made of hay, lying in Durga’s lap. The demon is already beheaded, but Paul sets his hands to it, lovingly at work.