Searching for Raja Debi – A Santhal poet tells the tale of Mahishasura

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Mahishasur being worshipped in Purulia, Bengal 

In Parliament the other day, Minister for Education Smriti Irani emotionally prefaced her reluctant reading of an alleged JNU poster with “May my God forgive me for even reading this out”. I am mildly envious that she has a personalized god to take care of her doubtless more weighty requirements than an ordinary citizen (an anti-national at that) can claim.

Be that as it may, what she read out purported to be from a poster about an event in JNU organized by “SC, ST and minority students”, an event that celebrated Mahishasura:

“Durga Puja is the most controversial racial festival, where a fair-skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasur. Mahishasur, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasur into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning during sleep,”

Now, she does not show us that poster. Does it really use the term “sex worker”? I have seen posters for Mahishasura Diwas on JNU campus and never noticed this phrase. However, if it has indeed been used, we could have a discussion around the gender politics of that term and of that poster. Moreover, reading (in translation) the tale of Mahishasura from Santhal poet Bajar Hembrom will also give us a sense of how and why that phrase could have been used, if it was.

Actually, the only place I have seen the words “sex worker” in conjunction with “Goddess Durga” was in an ABVP poster that accused All India Backward Students Forum (AIBSF) of describing Goddess Durga as “a sex worker, seducer and prostitute” in their account of Mahishasura Diwas. Just as I have heard the slogan Pakistan Zindabad only in the mouths of Hindutvaadis who accuse us of chanting it.

[As an aside, let me say that we have noticed that under the sophisticated training of the RSS, that rumour machine par excellence, BJP folk have evolved from simply ranting and frothing at the mouth, to solemnly reading out pure glorious inventions from pieces of paper, making it all appear official and authenticated. Like our favourite MLA who carried out the survey that established the exact number of condoms used per day in JNU – newspaper reports say that he read the figures out from a a paper in his hand. (That his claims about JNU are the displaced products of his own sexual fantasies became clear after photographs emerged, that showed him dancing with women and showering them with money. It is not an unrelated matter that these sons of Bharat Mata play out their nationalism on the bodies of women, with rapes, rape threats and rape fantasies forming the core of their devotion to their Motherland. Also, in this context, see Shilpa Phadke on how such fevered claims of condom usage actually reflect long-held anxieties about the education of women.) ]

Returning to Mahishasura Diwas, what we must take seriously is the fact that there is a vast repertoire of heterogeneous practices that are brought under the label ‘Hinduism’. So there are very varying accounts across the Indian subcontinent and South and East Asia, of all the gods that Hindu Right wing politics or Hindutvavaad, attempt to establish in particular forms as the only true Hinduism. (Of course, I distinguish between Hindutvavaad as politics and Hinduism as the set of practices we call ‘religious’ or ‘cultural’.) If we look at the histories of these gods across Asia and on the Indian subcontinent, we find that the indigenous dark skinned gods and goddesses as well as animal spirits, have gradually been incorporated into the Aryan pantheon as wives and children of the Aryan male gods. But the earlier practices continue in large parts of the subcontinent, especially among subaltern groups. Everywhere in the South, for example, you will find small or big shrines to female powers, mother goddesses or goddesses of fearsome powers; you find gods that are not from the Aryan pantheon, but somehow brought into the mythology of it (for example Ayyappa, an ancient forest god, who is brought into the Aryan pantheon by a story that he is the son of Vishnu in the form of Mohini, and Shiva). These shrines are far from abandoned, still seen as consecrated, and widely worshipped.

Some of these more ancient indigenous gods were incorporated into the Aryan pantheon by stories about their defeat at the hands of of the latter – sometimes by by trickery as with Mahabali, whose boon of three steps of land to Vamana, turned out to be a boon to Vishnu whose last step was on Mahabali’s head, sending him to the underworld. In Kerala Onam is celebrated as the annual return of Mahabali to his people.

Ion the case of Mahishasura, the defeat is by sheer physical force at the hands of Durga, enshrined as Shiva’s wife. But those who worship Mahishasura and claim ancestry from him do not celebrate annually – rather they mourn his loss.

The Asur tribe of Jharkhand of over 10,000 members is classified as a “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group” by the Indian government, and their language—spoken by some 7,000 individuals—is described by UNESCO as “definitely endangered.”

The Asurs, who claim ancestry from Mahishasura himself, believe that the Devi Mahatmya story of the Markandeya Purana, which describes the birth of Durga and her nine-day long battle with Mahishasura, is biased. According to the Asurs, the birth of Durga from the conjoined powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was a “crooked conspiracy” hatched because their king Mahishasura was blessed with a boon by Brahma that no man or god could kill him. Hence, the more traditionally-inclined members of Asurs sometimes even choose to completely isolate themselves and mourn Mahishasura’s death during the period of the Durga Puja.

The Santhals of Bengal too, have their own story about Mahishasura. This is how Santhal musical genius Bajar Hembrom described the origins and meaning of the Dashoi festival, which Santhals observe on the last day of Durga Puja, to Kunal Deb (translated from Bengali by Madhusree Mukerjee).

It is clear that the mythology is a deep sorrowful acknowledgement of the dispossession of adivasis from all that was once theirs – jal, jangal and jameen.

A long, long time ago there was the Har kingdom on earth. That is, a Santhal Raj. Our king was Adur. He was also called Raja Debi. He was as famed for his governance–for the way he looked after his people–as for his heroism. He could fight a tiger with his bare hands; he could alone stop the rampages of crazed elephants. His soldiers too were very fierce. Nobody could beat them in battle. Raja Indra had been crushed many times in battle against him.

But Indra too was not someone to give up. This time, in order to defeat Raja Debi and seize the Santal kingdom, he resorted to deceit and trickery. He sent the dancer Durga from his heavenly court to earth. [You can see here one possible route to her being termed a sex worker today]. One of her assistants put her on elephant back and sent her to the jungle palace of Raja Debi. Another of her helpers covered the skies with an intoxicatingly beautiful moonlight, yet another spread music in the air. A fourth filled the surroundings with dancing peacocks. In such a heady atmosphere, Durga had no difficulty in seducing Raja Debi with her beauty and dance.

Not long after Raja Debi got married. His queen was Durga. She started sending news to Indra about when the raja slept, when he was unarmed, when festivals preoccupied his soldiers and commanders, and so on. Indra linked these snippets of intelligence with one another to formulate a plan. He decided the day and time, and one day he imprisoned Raja Adur in a sudden attack. The soldiers were taken by surprise and could not recover from that assault. Debi’s kingdom was easily seized. Our Santal ancestors lost their king and their kingdom. Everyone scattered where they could.

The trusted guards and friends of the king started to look for their beloved monarch. Disguised as women, their weapons concealed, they wandered and danced in villages and towns, in many places, always searching. If they hear the faintest reply to their mournful song, from the imprisoned raja, out will come the weapons from under the feminine clothes of the warriors. They will fight and recover their lost kingdom. And when Raja Adur Debi returns, they will get back their Santal Raj, their lost wealth, their forests, their rivers, everything.

The Dashoi dance is on the last day of Durga Puja. You worship Durga. We search for, we still search for, our lost Raja Debi. You call him Asur.”

The real disdain for Hindu folk tales, oral ballads and other practices of many, many communities of believing Hindus is shown by the political face of the Hindutvavaadi project. Hindutvavaad is shamed and embarrassed by the glorious pagan aspects of Hinduism, and the refusal of Hindu practices to be tamed into the pallid, rigid North Indian upper caste version that is the basis of the Hindu nationalist project.

And to conclude by going back to Smriti Irani’s statement in Parliament, one could ask, if indeed, Durga was denigrated or any Hindu practice impugned in JNU – how does that come under the provision of sedition and anti-nationalism? Causing hurt to religious sentiments, yes, but why is it being brought under anti-nationalism? This conflation is only possible if you assume that only a particular kind of Hindu constitutes the nation, and that no other religious community can be a legitimate part of it.

The Hindutvavaadi project is to sanitize Hinduism of all aspects and practices that are anti-patriarchal, anti-Brahminical, and anti-hierarchy, and to make this Hinduism coterminous with the Indian Nation. We may have our opinions on whether this project is legitimate or whether it will triumph, but at least let us not deceive ourselves about what the project is, and what its implications are.

18 thoughts on “Searching for Raja Debi – A Santhal poet tells the tale of Mahishasura

  1. Sucharita Sarkar

    This is exactly why Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, had to be withdrawn from the market under Hindutvavadi pressure…

    1. Nivedita Menon

      True, Sucharita, but just for the record, that book is now freely available, published by Speaking Tiger.

  2. DEBOTTAM SAHA

    Mam, I can only thank u for sharing this alternative myth on a public forum like this…though I am quite aware of this ballad..now let me make the story far more irritating for all these ‘Durga-Chellas’…firstly, Durga is never been depicted as ‘affectionate’, ‘caring’ mother (mostly these proclaimed Durga chellas think but also slaying minorities can also be done legitimately) even in the so-called mainstream mythical imagination..she is a warrior queen..she is fierce, intoxicated..again not easily accessible ever (‘Durgam’, the inaccessible path, so, she resides at the end of that Durgam path)…secondly, do these Durga chelli/chellas know that during her worship while she is being bathed, mud from sex worker’s home is most essential ( though justifications are quite patriarchal and there has been a movement also led by the sex workers in Kalighat who refused to give that mud)..thirdly, even in the mainstream depiction of Durga, there are couple of references where it has been clearly shown a sexual tension going between her and Mahisasura…finally, in her so-called description in the Chandipuran, she is depicted as ‘Yogini’, now who are the yoginis?? the voluptuous, maiden, mischievous female spirits,who doesn’t have any male consort..enchants the world with their beauty and bounty…responsible for fertility but one can’t ever ‘cage’ them because they are known for their mood swings….agreeing to your point the politics of it lies elsewhere..’Bharat-Mata’ and Manu-Smriti Irani’s ’emotional-customized’ Durga are almost synonymous…. even in Bengal, the popular emotion attached with Durgapuja not necessarily this myth of Durga slaying Mahisasura (though that is the ultimate celebrated portrayal of it), but of daughter coming back to her natal home who needs care, nurture, pampering and affection..so that she can do away at least for some moments with all her agonies that she faces in her in-laws home..interestingly, the puja in Bengal did begin as a symbolic manifestation of land-lord’s power..for a long time it was restricted to their authoritative domain, still now, the rituals are highly discriminatory..

    1. Swati

      Very well said, though I would like to add a small point to the Bengali puja and the story of homecoming for Durga – very simply that this homecoming story resonates with the anonymous voices of many a woman in medieval Bengal, women who sang agamani songs and women who re-imagined Shiva as a less than adequate husband. Smriti Irani knows nothing of this Durga.

    2. Subhash Mendhapurkar

      Sorry, there is another interpretation to Yogini – Yoginis were essentially women who refused to be part of patriarchal system – Geeti Thadani says : essentially Yoginis were Lesbian and save themselves from the patriarchal system, they mostly stayed in asolated places and travelled from east to west. The Brahmin Patriarchy destroyed there many Math (temple) and as of today 3 such Maths remain – one near Ahmedabad, another at Khajarao -Jabalpur and third at Bhuwaneshwar.

      1. meenakshi puri

        In which text are Yoginis cast as lesbians?
        I have visited their temples, in Khajuraho and Bheraghat, and the sculptures do not show the yoginis in any sexual activity. Neither is there any mention of them as such in Stella Dupuiss’s and Vidya Dehijia’s books on yoginis.
        The 64 yogini temple in Khajuraho had no images, while the one in Bheraghat has one woman, with no partner/ consort in each of the niches.

  3. In Hindu practices there are numerous examples of variants and contradictions.What is the problem in recognising them as such?Why so much fuss about all that?There must be some ulterior motive behind raking up such controversies which need to be exposed.

  4. Many of us have heard about these subaltern Hindu mythological versions. Yes all these versions must exist and should not be imposed with “North Indian upper caste” brand of Hinduism. Though here even the South Indian upper caste too is in line with the their north indian counterpart. But my doubt is whether these versions have been really followed through generations or have been cooked up as sort of “revenge” alternative in reciprocation to the aryan against moolnivasi hypothesis. That too is dangerous if such is the intent. Isn’t that too a subtle form of religious extremism?

  5. Rev. Spooner

    Mr Hargopal Singh, nobody is disputing the variants. What the article above and the comments that follow is about the hinduvta voices from the cow belt that want to suppress the other voices.
    As you say “In Hindu practices there are numerous examples of variants and contradictions.What is the problem in recognising them as such?Why so much fuss about all that?There must be some ulterior motive behind raking up such controversies which need to be exposed.”
    Please read the article again.

  6. Rev.Spooner, I fully agree with you.I too meant that the Hindutavwaadis are not recoginsing the existence of other practices and are trying to impose their own ones.That is why I said their motives need to be exposed.Somehow I failed to elaborate that.I took it that it was implied in that.Thanks for making me conscious of my shortcoming in not telling in more details.

  7. meenakshi puri

    Kali, a manifestation of Durga, is called terrible mother, (‘terrible’ probably being a patriarchal term though). So Durga is not always white.
    In the introduction of Ajit Mukherjee’s book ‘The Feminine Force’, Durga and her other manifestations are seen as counter powers to greed, war and pollution. Why dismiss the story from the Markandeya Purana just because it is taken from the vedas? The myth shows Durga and her army as fierce warrior queens.

  8. Melange

    This is what happens when people on either side of the political divide take religious texts and concepts at face value with no regard to the symbolism or spirituality behind it. Religion is a personal thing and it is painful to see it being discussed in Parliament and forming the basis for policy.
    I don’t know if Abrahamic faith will destroy Eastern religions but these Hindutvawadis certainly will.

      1. Melange

        I don’t understand why you asked me about Bismillah Khan? I believe you misunderstood my comment. I was referring to the way in which the legend of Durga is being used by the right as well as the left to score political points. The Hindutva brigade is insinuating that the left is akin to Mahishashur without understanding the symbolism behind it. And the left of course uses its fertile imagination to demonise popular faith. As someone who does not like religion mixing with politics, I despise both of these narratives. Also, I do not believe in anything that takes religious texts and myths literally.

  9. meenakshi puri

    It is as wrong for the Brahmanical religion, practices and deities to be vilified as it is for the Brahmanical religion, priests and practitioners to marginalise and ill treat Dalits.
    As of now we are locked in Mahishasura vs Durga, Dalit vs Brahmins situation. Whatever happened to plurality?
    Each political view needs to tread carefully. Some people have invested personal meaning in the religion they have chosen, not chosen, or find themselves born in, for years, and to challenge those positions viciously will create more difficulty.

  10. meenakshi puri

    I notice a couple of nuances here:
    1. The Goddess is a symbol of empowerment for some women, yet this symbol seems suspect today.
    2. Patriarchy is said to have replaced Goddess religions, where the Goddess stood for egalitarianism, yet it is these very patriarchs who are her devotees.

  11. Pingback: മഹിഷാസുരൻ - ദുർഗ്ഗ വിവാദം : എന്തിന് വേണ്ടി തിളയ്ക്കുന്ന സാമ്പാർ ? - നവമലയാളി | NAVAMALAYALI

  12. Yash Agrawal

    I was looking for such stories of Aryan-Munda conflicts but had been unable to find any. Now I found this one today, thank you.

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