October 6, 2022
Recently, a Durga Puja pandal built by the Hindu Mahasabha in Kolkata portrayed Mahatma Gandhi as Mahishasura dying at the hands of Durga. As desired, it got a lot of notoriety and global publicity for the organisers. For them, notoriety is great and they got it in abundance. The Hindu Mahasabha chief asserted that for them Gandhi was a demon and they had done nothing wrong in depicting him as one. Later, there were many posts on social media justifying and praising the depiction. The Hindu Mahasabha achieved its objective spectacularly.
What they failed to realise was that, if Bapu were alive, he would have thanked and praised them. Bapu, the champion of the oppressed and downtrodden, who always identified with them and called himself the first Harijan, would have considered the insult an honour. He would have seen it as a reaction to him having done something right.
The entire episode got me thinking about right and wrong and good and evil and whether they’re sometimes a matter of perspective. Just as history is written by the victors, mythological portrayals of good and evil depend on who was victorious and who was vanquished. So, in recent years, there have been several attempts at retelling tales from the point of view of those branded as villains – for instance, Ravana.
Maybe we should look beyond the indoctrination that we have been subjected to since childhood to at least know the other point of view, even if we don’t accept it.
Durga Puja and Navratri are celebrated as a war between good and evil. We all grew up listening to the tales of gods and goddesses taking various forms to battle with and finally slay demons. Whether it was Ram versus Ravana or Durga battling Mahishasura, there were many such tales. For us, as children, they were fascinating stories of heroism and valour.
While these stories asserted the importance of identifying good and evil, they also established a hierarchy where good was personified by the divine and bad by the sub-human, evil demon. Take the story of Durga and Mahishasura. Durga or Shakti was created by a coalition of gods, a divine, holy conception whereas Mahishasura was the result of the union between a human and a buffalo. His conception itself suggested debauchery and an unnatural, immoral corruption. So, we are conditioned to believe that only evil can result from this and that slaying it is a justified and holy duty. Thus, we are indoctrinated.
But there is another side.
Some of the original residents of India, the Mul Nivasis, whom we call Adivasis, worshipped those whom we have branded as demons. In Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal, there lives a tribe that is even today known as Naamshudra and Asur. Most of these tribals use Asur as a part of their name or surname. They believe Mahishasura was their forefather, a great hero and a chieftain. Even today, they worship him. On Dussehra or Dashami, when we celebrate the slaying of Mahishasura, the Asur mourn his death. Incidentally, the city of Mysuru also derives its name from Mahishasura.
Today, the Asur are on the verge of extinction, their numbers depleting fast. They are forced to live on the fringes of society, neglected, oppressed and subjugated, suffering the fate of the vanquished.
Coming back to mythology, the demon is always portrayed as being initially very devout and virtuous. Before going rogue, he is shown to have been a great devotee and as having done intense penance for which he received superhuman powers as boons. This is done to emphasise the value of unquestioning devotion and being subservient to God. But then the boons corrupt the demon and turn him irreversibly evil, forcing the gods to destroy him. In my view, this too is a clever form of indoctrination and conditioning. The purpose is to instill in us a fear of the wrath of God, and this is true across religions – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity. Such tales serve to validate that fear.
When a religion becomes dominant, its hierarchies have to be enforced by demonising some people and mythology is used to institutionalise these social structures. So, we have been indoctrinated to not even consider the Shudra as human, which then makes every atrocity heaped on him acceptable. How many of us pause to consider the feelings and sensitivities of Adivasis, Bahujans and Dalits?
Asuras were the precursors of Shudras. They were condemned as forces of evil and their annihilation justified as a God-ordained duty. And so we have become desensitised to the injustice perpetuated on Shudras in the name of faith. This is the truth. Those who triumph are hailed as heroes and their victories eulogised. The vanquished are condemned, oppressed and relegated to oblivion.
Mythology has achieved this discrimination most successfully. The slaying of Mahishasura is just one story; the stories of Ravana, Bhasmasura and other Asuras all follow a similar trajectory, justifying the domination of the upper castes and the subjugation of those condemned to the lowest rungs of society.
Coming back to Bapu, he would have urged the authorities to not file cases against the Hindu Mahasabha. The bullets pumped into Bapu by Hindu Mahasabha member Nathuram Godse were described as a martyr’s medals by Bapu’s youngest son, Devdas. He knew that you can kill a man but not an ideology. Indeed, if anything, martyrdom made Bapu even more of an icon than he was in life.
Whether you see him as a demon or the force that battled demons like caste, sectarianism, subjugation and poverty depends on your perspective. But, as thinking, responsible citizens, we must also ask why we carry the perspective we do.
Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: firstname.lastname@example.org.