Sunday, Nov 27, 2022

Let the Asuras be!

Despite adhering to opposite beliefs, worshippers of Durga and Mahishasura have engaged in no major conflict yet and an event on a university campus is unlikely to change that.

 (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar) (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

It was Dashami, the last day of Durga Puja. I must have been six or seven. Like most Bengali children at that time, I believed keeping my books at the goddess’ feet would ensure good results in the exam. As I mumbled my prayers, women of my locality, clad in red-white sarees were going through the rituals of bidding adieu to the goddess and her children. Pieces of sandesh hung from the half-open lips of the idols, their faces smeared with sindoor.

I suddenly noticed that Mahishasura too had received his share of sandesh. Perplexed, I rushed to Grandpa and asked him why the asura, the proverbial “bad man”, was given a similar farewell as the gods. Grandpa said that after being defeated at the hands of the goddess, Mahishasura had begged forgiveness for his actions. Durga had granted him the wish and said he would forever be worshipped alongside her.

So, when Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani says that an event by the name of Mahishasura Martyrdom Day was celebrated on the JNU campus, I, a practising Hindu, am not outraged.

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For, in grandparents’ tales, Mahishasura is more an errant child disciplined by the mother goddess than an agent of evil brutally slain.

In fact, it is the asura who, to this day, interests children the most during their pandal-hopping sprees. While the goddess and her children look similar with grand costumes and pale smiles, the asura stands out with his sinewy arms, wiry hair, face twisted into a grimace and a sparkling weapon.

Over time, “theme pujo” has crept into the scene and the form of the asura has been experimented with. Many pujo organisers have lately used the festival to comment on social issues. The muscular asura has often been replaced with a symbol of social ills the goddess is slaying.

As for seeing Mahishasura as a martyr, several tribal societies cultures have for centuries worshipped him as a hero who protected indigenous communities from the advances of Aryans before being deceived into marriage and then killed by a woman sent by them.

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Despite adhering to opposite beliefs, worshippers of Durga and Mahishasura have engaged in no major conflict yet and an event on a university campus is unlikely to change that. An attempt to impose one cultural view on another, however, might do so.

Durga Puja is celebrated differently in various parts of the country. While in north India, it is largely a celebration of the good over evil, the east also observes it as a daughter’s homecoming. While some stick to a vegetarian menu during the festival, others queue up to gorge on biryani.

Such differences, however, have never come in the way of the celebrations. This is because over the years, the festival has come to be less about idols and rituals and more about homecoming, catching up with old friends and reliving memories.

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Therefore, the minister’s outrage sounds like a call from a bygone age. Durga Puja was never about idols, it was about people, more so now. Those in power would do better not to change this. Let the gods, and the asuras, be!

First published on: 14-03-2016 at 02:39:37 pm
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