Some weeks ago, sometime around the eve of Diwali, a friend of mine posed a question that would have made proud the masters who crafted the Agamas and Dharmashastras. ‘At what time is it’, he asked, ‘that the Narakasura, whom we consign to flames on the eve of Diwali, becomes a Narakasura? Is it when the head-mask is put on? Or when the lights are put on? Or is it when the music starts? Or the moment the frame is made? Is there a specific moment?’ Continuing in this Agamic tradition, a friend of his opined that the real moment should actually start, when the effigy of the Narkasur is burnt down and the Diwali lamps are lit up. At the same time however, this respondent lamented that nowadays, we concentrate more upon creating Narkasur (the symbol of evil) than that quintessential mark of the Goan Diwali, the Akashdivo.
In other parts of the country, the Dalitisation, or de-brahmanisation, of popular Hindu festivals has proceeded apace along rather different patterns. This trend has been led by Dalit student organisations who have argued that the myths surrounding Hindu gods and goddess and their festivals are in fact symbolic representations of the history of 'upper' castes’ domination over the indigenous population of the country – SC, ST and OBCs. To correct this history, they therefore re-interpret these events from a Bahujan perspective. Thus for example, the members of the All India Backward Students Forum (AIBSF) in the JNU campus in Delhi suggested that Dussehra was in fact a celebration of the killing of the Sudra king Mahishasa by the upper-caste woman Durga. Similarly on the campus of the Osmania University, on the eve of Diwali, some students cast Naraka Chathurdashi as “Narakasura Vardhanti,” the death anniversary of Naraka. They reinterpreted the event as commemoration of the killing of the Dalit hero Naraka by the brahmanical figure Krishna, who killed Naraka to suppress the revolt by Dalits against upper castes. Arguing that the Asura was appended to a name to demonise the character, Narakasura was now called “Naraka Shura”. In this reworking of the name, Naraka remains the name of entity, while the Asura is cast away to make Naraka a Shur-Vir, or brave warrior.
The event at the JNU campus not surprisingly, did not go down well. Upper-caste students taking offense to this inversion and demonization of brahmanical deities assaulted the students of the AIBSF. This sort of confrontational violence has not been universal however, and the modern history of Kerala and the Onam festival is perhaps an interesting example.
|Mahabali returns to Kerala|
|Mahatma Jotiba Phule|
The exploring of the social relations and social history encoded within the myths that form the basis of Hindu festivals may not be as simple a task as a merely intellectual discussion however. The attempt of the AIBSF on the JNU campus ended up with upper-caste students assaulting the members of the AIBSF. Given the sensitivity with which we in India take our religious figures, one can see that suggesting that it is not the Asura, but the Vishnu avatar who is the bad guy, may fall nothing short of asking for the cataclysmic to break down on us. The Dalit activist on the other hand, would argue that the un-deifying of the Vishnu avatar is central to undoing the brahmanical violence, perpetuated on Dalit communities on a daily basis, and in allowing Dalit communities to construct a history that explains the conditions that they find themselves in.
The options are admittedly not easy, and we don’t have to necessarily take a call now. We need to merely recognize that this social process is on, and watch for what happens. The Agamas were/are scriptures that lay out the ritual guidelines for the appropriate construction of an image that will subsequently be infused with the spirit of the deity. Given the attempts that are on to re-evaluate popular myths and interrogate belief-systems, it appears that the almost Agamic questions that were referred at the start of this column, are not entirely out of place?
(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 25 Nov 2011)