Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Naraka Shoora: Turning Traditions on their head

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.

Kancha Ilaiah
When lamenting this inversion of the ‘traditional’ rules of the Diwali celebrations however, this contemporary Agamist may have grabbed the wrong end of the stick. Take the example of the public Ganesh festival, which has come a long way from the time of its invention by Lokmanya Tilak, and is today marked by loud film-music and often by drunken young men dancing to these popular tracks. While the poor Lokmanya must be turning in his grave, the contemporary intellectual Kancha Ilaiah has suggested that these trends, rather than being lamented should be seen as the Dalitisation of the Ganesh festival. Ilaiah’s argument would be that while Tilak’s public festival was intended to consolidate the population along nationalist, brahmanical, and thus elitist lines, the trend otherwise so lamented, should be seen as a populist correction of this trend.

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
Most people today, both within Kerala and without, see the festival of Onam as the moment when the mythical king Mahabali returns to his former realm, thanks to a final boon by the Vishnu’s Vaman avatar, to check on the well-being of his subjects. It is to welcome him and reassure him that all continues to be well, that Onam is celebrated with pomp and style. Writing on the historical evolution of this festival however, J. Devika argues that ‘Onam used to be, in many parts of Kerala, … more a celebration of Vishnu, rather than Maveli — Mahabali — and domestic rituals associated with Onam celebrated not Mahabali but Vamanamurty.’ She points out that a different interpretation of Onam was forged ‘in the decades in which the movement for uniting Malayalam-speaking regions into Kerala gathered force, one in which the left was certainly a hegemonic presence. Brahmanical mythology according to which Kerala was founded by Parasurama the warrior sage was insistently attacked by left-leaning and anti-caste intellectuals …who launched a scathing attack against the setting up of a depiction of Parasurama outside the venue of the Aikya Kerala Conference in the 1940s.’ As in the case of Goa, Puranic legends cast Parashurama as the mythical creator of Kerala, and clearly, the Aikya Kerala movement, set up to consolidate the Kerala state was seeking to draw on this origin myth to create a  popular history for the nascent Kerala sub-nation. As a result of this attack, Onam was converted from a festival focused on the Vaman avatar, to a celebration of the benevolent asura king Mahabali, an idea that was spread in school text books, and through them into popular imagination.

Mahatma Jotiba Phule
This overturning of the Mahabali- Vaman avatar relationship however, has a much longer tradition than that involved in the consolidation of Malayalam speaking territories into the State of Kerala. This tradition can be said to date back to the efforts of the 19th century philosopher and social reformer Mahatma Jotiba Phule. In a recent book,  The World of Ideas in Modern Marathi: Phule,Vinoba, Savarkar, G. P. Deshpande points out that Phule con­trasted Baliraja, the shudratishudra king, with Vamana, the brahmanical avatara, to make a point about the nature of power relations between caste  groups in the sub-continent.  Deshpande argues that the extent to which Phule returned to this myth in his work would allow us to see Phule as possibly constructing all recorded history as the history of the Vamana-Baliraja struggle. Not surprisingly, Phule is an important figure in the political pantheon of Dalit political groups.

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)

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