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INNER DEMONS

We, the permanent villains of Indian mythology, must reclaim our fallen icons

Wikimedia Commons/Ramesh NG
Good made evil.
Harish Pullanoor
By Harish Pullanoor

Co-editor, Quartz India

It won’t be easy. When has unlearning ideas and turning them on their heads been easy? Especially the sublime ones that Indian mythology peddles relentlessly.

Yet, it is now time to do exactly that: unlearn and invert. The deception has lasted far too long, leaving far too many generations in a stupor.

By us, I mean the perennial antagonists of India’s popular good-versus-evil tales: the Asuras. Not merely the shrinking indigenous tribes known by that name, but all those whose traditional icons have been sidelined, appropriated and maligned by the so-called mainstream.

All descendants of the fallen greats such as the benevolent Mahabali, the valiant Mahishasura, the ferocious Meghnad, or his father Ravana, perhaps the most powerful of all, are Asuras.

Resistance as evil

They of the mainstream may consider our ancestors despicable. So be it. We, on the other hand, are increasingly aware of what they did to our forefathers.

They turned them into the imaginary fiends of their bed-time fairytales, airbrushing their own landgrabs and massacres, and portraying our intrepid, though eventually failed, resistance as evil.

Our identity and self-esteem decimated, we, like zombies, joined them in perpetuating myths of their glory and our vainglory. Over generations, most of us went on to view this vicious cycle as some magnificent tradition, teaching our children to revile our own heroes.

As for the Asuras reading this, if any of you is squirming at the possibility of being one, there lies the problem. Our denial is their success story. They have thrived on our gullibility for centuries precisely because we, robbed of our great totems, adopted theirs.

How else do you explain us bowing before the very figures that slandered, maimed, and massacred our people and usurped our lands?

Residents of my native Kerala, for instance. Our harvest festival, Onam, imagines the annual visit of Mahabali, the virtuous Asura king whose subjects the people of Kerala were believed to be. Jealous mainstream gods took advantage of his famed generosity and tricked him into parting with his kingdom. However, they granted his wish to visit his people in Kerala once a year. Today, Kerala sings paeans to and pines for his prosperous and just reign. Such is Mahabali’s fame even today that great social reformers look up to those times.

Yet, today’s popular Kerala culture has reduced that mighty monarch to a bumbling, rotund caricature. The semiotics of his portrayal suggest naivete and imbecility, not the legend’s hallmark majesty, power, or truthfulness. In recent years, a peculiar element has emerged, particularly among Malayalis living outside Kerala: Onam day songs and dance in praise of Mahabali’s crooked, deceitful vanquisher. These shameful performances often take place before pot-bellied men enacting the ancient king’s annual return from exile in the netherworld to meet his subjects. The cruel irony of this trope is completely lost on most Keralites.

In the meantime, overt and covert attempts are still on today to detach the very memory of Mahabali from Onam and latch it on irrevocably to their own god.

You, Asuras of Kerala, may pretend not to see the trend—but for how long?

Eternal villainy

Even so, Mahabali is better placed than the others. At least he is still alive. Those like Mahishasura and Ravana crossed the Rubicon into eternal villainy ages ago.

Their big hearts and bigger battles have been forgotten. Their noble deeds scrubbed off collective memory. Their intelligence and justness reduced to animal nature in both form and substance. Their nemeses, though, thrive in all their glory.

Mahishasura, the infamous buffalo demon of Indian mythology, for instance, has scores of villages and at least one major city (Mysuru) named after him. Can there be a better testimony to the love and respect he, likely a powerful buffalo-herd, commanded as a leader?

However, as victors, the ancestors of today’s mainstream reduced him to a vicious monster (don’t miss the dark skin implication of the water buffalo). Beautiful hymns and chants, evoking rousing piety, were then composed to glorify his butchery and butcherer.

Today, even we, the Asuras, unthinkingly celebrate his brutal end, brought about by dishonest means. Elaborate and ornate rituals, referring to his murderer as mother, mark the nine days of revelry. There are several versions of the devious means used to kill him—one of them, as believed by some tribals, was to lure him into a marriage.

Such dishonesty has been the primary signature of almost all their victories. The goal justifies the means, they say, citing holy verses. Alternatively, they point that the vanquished wasn’t human anyway, so human norms don’t matter.

One of their favourite princelings indulges in such spectacular double standards quite transparently. Having shot down an unsuspecting animal king from a hidden perch, this epitome of righteousness justifies his act saying the rules of a fair battle are only applicable to humans. Moments later, he also cites the slain king’s conjugal practices as reason for such punishment. According to this worthy, human marital norms, but not battle norms, are applicable to animals.

Manipulation through sex was another of their favourite stratagems, bringing down not only our forefathers but their own people who got too powerful.

Yet, you won’t find anything critical about such deceit in their narratives even today.

If anything, this mainstream has monopolised most modes and elements of mass communication—cinema, television, classical arts, and music—to further these lies. They even begin earlier now with children’s comic books and animation.

These media are only reiterating what their haloed texts have been up to for aeons.

Mythology instead of history

Have you ever wondered why India is often said to lack a sense of history? Because instead of written history, they created oral mythologies. Tainted victories go in, sanitised fables come out; sons and daughters of the soil go in, evil ogres come out.

Today, after all that, they want these very fables to be accepted as history. Such trickery has over centuries created and reinforced racial, linguistic, and gender stereotypes and hegemony in India.

We, the Asuras, must resist that. Let us revisit every story told by our grandmothers and pick out the disparaging subtext. Let us reinstall the likes of Ravana, Mahishasura,and Mahabali in the pantheon as what they were: highly capable, powerful, and scholarly leaders, even if flawed ones.

It may be our last chance to reinstate our collective identity.

This article first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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