Saraswati, Mahishasura and Durga: Love, JNU and a Mythology of Dissent
By Kanad Sinha
Saraswati Puja, also known as Vasanta Panchami, has always been a special occasion in my life. I am a Bengali and the traditional worship of the Goddess of Learning – celebrated widely in houses, clubs and educational institutions – is earmarked in Bengal as an extremely popular festival of the students. I gradually came to know that the occasion was known as the ‘Valentine’s Day of the Bengalis’. Though we had no clear idea about the actual occasion of the Valentine’s Day, Saraswati Puja created a colourful fantasy in our adolescent imagination, since this was the day when the boys would be allowed inside the girls’ schools and vice-versa. How many kurta-clad schoolboys approached the girls of their dream, wrapped in a sari (often for the first time), to give birth to unsung love-ballads of our surroundings, one cannot count. The occasion’s speciality remained in my life beyond my schooldays, to the years spent in my college and university.
Therefore, the Saraswati Puja of 2016 was to be a very significant day for me. As I was busy finishing the final lap of my long PhD race, it was supposed to be the last Saraswati Puja of my formal student life. However, I shall also remember the day as a beginning of a new phase in my life. Suddenly, the educational institution I am part of, Jawaharlal Nehru University, was all over the national news. The news that JNU Students’ Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar, had been arrested on the basis of a charge of sedition spread like wildfire. There was a spontaneous response, as students and teachers started to gather at the ‘Administrative Block’ where the crowd was addressed by many national level leaders who expressed solidarity with JNU. However, these gestures of support notwithstanding, the public perception of JNU had undergone a sea-change overnight. A huge section of the Indian population started to see JNU, till then perceived only as the premiere university of the country, as a hub of sedition.
The following days were a nightmare for JNU students. They have been verbally abused, physically attacked, insulted on the roads, humiliated by mobs, threatened of rape, murder and mob-lynching. Friends, neighbours, shopkeepers, auto drivers, and the ‘common man’ – everyone turned judgmental and condescending about the students of an institution supposed to have nurtured some individuals with an assumed stand against the unity and integrity of the Indian nation. The fact that these students received subsidised government financing added a twist to the criticism of how the hard-earned public money was being wasted on ‘ungrateful elements’ that stood against their own country, while soldiers were dying in the border areas. Since it was suddenly decided that JNU students don’t study (if they studied would they be involved in politics, that, too, of an ‘anti-national’ kind?), there was growing curiosity about what they did within their enclosed campus. Ingenious suggestions came from various quarters including a BJP MLA, Gyandev Ahuja, who imagined a constant bacchanalia of naked dance, rave parties and other frivolities in JNU, producing a daily waste of a huge number of used condoms, alcohol bottles, ‘abortion syringes’ and what not!
When this article is being written, Kanhaiya is out of the prison on bail and his brilliant speech defining the movement’s goal as azadi (freedom) in India and not azadi from India has featured on the front pages of almost all national level newspapers, but Umar and Anirban are still in jail. However, over the past one month, the name JNU featured in debates and discussions everywhere from the Parliament to the roadside tea-shops. On one hand, there is a representation of JNU as a leading educational institution promoting free thinking, which always stands for the Freedom of Speech and Expression and the Right to Dissent. On the other hand, there is an alternative representation of JNU as a hub of Left hegemony where Communism is the dominant doctrine; dissent is often a manifestation of left-leaning insurrectionary tendencies, religion in general and Hinduism in particular is under constant attack, every voice not conforming to the political Left is gagged, and uncontrolled emphasis on freedom culminates in irresponsible politics, valorization of terrorism and sexual licentiousness. Despite the constant reminder that the ongoing movement is for protecting the Constitutional cornerstone of Indian democracy and not for replacing the current regime with a Communist revolution, despite the continuous statement of the fact that this movement united all secular democratic forces (including the various competing Left groups as well as many non-left ones) against an onslaught of fascist tendencies, despite the uncountable pleas for dialogue between the antagonised parties, the latter perception holds a solid ground in public perception. This perception was further reified by the speech made by Smriti Irani in the Parliament, where the allegations against JNU included a support for the consumption of beef and valorisation of Mahishasura, the Buffalo-demon, at the cost of the Goddess Durga during the Durga Puja.
At this juncture, the fifteenth lecture of the teach-in series added a new dimension to the debate. Makarand Paranjape, who teaches English at JNU, had been among the few JNU teachers criticising the movement from the start. Academically speaking, Prof. Paranjape’s lecture would not arguably rank among the best ones in the series, but politically it was crucial. He not only went into an all-out attack on Left politics in the last part of his lecture, but also accused JNU of being a Left hegemonic place where any non-left element is either brainwashed or bullied. Expressing the sorry state of affairs, he also lamented for the lack of ‘mediality’ between the two extremes of the political spectrum.
In short, there is a clear-cut myth being created around JNU’s celebrated culture of dissent. It seems similar to the Puranic myth of an endless feud between the Devas and Asuras. This new enactment of the well-known story, involving the political Left and Right, also produces the poison of hegemony which is forced down the unwilling throat of the demonized political Right, either silencing it totally or transforming it into a hegemonized blue. On the other hand, the divine elixir of Freedom of Expression becomes the exclusive privilege of the political Left who overwhelms the rest into servitude and subjecthood. In other words, the jhola-carrying, beard-rearing, kurta and jeans clad Leftist intellectual of JNU, with a face glowing in the dream of a Socialist revolution and a body stinking of a periodic lack of bath, enact the hegemonic role of the Brahmanical gods they pathologically distaste. God-fearing, right-leaning Nationalist Hindus spend their days in JNU as a bullied minority like the demonized Asuras condemned to the eternal netherworld (Patala), while the Left plays with their religious sentiments, craving for the meat of every cow they behold and coveting to worship every buffalo they come across, at the cost of Mother Cow, the Mother Goddess, and ultimately – Mother India (whose Hindu cultural past is mocked at, and integrated future is threatened constantly by the political Left). How representative of JNU is this myth?
The myth mentioned above can be shattered on the basis of bare political facts alone. ABVP, a Right Wing political body affiliated with the BJP, has a considerable presence on the campus. Not only did they manage to secure the third position for the place of the President in the last JNUSU election, but also could mobilize enough votes to secure a post in the Central Panel (that of Joint Secretary) and more than 10 Councillors in different schools. In fact, they are the most vibrant political presence in most of the Science schools and the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, whereas the Left groups are stronger in most of the Humanities schools. This very basic data betrays a picture where one group is hegemonic over the other. Yet, the critique of the myth has to go beyond the mere data of electoral success. Therefore, I shall also peep into some of the least discussed dimensions of the social culture of JNU, moving to the realm of lived experience from that of believed mythology.
Dissent is an extremely important content in the social and public life of JNU, and that goes beyond the field of political activism. Inside the classrooms of the Centre for Historical Studies, we learnt to ask questions to unravel the various dimensions of the past, to critically question the sources we use and their perceived ‘authenticity’, even to question the very nature of our discipline itself. However, JNU campus also trains one to relate academic training to that of lived existence. Therefore, it is a space which will constantly poke you out of the inertia of inherited social conventions, since your academic understanding of social institutions and constructions will often lead you to question the status quo and problematise the system, the given and the sacrosanct around you. Thus questioning would extend beyond the classrooms to the streets, to the various dhabas and the hostel rooms. Nationalism or Communism, religion or caste, patriarchy or monogamy, none of the prominent presences in our public discourse, would be accepted unquestioned. However, there is a fine line that separates questioning and rejecting, criticism and demolition. That is the line which defines ‘mediality’. And, if my lived experience is any indication, the line is not at all blurred in JNU, but it is something that defines this institution.
By my lived experience, I do not mean only the visible fact that a committed non-Marxist like me has survived and thrived in JNU for six years without any sense of being bullied or brainwashed. Rather, it is the space that provided me the greatest room for the articulation of my own political and social ideas which are mostly along the liberal democratic tradition of secular centrism. However, if I spare myself for a while, and have a look at not the secular but the religious, not the Left but the Right, not the Communist slogans but the Brahmanical festivals, what picture do we get? I had started this essay with the celebration of Saraswati Puja in JNU. Isn’t it surprising that a campus of so called ‘left hegemony’ where Brahmanism and casteism are denounced every moment would have a vibrant celebration of a festival whose central affective protagonist remains a Hindu goddess? Yet, the Saraswati Puja (not one, but two) is celebrated with much enthusiasm every year in JNU. Every hostel committee in JNU celebrates the Diwali. The Holi in JNU is a spectacle, a lifetime experience. The Navratri and Durga Puja are held annually with massive participation. Onam, Lohri, Pongal and many other regional festivals, both of religious and secular nature, have their space in the campus life in JNU, and so does the non-Hindu religious festivals like Eid and Christmas. No, the religious Hindu (or non-Hindu) does not live in a constant fear in JNU as the believers did in Stalinist USSR.
The culture of dissent in JNU is not, therefore, a culture of demolition. It is a culture of nuancing and questioning the given. Going back to the Saraswati Puja referred to earlier, well, there is overwhelming participation of many who would definitely count them among the political Left and would consider them atheists or agnostics. Yet, they enthusiastically participate in the festivities, while the believers take part in the ritual performances as well. However, the ritual performances are not necessarily what would have delighted the normative Brahmanical ‘lawgivers’. For example, among the various priests who have officiated as priests on the occasion in the last few years, there were a beef-relishing brahman (who also happens to be arguably the best Sanskritist the university has recently produced), a lower caste scholar (another brilliant student of Sanskrit), women, and a History student who discarded his sacred thread (yours truly). Eid is a much-awaited festival in the campus, and so are the mouth-watering iftar parties. However, it is not a surprise in the campus when a devout Himachali Brahmin takes up the onus on himself to cook the meat for Eid. And, thus, the annual celebration of Durga Puja is as much part of the extremely multifaceted cultural life in JNU as is the much-criticised celebration of ‘Mahishasura Shahadat Divas’ on the ‘Vijaya Dashami’.
The battle between the Mother Goddess and the Buffalo Demon is an extremely interesting point in Indian mythology. It is one of the three central myths of the Devi Mahatmya, a Puranic text which powerfully brought back the Mother Goddess of the fertility cults of shamanism and folk cults to the patriarchal world of the institutionalized world religions. No religious text has emphasised the power of the feminine on its own right as the Devi Mahatmya did and the gripping story of the triumph of the Mother Goddess of pre-Vedic origins over fertility potentials of the shape-shifting hyper-masculine Buffalo Demon or the self-regenerating Raktabija (blood/red-seed/semen) would fire up the liberating imagination of the feminists. Moreover, being a Bengali, I hardly need to remind myself of the immense cultural significance the Durga Puja, as a cultural spectacle that transcends the boundaries of specific religions. Yet, with the immense affective potential of Durga in mind, the celebration of Mahishasura’s martyrdom in certain tribal myths – given an exaggerated voice in the Mahishasura Shahadat Divas, celebrated by a group of students in this campus, has its own significant role as well. While a section of the political Right is outraged by the assumption that the demonic Mahisha can be worshipped or Durga can be represented as a seductress and prostitute employed to bring forth the decline of that demon king, the typical mediality of this campus provided a room broad enough to accommodate both the goddess and the demon. In fact, the worship of Mahishasura is as integral to the formal ritual of Durga Puja, as the worship of the divine family. Moreover, the Devi Mahatmya itself emphatically claims that the Great Goddess is manifest in all the women of the universe. Are not the seductresses and prostitutes counted among all the women of the universe? One wonders. One may also wander through the pages of the text to discover that the Goddess herself is not hesitant to assume that role, as seduction is crucial in the way she lures two of her antagonists – Shumbha and Nishumbha – to their ultimate destruction. If we look beyond the Puranic world, and care to focus on how the Goddess celebrated in the famous Durga Puja is not just the Great Goddess of scriptural authority but a Bengali folk reincarnation of her, representing the annual homecoming of a daughter, victimised in a troubled marriage, with her children.
The musical genre of agamani songs, earmarked to celebrate the occasion in particular, often tells the story of Uma (Durga)’s suffering in poverty and domestic violence, being married with a poor, irresponsible drunkard (Shiva). The Goddess often re-emerges in these alternative myths not as a source of all power and authority, but as a co-sufferer of the helpless victimhood of innumerable Bengali women. And both kinds of myths are equally important, if we truly speak of an integrative assimilative and accommodating ‘Indian culture.’ Therefore, JNU campus remains true to its promise of mediality when it provides space for myths of another variety where Durga and Mahishasura share the plight of being victims of patriarchal Brahmanism, one being used as a helpless tool to eliminate the other. Of course, one may still question if Mahisha can truly represent the downtrodden, the tribal, the lower caste in mythology. In fact, the Asuras, unlike the forest-dwelling vilified Rakshasas, share the elite world of Indian mythology with the deities, since the two identities are often interchangeable in Vedic mythology, while even in the Puranas they remain half-brothers and, if the occasion demands (like the Churning of the Milk Ocean), comrades. Even in the highly Brahmanized regional folk legend of Kerala, Mahabali is much more a deceived royal figure than the socially downtrodden. There are numerous myths, each inviting numerous questions and challenges, and JNU accommodates them all rather than accepting any one of them as authoritative at the cost of the others.
Therefore, the ‘culture of dissent’ in JNU is much more nuanced and multicoloured than the myth created around it would make you believe. The secret behind this is in the very composition of the student community of JNU where the admission process itself assures a substantial presence of the socially marginalised: a majority of women over men, deprivation point for those coming from underdeveloped districts, strict implementation of various kinds of reservation, and a subsidized education affordable for all.
JNU’s culture of dissent cannot therefore be branded just as a manifestation of Left politics, it is a liberating experience provided by a campus inspiring critical questioning and broad-based participation. As the ambit of the liberation extends to the field of gender relations and sexuality as well, the social status quo often responds with another mythology of anxiety. Gyandev Ahuja’s condom-count may not be just the individual’s act of stupidity, but the expression of a suspicious anxiety over a campus whose public sphere does not judge women for their dress, does not consider virginity as sacrosanct, does not celebrate sexual puritanism, is not shy about discussing sexuality and desire openly, is not schizophrenic about free mixing between the sexes, and refuses to ostracize the transgenders and homosexuals. In other words, JNU also reconstructs and deconstructs people’s notion of relationships, at times backfiring in a medley of relationship issues too complex to comprehend or keep track off. Such hurdles are not rare in any novel avenue. Yet, what is remarkable of this campus is the persistence of the people, often caught up in terrible relationship issues and stressful memories, in their unrelenting belief in a culture of love. If there is any sphere where the campus is hegemonic in not allowing any mediality, it is in its uncompromising privileging of love over hatred.
Therefore, the Valentine’s Day has also been very special in JNU. And no Valentine’s Day was as special as this one when, on the festival of love, with the freshly blossoming flowers preparing to welcome the amazing JNU spring, more than 5000 people – students, teachers and staff – stood hand in hand in a non-violent human chain, in a resolve to defend the students, to defend the autonomy of the campus, and to defend everything JNU stands for. Against the tirade of attacks, threats and abuses, morphed videos and provocative speeches, against all forms of visible manifestations of hatred, JNU stood for its characteristic space that mingled dissent and love, questioning and co-existence, holding hand, staying together, to shatter many more old myths, and to give rise to many more new ones.
Photo: A panel from Mahabalipuram showing Durga and Mahisasur (Credit: Malavika Binny)
Kanad Sinha is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies specializing in Ancient History. His research interests include the history of religions, Sanskrit literature and history, epics and gender. He has been published in both national and international journals.
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