Human resource development minister Smriti Irani’s position in Parliament on the alleged derogatory references to goddess Durga in Jawaharlal Nehru University and the lack of an intellectual challenge to her are a sad testament to something like the assertion of Brahminical Hinduism, constructed in the work of Manu, Yajnavalkya, Brihaspati, Raghunanda, etc.
The minister is simply concerned with the ‘derogatory references’. She did not think going into the antecedents of ‘Durga killing Mahishashur’ fell within her remit.
Sadly, not one in Parliament went into the question as to who the Asuras are, why they are so horribly poor, etc. The Asuras are a tribe in what is now the state of Jharkhand and West Bengal. Appropriately they should be called Asura Agarias (the second name owes its origin to aag, which means fire), engaged in iron-smelting (source: Verrier Elwin, The Agaria). Loosely the Lohar caste in Bengal falls in the same category. And it is also true that the Asuras mourn the killing of Mahishashur, their prince born of the union of an Asura king and a female buffalo.
The meaning of the word ‘Asura’ has also undergone a transformation. In the early Vedic period gods such as Indra and Agni have been described as ‘Asura’. It was only later that they acquired ‘demoniacal’ characteristics after the long war between the gods and the Asuras, and after the ‘defeat’ of the latter.
All across the country, there are cults that have arisen in opposition to the mainstream Hindu religion. Over centuries caste-Hindus too began to worship them, and some have cited this as the religion’s absorptive capacity. Some are existing alongside the greater Hindu tradition, pointing to the fact that the priests and soldiers of the religion have tolerated them, albeit grudgingly.
In Bengal there have been variants of Durga, such as Singhavahini, Vishalakshshi, Shakambhari and Sharbani. In central India there are goddesses which, though tribal in origin, are trying to make an entry into the fold of Hinduism.
In Bengal there was also a practice of sacrificing buffaloes (‘mahish’ means buffalo) at the time of Durga Puja, to which Rabindranath Tagore objected in his verse play Bisarjan and novel Rajarshi (the story in both cases is the same). For the poet, this amounted to shedding blood in the name of god.
There is also the example of the Buddha, the only historical figure who was made into an avatar of Lord Vishnu. While on the one hand this could mean the openness of Hinduism, on the other hand this clearly has the implication that Buddhism was on the wane and ceased to be a force before its final capitulation and disappearance from the land of its birth.
Ravana is worshipped as a god in various regions. At a lower level, there are gods that fight each other. While Dokhkhin Roy is said to be the god of the tigers in southern West Bengal, its rival is Bon Bibi, who protects people from the attacks of Roy.
During the previous NDA rule, when there was a controversy on the reference to a school textbook saying Durga drank liquor, Pranab Mukherjee intervened to say as a fact it was not wrong.
One wishes these things came up for discussion in Parliament and not the vapoury things that happened in JNU.
(Views expressed by the author are personal.)