Goddess Durga and ‘demon’ Mahishashur…

Arindam Basu
6 min readOct 6, 2022

… quest for the protagonist and the antagonist

(This is a Work in Progress … The idea of looking deep into the protagonist and antagonist came to mind while on a discussion with a friend. Indeed, what is it that we are celebrating in the Durga Puja? Are we celebrating the victory of the Good over evil? Are we celebrating a slaying? Are we celebrating a form of violence? The mythology and the intricate societal reality beneath the veneer of the tradition?)

There is a tale of struggle. There is a mythic story steeped in our epics and puranas and story. Yet, in the feet of the Goddess Durga is the slain icon of Mahishasur is an unmistakable part of the Durga puja celebrations. As if the celebration is incomplete without the mythic demon.

Beyond the black and white of Ma Durga and Asura (demon)’s battle of the good and evil, let’s dive into the two inseparable entities of Ma Durga and Mahishasur a little.

Durga puja is a celebration of the Mother Goddess Durga in Bengal and practically throughout South Asia in a big way. Yet for a minority of people, this portrays the struggle between the Aryans and the original, indigenous people of India who were coloured people, who were vanquished in the struggle for the dominance between the fair skinned Aryans and the dark skinned original inhabitants. Some have even wondered if this is somewhat the like the American celebration of the Thanksgiving Day, practically the celebration marking the annhiliation of the vanquished. What is it that we are celebrating?

Here are a few strands of thought. In the Adivasi tradition, Mahishashur is depicted as Hudur Durga, the male iconic figure portrayed as a king who was wrongly assassinated by a female figure as the fair skinned Aryan ‘gods’ were unable to defeat the feisty original king.

Moumita Sen (2022) Between religion and politics: the political deification of Mahishasur, Religion, DOI: 10.1080/0048721X.2022.2094782

This is based on fantastic first person ethnographic research study. She writes,

“A long-standing subversive narrative within caste minority activist intellectual circles became a national public discourse in 2011 claiming that Mahishasur was a historical figure; he was a great king and the noble ancestor of indigenous and oppressed-caste communities of India. He was reclaimed as a non-Aryan (anarja) king who was deceived and killed by a fair-skinned Aryan ‘prostitute’ called Durga sent by the scheming male gods who could not match the valour of the great Mahishasur in a fair battle. The contemporary leaders of the movement, who belong to indigenous and oppressed-caste communities, hail him as a martyr and celebrate his forgotten legacy”

“The first benevolent painting of Mahishasur was published by a Delhi-based caste activist organisation, which showed the ‘real’ story of Durga seducing, tricking, and killing Mahishasur in a graphic novel format. Mahishasur was portrayed as a king — in the style of Amar Chitra Katha (Babb and Wadley 1995), the televised epics, and other retellings or representations of Indian mythology in popular culture — in his regalia, seated on his high throne in a royal palace. This became a key source material for one of the major styles of re-forming Mahishasur”

The first murti of Mahishashur was found in Jiraniya Purulia.

Hudur Durga is what the urban gentry in Bengal would call Mahishasur.

Image of Mahishashur from the article

Painted image of Mahishasur from the above article

Painted image of Mahishasur

Bahujans, and Adivasis in North Bengal. Santhal image-makers are now mass-producing this kingly image of Mahishasur for domestic celebrations. Small domestic celebrations of Mahishasur martyrdom day take place during the sixth to the ninth day of Navaratri, but the final day is marked by the massive mela.

Here’s another article by Sen, kind of the same research but interesting in its scope:

https://doi.org/10.1177/13591835221116708

She contends,

Goddess Durga slaying Mahishasur (from the article):

Another image

Prem Kumar Mani’s theory in Sen’s paper …

History of making Durga images in Bengal

… And the making of the Mahishasura

Some interesting perspectives:

So you see this is a portrayal of a conflict between the fair-skinned Aryans versus indigenous non-Aryans. Who was The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama? Was he of the Aryan or the non-Aryan stock? Regardless, he was the rebel.

Saurav Verma weighs in

A four-year old article in Groundxero.in, a counter-culture news magazine had interviewed a tribal leader about Hudur Durga celebrations

The story of Mahishasura

From wikipedia entry:

Here’s the Devi Mahatya by Swami Sivananda, link to the book:

In search of Mahishasur temple,

Beyond these, there are other interpretations. Here is an article by Dona Biswas in

Writes,

In the end ….

There is mythology and each is seen from the eyes of the protagonists and the antagonists. There are stories about the White Aryans winning over the dark skinned originals of India in the plains. There is a story of a struggle and a conflict. Regardless, one wonders what exactly is it that we celebrate? The quest for answers lead to more questions, so be it.

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Arindam Basu

I am a Medical Doctor and an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury. Founder of TwinMe,