Should gods, goddesses have caste identities?

In a roundabout sort of way, Mysore is at the centre of a raging debate in the seats of learning in the nation’s capital.

The Mysore-born A.K. Ramanujan‘s classic essay “Three hundred Ramayanas” has been dropped from the history syllabus of Delhi University because it could hurt the feelings of the super-sensitive folk who have a firm and clear idea of how their gods and goddesses ought to be portrayed.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated move, a section of students of Jawaharlal Nehru University are planning to celebrate “Mahishasura Day” next Tuesday in honour of the demon-king to whom Mysore owes its name and whose statue (in picture) adorns the entrance of the temple atop Chamundi hills.

What gives “Mahishasura Day” an additional edge is the attempt to give Mahishasura a caste identity, the contention that he belonged to a backward community, which, if true, gives Mysore’s already strong reputation as the seat of social reforms a monumental push.

The journalist-author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a JNU alum, wonders if it is OK for humans to see gods through the prism of caste.

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By NILANJAN MUKHOPADHYAY

Do Hindu gods and goddesses have caste identities? Can one bring in the divisive issue of caste when talking about them? Would it be right to say that one particular god or goddess is a Brahmin while the other is a Kshatriya, a Vaishya or even one of the OBCs?

These thoughts surfaced in the mind after reading a news report mentioning that a section of students in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University have decided to “observe ‘Mahishasura Day’ on October 25 to reiterate that the demon killed by Goddess Durga belonged to a Backward Community.”

The report elaborated that the All India Backward Students’ Forum “decided to honour Mahishasura after a tussle with another section of students who had allegedly taken the forum head-on for putting up ‘blasphemous posters on the campus during Durga Puja that hurt religious sentiments’.”

Having been the only university in which I ever enrolled, I have an overt interest in developments related to JNU. The report led me to speak to friends which, though not adding much on the incident per se, sharpened stray thoughts sparked off by the report.

I have been aware of the academic discourse on the caste profiling of mythological characters – especially from the Ramayana. At the level of popular culture, I have tracked Dalits celebrating ‘Ravana Melas’ to protest the burning of his effigies on ‘Dussehra’ and his portrayal in mainstream Hindu culture as the epitome of evil.

The step in JNU to observe Mahisasura Day is something similar, so prima facie there should not be any opposition to it since Ravana Melas have been held at various places for years. But spreading the trend elsewhere and to other mythologies would dilute the symbolic nature of the protest.

It also has the potential to boomerang.

Mythologies have portrayed Lord Krishna as a Yadav king but I have not come across any Upper Caste Hindu refusing to revere him.

If we extending caste profiling of mythological characters, gods and goddesses, a situation may arise when any OBC group may suddenly declare that Upper Caste Hindus do not have the right to include Lord Krishna in their pantheon.

Instead of eliminating the caste order, that would only widen the existing schism.

There is also the added problem of ‘fitting’ in the gods of the ati-Shudras or Dalits. Will OBC groups allow Dalits to consider Mahisasura to be their god also and allow entry into temples?

We have caste-based parties or political parties that draw their strengths primarily from one caste. Gods have not yet been split on caste lines. Instead of doing so, it would be best to allow people to follow their own gods – and if any group has a ‘problem’ with the mythology of one group then it’s best to shut one’s ears.

After all, the bulk of these gods and goddesses either wake up once a year or come visiting just the once. Thereafter, it is a matter of routine personal religiosity with no community participation.

(Journalist and television anchor Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is the author of Demolition: India at the Crossroads. This piece originally appeared on the Asian Correspondent and is reproduced here with permission)

Photograph: The Mahishasura statue atop Chamundi hills in Mysore (Karnataka Photo News)

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Read the full Ramanujan essay: Three hundred Ramayanas

Also read: In Ayodhya, Dasaratha‘s wives gorged on idli-dosa

A.K. Ramanujan: the old woman and her keys

How our buddhijeevis became one-tongue ponies

Is Samskara a little too sexy for post-graduate students?