Culture wars: The myth of good versus evil

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In my country, the victory of good over evil is a big deal. It is celebrated with increasing bone-rattling noise and furore around this time every year. Giant effigies of a mythical ten-headed Dravidian king Ravana is burnt, and people come in droves to view plaster-of-paris scenes of a white/fair goddess slaying yet another ancient dark-skinned pagan lord called Mahishasura, who has been designated evil.

What we are really celebrating is a primeval victory where one or more militarily-organised tribes vanquished aboriginal tribes and took over large swathes of territory and people. The aboriginal peoples were pushed back into ever-more remote areas, and their heroes would be transformed into villains in the tales of victory and vanquishment that culture wars like to tell. In today’s paper, there is an unusual story of a place called Salher, which is about 60 km from Nashik in Maharashtra state. The people of this and surrounding areas are classified tribals as they do not fit into the regimented caste structure otherwise followed in the land. But really they are the earliest inhabitants, the indigenous people of this country who have their own myths and traditions. In the tradition of Salher, the ten-headed ‘demon’ king Ravana is worshipped as a martyr.

To quote the article from The Times of India: “For hundreds of years, the tribes of Salher in Satana taluka of Nashik district have been organising a  grand fair, which attracts tribal clans from the adjoining states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. The ‘tribals’ will take out a festive procession of Ravana, the ‘demon’ king and worship him as rescuer of the tribal community….Salher is not the only place where Ravana is worshipped. The Korku and Madia tribes in Vidarbha, Chattisgarh and south Gujarat also worship Ravana as their saviour. The ‘demon’ king is also worshipped at many locations in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in south India.”

Last year, another national newspaper had carried an article about tribal villages in the eastern part of the country that reversed the tradition of celebrating the goddess Durga’s victory over the ‘demon’ Mahishasura as martyrdom day instead. To quote The Indian Express: “According to Jitendra Yadav, president of the All India Backward Students’ Forum and a PhD scholar at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), the “widespread acceptance” of the Mahishasur Diwas was a successful attempt to emancipate subalterns from the grasp of Brahminical culture. “India is a land of myriad cultures. But a particular group forced its own version of culture and religion on us. It was against this homogenisation that we started observing the Mahishasur Martyrdom Day,” he said.”

The victory of good over evil is an epic fictional simplification, exalted as festival by millions of people to legitimise the prehistoric appropriation of territory. Though the temporal battle was won long ago, the victory needs to be symbolically resurrected every year to signal victory in the culture wars that never end. Though we are constantly reminded that we live in a nation of syncretic, polytheistic philosophies and cultures, the burning of the demon everywhere at once is an act of assimilating, homogenising monotheism.

Nowadays, everything is couched in the rationale of good versus evil. An Australian tourist harassed in Bangalore, or black paint violently thrown in the face of a man it disagrees with are all tactics employed by the dominant mob. The black paint incident in Mumbai is particularly emblematic. The mob did not use white paint, but chose to blacken its opponent’s face. As in all our epic tales, the victors are white and the vanquished black. The darker your skin the more you are systematically disadvantaged. The castes have been graded from top to bottom and the darkening in skin colour down the ladder is plainly there for all to see, but few choose to see this, perhaps it is visible only to those who do not close their eyes to the institutional racism of the caste system.

When questioned, the mob will always say it’s fighting evil. Because it is no longer ancient times where might was right, now it disguises its ‘might is right’ agenda in the lexicon of democracy. In their hands, democracy has warped. The will of the people has given way to the tyranny of the elected and from television news channels to the streets, the mob will bully.

The culturally autocratic can sometimes take over the iconography of the people it subsumed. In Kerala, Onam is celebrated every year in September, sometimes late August. There are echoes of martyrdom day in this festival, but in contrast Onam is officially celebrated all over Kerala and is not a subaltern festival. Houses get a spring clean, harvests are gathered in preparation for the return of the legendary ‘demon’ king Mahabali. Beloved by his people, he was granted a boon by the brahmin figure Vaman who banished him to the netherworld. Mahabali was allowed to return once every year to see how his people were getting on. As opposed to the first two stories, there is no epic battle or shedding of blood in this tale. The ‘demon king’ almost graciously but submissively gives up all his land to the brahminical big kahuna without the slightest of fights. Conceivably because of this, he is held up as an example in the new order of the victorious to others who should give up their lands voluntarily to the conquerors to prevent any spilling of blood.

Conversely, it is indeed a victory for the subalterns. No matter, how hard the new powers-that-be tried to impose its pantheon on the people, they instead clung to the legend of the wise, generous king Mahabali who gave up his throne and his life to ensure peace in his kingdom. To his people, Mahabali was never a demon . The people chose to remember and stubbornly celebrate their lost king. The overlords, perhaps in the spirit of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, decide to usurp the story of Mahabali the Asura or ‘demon king’ into a larger more accommodating pantheism.

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One thought on “Culture wars: The myth of good versus evil

  1. In the mythology, Rama was dark skinned or bluish black and Ravana was actually fair skinned !. Ravana was a mix of Daitya, Danava and Manava races. His father was a brahmin and grandson of Brahma. Actually Ravana is the higher caste than Rama !. Now Danavas are mentioned as mostly white. Danava, WHITE AS THE CLOUDS … flew into the sky fighting the Devas. Daitya, Danava etc. are various subdivisions of Asura. Asura is like Aesir of norse. Danava is like Tautha De Danaan of celtic mythology. It is much complicated than people think. 🙂

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