[In this article, I use ‘Asur’ to refer to a tribe in Bengal and Bihar. I use ‘asura’ to refer to the Hindu mythological beings]
Summary-The article looks into the claims that there exist Mahishasura worshipping tribes in India who mourn during Dussehra and bewail the ‘Aryan invasion’. Every single one of these claims turns out to be false
On Feb. 24 2016, India’s education minister Smriti Irani read out a pamphlet that had been circulated on ‘Mahishasura Martyrdom Day’. This ‘Mahishasura Martyrdom day’ is deliberately organised during the Hindu festival of Dussehra.
Below I reproduce contents of the said pamphlet-
“Durga Puja” is the most controversial racial festival, where a fair skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasura
Mahishasura, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasura into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning, during sleep
Interestingly, many news outlets provided ideological justification to these utterances. They drew our attention to a lesser known tribe which calls itself ‘Asur’. References were made to an article of Shine Jacob from business standard and a piece from DNA. The argument forwarded was that the JNU students were right after all. Durga was indeed an ‘Aryan whore’ and she was hired to defeat the great native ruler ‘Mahishasura’. Further, a few native tribes of North Bengal still worship ‘Mahishasura’ and mourn during the days of Durga puja. The conclusion had to be straight forward. The evil Hindu Aryans defeated ‘Mahishashura’ the great king of Aboriginal tribes and conquered India
The first oddity in this narrative that struck me was name ‘Mahishasura’. This is an Aryan Sanskritic Hindu word meaning buffalo. Mahisha does not mean anything in the language of Asur tribes. It is actually a pure ‘Hindu Aryan’ word. The word with its feminine declension occurs from Rigveda onwards  It has cognates in other ‘Indo-European’ and ‘Aryan’ languages. One of the greatest Sanskrit linguists,Mayrhofer in his Magnum opus confirms that the sanskrit word mahisha is cognate with Iranian *Mazisha, and Greek Maiso zon
Why do the ‘Asur’ tribes not have a word for their own hero-king and resort to borrow his name, and indeed his myth, from their supposedly ‘Aryan enemies’ ? If this tale was indeed old, it would atleast retain some trace of either his name and the tale of his fight with Durga that differs from the mainstream ‘Brahmanical version’. Apart from the vulgar invectives hurled against Durga which reveal more about the mindset of JNU students, this tale has nothing of any historical value to offer. What are the other legends of this ‘Mahishasura’ the hero of ‘Asur’ tribes?
Ergo, I examine the tales of ‘Asur’ tribes. Below I reproduce some aspects of ‘Asur’ culture as reported by the aforementioned Media articles
a small community of tribals living in Jharkhand and the tea-growing belt of Jalpaiguri district in north Bengal was in mourning. These are the Asurs, a scheduled tribe of less than 8,000 members, who claim descendence from Mahishasura
The Asurs believe that the Devi Mahatmya story of the Markandeya Purana is biased. According to the Asurs, the birth of Durga from the conjoined powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was a “crooked conspiracy” hatched because their king Mahishasura was blessed with a boon by Brahma that no man or god could kill him. “The devas are the culprits. Our king was a true warrior from the earth who defeated Indra, the king of the devas, and drove them out of heaven. They were jealous of our dynasty and our forefathers,” says Dahru Asur
“The devas are the invaders who came to the earth and killed our ancestors. We don’t like to see the Durga Puja. We have a separate puja ceremony remembering and mourning our forefathers on Mahalaya, Sashthi, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami [the six days of Durga Puja],” says Pandra Asur, his neighbour.
During Durga Puja, the elders of the Asur community go into complete isolation so that not even a word about Durga reaches them.
. The reason members of this tribe mourn in these four festive days.These families believe they are direct descendants of Mahishasura
The day on which Durga idols are immersed, their four-day mourning ends and two-day celebrations begin. On these two days, they worship Mahishasura, sort of a counter to Goddess Durga.Their revelry includes eating meat and drinking hadia
Summarising the claims:
1)The Asurs claim descent from Mahishasura
2) They believe Devi Mahatmya is a biased ‘crooked conspiracy’
3)Their Asur king defeated Indra, but the deva invaders ‘came to earth and killed their ancestors’
4)They mourn during Durga puja and celebrate immediately afterwards by worshipping Mahishasura and indulging in meat and revelry
Considerable research has been carried out on these tribes. John-Baptist Hoffman’s monumental work of 15 volumes,’Encyclopedia Mundarica'(1928) dealt with Asur and other neighbouring Munda tribes. Anthropologist and Historian K.K Leuva was stationed at Ranchi as assistant commissioner of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. His field and library work of more than a decade on Asur tribe culminated in his book ‘The Asur'(1963). They have also been dealt with in ‘Bulletin of Bihar tribal research institute'( 1964), Land and tribal people of Bihar (Narmadeshwar prasad 1961),’Tribes of India'(KS Singh 1994) and ‘Asurs and their dancers'(joseph marianus kujur 1996). Recently, linguist GDS Anderson carried out his pioneering work on Munda languages. ‘Asur’ is classified as a North Munda language’ very closer to its cousin the Mundari(Munda)
Strikingly, not one of these works mention any of the above claims. Infact, there is no scholarly mention at all of any of these claims in any scholarly work published until now. . None of these works even mention ‘Mahishasura’ in relation to the ‘asur’. Good enough to throw JNU claims into dustbin and find out when,why and how they were manufactured
K.K Leuva’s work is the most extensive field research carried out on these tribes. It elucidates interesting aspects of ‘Asur’ religious culture. The Asurs do not kill cows.  . This is not surprising, as their neighbouring scheduled tribes who resemble them in most respects, the kharia, consider beef a taboo. The Asurs believe human race was created by Lord Mahadev and his wife Parvati . The worship Surya (Suraj devta) and Goddess earth(Dharti mai)  . They worship Chandi so to acquire ‘miraculous powers’  ;. They also worship Gowri devta  . They worship Singa Bonga(literally meaning ‘sun god’). Anthropologist Kujur(1996) informs us that they celebrate Hindu festivals such as Holi, Kartika,Dussehra etc..,. The asur know of Ramayana and have their own sthala-purana like version of the tale of Hanuman burning lanka
Thus, far from mourning during Dussehra, we find in field research that the ‘Asur’ celebrated Dussehra
It is obvious from these accounts that the ‘Asur’ are worshippers of Durga and these Himalayan lies are a malicious JNU propaganda. They have their genesis in the works of Malati shengde. Malati Shengde is a PN Oak of the left and her extreme fringe theories are not taken seriously by any reputed scholar anywhere. However, Malati did not fabricate these lies. In the last ten years, a few politically charged associations of JNU roped in Asur youngsters and deliberately brainwashed them with these lies. A few Asur youngsters are now glad to embrace the JNU claim that they were once the mightiest rulers of whole of India before ‘Hindu Aryans’ usurped their kingdom. It is also possible that some of these idea could be introduced into the Asur society when they go back home. That the JNU pamphleteers have nothing to show as a reference in itself debunks these lies. However, it is a dangerous precedent because the Asur tribes unfortunately have a very low literacy rate(10% as of 1981 census) and are vulnerable to propaganda. While 71.6% of Asurs considered themselves as Hindus in census of 1961, only 48% did so in 1981. The decrease in Hindu percentage has been complimented by an increase in the percentage of ‘Asur’ adopting Christianity and of those returning themselves as ‘Asur’. Due to aforementioned social conditions, Christian evangelists have invested considerably into these tribes. Bible society translated the four gospels into Munda language by 1881. Already by 1885, Constant Lievens was sent to convert them. Ever since, missionaries have been active in the area. It is conceivable that Christian converts who have severed ties with their ancestral religious and cultural heritage will be more forthcoming to embrace the JNU propaganda.
A question needs to be answered. How did these tribes, then, acquire the name ‘Asur’? The ‘Asur’ were primitive Iron smelters . They were driven out of some lands by their cousins, the Munda tribes who are also classified as Scheduled tribe. The Asur were feared. They were known for their Iron smelting and black magic. Infact, Black magic plays a major part in the life of an ‘Asur’ person. They make clay idols of humans. The asur believe that piercing such idols could actually pierce the intended human . They were feared for their magic. The neighbouring (scheduled) tribes such as Oraon and Munda pray against ‘the evil mouth of asur brothers’  According to the neighbouring kolarian tribes, the ‘Asur’ used to be robbers . It is not hard to see why these neighbouring tribes labelled them ‘Asur’ A legend named ‘Asur kahani’ is an important part of Munda religious system. According to this legend, the spirits are widowed Asur women .
But what do the Asurs themselves have to say about their origin? They believe they were a race of divinities who attended to God ‘Bhagwan’ in heaven. However, they were inflated with pride and declared themselves equal to Gods. As a result, they were expelled from heaven and cast into lower regions and earth. Here, they took to Iron smelting and were designated as Asurs
It is important to see that the Asur legend of their origin has no mention of any hero Mahishasura and his death at the hands of ‘Aryan whore’ Durga. On the contrary, they were expelled precisely because they considered themselves equal to Gods. Thus, the Asur moral code treats with contempt any Asur historical figure who puts himself on equal footing with gods. The origin of their ethonymn is not attributed to any mythological ‘Asura figure’, but to their efficiency in Iron smelting and magic. This is the final nail in the coffin of JNU propaganda
It is sad to see that this episode has taken one ugly turn after another. Sagarika ghose tweets that “Ram vs Ravan” is a ‘dominant part of Bahujan thought’. It is sad that such gibberish passes off for intellectual discourse in India. Renowned scheduled caste saints such as Ravidas, Kabir, Namadeva,Chokhamela, Harichand Thakur, Ghasidas, Kanhopatra etc..,. were devotees of Rama and not Ravana.
Kabir has the following to say on Ravana:
जिन गड़ कोट कीए कं चन के छोिड गइआ सो रावनु काहे कीजतु है मिन भावन! किह कबीर ते अंते मुकते जन्ह हरदै राम रसाइनु :
Translation: Ravan acted as it pleased his mind. In the end, he died leaving behind his fortresses of gold. Says kabir, only those who has sublime essence of ‘Ram’ in their hearts are liberated
Says Namdeva, another Dalit saint
सरब सोइन की लंका होती रावन से अिधकाई खन मिह भई पराई तेरा नामु रूड़ो रूपु रूड़ो अित रं ग रूड़ो मेरो रामईआ
Translation:Lanka was totally rich with gold. Nobody was more powerful than Ravana but in a second it was all gone. Your Name is so beautiful! Your form is so beautiful! Your Love is so very beautiful, O Rama!!!
This was Dalit intellectual thought. ‘Your name is beautiful. Your form is beautiful. Your love is beautiful , Rama!’. All the aforementioned saints are highly revered among Dalits even today.
Even today, many Dalits are hardcore devotees of Lord Rama, sometimes of a greater degree than most other Hindus. If Sagarika does not believe her eyes, she will do well to take a trip to Dalit villages of chattisgarh
The Ramanami dalits of chattisgarh are hardcore devotees of lord Ram. They master the ‘ram charit manas’ of Tulsidas by heart and tattoo the name ‘Raam’ all over their body
These are the real Dalits outside the JNU circles. I challenge sagarika ghosh and her likes to produce one pre modern pre 1900 poem exclusively in praise of Ravana written by Dalits. So, this notion of “Rama vs.Ravana dalit thought” is an utter travesty. It was fabricated with a malicious intention of dividing Hindu society and casting further doubts into vulnerable minds. As a consequence, the dissent leads to violence and peaceful existence of society is cast in danger
Finally, it is important to stress the origins of ‘Asura’. The JNUWallahs who claim Asuras are original inhabitants of India referring to Aryan Invasion Theory are misreading it. No where does the said theory claim Asuras were original inhabitants of India. The Aryan invasion/immigration theory says that ‘Asuras’ were mythological beings worshipped outside of India and brought to India by Indo-Aryans.
One of the greatest modern proponents of Aryan Migration theory, Michael witzel remarks–
A prominent feature of Indo-Iranian religion is the emergence, probably in the Ural area, of a group of gods of law knows as Asuras
Like Michael Witzel, most if not all western scholarly proponents of modern Aryan Migration Theory place the Asuras in Urals of Eurasian steppe. The JNUWallahs who still insist Asuras were ‘Aborignal tribes’ are banking on 200 year old outdated colonial versions of ‘Aryan Invasion theory’ to suit their agenda. They are totally out of sync with its modern version. That they are clueless could be gauged from the fact they refer to Durga as a ‘fair skinned goddess’. In Hindu mythology, Durga was considered to be dark and she for this reason was once teased by Shiva. However, realistic depictions of Durga range from Gowri(=white) to Kali(=black) and most Hindu gods are not confined to any complexion
The correspondence between Vedic Asura and Germanic ‘Aesir’ has been accepted . Asuras were legendary beings of Indo-Iranian mythology and Iranian Ahura is cognate to vedic Asura. It is clearly that Asuras were gods of Aryans themselves even according to the Aryan invasion/migration theory
The word ‘Asura’ was a vedic homonym. Thus, asura(=lord) and asura(=demon) denoted two contrasting words with identical pronunciation. Another vedic homonymn was the word ‘Arya’. Sanskrit had Arya(=friend) and Ari(=enemy). The vedic homonymns were lost in classical Sanskrit only the latter was preserved in first case. Similarly Vedic rajas(=space) was abandoned for rajas(=dirt) This has given way to the whole confusion. Statements such as ‘Asuras were demonised later’ are wrong. The evolution was wrought by linguistic, not religious change. Although many gods were designated as ‘Asura’ in Rigveda, Mitra-Varuna are prominent. These deities have not been demonised. Infact, traditional srauta brahmins chant praises of these deities during sandhya ritual. The most prominent god of sindhis, Jhulelal is considered to be an incarnation of varuna.
In Puranic literature, some of the Asuras were commended for their qualities. Notable are Prahrada/Prahlada, Bali and Ghatotkacha. Some of these Asuras were venerated in regions of subcontinent with sthala-purana like tales. Thus, the veneration of Bali in Kerala during Onam does not presuppose existence of anti-vishnu animus. Infact, the malayalis who celebrate Onam also pray to Vishnu. Some JNUWallahs consider this a fault line and intend to exploit it. It could be expected that they would tone up this rhetoric in the near future
1. Rigveda 220.127.116.11
2.Kurzgefasstes Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen(1976)
3.’The Asur:A study of primitive Iron smelters'(1963) P.37
8. Asurs and their dancers (Joseph Marianus kujur 1996)
9.’The Asur:A study of primitive Iron smelters'(1963) P.144
11. Ibid p.130
13. Ibid p.142
14. Ibid p.132;Musical Culture of the Munda Tribe(2004)
16. Adigranth P.1104
18.Linguistic evidence for cultural exchange in pre historic Central Asia(2003)
19. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2000)