Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

September 10, 2023

First published August 27, 2023

 in Mid-Day

Dalit Mythology

In 1873, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule wrote a book in Marathi that shook the foundations of Hindu society. It was called Ghulamgiri, or slavery. It treated mythology as proto-history, as was the trend in the 19th century, and argued how the story of devas (gods) conquering asuras (demons) is actually the story of Aryans arriving in India and overpowering local communities. This led to the establishment of the caste system—with the Brahmins, who were Aryan invaders, establishing themselves as purer and superior and the locals being reduced to impure Shudra slaves.

The book begins with mocking the irrational idea of a lotus-born four-headed Brahma as the origin of all creatures on earth, his pure mouth giving rise to the Brahmins and his feet giving rise to impure Shudras.

It then proceeds to argue that the Matsya (fish) avatar of Vishnu, is really code for fish-shaped boats used by Aryans to travel from Iran to India. He conquered local asuras, led by Shankha (conch). Later Dalit scholars argue that asura means farmers, (asu = life, ra = giver) and not enemies of sura-drinking gods, as proposed by Brahmin scholars.

Later, conquerors came in larger boats that moved slowly and so came to be known as turtles, which inspired the tale of Kashyapa-muni, the turtle-patriarch. They fought local kshatriyas who had their back to the hills, which inspired the story of the turtle Kurma carrying the mountain on his back. Kshatriyas, the book argues, come from people who fought for the land (kshetra) and carried weapons (kshastra).

They were local people who were enslaved by Dwija, which does not mean twice-born, as Brahmins argue, but those descending from the second (dwi) group, ie the other group.

The local kshatriya kings, Hiranayaksha and Hiranakashapu, contemptuously referred to their conqueror as Varaha, or pig, and the name stuck. Hiranakashapu’s Prahalad was tricked and indoctrinated into the Aryan ways by an Aryan king who liked to wear lion skin (Narasimha), and so he opposed his father. As the book proceeds, we see how Vaman and Parashuram used trickery and violence to establish Brahmin hegemony in India, defeating Asura kings like Bali and Bana.

Long before the Brahmins came, says the book, the land was controlled by local administrators who were crushed by Aryans like Vaman and Parashuram. For example, Khandoba, deity of Jejuri, retains memory of a leader of the unit known as khanda. He would hit (mar) enemies on the face (tond) rather than on their back, hence came to be known as Martand. He was the enemy (ari) of wayward strongmen or wrestlers (mall) hence, called Malhari. He even composed the music melody called Malhar. Mhasoba, worshipped in fields even today, comes from Maha-suba, or revenue collector of Bali-raja. These were original Indian gods, before the arrival of Brahmin gods.

Are these stories true? They are as true as Brahmins writing books to establish Shiva as a hero-saviour of Indus/Harappan cities, casually renamed as Saraswati cities. They are as true as social media videos of cultural organisations insisting, despite not a shred of evidence, that Aryans migrated out of India to Europe. They are as true as gurujis proclaiming that Egyptian pharaoh Rameses was named after Ram.

Why should one privilege Brahmin fantasy over Dalit fantasy? We need to read both to appreciate the mythology beneath the mythological fiction. Imagined histories are a powerful tool of politicians, amongst those who want to establish ghulamgiri and those who will not submit to ghulamgiri.

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