Publsihed in Speaking Tree, Times of India on October 09,2010
Every year when images of Durga impaling the Asura, Mahisha, appears on television, I hear the anchor of the show saying, “This is the eternal battle when good wins over evil.” I have been hearing this for decades in every English television channel. But then I wonder, can the word ‘evil’ be translated in Hindi or, for that matter, any Indian language?
I pose this question to many people. The answer I get is, “Of course, we can.” Then there is a long pause. Then I am offered a whole bouquet of words. They mean wicked and bad and vulgar and improper and inappropriate, but not evil.
People assume that evil is a universal concept. But it is not. It is a cultural concept. A word that is found only in cultures that believes in one life — for example, Christianity or Islam. Evil means the absence of God. In Hinduism, as Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita states, everything that exists is God and so nothing can be devoid of divinity and so there is no room for the concept of evil. Evil also means negative actions that have no cause. Since Hindus believe in rebirth, a negative event can be attributed to karma, hence always has a cause, and so can never be evil.
This is the reason why Bollywood producers are unable to copy Hollywood horror films based on Vampires and Exorcism. The latter are firmly rooted in the assumption of evil, an idea that is alien to Indian, especially Hindu thought. Unfortunately, due to spread of Western education and lack of deep knowledge of translators, this categorical error is widespread.
So who is Mahisha, the buffalo demon? Is he a demon at all? For even demon is an English word. Asuras are a class of beings who populate the Hindu mythosphere just like the Manavas and the Devas. All three are children of Prajapati Kashyapa who is the son of Brahma. Asuras live under the earth in the city of Hiranyapura. Devas live above the sky in the city of Amravati. And Manavas, or children of Manu, those blessed with Manas, or imagination, live on earth.
The Devas and Asuras are bitter enemies. They keep fighting. The Devas have been given Amrita, the nectar of immortality, by Vishnu. So they cannot be killed. The Asuras have the Sanjivani Vidya, thanks to the blessings of Shiva granted to Shukra, their guru. Sanjivani Vidya enables Shukra to resurrect dead Asuras, and so they have even conquered death.
That is why the Puranas are full of stories that begin with the triumph of the Asuras over the Devas and end with the triumph of the Devas over the Asuras. The Devas succeed either on their own or with the help of God. God takes various forms to help the Devas. In Shiva Purana, Shiva helps the Devas defeat the Asura, Andhaka. In Vishnu Purana, Vishnu helps the Devas defeat the Asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha. In the Skanda Purana, Shiva’s son, Kartikeya defeats the Asura, Taraka. In the Devi Purana, Devi helps the Devas defeat the Asura, Mahisha. Clearly, the Asuras can never be defeated. They come back again and again, every year, like the rains, like the seasons.
So maybe the death of the Asura, Mahisha, by Durga during Dassera is not a moral or ethical one. It is rather a reflection of the earth’s fertility cycle that ends with harvest post monsoons. Thanks to Sanjivani Vidya, the earth will be regenerated and the Asura will rise up again next year, ready to killed, ensuring we always have food on the table.