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.



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)


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?

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20 Responses to “Should gods, goddesses have caste identities?”

  1. Jagadish Says:

    Sigh. Only in India.
    I bet even if Jesus or Buddha walks here today, he will be sucked into this nonsense and used as a pawn by our political powers.

  2. Kumar Says:

    Whose caste are you talking about – Durga’s caste or Mashishasura’s caste?

    I have never come across any religious text that talks about the caste of Durga or Shiva or Vishnu or Brahma or Ganesha or any other god.

    If you are talking about Rama and Krishna, they are not mythological gods. They are true characters based on history – Ramayan and Mahabharat are our history. So, if caste is part of our society, then historical characters also will have castes.

    Castes as such are not a problem. Caste is natural and that cannot be removed. There are different breeds of horses, there are different species of plants – all these can be called as different castes. Caste is nothing but variety.

    But, castiesm is bad and unwanted. Untouchability in the name of caste is bad and should be removed.

    Portraying Mahishasura has a god of backward castes is the handiwork of people who want to keep the society divided. They are anti-nationals and should be dealt by law.

  3. twistleton Says:

    To be or ot to be, that is the question.

    If the author is okay about people worshipping their own gods, what’s all the fuss about?

    Of course,subaltern mythology may not quite be the same as TV mythology. :D

  4. karihaida Says:

    Nice idea… Great work by JNU.

  5. Vasu Says:

    Regarding the 300 ramayanas, the johlawalahs in JNU and DU make a big issue of giving equal accordance to various versions of the ramayana. The essential thing to note here is the strategy of these leftists to denigrate Valmiki ramayana and accord it a lower status. They have clearly diverted sane opposiing voices from the real Sanskrit scholars and india experts who are concerned not about how gods and goddess are portrayed but rather understanding the literary and cultural merit of ramayana.
    Apart from Valmiki’s ramayan,it is Tulasidas’s Ramcharitmanas and Kamban’s Ramayana which are very popular,large and epical. Here again Valmiki’s version scores over them as it precedes them and Tulsi and Kamaba themselves have acknowledged the preemeinance of Valmiki. These three epics can be accorded a literary classic status. The rest are folk oral narratives and minor cultural variations. Which is quite normal and understandable given the huge influence and pervalance of Ramayana in indian and south east asian culture.
    The so called Buddhist Ramayana is just about two pages. I am talking about the

    original one titled Dasharatha Jataka. How can that be compared to the complaex and intricate 25000+ verse long Ramayana of Valmiki composed in the impecabble Anushtup Sanskrit Metre. This is similar to saying Shakspere studies should include a must watch of ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat’ as it is the same story of romoe and juliet or ‘Nanjundi Kalyana’ to be included in university syllabus while studying ‘Taming of the Shrew’.
    What is crystal clear in all these is the machinations of ’eminent’ indologists and historians to denigrate indian cultural traditions and bring even the classics down to the level of minor oral narratives. They stand exposed.

  6. adu haagene Says:

    I see this as a malicious attempt and is a combined effort of missionaries, maulvis and the pseudos (and Govt – headed by SG, sponsored) in dividing the Hindus further and achieving their mission.

  7. Vasu Says:

    I want to ask the Delhi university clowns as to why Dalits are protesting against the burning of Ravana effigies. Ravana was a brahmin of Pulastya gotra. Rama the kshatriya addressed him as Mahabrahmana and even did an Ashwamedha Yajna to atone for killing a Brahmin. If somebody were burning effigies of Shambuka and Ekalvya or Shabari or Guha, we can understand.

  8. the colonel Says:

    I see this as a malicious attempt and is a combined effort of missionaries, maulvis and the pseudos (and Govt – headed by SG, sponsored) in dividing the Hindus further and achieving their mission.

    Really?? as real as the steam engines of the railways needing the blood of babies (small pox vacination).

    I want to ask the Delhi university clowns as to why Dalits are protesting against the burning of Ravana effigies. Ravana was a brahmin of Pulastya gotra. Rama the kshatriya addressed him as Mahabrahmana and even did an Ashwamedha Yajna to atone for killing a Brahmin. If somebody were burning effigies of Shambuka and Ekalvya or Shabari or Guha, we can understand.I see this as a malicious attempt and is a combined effort of missionaries, maulvis and the pseudos (and Govt – headed by SG, sponsored) in dividing the Hindus further and achieving their mission.

    Clowns!!!! Laugh Man.

    All the above shenigans are just shenigans.

    Get A Life.

  9. Sankaran Says:

    When dravidian movement was in its peak, Periyar and his wife use to preach “RavaNayaNa” to tamil people i.e, hate rama and worship ravaNa. They even went one step ahead and burnt Rama, Laskhman and Sitha on the Vijadasami day. Still today hardcore Dravidar Kazhagam party preaches against hinduism.

    There is one more divide in this nation, Lord Perumal(Vishnu) and Asuras. Most of the south indian so called intellectuals will address Perumal as cunning and backstabber since Lord Perumal killed many demons. Indirectly these intellectuals pointing out that Asuras or demons represents lower caste indians and lord Perumal always bless upper caste brahmins. We can see this difference even today in TN.

    So another intellectual who hates hinduism is behind this Mahisasura day in JNU. Even mysore has quite number of intellectuals, any chance do mysoreans has this auspicious day in an year?

  10. vikram Says:

    whatever may be the reason burning an effigy of person and celebrating a festival is the most uncivilized culture we Hindus following all through these days. see how it is reflecting back to Indian mindset, hurling shoe at a person, blackening some ones face, street judgement etc etc.
    one great philosophizer told if u really burn something for sacrifice burn the egoistic mindset. stop believing in self, think there is nothing called self. everything and every phenomena are interconnected. if u realize this, then all the illusion of caste, religion,language, country will vanish

  11. Nastika Says:

    Well now after 1000+ years, caste-ism is firmly embedded in the sub-conscious mind. The secret aspirations of the unconscious mind have to be brought out in open & discussed threadbase, before we have a rational outlook in the society.

    Till then questions will be raised in search of truth & logic.

    PS: What I mean is, for instance, people have to *quantify* why Rama is better than Ravana, not just blindly say Rama is good.


  12. Gaampa Says:

    These guys are headline grabbers. Thats all. Media too wants a story (albeit a controversial one). And hence this seeming controversy.

    There existed only one Ramayana penned by Valmiki (as acknowledged by all later Ramayana writers). How can they improvise the original version centuries later? Its mind boggling.

    Ramayana and Mahabharata have been treated as “itihAsa” by scholars. All other texts are kAvyas or puraNas.

    Bringing caste out of one’s personal space is wrong.

    Today’s world has only one caste – the moneyed one and the non moneyed one.

    yasyAsti vittam sa naraha kuleenaha
    sa panditaha, sa gunavaan
    sa Eva vakta sa cha darshanIyaha
    sarvE gunAh kAnchanamAshrayanti

    One who has money – he (automatically) hails from best caste, he is a scholar, he has abundant good qualities, He alone is the speaker (a guy who speaks well), He is most handsome.
    All qualities take refuge in money.

    Ain’t this true jack???

  13. Gokulam 3rd Stage Says:

    The Ridiculous Times

    In related news, feminists are protesting against the demotion of Durga/Chamundi as a goddess and the elevation of the known MCP Mahishasura as a god by other MCPs who happen to be studying in JNU.

  14. vikram Says:

    Oh come on sir, why are u so confused with itihasa, purana etc etc.
    History is just another illusion which has got reality value only in the history. Future will be reality only in the future. as of now present is the only reality. Face it.

    History or Myth both are same if u view at present context.
    And If u ask what is the connection between history(past) and present and future, why should one know them, it just to understand the Cause and Effect principle of the nature. Take the effect from ur past history which is the cause for that one and rationally analyze, experience it and preach others for their benefit.

    As of the worshiping is concerned, there is not much difference between worshipping devas or worshiping demons. both doing the same activity of “WORSHIPING” some celebrities. hence both belongs to same category by there action!!. Are u not telling both are publicity seekers here??…(:(:

  15. uttama Says:

    The dushyasanas and duryodhana of rape capital are good for Maa Behan and Savita Bhabhis.

    Blasphemy anthe. Do they know what is blasphemy. A terrible insult to Kannadiga and Mysureans. If it happened to Tamils they would have taken to SC. We are just silent.

    Write a story with Maa Behan in hindi and they will surely accept it. but they can’t think for ravana because they can’t think beyond what they have been celebrating for ages now.

    infact 3 out of 4 of bench in SC agreed for inclusion but academy excluded it.

  16. kaangeya Says:

    Considering Durga drinks blood and walks around in the form of mundamalini or with a garland of skulls, she is female half of the formless and ultimate one, whose male half is Shiva. And Shiva you know is bhotnath, resident of the crematorium, who is pale because he is smeared with the ash of funeral pyres, who uses skulls for crockery and eats anything, fish, flesh, fowl and even refuse. Shiva and Durga are beyond all distinctions of jati. So few know that the Blue Kali Puja in the traditional Eastern Indian tradition is performed at the smashan ghat beginning at midnight and ending at sunrise, after which prasad cooked t the ghat is served to one and all present. The JNU students as usual are ignorant and making asses of themselves.

  17. voyeur Says:

    Excuse me but isn’t RavaNa a Bramhin?

  18. raj Says:

    I used to wonder during my childhod about many gods and goddesses while studying in books. (we have villages famous for a particular god or goddesses). thanks to my parents and teachers , i learnt all the gods and goddesses represent the same basic principles of humanity, peace, love, respect. Hate will always be self destructing.

  19. Brahmanyan Says:

    When God and Goddess are identified with humans then all attributes of human form are also will be found.

    Ravana – According to legends Ravana was a Brahmin, He was a direct descendant of Lord Brahma and Brahmin by birth. His father was the great Sage Vishravas who was the son of Maharishi Pulastya Prajapathi (one of the mind born Saptarishis) and the grandson of none other than Lord Brahma himself. Sage Agasthya Muni was the brother of Sage Vishravas and Ravana’s uncle.

  20. harihara Says:

    It is surprising that the author, who must have been soaked in durgasaptashati, has failed to understand the symbolic and philosophical purport of mahisha purana. Mahisha reprsents NOt some huge mass of flesh but represents the ahankara evil in ourselves which our consolidated widdom repped by durga overcomes. it is easy for anyone to ridicule puranas – udaranimittam

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