Mahashivratri: The Lost History of Mahakaal, the Shiva of Asansol
Devotees of Mahakaal were a feared group in Asansol, back in the day when he was identified as a Buddhist deity.
Shiva is known by, as well as for, his many names. One of them is Mahakaal – one who is beyond time and death. This Shivratri, when lakhs are holding night-long jagrans and performing elaborate rituals to discover the essence(s) of Shiva in their own selves, I bring you a story that is beyond time and death.
It features Mahakaal and his devotees, their holy wars and riots, and the erasures of history, and is rooted in my hometown Asansol, in West Bengal.
Shiva as Super Aggregator
In the ancient times, Shiva was a folk god. He was not one, but many – meaning innumerable communities worshipped gods that had attributes similar to Shiva. These gods lorded over men and animals, and were associated with death, fertility and warrior cults, worship of bulls and serpents, and magical cures, among others.
The gods had different names. He was Sivan, Chempu and Sembu in Dravidian traditions, Sibu for tribals in Punjab. The devotees of these folk-Shivas were spread across India, from the snowy mountainous regions to river banks to snake infested plains.
The Vedic people, who settled in northwestern India, abhorred these folk Shivas and their devotees. The earliest of their scriptural texts, the Rig Veda, has no mention of a god called Shiva.
Yet, the same Vedic people were interested in extending their religion, Brahmanism, and Shiva emerged as an important character in this conquest.
The Brahminical elite built on Rudra, a minor god in the Rig Veda, in later Vedas. They transformed him into Shiva, and gave him innumerable names and attributes in the Upanishads, so he could account for the varied attributes and ways of worship of folk gods.
Alongside this scriptural assimilation of folk gods in the figure of Shiva, the elite accommodated devotees of the gods in the emerging chaturvarna (four-fold varna) social structure as Sudras and Ati-sudras.
Although Shiva became part of the all powerful Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwar trinity in Hinduism in subsequent periods, his devotees remained resigned to a life with little material wealth and social status compared to elite Brahmins and Ksatriyas.
Neglected by History
Asansol is West Bengal’s second largest city, as also my hometown. Originally built as an important railway junction by the British, today it is home to two large steel plants and innumerable coal mines.
“It is hard to imagine that this area was thickly forested during the ancient period,” local historian Santiranjan Banerjee told me over a conversation last year.
His book on Asansol, titled Asansol Parikrama, mentions how the devotees of Mahakaal were a feared group then. This was during the Buddhist period, when Mahakaal was identified more closely as a Buddhist deity.
“Mahakaal devotees comprised a warrior cult who fended off attacks from bandit groups. These groups were mercenaries of local kings who wanted to bring the jungles and groups residing within them under their control. The devotees of Mahakaal, on the other hand, were the protectors of forest-dwelling groups,” Banerjee writes in Asansol Parikrama.
Yet, Banerjee’s book apart, few history books have any mention of these Mahakaal devotee warrior cults or their martyrdom for the sake of their people. “Conventional historians mostly base their work on textual evidence. But since education was proactively denied to lower caste groups (including the devotees of Mahakaal) across time, there is little textual account of their practices and exploits,” said Banerjee.
Riots and Religion
I met Banerjee in the weeks following Ram Navami in 2018, when Hindu-Muslim riots rocked my hometown, killing at least three people. His words struck me as particularly pithy, since I had befriended a group of young boys who called themselves ‘Mahakaal Group’.
They knew nothing about the Buddhist antecedents of their patron god, whom they identified as a fierce form of Shiva. They were resolutely Hindu, and swore on several occasions that they would go to any extent to protect their religion.
“Why, we taught them (the Muslims) a lesson this time,” they told me candidly. “For three days, we kept strict vigil along the borders. The Muslims did the same on their side of the rivulet that separates our neighbourhoods.
Each side would take turns to hurl petrol bombs and home-made explosives at the other every now and then. There would also be the occasional raid into enemy territory, where we set fire to homes or desecrated holy places,” they said, taking turns.
Most of the boys were in their teens. More fans of Mahakaal aka Shiva than devotees, they wore pendants and tattoos that emphasised their god’s hyper masculinity. Like Mahakaal followers of the yore, they found themselves at the bottom of socio-economic hierarchy.
Most were from OBC and SC families that had migrated from Bihar and Jharkhand to Asansol in search of better livelihood opportunities. Their parents worked in the informal sector for a pittance, vending goods and running makeshift stalls on trains, railway platforms and streets.
Most boys in the neighbourhood had dropped out of school, and whiled away their time smoking weed. The riot, for them, was a break from monotony. “During one of their raids into our neighbourhood, we captured one guy,” they triumphantly told me. The next morning, his mutilated body, with eyes gouged out, was discovered in the rivulet.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is at the forefront of organising lower caste groups and making resolute Hindus out of them across the country, much like in Asansol. Like the Brahminical elite, Shiva and his innumerable forms are of immense value to the Sangh. For, they are not merely gods, but means of extending the Sangh’s dominance over lower caste groups.
Even as organisations associated with the RSS give ever more prominence to popular gods like Shiva aka Mahakaal in their public programmes and literature, members of oppressed groups continue to die in religious conflicts. The boys of the Mahakaal group in Asansol, for instance, lost two of their relatives to the rioting in 2018.
This forces us to ask: Why is it that they die in riots, and not rich, upper caste elites? Why is it that the oppressed groups continue to subsist on the leftovers of development, while those who claim Hinduism promises equality corner all the power and wealth? Has anything really changed for the devotees of Mahakaal even as forests have given way to sprawling cities?
(The writer is an independent journalist and researcher, and currently teaches at a college in Bengaluru. He can be reached at @b_aritra on Twitter and Instagram. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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