The name Narakasura is a combination of the terms Naraka and asura.
Fifty Shades of Mythology
Devas (suras) and Asuras are mythological beings in Hindu lore. They are usually loosely translated as Gods (suras/devas) and Demons (Asuras). This is an over simplification. The word demon has a negative connotation. It typically signifies evil. Asuras were indeed locked into a constant and misguided battle for power with the devas (suras). But asuras could be benevolent or malevolent. Even the devas (suras) sometimes acted malevolently. Which is why A better way to view them as is Gods (suras/devas) and Titans/Demigods (asuras). After all, devas (suras) and asuras share the same father, Sage Kashyap.
Hindu mythology is complicated. Devas (sura) such as Agni and Varuna are classified as asuras in many texts. Rudra an ancient Vedic version of Lord Shiva is referred to as an asura in the Rig Veda. Most Hindu kids are surprised to discover that supervillains of childhood mythological tales like Ravana are not all that evil. Ravana was a pious devotee of Shiva and an excellent ruler. His subjects thrived under his rule so much that he is worshipped like a God in many parts. Then we are all left to scratch our head wondering why Vishnu’s Vamana avatar had to destroy the beloved king Mahabali. No wonder there is a festival Onam to celebrate his annual return to earth and not his slaying. Hinduism as a religion is fifty shades of gray and then some.
The Slaying of Narakasura
Coming back to Narakasura or King Naraka as he once was. There are many variations on the birth of Naraka. In some accounts, he is the son of Bhudevi (mother earth) and the Varaha avatar of Vishnu. In other accounts, he is the son of Bhudevi (mother earth) and the asura Hirankashya.
Despite his murky origins, the rest of his legend follows the same narrative. There are some regional embellishments and altered details. The essence remains. The once pious Naraka becomes corrupted by lust and power. He begins to kidnap women he lusts for and wages battles against the devas (suras). It is when he turns evil that he becomes known as Narakasura rather Naraka.
One day Narakasura is enamored by the glittering earrings of Aditi (the mother of devas) and snatches it from her ears. Enraged by this outrage against the holy mother, the Krishna avatar of Lord Vishnu goes to war against Narakasura. After the two armies collide, Krishna and Narakasura go one on one against each other. Krishna slays Narakasura with his Sudarshana chakra (discus).
Narakachaturdashi, one of the five days of Diwali is to commemorate the slaying of Narakasura by Krishna. It is explained that the fireworks and celebrations mark the triumph of good over evil. With Hinduism being as complex as it is, the explanation does not cover the full story. On his deathbed, Narakasura repents his sins and requests a boon of his mother Bhudevi (mother earth). He wishes that people light colorful lamps to commemorate his death. So we celebrate both the triumph of good over evil as well as fulfill the dying wishes of a repentant sinner.
The Paper Narakasura
In Goa, the celebration of Narakachaturdashi is quite a spectacle. Local villages build enormous and elaborate paper Narakasuras. Then there is a massive procession with music, fireworks, and dancing to determine who has the best effigy. After a night long celebration, the effigies are burned in the wee hours of dawn.
I was a teenager when I went to the municipal gardens in Madgaon, Goa to watch the Narakachaturdashi procession with my aunt and cousins. It was my first Narakachaturdashi in Goa. My cousins and I watched with rapt attention. We were enchanted by the spectacular ceremony of it all. We chanted “hossai, hossai” with the crowd and danced in our spots.
Next morning when we woke up, the energy from the night before was still coursing in our blood. Watching the procession was not enough. We felt the urge to build our own Narakasura and set it on fire. So after breakfast, we set to work. After some planning and fussing our Narakasura was ready. As my aunt was getting ready to make lunch I went into the kitchen and asked her for matches to burn our Narakasura.
We went out into the musty hallway of the apartment complex. We went into a dark corner away from foot traffic. We formed a circle around the effigy. I lit the match and set our Narakasura on fire. Then we danced around our burning Narakasura like we were possessed. We made such a loud fuss in celebration that my aunt came rushing from the kitchen eager to see the Narakasura that we kids had made.
She took one glance at the limp piece of burning paper on the floor and was immediately crestfallen.
“Is that your Narakasura?” she asked with disdain
It was indeed the lamest effigy of Narakasura ever made. We had drawn and colored a Narakasura on paper and then carefully cut out the outline. We did not care it was lame. We made it with our own hands. We were burning it in our own symbolic ritual ceremony. We were high with joy and nothing could bring us down.
The True Meaning of our Celebration
Diwali is a month away. Then why am I bringing this story now? Well, Ganesh Chaturthi was a couple weeks ago. I was heartbroken by the images of Juhi beach littered with washed up idols. Our Hindu festivals that were once upon a time to means to bring people together and spread joy have become a public nuisance.
The obnoxious processions of Ganesh Chaturthi were the last thing a rain soaked Bombay needed. Even without the rains, the festival has become a logistical nightmare. Citizens are sleepless and distressed at the perpetual noise and festivities. After the festival, the streets and beaches of Bombay are choked with litter. Thousands of taxpayer rupees are spent in traffic direction and cleanup. Aquatic ecosystems are disturbed with the idol visarjan and many aquatic creatures do die in the aftermath.
I understand why people hold onto these festivals and rituals dearly. It is not merely about religious freedom and expression. These festivals and rituals are actually woven into the very fabric of our existence. They have a deep social and cultural significance that cannot be expressed in words. I have experienced it myself, we would be incomplete without these celebrations.
At the same time, I know that the purest connection I felt to my heritage, culture, and religion was when I was burning that lame paper Narakasura. There was unbridled happiness that I have never felt as a part of elaborate rituals. It evoked faith that was deep within.
There was something special about us cousins coming together and creating our paper Narakasura. A couple days before we were choking each other with the Nintendo controllers arguing over whose turn it was to play Super Mario. We set aside our differences and came together to construct this Narakasura. We did it without a single disagreement.
In essence is that not what these festivals and rituals are supposed to be about? Setting aside differences to come together as a community. To share and celebrate our faith and culture. When you come together to celebrate something, the pomp and splendor do not matter. In fact, when you get lost in one upmanship and ceremony, you lose the true meaning.
It is about time we stopped taking the questioning of these rituals as an attack on our Hindu faith. Take a step back to understand what is at the true essence of this elaborate ritual. Strip away the excess and stick to the true core. Come together as a community and keep it simple. Take care of each other and the environment.
Trust me, if this was an Amar Chitra Katha comic, the paper Narakasura would have won.