Metamorphism in the meaning purported by some of the heritage words by attribution of negative characters by their cultural opponents during the evolutionary course of time makes an interesting study in the context of sociological evolution of our terrain.
We get an impression that in the course of tribal immigrations in our land, every new tribe that occupied the land considered itself superior and treated the preexisting one as subordinate and back ward.
We shall discuss in this post some of the tribal names like Neecha, Rāka (Rakshasa), Asura, Mansa etc and how their essential connotations drastically changed with advent and ascent of fresh waves of immigration followed by socio-cultural domination in the land.
In many of the Tulu households, during special festive dinner occasions, it is customary before the commencement of dinner to earmark and serve and set aside a representative portion of the food reverently for a number of ancestral Spirits. One of these ancestral Spirits is called Neecha. The exact identity, origin and antiquity of the Spirit Neecha is rather obscure.
Some opine that a person named Neecha was the attendant of the Spirit popularly known as Babbu or Babbuswamy. This Neecha, the attendant, could not have been the object of utmost respect reserved for Neecha in Tulu households (and to whom first portion of the premium food is dedicated). In general, it can be inferred that the Neecha was the name of a prominent and virtuous tribal person who was quite reverent to Tulu people traditionally since ages.
However, the interesting twist in the story is that the personal name Neecha has lost its original meaning (whatsoever, we are ignorant of the original meaning of the word) and acquired a meaning of inferiority with passage of time. The term neeche in Prakrit, Marati and Hindi acquired the meaning of lower or inferior. Similarly, in Sanskrit neecha refers to a person of inferior demeanor. Even though the original meaning of the word neecha in the tribal language is not known now, it could not have been something like inferior because nobody would like to affix such negative names to their children. However, the term later in the history was employed to refer to persons of shady or unfaithful character reflecting the attitude of superiority of the so called cultured invaders towards the native tribes in those days.
Rāka, Rāhu, Rākshas
In our scriptures the Rakshas are considered to be a tribe of cannibals, even though the exact identity and distribution of the tribe is not traceable at present.
In this context note that Rāka is an ancient name of tribal origin probably that meant dark or darkness. The original tribal name Rāka or Rāku probably represented the dark skin color of the person or tribe. For example, Honna and Rāka were two valiant brothers who are still being worshipped after their death in Ankola region in Uttara Kannada (like Koti-Chennaya of Tulunadu).
The modern proper name Rākesh, is based on the ancient tribal name of Rāka and has survived even today and it is said to represent the Moon or the God of darkness.
It seems the name Rāhu was a variant of the name Rāka or Rāku. The name Rāhu has been designated for a planet in Indian Astrology and also it is apparent that the name Rāhul has been derived from the same source.
However, it can be seen that the tribe of Rakas or the Rakshas were visualized and considered as cruel, despicable and ugly demons in our scriptures and epics. Probably this sort of visualization arose from the cannibalistic character of these early primitive tribes.
Asura is the name of a tribal group among Austro-Asiatic Munda tribes. The scriptures have envisaged Asuras essentially as villainous militant groups that ever clashed with the divine Sura or Deva groups (white skinned immigrants?). King Bali, for example was an Asura King with noble virtues and his subjects loved him deeply for his exemplary humaniatrian qualities. On the contrary scriptures narrate conflicts between Asuras and Devas and describe how the King Bali was subjugated by Lord Vishnu in disguise in the incarnation of midget Vāmana.
However, note that in Tulunadu and many parts of Southern India people celebrate the festival of lights, Deepavali, in honor of the dethroned Asura King Bali who is said to return to the earth once in a year to meet his beloved subjects.