There’s currently a rather loud contratemps going on in the online Hindusphere over an (Indian) art-film creator’s attempt to co-opt Kali.
Now, by this I do not really mean the initial photograph which caused all the furore – but rather, the artist’s (Leena Manimekalai) frankly bizarre claims in reply to criticism she’d received for how she’d chosen to portray Kali.
You can find one of the more egregious comments in the cap below.
Here is what is going on here. Her “riposte” works thusly:
“X element is ‘Tribal’ – therefore I can say / do whatever I want, no objections allowed from Hindus”.
Kali is a Hindu Goddess. Very much part of the “Brahmanical Hindu Religion”.
The major swathe of origination to Her is Indo-European. Same Devi as Greek Demeter Erinyes / Demeter Melaina , Nordic Skaði , etc. –
That is to say, the Goddess, the Wife of the Sky Father, in a truly terrifying, furious Black-visaged facing that upholds Cosmic Order as Its incarnate Ultimate Sanction.
We have covered an array of more specific concordancies at quite some length in our previous work, and so shall not repeat that here.
The idea of Kali being a ‘non-Hindu’, ‘non-Arya’ ‘tribal’ or ‘Dravidian’ deific – a ‘foreign’ figure incorporated – is, ironically, a colonial era trope.
It’s built on decidedly outmoded perspectives upon what Indo-European or ‘Arya’ religion ‘should’ look like.
Basically – that prominent Goddess worship has to be non-IE, has to be something coming from a subjugated people. Never mind that the Goddess Herself is Victory !
Never mind how strongly concordant the mythologies of disparate IE groups are – showing common heritage here.
And which would be singularly unlikely to have been arrived at through an ‘absorb non-IE beliefs where particular IE groups eventually wound up’ approach, because that would require a similarly diverse array of non-IE peoples to all have remarkably, identifiably coterminous deific figure(s) to mysteriously all wind up becoming thusly assimilated. Something which, to be sure, some have occasionally attempted to propose.
Let me show you some of the “reasoning” we find in academia upon this subject. This is from a journal article (by an Indian author) that claims Kali’s origin is “Dravidian”
By which they mean “Mediterranean”.
Because this is some seriously old-timey ‘racial’ perspective.
That’s how all of this works – “oh, ‘Mediterranean’ [or whatever] agriculture … Matriarchal culture means they must have had an Earth Mother that was dominant divinity”
Here’s another one – also Indian author ; and again we find this ‘Dravidians’ migrating from Mediterranean, being ‘Matriarchal’, and having a Great Mother Goddess
Now why am I posting caps from Indian authors about this when I could be digging up ‘old white men’ .. ?
Because I want to make a point. When one of them ‘old white men’ academics said this kind of stuff a hundred, 150 years ago .. people today look at it and go “that’s clearly outdated and/or probably colonial narrative and/or racist” (some of these more or less so than others)
Yet the modern continuations of these beliefs, resting on about as much evidence, get trotted out uncritically by various voices that are usually quite up-in-arms about ‘pale, male, & stale’ viewpoints that should have been overturned decades ago.
Because it’s useful. Because it’s a story – a story that it serves various perspectives to want to believe.
You can see it right there in Manimekalai’s quote –
She says that because Kali is somehow not a Hindu deity and is “foreign” to “Brahmanical Hindu Religion”, that means that millions of Indian Hindus have no ‘claim’ to Kali, cannot be offended by anybody potentially misusing the image and name etc.
I wonder if she’s gone and asked the Tribals she’s invoked how they feel about the way she’s deployed the divine visage in question. Or whether she thinks only they can object to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s portrayal of Kali (and not Hindus in general)
There is a bitter irony inherent in me, given my racial background, observing that there is a “Colonial” perspective going on here. And yet that is exactly what this is. I do not simply mean in the sense of well-outdated Euro/American anthropology tropes being deployed either.
If we look at the Goddess-complex that is Kali – this is irrefutably a Hindu one. Whether there were Tribal ‘inputs’ does not somehow change that. For centuries upon centuries , Kali has been a well attested Hindu Goddess. Worshipped in Sanskrit, even. With a Sanskrit theonym !
It takes a remarkable sort of arrogance to come in in 21st century and try and entirely artificially ‘chisel’ Her out of the Hindu Faith, Scriptural Canon & Legendarium, Temples, Households, History in such a manner.
And forcing this retroactively across hundreds of years.
I said that it reminded me of a ‘colonial’ effort because it did – an appropriative one. The ‘cultural capital’ that Manimekalai’s photograph draws from is indelibly Hindu.
Both in terms of the literal iconographic presentation she has chosen so we can recognize ‘her’ Kali –
But also in terms of, as I say, the substantive religious complex around Kali that means that we actually know Whom she is speaking of in the first place.
Whether she likes it or not, Manimekalai’s work stands upon the Devi Mahatmyam and other Hindu texts.
And I say “stands upon” our texts rather deliberately.
Personally, I think intent matters. We can have quite a broad array of sometimes unconventional artistic presentations of our Gods – and provided that purpose is devotional and sincere, there is broad latitude for tolerance.
And sometimes, the people wishing to police artistic portrayals of Gods can be very misinformed, too.
For eg – that idiot who tried to threaten me with prosecution & imprisonment under s295A for a depiction we had posted: & was complaining about entirely scriptural elements
So what was Manimekalai’s intent, then? Well, let her tell us.
“I embodied her and chose to walk across the streets of downtown Toronto, the land of immigrants, to understand settler colonialism.”
To go wandering in Toronto in fancy dress “to understand settler colonialism”.
Given she’s foreign to Canada and its First Nations, question I would ask is – did she view herself as part of that phenomenon ?
Part of the ethos behind that slogan of “my culture is not your costume” is that taking often sacred identity-elements and reducing these down to fancy dress .. decontextualizes them. Co-opts them, disregards the ‘essence’, and changes these in the process through repetition.
Manimekalai is, apparently, an atheist – her purpose with all of this isn’t a religious one (although an anti-religious one .. it might be). It’s an ‘individuation’ one.
That, she seems to think, is a large part of the ‘point’ of religion, citing Ambedkar.
For what it is worth, I definitely think there is space for people to have individual engagement with, experiences informed or infused by, and indeed ‘patterning of their personhood’ upon, deific figures.
“We become more like That Which we meditate upon”, indeed.
Yet there is a fundamental – even foundational – point of difference between seeking to, say, emulate a Deity …
… and just casually putting on a costume that may so happen to look like one.
One of these has a God at the center – other has ’emptiness’ and then ‘yourself’.