I remember a time, not so long ago, when my very Bengali brahmin family would travel outside Bengal. The visits would include religious places. Their attitude towards these places was clear – these were divine all right, but it was clearly understood within the family that these places were not ‘ours’. Sometimes such places invoked awe due to size, sometimes due to the volume of the crowds.
‘Our’ gods lay elsewhere. Among the creepers and water-bodies of a small village in the Hooghly district of Bengal, a particular mother goddess was omnipresent in the vocabulary of our family. They were in the form of a snake goddess who sat in a precarious perch near our Kolkata home, in a makeshift ‘temple’ between a bridge and a river. There was the lump-shaped Dharma Thakur, again of our village, who has steadfastly refused brahminic mediation to this day. My family has come to live intimately with their moods and powers, their vehemence and their limits. They are ‘our’ gods.
In the last couple of decades, certain sentences have been thrown at me multiple times – scenarios I would not have expected earlier. The foremost among these is one spoken with some incredulity and an equal measure of haughtiness – ‘ Hindi nahi aata?’. A new nation-state is evolving; a new consensus is being beaten out of the badlands of the subcontinent. Gods are not unaffected in this scheme of things.
It started innocuously for such things have always happened. Young people moving away from their hometowns to other cities. Unprecedented levels of rural devastation and concomitant ‘urbanization’ for those beyond the pale of growth figures. But there has been a briskness in this process, a fast disemboweling, that cannot go unnoticed. The gods watched their devotees thinning away, overgrown groves lost witnesses to their sacredness. The story is clearly more complex than this but we do have at hand now, a generation or two, who have grown up without a conception of faith and religion that only an intimate ecology of a non-atomized society can provide. What we have in its place are unprecedented levels of scripture-literacy, a forced forgetting of the naked sacred, and shame about the practices of one’s grandmother. In this new religious worldview, older ‘superstitions’ are avoided and even condemned, with a mishmash of scriptures and lifestyle demands of modern urban society forming the bedrock of ‘eternal values’. These stances have wide currency among the rootless urbanfolk who may be religious or irreligious, but are Siamese twins when it comes to being self-servingly contemptuous of the rustic and the fantastic.
In the amazing race to match cities like Riyadh and Kabul, famous for free-thinking, art and culture, Mumbai stole a march on Kolkata by threatening Maqbul Fida Hussain and disrupting the exhibition of his paintings of goddess Durga and Saraswati. Not to be culturally outdone, the so-called ‘cultural capital’ struck back by expelling Tasleema Nasreen, giving in to the threats by some angry Muslims. In a classic ‘one-two combo’, Kolkata followed up this act by successfully keeping Salman Rushdie out of its limits. Mumbai had actually hosted him – it had fallen back in the race. But recently it roared back in the race by despatching its best sons of the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti to the Jehangir Art Gallery to remove paintings of goddess Kali by Kolkata-based painter Eleena Banik. Game on.
But this is a dangerous game. For people of faith, it is important that gods and goddesses be taken back from the loudest and the most threatening. Rather it should be asked that in a plural society, how is anyone able to violently attack, threaten, issue death-threats and shut down other voices. The plurality of divine forms in the subcontinent does not originate from scriptures and strictures, but from the agency of humans, however negligible in number, to be able to own, disown, partially own and partially disown the divine. No definition of how gods and goddesses ought to be or ought not to be can be enforced by force in a civilized society. If a group thinks that they are the thikadars of divine beings, I feel it is important to remind them that I did not appoint them to such a post, as far as my gods and goddesses are concerned.
The Hindu Janjagruti Samiti’s targetting of mother goddess Kali has forced me to respond, especially because I am from a Bengali Shakto ( followers of the divine mother) family. Our ancestral worship of the divine mother goes back at least four hundred years. We take our Kali seriously. Till now, Bengali Shaktos have not had the need to look to any Hindus from Mumbai or elsewhere for its ‘jagruti’. We have been worshipping mother Kali before Mumbai got its first temple for Mumbadevi.
The saffron neophytes who forced Eleena to take down her paintings of goddess Kali did not approve of the fact that she had painted her without the garland of skulls. Her breasts were visible, because she has them. The mother goddess does not wear garlands to cover her breasts from the scandalized. She is both maternal and sexual. And if your like your goddess to have lesser qualities than my mother goddess, that is your problem. If you feel ashamed of my naked holy mother, that's your problem, not mine. Keep your shame to yourself. Dont come draping my mother with your cloth. Your mother may like being told by their devotee-sons what to wear. My holy mother has a divine mind of her own.
People have conceived goddess Kali variously in different times, in different places. For someone to dictate how my conception of the goddess ‘should’ look like is religious imperialism. While a monolithic Indian Union nation-state helps such pan-subcontinental ‘standards’ to gain wider currency, the goddess is older than the constitution. Those who take their definitions of shame from the sensibilities of the Victorian British have long been ill at ease with the naked glory of goddess Kali. They have tried to make make the garland an essential accessory, have made the garland-heads bigger, have made the goddess always have her hair in front of the shoulder spread out on her body – essentially every cheap trick in the book to cover her breasts. Breasts are sexually desirable. Breasts are also symbols of motherly love. If you have a problem with a sexually active, breast-feeding mother goddess, try a ‘nirgun’ god. Don’t come draping my goddess.
Sometimes we do not realize how recent some of our imaginations of gods and goddesses are. For example, many consider the blouse of the goddess to be a ‘sanatan’ item of clothing – just that it was virtually unknown in the subcontinent in that peculiar form before Empress Victoria’s reign. My holy mother is older than that. Maqbul Fida Hussain, that sterling admirer of goddess Durga, had liberated her form from the patently mid-19th century blouse clad look, re-imagining her in naked matriarchal glory. You expect me to give up my holy mother’s timeless antiquity for your second-rate desi version of imported Victorian sensibility?
By way of distortion of an oft-half quoted line by Karl Marx, one can say that in a plural society, religions have to be defended from becoming the tool of bigoted creatures, the face of a heartless worldview, the mechanical output of scripture-reading zombies. It has to be defended from becoming the enemy of a plural society. So-called ‘distortion’ is the long-term life-blood of plural, democratic societies. Joy Ma Kali.