Sunday, 18 August 2013

a forced forgetting of the naked sacred

Hajarduari, a few excerpts
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.
~ from Garga Chatterjee, The rise and rise of Portable Religion
~
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.
~ from Garga Chatterjee, Clothing the Sacred in the Vain...
Above articles share the tag, A million Gods, and can be found alongside many more articles by the same author on the blog,

5 comments:

Unknown said...

Dear Joanna, Thanks for putting out my pieces. I am deeply touched.

Joanne Arnott said...

Thank you for permission to share your insights here, and for your poetry:

"The gods watched their devotees/

thinning away, overgrown groves/

lost witnesses to their sacredness."

This it seems to me is an ongoing pressure round the world, to reformat the ancient with a rootless form of 'eternal values' as you so clearly state the case.

Eleena Banik's critics are quoted as experiencing a profound disconnect between humanity and divinity, in a way that supports a pattern of abuse against women with no comprehension that such attacks are also against the sacred. This disconnect is somehow served by disguising the naked truth in more literal ways.

Unknown said...

Thanks Joanne - will send you a piece by me soon - I am working on it, but here is an excerpt.

"What is it to be human is a question that is hard to answer but a significant part of the world population, including the present author, believes that there are multiple ways of being human. Faith elements that are non-textual, that are handed down in communities, that makes their presence known in myriad practices (some of which may qualify in rationalist-speak as superstition) also contribute to the multiple ways of being human. These very many ways of being human come with as many world-views and whole theories of the workings of the world. These theories, world-views and practices – to what extent are they separable from one’s special sense of self and identity in this world? Religions, gods, goddesses and other beings, in so far as they are responsive to the changing world and living communities with which they are in constant interaction, also change. Being a certain kind of Bengalee, I grew up in the thick of brotos (practices to receive divine blessings) and many other acts, from which my particular kind of ‘Bengaleeness’ is indistinguishable. The gods and goddesses of my ‘Bengaleeness’, Ma Durga, Ma Monosha (often vulgarized off-hand as a ‘snake goddess’), Dhormo Thakur, and other divines who inhabit fringes of my ‘Bengaleeness’ like Ma Shitola, BonoDurga, and the practices and ‘superstitions’ associated with the particulars of my birth accident make me, in no small way. This Bengaleeness is not a static thing – static not even in a lifetime. Faiths and gods continue to communicate and adapt with the changing world their adherents inhabit. When some gods cannot adapt, they die too. An earlier time would have produced a different notion of selfhood in me.

Without this scaffolding, what kind of human would I be? Some may have no need of such things but what about the rest of us? What does this lack of particular scaffolding look like anyways? Why do those do prescribe leaving such things, appear so much more similar to each other? Those who have some stake in the intrinsic plurality of the human condition and think that preserving that is a good thing, where would they stand if this homogeneity were the cost of inculcating a atheist-rationalist worldview. In any case, in colonial societies, the anti-traditionalist worldview can be as much received wisdom as any other tradition. Such a formulation might hurt the bloated egos of those who think that university departments and wistfully imported and badly digested bits of European post-enlightenment thought elevates them vis-à-vis their fellow hapless and ignorant brown people. Make no mistake; the hapless also have a theory about those who hold them in contempt.

Till ‘rationalism’ finds a way of preserving and strengthening the plural ways of being human that human societies believe they have produced in cahoots with their gods among other things, it certainly does not have my vote. An imported version of the universal brotherhood of man, something that some curious residents of the tropics always take to with more zeal and seriosity than the west itself ever did, is a cheap replacement for the loss of a million gods and their billion ‘superstitions’."

Joanne Arnott said...

It looks like another highly articulate, and very important, teaching and expression. Thank you for sharing a glimpse of the full article.

This statement that you made, in your first article quoted, "an intimate ecology of a non-atomized society," is I think at the heart of the conflict.

In Canada, courts are not required to transcribe the actual words of oral witness presentations, if they diverge from the English-French polarity of accommodated languages. Court transcribers often refuse to make use of the interpreters provided, preferring instead to present an incoherent jumble, or the marker, "indigenous words," on the "official" court transcripts, on the published record-- in lieu of an honest engagement with diverse languages, ideas, and values, negating any equalitarian approach to resolving conflict.

This disparaging approach by court transcription personnel has of course a profound impact on the capacity of judges (who generally do not have familiarity with indigenous languages, cultural concepts, etc) to render just and fully informed verdicts.

Similarly, indigenous people in Canada have fought hard to have appropriate religious supports for incarcerated persons in Canadian prisons. In the last year, under the current federal government, it was decided at the highest levels to lay off all "part time" religious support staff, thereby only providing Christian, and perhaps Jewish, religious supports, to all of the Hindi, Muslim, indigenous, and other persons incarerated, within the Canadian system. This specifically requires indigenous people, long mistreated by Church on behalf of State, to look to the colonizer for support at a heart level.

In Quebec, an inherited or contagious anethema for religion, rooted in past misconduct of the Roman Catholic Church, has resulted in proposals that forbid all religious expression within the public service, thus effectively blocking employment to observant Sikh, Muslim, Christian, and any other observant religious persons from state employment. In this case there seems to be a confusion between a secular or neutral state, which respects all equally, and a stance that is quite hostile to religious expression, and seeks to outlaw rather than protect freedom of expression for religious people.

I commend you in articulating with great specificity what "justice" looks like, and I carry your inspirational words into my own struggle.

All my relations,

Joanne

Unknown said...

Here is a new piece I wrote. You may find it interesting.

http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/1883094/column-sati-snake-bites-blind-superstitions-and-intervention

Also, my email id is garga at mit dot edu