Trinamool Congress spokesperson Mahua Moitra recently landed in a controversy while speaking at the India Today Conclave about how Goddess Kali for her is a ‘meat-eating and alcohol accepting Goddess’, and that the liberal ethos of Hinduism gives everyone the freedom to imagine Kali in their own way.
In the aftermath, in the BJP-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh, an FIR was registered against her under Section 295(A) for deliberately hurting religious sentiments. She was attacked relentlessly and social media by many within the BJP and from the right wing. Her own party, the TMC, also disassociated itself from her statement, calling her remark her “personal opinion” and one “not endorsed by the party in any manner or form”.
However, despite all the furore around the MP’s statement, the question remains: Was what Moitra said wrong? Isn’t Hinduism a polytheistic religion where trees, animals and even mythological demons like Ravana and Mahishasura are considered religious figures in some parts of India?
There are many symbolic forms of various Gods across India, and such visual aids have been used for centuries to aid people in their personal religious quests. Hindu theology believes that the entire universe is God – who is Nirakar (formless) and Nirgun (attributeless) – and this shapeless God attaches great importance to moral uprightness, which includes non-violence, peace, karma and truth. Moreover, the person who achieves this highest level of consciousness or moral uprightness is the one who can view the shape of God with the help of God’s divine eyes. As stated in Bhagavad Gita:
But you cannot see me [Brahman] with your present eyes, therefore I will give you divine eyes. Behold my mystic opulence! (11.8)
Hence based on the evidence, my first rationale is that if the BJP and their supporters are questioning Moitra’s arguments, they either have achieved the divine power to view what Gods and Goddesses look like, or they are not well versed in the theology of Hinduism, which is different from the Brahminical Hindutva frame of reference that they follow.
Moreover, the Savarkar and Golwalkar idea of Hindutva – ‘one nation- one culture’ – stops the BJP and its parental organisation RSS from looking beyond the prism of the Brahminical north Indian patriarchal system and further persuading the discourse around the diversity of Hinduism.
This perspective of supremacy and dominance under the Hindutva narrative leads to my second rationale. It’s not only Kali who possesses different manifestations within the various regions of India. Most Gods in Hinduism are perceived distinctly based on the cultural framework of the community in which they have been worshipped. For instance: Kartikey (son of Parvati and Shiva) symbolises a contrasting masculine image in North and South India.
According to popular folklore, Kartikey, the elder son of Shiva, shifted base from the Himalayas to the hills of South India as he believed that Ganesha was given more importance in the family. Since then, Kartikey in South India (especially among Tamilians and Malayalis) has been symbolised as an aggressive Hindu masculine God, Lord Murugan. His masculine and courageous characteristics are celebrated and worshipped in the Southern part of India. In the north, Kartikey is seen as an unmarried fragile masculine elder brother of Ganesha – who is worshipped, but not celebrated as much as Lord Murugan is.
However, has anyone ever heard right-wing followers causing a commotion regarding the distinct image of Kartikey? The answer is no. And the reason is that the Hindutva groups and their sympathisers have established a template for their Gods and Goddess. Under this, Gods and Goddess mainly belong from North India/Hindi belts, the male Gods are primarily masculine and aggressive, and the female Goddesses are the pious, calm and obedient wives. Anyone who dares to challenge the majoritarian views and question their templates is called out as a blasphemous person.
Certainly, the populist regime and its followers are insecure about appreciating other forms as it takes away their ownership over the religion. Nevertheless, this false consciousness of ownership or Abrahamisation of Hinduism had been challenged in the past too, and Goddess Kali has always been a symbol of that fight.
This leads to my third and final argument about the Kulamarga tradition (derived from the Kapalika Sect of Saivism), which questioned the appropriation and ownership of Gods and Goddess by the orthodox Brahmins of Vedic culture. Under the Kulamarga tradition, Kali (Camunda) is symbolised as an impure ferocious Goddess whose followers follow transgressive rituals such as offering animal sacrifice and consuming meat and alcohol to register their protest against the Brahminical purity rules. In the parts of Bengal and Assam, Kali is still seen as an embodiment of the ferocious Camunda, who drinks blood and alcohol, and eats meat to liberate herself and her followers from the Brahminical ideas of purity and impurity.
It’s not only Kali who fought against the idea of Brahminical purity and morality; even Bhairava (reincarnation of Shiva) and his devotees under the Kapalika sect believed that polluting transgressive rituals give power as well as liberation. Due to this notion of achieving liberating consciousness, many devotees in the Kal Bhairava temple of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh regularly offer alcohol.
Nevertheless, has anyone ever heard the purveyors of Hinduism question the symbolism of Bhairava as an alcohol-accepting God? The answer is no – and the reasoning is that Bhairava belongs to the North and is masculine and aggressive. In comparison, Kali is a woman whose idea of transgressive liberation dismantles Brahminical patriarchal hegemony. Bhairava fits in their template of a god’s image; whereas Kali challenges the Brahminical template and allows the marginalised to achieve liberation by going beyond the notion of purity and impurity.
Thereby, for the people in power, countering Moitra’s Kali image as an alcohol-accepting and meat-eating goddess is not about safeguarding the values of Hinduism. It is more about protecting the template that allows Hindutva followers to prove their ownership and dominance over religion and culture.
Moreover, the regime and its supporters are aware that under the thread of ‘one nation-one culture’, the non-existence of the ferocious Kali, who symbolises the fight against Brahminical purity, will only help them to claim their utopian patriarchal Hindu rashtra with little space for diversity and dissent.
Satkirti Sinha is a PhD research scholar in the Performing Arts department at DMU University, Leicester. His areas of expertise are Folk Culture, Dalit Theology, Feminist Theory, Post-Colonial Theory, and Sexual Politics. His email address is: Satkirti.Sinha.email@example.com
Featured image: A folk theatre practitioner portraying Hindu deity Kali. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Tapas Kumar Halder CC BY-SA 4.0.