Ever since the inauguration of the era of advertising and marketing of mass products in India, gods and goddesses have found themselves conscripted to the cause of the market. Towards the end of the 19th century, they were frequently observed passing through the sacred portals of their traditional abodes to lend a hand to the money-making enterprises of their devotees. Since then, they have found their images plastered across a number of contexts which, you might think, would cause an uproar among the community of believers. Over the years — and in the present period — deities have helped sell a variety of goods, including beedis, flour, firecrackers, papads, ghee, sweets, incense, sanitary pipes, cement and gated residential localities.
And, since modern selling and marketing techniques involve mass reproduction of marketable images, our deities have found their sacred authenticity reproduced in hundreds of millions of ways. And, yet, this has neither lessened devotion towards their ‘real’ selves that continue to reside in temples and nor has it led to threats to destroy the products that are sold through divine intervention. Our deities have been out of place — in the market, at the back of trucks, you name it — for a very long time. Why then the recent uproar over the tattoo of the goddess Yellamma sported by a young Australian man on his shin? Why are deities selling beedis less offensive to our sentiments than those on the body of a young foreign tourist?
First, let’s get out of the way the somewhat ingenuous statement by the tourist that he was familiar with the religious meaning attached to Yellamma and hence, for him, the image signified something more than a foray into Oriental exotica. If that was the case, he might have worn a locket. But lockets are not as prominent in attracting attention and inviting comment. However, this is not the point, for while westerners might continue to find pleasure in Oriental exotica — placing deities out of contexts — Hindus have just as vigorously participated in making their sacred figures live in places other than their strictly defined homes. You only had to visit the nearest puja pandal during the just-concluded festival season to witness myriad incarnations of the Goddess as she flits between an African safari scene here and a bunch of dinosaurs there. And through all this, devotees experience no lessening of piety.
What offended those who threatened to skin the tourist’s shin of the Yellamma image is not its out of context nature. Rather, it is born of the recognition that the Hindu deities might not be as open to control and political deployment as has become too common. If goddesses can wander among dinosaurs, African landscapes and space-rockets, and yet retain religious sanctity, they generate anxiety among those who seek to generate ideas about religious purity as a political tool.
Intolerance based on religious lines plays upon the idea of the pure and the impure and punishment for those who transgress the boundaries of purity. It seeks to restore a very narrow idea of purity — in order to utilise it for narrow ends of power — at a time when the pious themselves might have moved away from the burden of purity. Narrow versions of purity seek to impose constrained versions of belief which have never really been part of the Hindu belief system. They seek to issue directives on the boundaries of belief. The deep entanglement of gods and goddesses in the world of commodities and in the surreal landscapes of puja pandals tells us that, in actual life, religious feelings are difficult to pin down. The bewildering ways through which devotees express piety might, in fact, be the saving grace for a society with such a multitude of belief systems.
If religious sentiments are not hurt by Shiva and Ganesh images on beedi packets, then why should they be offended by an image of Yellamma on the shin of a young Australian tourist? The tattoo might be a thoughtless act seeking to garner some kind of exotic cosmopolitanism for its wearer, but religious offence? The latter can only be something that has to be generated through seeking to cover believers with a very thin religious skin.
In these mixed-up times, the politics of the hurt sentiment is an attempt to constrain belief and deploy it towards narrower, self-serving ends. It is, as if, to implant intolerance where none might exist and imagine offence where an act may cause nothing more than fleeting annoyance. There are fatal consequences when, in a society such as ours, annoyance is converted into hurt. Of course, the significant thing is that there is a concerted effort to effect such conversion. At a time when gods and goddesses roam the market but are also able to also return to temples when required, the effort to institute ideas of purity and impurity become particularly strident.
The last word on the nature of deities and the ways in which they themselves might choose to handle offence should go to the poet Kabir. The medieval cultural critic and philosopher’s words nicely encapsulate how we might deal with some of the problems of our own times. Lord Vishnu, Kabir was to point out in one of his couplets, bears the imprint of the kick he received from the saint Bhrigu. However, the poet went on to ask, did the god suffer any loss of prestige because of the kick?
Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal