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Stop zealots from reducing Hinduism to a dour, monolithic theology

A religion like Hinduism which seems to expand effortlessly to accommodate all strands of thought should not have to be defended with violence by those who know little about it or its scriptures

columns Updated: Sep 17, 2017 08:39 IST
Chanakya
A community puja pandal being decorated ahead of upcoming Durga puja festival, Kolkata
A community puja pandal being decorated ahead of upcoming Durga puja festival, Kolkata(PTI)

It doesn’t take too much to offend the cultural commissars these days. So when renowned hair stylist Jawed Habib’s Kolkata salon put out an advertisement of goddess Durga relaxing on its premises with her children, the Right-wing got into a right regular lather vandalising a branch of the establishment in Uttar Pradesh. As always, they have discerned a terrible insult to the goddess by showing her engaged in human activity. Or could it be that their dander would not have been up quite so much had the owner not been a Muslim?

From time to time, we see this outrage from the self-styled custodians of Hinduism, far removed from you and me, getting into a flap over some perceived insult to the religion. Well, during the pujas, Durga is portrayed in many avatars, many of which are of very recent provenance. She is shown with make-up, different hairstyles, and in a variety of expressions. She is someone most Hindus relate to as part of their families, benign but can be given to great anger if provoked.

Unlike faiths of the book, Hindu gods do not lay down any line for people to follow; the scriptures are interpreted by people to suit themselves really in many ways. The culture of worship changes from place to place and in many they are irreverent and intimate. There are temples where the deity is offered liquor. In Kerala there are temples where the community takes out the idol of the goddess at the end of her menstrual cycle to bathe her in the nearby river. This is all part of a tradition in which the gods are part of the faithful, not some distant being who lays down the law.

The gods themselves are not perfect; they display all the emotions and weaknesses that people do. Many schools of thought consider Ram as weak for having forsaken his wife on mere suspicion and innuendo; others consider him the epitome of martial perfection. In many cultures, Ravan and his son Indrajit are considered the ultimate warriors, fearless and honourable even in defeat.

Many can easily relate to the angry Durga who will have her revenge come what may, to the playful god Ganesh whom the zealous have today transformed into an angry god with menacing tusks. The human emotions of love, betrayal, greed, passion, even adultery can be found in Hindu gods very much as they are in real life. This is what makes Hinduism in many ways a much more personal religion than others. I may be a Hindu and so may you but our forms of worship and our relationship with the gods will be entirely different.

Now and again, we see much anger against the depiction of a god or goddess on an item of clothing or footwear. It is usually particularly shrill if the offending item happens to be foreign made. But the point is that Hinduism is a religion that has survived the millennia and it simply is not diminished by the depiction of a god or goddess on some item of daily use. In fact, it should not even be an issue. I am not saying that sections of Hindus are alone in their outrage. We have seen what happens to many who have made irreverent references to the Prophet, Charlie Hebdo being the most awful.

But a religion like Hinduism which seems to expand effortlessly to accommodate all strands of thought should not have to be defended with violence by those who know little about it or its scriptures. The joy of Hinduism is in many ways the ability of the devotee to connect with her god and develop a close relationship with the deity. You can tell the deity your problems, you can rage against injustices, you can even insult the deity with no blowbacks. But what the thought police have sought to do is to impose a code of conduct when it comes to the gods. They must be seen as beings who cannot have any human attributes, they must literally float above the fray.

If there is one reason Hinduism is so attractive to so many is that it is not preachy, there are literally no sacred cows, there are no straitjacketed forms of worship and there are no concrete guidelines.

By using the images of the gods in caricatures or other forms of mass communication, they are being made more accessible to more people. This will evoke curiosity about the religion and its fascinating array of gods and goddesses and their history. The Hindu zealots seem to have little to offer but to get offended by the slightest provocation. Remember how MF Husain was hounded out of India for depicting Hindu goddesses in what the commissars considered a vulgar manner. Fine, if it had offended anyone so much, take the artist to task through informed argument instead of taking to violence and vandalism, the last resort of the intellectually challenged.

I know of many cases in which a person chooses a personal god which is different from the family deity. This god or goddess is the one to whom the person relates her deepest fears and desires. It could even be a god from a different strand of Hinduism. The point I am making is that anything goes apart from the basic principles of good over evil which form the basis of all religions.

The problem with those who try and sit in judgement on how gods and goddesses should be depicted is that they lack a sense of fun, of humour, found in abundance in gods like Krishna and Ganesh. They would like Hinduism to be a dour, monolithic theology in which one size fits all. It is not going to happen, thank the gods if you will.

The very fact that our gods are able to take on female and male avatars at the same time, appear in different forms, assume superpowers when needed show that they are fluid, changing and eclectic. Habib has apologised for what is being described as his folly. But given our traditions, it is highly unlikely that some divine retribution awaits him. However, some wrath may fall upon those who try and cast the gods in their own none too flattering monochromatic likeness.

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