Of kind Gods and fearful devotees
By imagining our gentler gods as figures of masculine, snarling strength, we manifest in them our own rage and frustration. We’re remaking them in our own imageUpdated: Sep 08, 2019 01:24 IST
When the German film director Werner Herzog was a child, he had a vision. On St Nicholas Day, when local German legend says the demon Grampus comes visiting to admonish children, Herzog crawled under the sofa to avoid said demon, but he could feel someone pulling his leg, dragging him out. The petrified little Herzog peed in his pants and thought he was done for when suddenly, there appeared “a man in brown overalls with huge oil spots on them.” Herzog would tell an audience in New York many decades later that the man had looked at him “so kindly and so mildly” that little Herzog knew this could only be God Almighty.
As it turned out, the man in brown overalls was a maintenance man who worked at an electrical plant near Herzog’s home.
The point, however, is that the man seemed divine to the boy because he radiated kindness. The idea that the gods and their messengers are kind has been a key characteristic in the stories that different religions have preached to congregations. Over centuries, we’ve inherited imagery that softens the jagged edges of divine cruelty because our ancestors imagined the gods to be with compassion. The nature of our gods are decided by the stories and images of them that believers choose to preserve. Consequently, over time, different stories gain currency, depending on what qualities a set of believers prioritise. Merciless gods who once brooked no argument are transformed over time into kinder figures, holding their congregations together with a combination of fear and hope. Without divine compassion, most of us are like offer coupons on bad deals — there’s little chance of us being redeemed. The gods are kind in our imagination because we need them to be that way.
In the present, that seems to have changed. For example, over the past few years, Ganesha idols have become increasingly buff. The sudarshan chakra seems to be getting bigger each time and Ganesha’s axe — traditionally a single blade that symbolises cutting ties of attachment — is more often than not a battle-axe. The elephant-headed god whose description specifies a potbelly has been looking more and more like he’s a gym bunny. Even if he doesn’t have a six-pack, the 21st century Ganesha generally has a dad bod rather than a rounded figure that suggests a laddu and modak-based diet. Just look at the way Lalbaug cha Raja has been consistently losing his paunch. This year, there have been Ganeshas in military camouflage in Bengaluru and Chennai, which is arguably a natural progression from the Uri- and surgical strike-themed Durga Pujas since 2016. After all, Durga is his mother.
Recently, Brooke Bond released an ad in which a man goes shopping for a Ganpati idol and then realises the one making the idols is a Muslim man. The Hindu is a little taken aback at first, but then (with a little help from cutting chai) he goes ahead and picks up an abhaya mudra Ganesha — the fearless protector (with a potbelly). A vast section of the internet interrupted with outrage that the Hindu had been shown leaning towards intolerance. A small slice quietly grumbled about how the ad suggested that only way for a Muslim to be acceptable was bypassing as a Hindu. Ironically for an ad that showed people rising above their anxieties, its viewers sank into the quicksand of their fears.
From the angry Hanuman (first drawn by graphic designer Karan Acharya) to the gut-clenched Ganesha, our gods are now our weapons. We’re no longer seeking their compassion. Instead, we’d like to unleash them upon those we consider the opposition. It’s a far cry from the original idea of festivals like Durga Puja and Ganeshotsav bringing communities together. Admittedly, this feeling of a warm hug was limited to certain sections of the community — Hinduism’s track record of caste-based discrimination and exclusion is so long it might as well be called a tradition — but the present could have pushed to make our festivals more inclusive. Instead, as our societies become increasingly divided, we’re united in a sense of unbelonging and anxiety. By imagining our gentler gods as figures of masculine, snarling strength, we manifest in them our own rage and frustration. We’re remaking them in our own image.