Religious imperialism at the heart of a plural society – Garga Chatterjee


In the competition to match a city like Riyadh in free-thinking, pluralism and culture, Mumbai raced past Kolkata by threatening MF Husain and disrupting the exhibition of his paintings of goddesses. Kolkata struck back by expelling Taslima Nasreen, giving in to the threats by some angry Muslims. In a classic ‘one-two combo’, Kolkata thereafter successfully kept Salman Rushdie out of its limits. But recently Mumbai roared back in the race by despatching its best sons of the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS) to the Jehangir Art Gallery to remove paintings of goddess Kali by Eleena Banik. Game on!

This is a dangerous game. 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, partially disown, conceive and re-conceive the divine. I want to remind thikadars of divine propriety that as far as my gods and goddesses are concerned, I don’t need their middle-man service.

HJS’s targeting of mother goddess Kali has forced me to respond, especially because I am from a Bengali Shakto (followers of divine mother) family. Our ancestral worshipping of the divine mother goes back at least four hundred years. We take our Kali seriously and don’t take ‘jagruti’ lessons from goons at an art gallery.

The saffron neophytes disapproved of a Kali painting without a garland of skulls. Her breasts were visible. She has them. She 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, keep your shame to yourself. Your mother may like taking lessons on modesty from their devotee-sons. My holy mother has her own divine mind.

People have conceived Kali variously in different times and places. For someone to dictate how my conception of the goddess’ ‘look’ is religious imperialism. A monolithic Indian Union nation-state helps such pan-subcontinental ‘standards’ to gain wider currency, but my goddess is older than the Constitution. Those who import their definitions of shame from the Victorian British have long been perturbed by the naked glory of goddess Kali.

They made the garland an essential accessory, they made the garland-heads bigger, they made the goddess always have her hair in front of her shoulder and spread out on her body — essentially cheap tricks to cover her breasts. Breasts are sexually desirable and symbols of motherly love. If you have a problem with a sexually active, breast-feeding goddess, try a formless god instead. Don’t come draping my goddess.

Sometimes we do not realize how recent some of our imaginations of gods and goddesses are.

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. MF Husain liberated Durga form from her 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?

Religions have to be defended from becoming the tool of bigoted creatures, the face of a heartless, unimaginative world view, the mechanical output of scripture-reading zombies. It has to be defended from becoming the enemy of a plural and free society. So-called ‘distortion’ is the long-term life-blood of plural, democratic societies. Joy Ma Kali!

The writer is a postdoctoral scholar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology;


Views expressed are personal

(First Published in

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