Divine Comedy

Back in 1999, Xena the Warrior Princess — I make only the classiest entertainment references, don’t I? — had an episode titled “The Way”. In it Xena encountered Indrajit, a Hindu demon who has descended from Ravana. There was a Xena-fication of the Ramayana, with Gabrielle playing Sita and getting kidnapped by Indrajit, whose preferred mode of transport was a flying carpet. But of course. Never mind that the flying carpet has Persian, and not Hindu, roots. Helping Xena out was Hanuman (because how could we have a reference to India without bringing monkeys into the picture, especially in the ’90s) and Krishna, who had a vaguely Kiwi accent but was brown, albeit painted baby blue. As if all this wasn’t enough, the climax of the episode had Xena transform into something Kali-esque, in that she had black face paint, mad hair, madder teeth and multiple arms. At the beginning of the episode, there was a shot of some snowy mountains — presumably the Himlayas — and a note from the producers saying that they’d taken some “liberties with Hindu deities and historical timelines” but their motives were pure. They only wanted “to illustrate the beauty and power of the Hindu religion.”

It was an outstandingly bad episode. You can see some of it, including Xena as Kali, in the video above.

I believe Hindus in America were furious when “The Way” was first aired and their protests led to the episode being re-edited. I remember when I saw it back in the day, I was disgusted. Somehow, while Xena the Warrior Princess was fun when it was turning ancient Greek mythology into campy crap, messing around with Hinduism like this felt like an outrage. Xena as Kali was ridiculous. As if to underline the fact that she’s a grotesque caricature, the gurgling noises she made sounded like Xena had inhaled Helium while her face was being painted to transform her into Kali. It was my mother who turned my outrage into a damp squib by saying, “It’s their version of something like Kali. How on earth does it affect you? Let them have their fun. As if any ancient Greek warrior could go around dressed like that.” (“That” was Xena’s leathery mini with metal-embellished bras.) Not one to back down, I angrily told my mother that this is the sort of nonsense that makes non-brown, non-Hindu people think we’re a bunch of primitive neanderthals. My mother nodded sympathetically. “Yes, of course. That episode is what is going to make everyone look at you and think you wear a leopard-print mini and chomp on human limbs after school.” I should point out my mother is proudly Hindu and much more committed to religion than I will ever be.

It’s really, really trying to be the spawn of two intelligent humans.

The other day, while trawling the web on the impressively slow computer at work, I remembered my mother’s take on Xena when I came across a tumblr that is now no longer around. Fortunately, another tumblr that reblogged tumblr number one is still up and running. In case it too goes poof, I’ve got a screengrab. Here’s the post by someone who was known as oldhindustan that will no doubt have me ranting for a good 1000-odd words:

The internet, especially Tumblr is not a safe place for Hindus. My religion gets worn on t-shirts and now theres a ‘network’ named after Shiva for ‘urban street-work’ reblogging.

PoC get attacked all the time for their beliefs in different God. We’re ridiculed and eaten alive because of our differences. I don’t understand when ‘Hinduism’ became a trend.

If you look at history, IF YOU READ HISTORY PROPERLY, Hindus were beheaded, our women we’re raped and our children and men were murdered if we continued to follow our faith.

And now our God(s) are being worn on t-shirts and our bindis are being completely misused by hipster white girl fucks.

What is this? Reverse history? It’s cool to be Hindu for a couple months because we’re trying to tick off our white-Christian parents?

It’s fucking ignorance.

This is obviously written by someone who is brown and in the Western world. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they’re American. For those who aren’t with the lingo, PoC stands for person/people of colour. Shiva is the god of destruction, dance and death. Bindis are decorative dots, usually stuck or drawn between the brows or in the middle of the forehead. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, allow me to sputter and explode properly.

The internet is “not a safe place for Hindus”? Does this person understand what the word safe means? The internet is not a safe place for anti-government bloggers in China. It’s not a safe place for protestors in Iran, for people with suicidal tendencies, for Neo in The Matrix. Hindus, on the other hand, are not under any sort threat of bodily harm because of the content available online. Considering how many right-wing Hindus troll anyone who has anything even slightly critical to say about champions of Hindu pride like Narendra Modi, the internet is actually relatively unsafe for the mental peace of those who are outspoken and not right-wing and/or Hindu; which makes the internet safe for, you guessed it, Hindus.

My religion gets worn on T-shirts…”? Your personal property, is it? Not that of the millions of other Hindus, many of whom are happily flaunting the very same t-shirts. Mind you, the idea of wearing clothing that has symbols of Hinduism on began with ascetics. Remember their saffron-coloured shawls with Om and Sanskrit mantras? That’s where the hipsters got it from. So what’s the difference between that shawl and the t-shirt?

So there’s an urban street art network named after Shiva. So what? Who are you to decide what Shiva’s name can be used for? Why is it offensive to have his name associated with street art? This is Shiva, he who killed a boy in cold blood (look up the story of how Ganesha got his elephant head) so I’m thinking the hint of criminality involved in street art wouldn’t be a problem for him. In any case, from the stories of Shiva, it seems he’d be pro street art, being an outsider and having a soft spot for people who took on the system (Ravana, for example). Plus, he’s a great dancer and appreciates good music.

People of colour certainly do have it hard for their religion but most of those people are Muslims. You want to see someone being ridiculed and “eaten alive” for their faith? Have a chat with a Muslim guy with a beard or a woman who chooses to wear the burqa or the headscarf. Whether s/he’s in Delhi or Detroit, s/he’s toast.

When did Hinduism become a trend? Look ye to the Beatles, Madonna, Deepak Chopra and so on. A couple of Google searches is all you need.

IF YOU READ HISTORY PROPERLY you’ll find Hindus have been equally brutal to outsiders — take, for example, the persecution of Buddhists or what Hindus did to Muslims during Partition in North India — as well as their own. Consider the horrors of the caste system and its rules, not following which resulted in molten lead being poured into ears and tongues being cut off, among other atrocities. Following it meant continuing horrific practices like girls from lower caste families becoming communal property, as in the one that any man in the village can fuck. It’s worth pointing out that the cruelties meted by those who believe in caste persists till this day. So yeah, there’s no high moral ground to being Hindu. Regardless of M.K. Gandhi going on about ahimsa (the idea of not harming others, which incidentally was embraced with far greater commitment by Jainism and Buddhism), we’re not a non-violent bunch.

Before I launch into the question of prints on t-shirts, I’d just like to point out that “hipster white girl fucks” is a strong candidate for racist abuse. Not quite as catchy and succinct as “Paki”, but getting there.

Ravi Varma’s Lakshmi is the starting point for most pop-art representations of the goddess, who is also shown sitting on a lotus. It’s worth noting that this figure has almost nothing in common with classical and religious depictions of Lakshmi, aside from her being multi-limbed, lotus wielding and female. The sculptures of Lakshmi show her as buxom in a reality-defying, Lara Croft-y way and showing a helluva lot more skin, for instance. Ravi Varma and his successors introduced these changes to Lakshmi’s appearance to make her more consumer-friendly. This way, she would be acceptable as something put up in households (thanks to our eagerness to absorb general British conservatism and Christian prudishness about nudity). The same was done to every Hindu divine figure who became the subject of a lithograph first and mass-market prints later.

Now about this business of wearing clothing that has prints of Hindu gods on it. This issue pops up every few months. Someone puts a print of Lakshmi on a swimsuit, Shiva on a t-shirt, Krishna on a pair of shorts, and suddenly there’s an uproar from irate Hindus from around the world. This is, supposedly, belittling something that is sacred to all those who follow the faith. The faithful probably see their expressions of outrage and protest as the Hindu equivalent of jihad. It is, however, absurd and laughable. I could try being narrow-minded if it was, say, a photograph of the idol at Tirupathi that was being appropriated for purposes of fashion because it’s something that was built for worship. However, the artwork that is used on these items of clothing are invariably the kitschy, colourful stuff that is usually described as calendar art in India. These pop art images were created expressly for commercial purposes and have no religious significance beyond what a viewer bestows upon them as a result of their own particular, subjective perspective. Developed in the era of the lithographs, these depictions of the gods were developed in a way that prints could be made easily and sold cheaply, thus yielding profits for printing presses. Whether they appeared in calendars or in advertisements or as prints, there is nothing sacred about them. People like Raja Ravi Varma, who is one of the people responsible for this business of calendar art, made these prints by modifying the nuances of paintings to create a flat, easily marketable image. Their only interest was to make money from them. I repeat: there is nothing sacred in the image. It isn’t even a reproduction of an image or place that has anything sacrosanct about it. Raja Ravi Varma’s Lakshmi, for example, isn’t based on any worshipped image of the goddess. This was his version of her, concocted for purely commercial reasons. Then what’s the difference between it being printed on a calendar or on a swimsuit?

Ergo, get your knickers out of the twist they’re in presently.

2 thoughts on “Divine Comedy”

  1. how on earth are you so blog productive? if i were blogging this much nothing else in my life woud get done. how can you write for work, and 2 blogs at the same time and manage a life?

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