The depiction of Goddess Kali and India’s pluralism

Jawaharlal Nehru was pained by the abuse of religion by peddlers of blind faith and those using religion as a cover for their political goals, writes Dr Ram Puniyani for South Asia Monitor

Dr Ram Puniyani Jul 20, 2022
Swami Vivekananda, Goddess Kali and Ramkrishna Paramhans

Former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s statement on Indian TV on Prophet Mohammad was taken as blasphemous, following which many Muslim majority countries protested. Some heinous murders took place after this. Those who did the killings in the name of Prophet Mohammad should have known the Prophet’s attitude over such insults. The story goes that an old woman used to throw trash at him as he passed on the street. One day when that did not happen, he walked up to her to know if she was sick.

Now, articulate opposition Indian parliamentarian Mahua Moitra is facing multiple attacks and cases about her comments on Hindu Goddess Kali. Her comments came in the context of Leena Manimekalai’s film where a woman is dressed as Kali and is shown to be smoking with a pride flag in the background. The film was released in the ‘Rhythms of Canada’ film festival. Many FIRs have been registered against the filmmaker.

Moitra, a leader from the Trinamool Congress, commented that she herself is a worshipper of Kali, “a meat eating and alcohol accepting goddess”.  Infuriated by Moitra’s comments, many FIRs were filed against her. Even her party has distanced itself from her statement. In her defense, Moitra said that Kali in Indian tradition has been worshipped in diverse forms.  

Kali worship 

When criticized, she gave the example of Ujjain where the Goddess is supposed to drink liquor for the well-being and material growth of the people. She said: “In Ujjain, the festival of Navratri assumes a special significance and culminates with a mystic annual event featuring the District Collector placing a bottle of desi liquor at the lips of the seven feet high images of two sister goddesses, Mahamaya and Mahalaya, at the Chaubis Khamba Temple in the close vicinity of the Jyotrilinga Mahakal.”

Kali and Durga, in her multiple manifestations, is the major Goddess, particularly in Bengal. The two major figures from Bengal and Hindu tradition, Ramakrishna Paramhans and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, make very interesting and insightful observations which are a commentary on the pluralism of Indian religious traditions, the major strength of the spiritual undercurrent of Hindu society.

Sages and Kali 

Swami Vivekananda says that it was due to the influence of Ramakrishna Paramhans that he started worshipping the Goddess and it is She who guided all his actions. Jyotirmaya Sharma, a scholar, in his book ‘A restatement of Religion’ quotes a Vivekananda letter to May Hale (1900) in which Vivekananda wrote: “Kali worship is not a necessary step in any religion. The Upanishads teach us all there is to religion. Kali worship is my special fad; you never heard me preach it, or read of my preaching it in India. I only preach what is good for universal humanity. If there is any curious method which applies entirely to me, I keep it a secret and there it ends. I must not explain to you what Kali worship is, as I never taught it to anybody.”

Paramhans makes a profound observation. As per Sharma, Ramakrishna is talking to Kali, his Divine Mother, and says: “Mother, everyone says, ‘My watch alone is right.’ The Christians, the Brāhmos, the Hindus, the Mussalmāns, all say, ‘My religion alone is true.’ But Mother, the fact is that nobody’s watch is right. Who can truly understand Thee? But if a man prays to Thee with a yearning heart, he can reach Thee, through Thy grace, by any path. Mother, show me some time how the Christians pray to Thee in their churches. But Mother, what will people say if I go in? Suppose they make a fuss! Suppose they don’t allow me to enter the Kāli temple again! Well then, show me the Christian worship from the door of the Church.”

This observation grips the essence of Hinduism’s diversity. In contrast to the currently growing sectarianism, Paramhans and Vivekananda focus on the diversity which retains the essential core of divinity. While the religions with one Prophet, one God and one book further show divisions into many sects, Hinduism is the confluence of many traditions, Nath, Tantra, Bhakti, Shaiva and Siddhanta among others. These traditions are less visible due to the dominating Brahmanical tradition, which again is the base of currently growing sectarianism.

Divinity’s forms 

Globally also we see the march of divinity from polytheism (observed in Greek mythology and Hindu religions among others) to tri-theism (Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh or Father Son and Holy Spirit for example) to monotheism. Further, there is a journey from the divine power making a transition from the physical to abstract as reflected in Nirankar Nirgun Ishwar (Formless God) in particular. March of this journey further makes a transition to the values. 

For Swami Dayanand Sarswati knowledge is God, Gandhi identifies truth and non-violence as God and Swami Vivekananda coins the word Daridranarayan (God in the form of poor) to draw our attention to the rank deprivations of large sections of society.

India’s pluralism and diversity is well articulated by Jawaharlal Nehru. He was pained by the abuse of religion by peddlers of blind faith and those using religion as a cover for their political goals, while recognizing religion’s importance in the life of many in the society. “Religion had supplied some deeply felt inner need of human nature, and the vast majority of people all over the world could not do without some form of religious belief. It had produced many fine types of men and women, as well as bigoted, narrow-minded, cruel tyrants.”

We are in a very disturbing phase of human history. On one hand acts of terror have been propped up in the name of religion; on the other the opponents of democracy are asserting their politics in the garb of religion. That’s the core reason as to why the likes of Manimekalai and Moitra are facing FIRs for expressing their conceptions of Goddess Kali!

(The writer, a former IIT Bombay professor, is Chairman, Center for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Views are personal.)   

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