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Here in the UK we are exposed to a plethora of different cultures and religions, and the same is true across the Western world. This diversity also leads to fascination, to intrigue about the ways of life of the people around us. Living in a multicultural society is a tool like no other in breaking down barriers, but I would also argue that there are areas in which the mainstream West is severely lacking in its cultural sensitivity. I was born into a non-religious white British family but I have since then converted to Hinduism, and this conversion and really, this adoption of a whole new cultural outlook, made me realise how often the Western Media and figures in that Media do a huge disservice to Hindus, Muslims and South Asians in general. It is this continual recognition of failures by Western Media that inspired me to write this article.
In Hinduism we have many different deities we worship, all with their own complex mythologies, devotees and significance to the Hindu community, and these deities have drawn a great deal of attention from outside of the Hindu faith. The two deities that have been most numerously subject to Western eyes are Ganesha, the elephant headed, and Kali, the destroyer of evil. Countless times when Hindus appear in Western Media so too, do one of these two deities, most prominently Ganesha. I understand how Ganesha with his elephant head, many arms, bright clothing and elaborate poses is a huge departure from the religious iconography most of us here in the West are used to, I understand how Ganesha may even appear funny or strange to you but that does not excuse the ways in which I have witnessed some people talk and depict my God.
A common trope I see is Ganesha being described as cute and adorable, which is fine – Ganesha is a figure that inspires a lot of affection from devotees who look at him fondly – but the difference is that they know what Ganesha means. They don’t call Ganesha cute then neglect to know of his origin story, the fact he is the remover of obstacles, the significance of Ganesha to millions of people. This problem of trivialising Hindu deities came to a head earlier this year when an Australian meat production company launched a marketing campaign selling lamb products. The premise of the advert was that lamb is a meat all people can eat regardless of religious background (which is a false pretence) and showed Jesus, Buddha and Ganesha amongst other figures eating a lamb barbecue together whilst drinking wine.
When I saw this advert I was disgusted. Most Hindus are at least vegetarian over sacred festivals and many abstain from alcohol, and these are ideals we believe our deities too uphold, so for this advert to portray Ganesha doing both these things, with a terrible stereotypical Indian accent was hugely insensitive. To make matters even worse the commercial was released over the festival of Ganesha Chaturthi where we for ten days specifically focus on worship of Ganesha. This not a stand-alone bastardisation of Ganesha’s image and likeness, go to any music festival and images of Ganesha are held up whilst people take drugs, not forgetting that festival season is also notorious for appropriation of the bindi and henna too.
This leads me to the issue that inspired the title of this article – the appropriation of the goddess Kali. Kali is a fearsome and powerful form of our goddess, Devi, and for decades the West has misunderstood and continued to mock her. The name Kali is more likely to be unfamiliar to you than that of Ganesha but she has appeared in big blockbuster movies, such as the Orientalist classic, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There are so many parts of this film I could criticise and call out for being racist, or sexist, or orientalist, but in keeping with the theme of this article I will focus on the vilification of Kali.
The general premise, for those of you lucky enough to have never seen the film, is that in rural Northern India a cult of evil child murdering worshippers of Kali are enslaving children from a nearby village of Shiva worshippers. I can’t help but roll my eyes as I type this, Shiva and Kali in the film are depicted as opposites, one good and one evil, when they are often viewed as husband and wife in the Hindu pantheon. The evil Kali worshippers are shown to be savages pulling out beating hearts to sacrifice to the bloodthirsty goddess when in real life those of us who worship Kali (myself included) see her as an all loving, comforting and nurturing goddess. Beyond her outwardly intimidating appearance she is the angry goddess fighting evil for the good of her followers and the world for that matter. The filmmakers probably saw her fearsome appearance and instantly thought of how they can run with it and make her into some sort of quasi Hindu demon.
It may seem a bit redundant to comment on a film made in the 1980s, surely, we have moved on from then but Kali is still to this day appropriated by Western Media. Katy Perry received mass criticism from Hindu fans when she shared a photo of Kali captioned ‘mood’: she was critiqued on a blatant misunderstanding of the emotions and the pure anger shown in the form of Kali she shared an image of. It’s far less an offence than the Indiana Jones franchise can claim but this painfully reductive way of using our goddess as a meme or a butt of a joke disgusts me.
Heidi Klum took it one step further and dressed up as Kali for Halloween a few years ago. As someone who respects Heidi, it really muddied my opinion of her after seeing that. She thought that using someone else’s religious figures as a Halloween costume was acceptable – it isn’t. Kali, despite her most common depiction, is not seen as someone to be afraid of, and certainly not someone to use for a fancy-dress costume. Not only was that of ill taste, I’d even argue that it’s discriminatory.
The worst offender in recent times is the controversial rapper, Azealia Banks who has been blocked from Twitter for numerous homophobic, racist and sexist rants against other celebrities and users. One of the victims of her keyboard tantrums was Pakistani British musician Zayn Malik whom she racially assaulted over the platform using slurs attacking his Punjabi heritage, which adds salt to the wounds of what she did weeks later. Banks, after having already insulted South Asians and their cultures, after having called out white celebrities on appropriating black culture, dressed up like a fetishised, sexed up version of Kali to promote her failing music. A point blank double standard if you ask me.
Kali is a powerful and spiritual being, not somebody for you to claim to be invoking to sell your flopping mix tape. Painting yourself blue and taking your clothes off doesn’t make you a goddess, and further, our deity is not there for you to exploit and insult. That’s what this all boils down to in the end. The fetishisation and vilification of Hindu deities are insults, a sign that Western “Orientalism” is far from being over any time soon. Ultimately, they are, in my eyes a clear message that Western Media does not care or pay any mind to the ancient and beautiful traditions of Hinduism. So finally, from one angry Hindu to the mainstream Western Media and its numerous celebrity mouthpieces, keep your hands off my goddess!