Today in Hinduphobia October 19, 2020: Kamala Harris as Durga and Other Disservices to Hindu Sacred Traditions

Most students these days know that to objectify someone is not a good thing. What about the opposite? What do they learn about cultures and practices that, on the face of it, view certain “objects” not as just bits of stone or art but as in fact, living, breathing, communicating, engaging, enchanting, empowering, cosmically “social” beings?

Do they, in fact, learn at all that some “objects” are sacred, or at least, even if you don’t “believe” in them, polite co-existence in diverse societies demands you don’t go out of your way to mock, mutilate, or appropriate them?

Goddess Durga

A few days ago, as we began the annual celebration of Devi Navaratrulu, our nine nights of rededication to our Great Goddess-Mother, a new kind of cultural violence found its way into our sacred time. Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s niece Meena Harris tweeted a morphed image of Goddess Durga in which the face of the Goddess is replaced with that of Senator Harris (later deleted following criticism from several Hindu supporters).

There is a broader question I would like us to think about here beyond the identity-political framework (though that is not completely irrelevant). A lot of the criticism of this meme had to do not only with the intrinsic disrespect to a sacred representation by reducing it to a political propaganda stunt, but also raised the question of appropriation and cultural ownership involved since Senator Harris does not identify as far as I know as Hindu.

Is it appropriate for a non-Hindu to essentially steal a Hindu deity for a political campaign? Conversely, does being Hindu grant some kind of inalienable right to such Hindus to distort, misrepresent and appropriate sacred deities into commercial, political or any other non-traditional purposes? After all, many Hindus, “practicing” or otherwise, routinely post, Like, tweet and express their solidarity with memes that arguably appropriate Hindu deities out of traditional contexts in order to make some civic or political point (sometimes the point is never even made because there is really no logic to bringing in Hindu deities into those issues, except perhaps as a reflexive dig at them).

“Hindu” as Performative Guilt

The real question we must think about here is not just the identity of people who make or share such memes, but also the question of the innate value of sacred representations too (and what happens to that value because of mass reproduction and the frequent use of technologies of mass reproduction for deliberately destructive purposes by iconoclastic forces and interests). Simply put, can Hindus who are concerned about this problem rest on the “you’re not Hindu so you can’t do it” claim alone considering many Hindus do like doing this?

Senator Harris’s niece may have deleted the tweet, but the fact remains that appropriation, misrepresentation, desecration all remain a growing problem in the age of digital media which is — myths about technology, progress, and cool Silicon Valley global post-racial post-religious egalitarian diversity notwithstanding — an age stuck very much in an epoch of intense, intolerant, violent iconoclasm.

That, really, is the larger historic cause that must be understood if Hindus and others want to take the tools of communication out of the hands of savagely colonizing interests, religious or quasi-secular. After all, Senator Harris as Durga is probably the least of the symbolic violations around Hindu goddesses that has taken place in recent times. A couple of months ago, some social media personalities drummed up an incredibly ugly mess over “sexy goddesses,” dead mothers, and all sorts of execrable things all around just a few weeks ago. I don’t even know if there is a way out of the mutually assured debasement of this over-communicative world at all.

Social media is a free for all with neither legitimacy nor freedom (at least not for everybody). Old media and academia still carry influence and set agendas for this is where conversations about culture and identity take place institutionally today. But here, the entire space has been ceded to twice-dead colonized elites who assume their brownness or South Asiahood or something has made them experts and authorities on traditions that go back hundreds, if not thousands of years, to texts and traditions like the Shilpa Shastra, Natya Shastra, Agama Shastra, and more. And despite the usual social media bravado that holds that somehow this is just a small group of “Left Liberals” who are going to disappear from relevance because Modiji or Trumpji, the truth is that it is their way of looking at sacred art and representation that is spreading across the world, and across generations inside the Indian/South Asian/Hindu population too.

Let us go back to the Kamala Harris example. Is everyone you know truly upset about it, even in the Hindu community? I can quite literally look at my friends list and remind myself of the blunt truth that many friends and family members probably get quite excited (in a positive way) seeing that image. If they are not sharing it widely it is perhaps only because they fear some “right wing” trolls might bother them, not because they truly understand the problem today, let alone its two thousand year old history spanning the sacking of Alexandria, Nalanda, Vijayanagara….

Iconoclasm Normalized

Iconoclasm is not something we have been trained to detect, critique or oppose. The Hindus of an earlier time may not have had the critical social science vocabulary for it, but they did have the determination and arms quite literally to defend their temples and their gods. We are but the second or third generation out of that immediate reality, comforted by class and migrant privileges for the moment, and secluded most of all not by objective safety but only by our own growing indifference to its absence everywhere.

To put it simply, ask yourself this question: are your children educated in their own senses and being enough to feel the defense of their ancestors’ gods and goddesses to be a worthy task for them? Or your own generation of parents for that matter; how many have fallen out in our own time, from the epistemic stronghold where our gods are simply our gods, and nothing else?

Not myths. Not heroes. Not cartoons. Not crazy scowling white-eyed monster aesthetic figures. Not Disney Netflix Viacom MNC media top-down cultural junk. Not props. Not propaganda buttons. Not weepy caricatures who toss of their divine mandate to fall at a doctor’s feet or plead before some political mob.

Imagine the ancestors of all the Hindus who today are blindly pegging their sense of moral uprightness, their sense of self even, onto loaded, lethal, propagandistic imagery like this; what would they make of their descendants? Is this inability to see the divine in the divine, let alone in the human, social, and the ecological, what the outcome of all their sacrifices for our “education” was meant to be for?

Education

We are lacking two things today. One, a deep-rooted education in our own sacred experiences, places, memories, and arts and sciences. Two, an active, agential education in the professions and intellectual disciplines within which a battle for representation needs to be fought; we have no Hindu critique of all that we have faced, and continue to face, in the institutions where “critique” is produced today. Since my expertise is in the latter, I can tell you one thing for sure. If Hindu parents continue to rely on social media bravado as some sort of a “befitting reply” to forces that have built enormous institutions to advance their missions, they will not have much of a chance at all to see their children rise to be anything more than compliant victims of this disgusting bigotry and hate. We need education. We need respect for educators.

I would like to conclude with a call for you to look closely at moments of intergenerational conversation around Hinduism in your own life and family. What exactly is the message your children are receiving from you, forget the “liberal media” or “Hinduphobic schools” for now? Are you teaching them (or learning for yourself first in order to teach) the tools to fight racism, bigotry, Hinduphobia in the way that they will have to in their colleges and lives in the years to come? Or are you merely giving them some civilizational or “nationalist” platitudes from social media, hoping these will somehow guarantee their success against well-armed imperialist ideologies with all the power to give them certificates, jobs, everything, really? What exactly do you say is “Hinduism” to them? And why it’s worth defending?

Do you have the tools? The words?

Desecration and iconoclasm are no longer some far-off concerns. They are taking place not only through land-grabs and demolitions of temples and deities in India and South Asia, but also in the very stories which we use to exist as who we are. Media, education, and even social media have shifted the terms on which we speak as Hindus very deeply.

Bhagavata-Bharata-Ramayana? It just means, “You Go, Girl/Guy!”

One of the strangest tendencies I have seen of late, mundane as it might seem, is that of Hindu children in various online classes (chanting, Sanskrit, history, story-telling etc.) feeling compelled to add some sort of modern “moral” or “self-help” commentary on top of the stories of the gods and goddesses we have grown up with (I suspect its part of one of many weird psychological things modern factory schools do to kids, following John Gatto’s criticisms, part of the compensatory self-esteem culture that comes alongside brutal competitiveness and dehumanization, plus it’s a thing in Indian media as well).

Consider the pros and cons of this tendency. The pro, arguably, is that modern children cannot relate to the stories of the gods unless there is a rationale, often a utilitarian one, also sold to them, so it’s fine to do this. The con, of course, is that it becomes very hard for children in an already widely desacralized and actively Hinduphobic cultural world to figure out what makes Rama or Krishna different from say, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or even Malala and Greta (and the latter two already have an advantage; they are seen as “making a difference” in the lives of others while Rama and Krishna have been sold by parents and Sunday schools as role models only for getting better grades, extra curricular awards, and ultimately, jobs).

The Hindu “narrative” today is subservient to a meta-narrative that most Hindu parents, even those concerned about Hinduphobia and survival, are not really engaged with. The problem is not just that one sixth grade world history lesson but really the curriculum of the modern world as a whole too. Hindus can demand better sixth grade textbooks as much as they want but at the end of the day, it won’t mean a thing if we fail to challenge everything else that is narrated too about the world and why we are here.

That is the level at which a Hindu must see it.

Why should a Hindu child feel like the only way that the story of Rama gains merit is by adding on some inanity at the end? What we have we lost in ourselves that we don’t know what is valuable any more? What we have lost that we cannot just say “Rama!” and have that mean the universe, for that is what it was, is, and will be?

Enough of “Hinduism Means You Must Work Hard and Get Good Grades”

I think that the present generation of Hindu parents and future Hindu parents are facing a very challenging task indeed in terms of figuring out the stories that are stacked against us, and the stories that will give us life, purpose, and power, still.

For one thing, I believe we need to consciously stop telling lightweight consumerist meta-stories that decenter the sanctity of our own ancient memories written in stone, song, love and life for so long. This is really important because the shallow identity-level “Hindu” game has almost run its course. It has helped with some form of political mobilization in India so a party gets to ride it for good or bad, but for the future of everyone else, much more is needed. There’s too much of Hinduism means “you must work hard” to get a pat on the back from contemptuous schools and colleges and employers stuff going on. What we need is: Hinduism means you can change the world, topple every lie and injustice in it and end every pain in every being’s life. Jai Bhawani! Jai Saraswati! Jai Ma Durga!

Bring the gods back to the exalted throne of your words, sights, and deeds, and your children, who stand at the crossroads between divinity and one more generation of dumbed down servitude to the messiah-wallas’ Matrix, will be again what the gods still wish for them to be.

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Vamsee Juluri

Vamsee Juluri

Author of Firekeepers of Jwalapuram, Part 2 of The Kishkindha Chronicles (Westland, 2020) & Media Studies Professor at the University of San Francisco.