As the dispute over the depiction of Goddess Kaali continues to simmer, addressing the centenary celebrations of Swami Atmasthananda, 15th President of the Ramakrishna Math, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said:
“Swami Ramakrishna Paramhansa was one of those saints who had a vision of Maa Kaali and surrendered his whole being at Maa Kaali’s feet. He used to say that everyone, everything is permeated by the consciousness of Goddess Kaali. This consciousness is visible in the Kaali Puja of Bengal. This consciousness is visible in the faith of Bengal and the country.
He further added that “Maa Kaali’s blessings are always with the country, which moves forward with spiritual energy for the welfare of the world.”
One, if not the most quoted, of the principles of Ramakrishna Paramahansa – “joto word toto poth(there are as many paths as there are opinions) – emphasizing unequivocally the equality of all religions takes on special significance in today’s turbulent environment. A familiar saying in Bengal, the widely circulated quote from Ramakrishna testifies to the mystic’s devotion to religious pluralism and eclecticism. This is also confirmed by his complex spiritual thoughts, the practice of different religions (including Islam and Christianity) and his relationship with the goddess Kaali.
In a previous article on Threadscholar Pralaya Kanungo quoted the vision of the mystic as presented by Ramakrishna Mission: “A lake has many ghats [bathing places]. At one time the Hindus take water in pitchers and call it “jal”; at another, Muslims take water in leather bags and call it “pani”. One-third Christians call it “water.”
Can we imagine that it is not “jal“, but only “panior “water”? How ridiculous! The substance is one under different names, and each seeks the same substance; only climate, temperament and name create differences. Let everyone go their own way. If he sincerely and earnestly desires to know God, peace be with him! He will surely realize it!
Like Ramakrishna, Goddess Kaali’s place in Bengali culture and society must be appreciated in context. Consider Kaali’s unusual iconography.
The most common of her many depictions depicts the goddess, bare-bodied, her long, wild hair flowing around her. Around her neck hangs a necklace made of skulls, a skirt of limbs falls from her waist. Two of his arms bear a severed human head and a sword, while the other two show fearlessness and blessing.
In some depictions, one of his arms cradles a cup in which flows the blood of evil demons that Kaali has slain. The foot of the goddess rests on the prostrate body of her consort Shiva, her tongue sticking out, apparently surprised to step on her husband. Or so goes a popular interpretation.
As varied as these representations are, in her version of feminine power, Kaali conveys an imaginary of Shakti distinct from that embodied by Parvati and Durga.
Growing up in Bengal, I remember that the aura around the midnight Kaali puja was somewhat different from the mood surrounding Durga or Lokkhi Pujo. There was a certain subversive quality to the worship of Kaali. A certain thrill of worshiping a deity embodying the fearlessness that many, if not all, yearned for.
Until recently animal sacrifice was a common practice in Kaali Pujo. Even when this practice ended in many places of worship, people still looked forward to a spicy mutton dish. Far from frowning on the drinking, the celebratory mood of the occasion keenly anticipated its intoxicating exuberance.
Like most myths built around deities, those around Kaali – who symbolizes time, destruction and creation – are rooted in the idea of destroying evil and protecting the vulnerable. It can be said that the depiction of an enraged goddess manifesting rage has over the decades attracted a large number of Bengalis to her across classes and castes. Feminists have also embraced Kaali as a symbol of agency and power. Kaali therefore represents (among other things) an image of Shakti campaigning against safe and orthodox cultural mores.
The ongoing argument and the deeper issues
Given these well-established traditions around Kaali Pujo, the feud that has erupted over comments by Trinamool Congressman Mahua Moitra seems childish indeed. True to its character and guided by its political and ideological program, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made every effort to impose the will of the party on religious practices which do not fit well with the idea of a culture and a homogenized Hindu religion. However, rather than backing their own leader, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) also condemned Moitra’s remarks.
Such condemnation goes against the party’s valued approach to Bengali nationalism, which it successfully exploited against the BJP in the 2021 parliamentary elections. The BJP was then projected as a party organic from the heart of the Hindi country, indifferent, even unconscious, to the Bangla language and culture. The TMC argued that the BJP’s homogenous view of cultural nationalism was contrary to the cultural and religious practices of Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee herself popularized the slogans of “Jai Durga” to counter BJP’s “Jai Shri Ram”. If anything has mortally wounded the BJP in Bengal, it is the politics of Bangla nationalism. The BJP’s top leadership could not shake its well-built cultural armor. Now, the consequences of echoing the BJP on cultural nationalism could backfire on the TMC.
But equally important, the row over Kaali draws attention to a deeper malaise. As the number of those whose “feelings” are “hurt” and “offended” grows by leaps and bounds, any hint of complexity and heterogeneity is erased from religious practice under the threat of First Information Reports (FIR ).
Many of Bengal’s most cherished icons – Ramakrishna, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Vivekananda and, of course, Kaali herself – testify to the fact that recent changes in state politics cannot be understood without acknowledging the roots roots of Hindu nationalism in Bengali culture. .
While this story gives important clues to the rise of the BJP in the state and the TMC’s resort to cultural nationalism in response, it goes without saying that looking to this aspect of Bengal’s past to determine its future is a deeply tense.