Comment: Image comes from here.
“Salutations be to you, O Narayani, you who have the power of creation, sustentation, and destruction and are eternal. You are the substratum and embodiment of the three gunas. Salutations be to you, O Narayani, O you who are intent on saving the dejected and distressed that take refuge under you. O you, Devi, who remove sufferings of all.” (Devi Mahatmya, 11:11-12)
A few weeks ago during one of the more recent tumultuous periods of American politics, online protesters started to black out their Facebook profiles. In the process, I noticed something rather concerning when I peeked in a discussion on the topic. Some of these online protestors said they were doing things such as “turning black like the Goddess Kali,” and often followed this with comments about raging against injustice. For anyone who experiences or has experienced injustice, oppression, and mistreatment, please believe me when I say I support you and I listen to you. Your voice is heard with me, and I will believe you unless I have reason to not.
Needless to say, this is not the first time I have heard people attribute anger to Kali. One can say it sometimes seems like a rage. It will likely not be the last time it comes up, either.
As someone who studied South Asian Religion and had ties to the Shakta and Goddess worshiping community, though, I cringe at statements that speak of “raging like the Goddess.” I see no White feminist Kali worshipers practicing their religion in reflection of this: I see people misappropriating the Goddess for a political statement. Unlike the time in the past when many Asian Indian revolutionaries reclaimed Kali as a symbol of revolution, the present (yet still very toxic) political climate is different. One major factor separating the blackout on Facebook from the Indian struggles for independence is that many participating in the blackout “in her name” are not realizing what sort of impact their actions have. They do not necessarily understand the implications when it comes to opposing lingering colonial influences.
Better yet, they may not understand how they unwittingly perpetuate colonial ideas that ultimately had (and still have) damaging consequences to South Asian religions, if not cultures.
Before anyone points out Kali’s literary role in the Devi Mahatmya, where she is destroying all things evil and unjust, please let me explain. It is not wrong to see her as a deity of justice, something that has been attributed to her historically. Theologically, this is still a valid perspective. Many more contemporary depictions of Kali have, mind, became focused on her aspect as the pure dissolution of all things (both “good” and “bad”). During Navaratri, which is going on as I speak, anyone with ties to Hindu communities will learn much about her exploits as a destroyer of all things vile in this world, the demons in the stories and our egos in tandem. At the end of our struggles, she dissolves everything, destroying duality itself.
What becomes an issue for me is the hyper-focus on her being an “angry goddess,” perpetuating negative Orientalist stereotypes surrounding her. The imagery to follow depicts a more malicious fantasy than how her worshipers perceive her, not a benign one. This is further exaggerated by the existing negative (and misleading) stereotypes regarding women, complicating an already convoluted situation. It is things like this many aware Hindus and allied scholars alike have been trying to address over the decades, countering colonial literature that never considered the perspective and context offered by native voices.
Old-school Orientalist literature, coupled with pop-culture references such as movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and books akin to the Song of Kali by Dan Simmons, still misappropriate Kali. Instead of portraying historical depictions of her as a warrior goddess slaying demons, they have made her a deity for ruffians and outlaws, psychopathic and homicidal misfits who do not represent the majority of her worshipers. Some of these references even solely call her demonic. Many pop-culture savvy folks know the reference of Thuggee as a group of “Kali fanatics,” some even thinking they are the real “religious” deal. Only recently have well-read, culturally aware scholars such as Rachel McDermott published articles to address these misconceptions stemming from inappropriate portrayals. One article that comes to mind discusses how the “Cult of Thuggee” stories had been used as propaganda to justify British Rule. It is a start in the right direction, but far from the only thing needed to address the baggage wrought on all of us from colonialism.
This history leading to the present, has resulted in Kali’s cultural appropriation – or what I prefer to call it, cultural misappropriation. Pure intentions or not, the colonial imagining of Kali is exactly the imagery invoked when someone is claiming they are becoming Kali because they are “angry” at something. A lot of the (mis)appropriation come across as just that: angry, and not even much to do with opposing injustice or acknowledging Kali’s complex nature as a whole. People are not seeing a goddess who fights injustice as some feminists might hope, but instead, are finding a continuation of her portrayal in the Orientalist imagination. They see someone who is irrational, enraged, and violent. Because of the social circumstances ongoing, I understand some of the people doing this mean well, but whether they realize it or not, it is still cultural appropriation. It still perpetuates anti-Hindu, even racist stereotypes.
Seeing this happen makes me wonder for myself a number of things. Should I, a Western-born Eurasian fantasy lover with ties to the Shakta community, even try making a fantasy world where Kali exists? Even more, can she be safely represented as she was historically: as a slayer of demons and our selfish desires? In this, I hope if nothing else, to give my audience different ideas about Kali that go against pop-culture references. Even better, I want to introduce an aspect of the Goddess that goes against the (effectively same) presentation of her as depicted by my beloved childhood game, Dungeons & Dragons.
Previous misappropriations now make me question whether I will help “do it right” or if I will contribute to the ongoing issue. Some may suggest I should not because I was never born in India or even Southeast Asia, where my ancestors come from. That is their prerogative. Nonetheless, I will be consulting practitioners as I navigate this question and make sure I do not isolate them in the discussion, hopefully doing at least that much right. I feel anyone who wishes to turn their appropriations into appreciation need to consider similar. Or steer a good distance away.