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Sense, Sensitivities and Sensibility

It's easy nowadays to get offended - and it's also easy to offend someone. So when I read the news about some politician having made an 'indecent' remark about a Hindu goddess, I simply ignored it to be a political slugfest of trying to win the votes of one audience, by offending the other. It probably is indeed so - I honestly do not know. 

However, as the news unravelled I came to know that the source was not this politician from the opposition parties but an Indian-origin film-maker based in Canada who apparently made a movie on Maa Kali and a poster of her film which created the waves. Apparently, the poster showed Kali smoking cigarettes - the filmmaker wanted to showcase Maa Kali as a badass hero and smoking was the way to show off the adjective! As I pondered over this, several thoughts ran into my mind - which the title of this post represents.

But the very first image which flew across my mental retina was that of Gajanan Maharaj - a saint from the 19th century, revered across Maharashtra and outside by devotees (mostly) of Marathi origin. Since my childhood, we had a photograph of Gajanan Maharaj in the temple at home - Maharaj seated in his distinctive pose holding a Chillum to his mouth. 

Gajanan Maharaj was a saint, like the more popular Sai Baba and other saints from Maharashtra like Tukaram and Namdev (who is also a part of Sikh spirituality). Followers of Gajanan Maharaj can also be found in Madhya Pradesh (mainly Malwa region which was under the Marathas before independence). The picture above is from Wikipedia and is probably the most common picture found in most homes that treat Gajanan Maharaj as a guru. 

As a child, I remember two distinct aspects which struck me. The first was why was Maharaj so scantily dressed - he was almost naked with just a loincloth and that too covering only his genitals. This was usually explained as a symbol of renunciation - Mahatma Gandhi later also adopted this virtue - but it was completely spiritual for ascetics like Gajanan Maharaj. They did not care for worldly possessions to the extent that they had given up even an article of basic clothing. They probably kept that loincloth only so that their disciples may not find it offensive.

The second thing that struck me was the chillum - because smoking was always declared morally unacceptable. Smoking was not just told to be a health hazard, smokers were associated with a general lack of character. And yet, here was the photograph of someone whom everyone from my grandparents to children was to revere - smoking a chillum and kept next to all other photos and idols of gods! To be honest, I don't really remember what answers I got for my questions on the chillum, but as I matured, this image explained to me the greatness and core tenets of what Sanatan dharma (or Hinduism as its post-17th century version is called) stands for.

Sanatana is a way of life (Hon. Supreme Court of India in its judgement states as much for Hindutva - a term which has been muddled by political currents), though I'd describe it as a philosophical tradition. The deepest sense of the philosophy is to stabilise oneself in such a manner as to become ONE with the universe - there are many ways in which this is stated across the thousands of granthas, techniques and hundreds of schools of thought - the core however is captured by the shlok अहं ब्रह्मस्मि. This first requires one to reach the point where you must accept everything AS IT IS - तत् त्वम् असि.

While I don't claim to understand these spiritual truths in completeness, to the extent I understand them or abstract them in my mind, I have been able to use them to reconcile several so-considered contradictions within Sanatan Dharma. Whether it is the fact that Lord Ram engaged in violence (hinsa) to win over an errant Ravan, or that Krishna advised Dharmraj Yudhishthir to engage in white lies with "naro va kunjaro va", or finding greatness in Gajanan Maharaj holding the chilum.

Sanatana is deep, and it does not engage in the shallowness of ascribing virtues or inniquity to worldly actions like smoking or drinking. Smoking of the chillum, a worldly action, has no relation to Gajanan Maharaj's spiritualism. Maharaj is great for the spiritual prowess he possessed, which probably none of us can't even imagine understanding. Gajanan Maharaj can be great while holding the chillum or keeping it away - the chillum plays no part in his greatness or otherwise. 
Sidenote#: There is a nice video by Jaggi Vasudev about Sri Ramkrishna Paramhansa's love of food and how he used his craving for food, as a way to stay grounded in this material world in spite of being liberated spiritually. It is possible that the Chillum was Gajanan Maharaj's craving to keep him grounded in this material world until his disciples needed him.
So, as a student and follower of this Sanatana, I do not find it offensive to see Alcohol or meat offered as Prasad to Maa Kali or liquor to Kaal Bhairav. So, political statements on whether a god accepting meat and alcohol as an offering* represents Hinduism, are as shallow as the ones which claim that it is "offensive" to state that god accepts meat and alcohol. 

Sanatana to me is far above the plane of what you offer your deity - you can offer meat or sweets or ideally, you can offer your whole self - the diety in Sanatana has nothing to do with it. Sanatana is about a spiritual journey where you realise the almighty within yourself - the diety outside, the idol in the temple, and the rug on which you do Yog-Sadhana are going to become immaterial if and when you reach the ultimate consequence. 

A religion which is about liberating yourself from this material world can neither believe in nor be offended by any words, thoughts or actions which have their existence only in this material world. Hence the (over) sensitivity which is displayed by both sides of this debate belongs to a world, that the spiritual concepts of Sanatana do not recognise.

My thoughts finally do go back to the filmmaker who made that poster. Kali is an amazing deity - real badass to use a Western's term. She slayed the asura - an act which probably is illustrative of how we need to quell the demons within our mind, but even if we were to treat it physically - she represents Shakti. The description of Kali in Devi Mahatmyam is representative of the fearsome appearance she exudes: 
Bearing the strange khatvanga (skull-topped staff), decorated with a garland of skulls, clad in a tiger's skin, very appalling owing to her emaciated flesh, with gaping mouth, fearful with her tongue lolling out, having deep reddish eyes, filling the regions of the sky with her roars, falling upon impetuously and slaughtering the great asuras in that army, she devoured those hordes of the foes of the devas
Kali is surely worthy of being portrayed in a grand and menacing manner. As a father of a girl, I can clearly see how Kali should be an essential role model for girls and young women - especially in the context of women's liberation. 

However, I fail to see how showing Kali smoking a cigarette achieves that effect. With all due consideration to 'freedom of expression' or artistic license that we grant to filmmakers, I do feel there is a need for more Sensibility among them to comprehend what impact their art will have on audiences - not just direct but indirect audiences who receive this art with all their sensitivities throbbing at the first sense of any 'offence' they might want to take. Would I have advised Charlie Hebdo creators also the same, in hindsight, it's probably easy to say - Absolutely!

Acknowledged that the world is often pushed forward by those who have the courage to differ and be iconoclasts. Broadcast artists however, operate in a world which has a much wider impact on contemporary narratives than future beliefs. It is one thing to portray a deity in your chosen attire or style in an underground or art cinema - and another to publish a poster for consumption by mainstream audiences.

While I find sensitivities of elements on both sides quite incongruous, I also felt that the sensibility displayed by the filmmaker was also abysmal. Going back to Gajanan Maharaj - just like he still had a loincloth covering only a minuscule part of his body, probably just to comfort his disciples, the filmmaker could have used a different trope to showcase the badass character of her hero - Maa Kali.

I hope society can return to the days when Sense prevailed, Sensitivities were not restless and Sensibilities of public figures were more refined.

*the word 'offering' is an incorrect translation of 'prasadam' - but you get the drift!
# This is purely my perception given my limited knowledge and may be wrong as well. I certainly do not hope to offend anyone's feelings or question opinions.


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