The Pop-Culture Kali of America

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 4, 2010 — 7 Comments

Of all the Hindu goddesses, the image of Kali is perhaps the most well-known by those who know virtually nothing else about Hinduism. She’s been invoked and adopted by countless modern Pagans in America, sometimes with little to no knowledge of the religion or culture she sprung from, a fact occasionally satirized by Pagan humorists. In addition, she has become part of America’s cultural (and subcultural) short-hand in invoking an “exotic” Indian other (along with Ganesha and the dancing Shiva). However, as Hindus in America start to gain more political and economic clout and confidence, there’s been a push-back against appropriation and uses of Hindu imagery that they find offensive and demeaning. Take, for example, the recent case of the “Kali Mints”.

“Hindu leader, Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada, said inappropriate usage of Hindu deities or concepts for commercial or other agenda was not okay as it hurt the devout. Zed, who is president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, stressed that the goddess Kali is revered highly in Hinduism and is meant to be worshipped in temples and not used for selling mints.”

What’s so offensive about these mints? Let’s take a look at the product.

“Kali is a Hindu goddess that represents death, destruction, time and change. And what food comes to mind when you think of death, destruction, time and change? Curry! These exotic spice mints are great on their own or as an accompaniment to basmati rice and garlic naan.”

Not a lot of reverence or respect there. One could see how a Hindu group might take this product the wrong way (though I don’t think it’s nearly as offensive as that episode of Supernatural). Now, I’m not calling for my readers to boycott Accoutrements, or even write them a letter; but I do think this should raise some interesting questions about how our culture uses Hindu images and entities in our entertainment and marketing. Where should Pagans, and especially Indo-Pagans or those who profess to follow an Indian/Hindu god or goddess, stand on this issue? How do we balance our freedom of expression with respect for the culture and history that produced the gods, ritual, and rites many of us honor?

Meanwhile, a story out of India shows just how different attitudes are concerning the goddess Kali.

“The houses of this village have no doors, yet its residents don’t feel the lack of protection as they believe goddess Kali watches over them. What’s more, no thefts have been reported here for many years.  “It may be surprising for an outsider, but for us it has become a tradition. We have been living without doors from time immemorial,” Sajeevan Pal, 75, a farmer and resident, told IANS.  Singipur is on the outskirts of Allahabad district, some 200 km from the state capital Lucknow. Thatched, mud and cemented houses all exist in the village, but they share a common feature – not having the provisions of doors for its 140-odd houses.  Locals have a strong belief that goddess Kali protects their homes and would even punish those who attempt robbery or theft.”

One wonders what the villagers of Singipur, where Kali protects their door-less homes, would think of curry-flavored “Kali Mints”. Would they be flattered? Amused? Or would they find it sacrilegious and offensive? What do you think? Should we care about Kali Mints?

Jason Pitzl-Waters