In Praise of Blasphemy

In Praise of Blasphemy September 5, 2022

I wear a few different hats in my life. One of them is that of a commercial actor. But aside from advertising, recording audiobooks, industrial videos, I occasionally lend my meager talents to the stage. And over the years I have been involved in some fairly provocative plays. I love it when art holds a mirror to all aspects of society and exposes any warts that might be apparent. Now, don’t get me wrong. Artists can be as myopic as anyone else. Not every reflection is born of wisdom and discrimination. But this is not the place to make those judgements.

Everyone is Fair Game

In the past, I have performed in, or was involved in some backstage capacity, several theatrical pieces that took aim at certain expressions of Christianity (including portraying a gay priest on the make), radical Islamism, secular and religious Jews and homophobic Evangelicals. For the most part, the playwrights hit their marks pretty well. The criticisms within their works were well placed, rang true and were more than just cheap shots. I am proud of my affiliation with these efforts.

Therefore, I would be a hypocrite to lend support to my coreligionists who are all up in arms about the recent movie “Kaali.” From what I gather, it’s the poster that has some people up in arms more so than the content of the film. Leena Manimekalai’s latest work reimagines the great awesome Mother deity in way she believes Kaali would react to the world today.

I doubt  that the storyline would matter little to Hindus. It is the promotional poster that is raising the ire of some. As you can see, Ma Kaali is shown smoking. And yes, as someone who takes great comfort in the darshan of this particular image of divinity it is rather jarring. Irreverent? Maybe. I guess I’d have to see the film to make up my mind. But if Manimekalai committed any “sin” here, it pales in comparison to the moral error committed by those threatened her. Hinduism has been a bastion of pluralism for centuries. This doesn’t mean that the great sages of different dharmic traditions didn’t argue, debate or confront one another. But as a rule, they lived peacefully. Concepts of heresy or blasphemy were not a part of the Hindu mindset. For some reason, this isn’t always the case today. And that makes me sad.

Let me be clear that I do not support the degradation of Hindu deities or saints for commercial purposes. The Hindu American Foundation has done remarkable work in finding examples of companies that marketed figures such as Ganesh, Durga, Shiva and others for the purpose of simply selling their wares. Now, the brand of rice I buy features Laxmi on the bag. That’s just fine. But when non-Hindus want to put these images on shoes or underwear, or use them to sell adult beverages or hamburgers, the offenders are sent letters indicating clearly how disrespectful this is. Not wanting to alienate such a large pool of consumers, compliance with the request to withdraw the items or ads is usually forthcoming.

Art vs. Ads

But the “Kaali” poster and film are not attempting to sell cigarettes. This is a work of art. And often art disrupts. I have no idea if it’s good or great art. But I don’t think this was no cheap shot.

Then again, one person’s blasphemy is another’s sacred act. Case in point, The African-Anglo artist who years ago created an image of the Virgin Mary. He used, among other materials, elephant dung. Disgraced lawyer Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York at the time it was on display there, and about fainted as he cried aloud about the anti-Catholic atrocity that was passing for art. I’m not sure if he was ever told that in Africa elephant dung is considered sacred. While artist Chris Ofili might have known that he would raise  a few eyebrows, it seems his  intent was respectable. So, although my initial reaction was not exactly positive when I saw the movie poster for Kaali, my next thought was to be curious about what the director and writer might be attempting to communicate.

Why is it that people of faith seem to respond so virulently to artistic expression that might be a reaction to the artist’s experience with the religion in question? I mean, if the Supreme One is in some way offended, why not stand back and let divine vengeance take its natural course? Eternal damnation (in some traditions) or a less than auspicious rebirth (in the Indic faiths) is more punishment that any of us can mete out.

Just Who is Insulted?

My take as to the real reason so many people want to intervene with this process is what all our foibles draw down to: Ego (Ahamkara). While people may shake, rattle and roll at the thought that a prophet, saint or deity being displayed in an irreverent manner, I firmly believe that behind the outrage is the thought that others might be mocking or disparaging them. It makes perfect sense. In Hinduism there is no directive to devotees to avenge any afront to the members of the pantheon, avatars or any other beings. Then why waste our energy when we could be doing something useful?

And people who protest vehemently about art that disrupts don’t seem to realize that they are often doing the artist a great favor. The publicity surrounding such opposition usually draws more people to experience the work in question than if they just chilled. I also recommend taking in the exhibit, play, or film prior to raising a hue and cry. Maybe. Just maybe. The artist could have said something spot on. And if you feel the work is less than truthful or relevant,  respond in a rational and dharmic manner. We all win.

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In Praise of Blasphemy
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In Praise of Blasphemy

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