My Kali is Queer

By Sunita Viswanath, originally published by Religion News Service. Sunita Viswanath is a co-founder and executive director of Hindus for Human Rights.

(RNS) — Leena Manimekalai’s 2019 film “Maadathy,” about the brutalization of a Dalit girl who becomes a village deity, began with the words, “Behind every deity in India, there is a story of injustice.” These words have proven prescient. An injustice is brewing around Manimekalai’s new film “Kaali”: The film and its poster have brought the filmmaker threats of arrest, rape, and murder. 

Manimekalai calls “Kaali” a “performance documentary” — a personal and poetic meditation on the female divine. In a six-minute excerpt shown at a multimedia exhibition in Toronto last week, Mother Kali, Hinduism’s powerful goddess of death and the end of time, wanders through a pride festival in Toronto at night. She observes groups of people out on the town, takes a subway ride, stops in a bar. People take selfies with her. In the last frame, she is on a park bench where a man gives her a cigarette. The poster for the film shows the goddess smoking a cigarette and holding a pride flag.   

The Aga Khan Museum and Toronto Metropolitan University caved in to pressure from the Indian government and issued apologies for screening the film. Twitter removed Manimekalai’s tweet showing the film’s poster. Manimekalai is wanted for arrest for “hurting religious feelings” in Assam, Uttarakhand, Haridwar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and several other states and has received numerous death and rape threats.

In an email, Manimekalai said the controversy had made it impossible for her to return to India. “My safety is a big question mark now and I feel totally derailed, to be honest. But I don’t want to bow down, and so I’m fighting with full power.”

Manimekalai comes from a South Indian community that worships the Goddess Kali as “a pagan goddess” who “eats meat cooked in goat’s blood, drinks arrack, smokes and dances wild,” the filmmaker told The Guardian.

Manimekalai, who identifies as bisexual, says, “My Kali is queer. She is a free spirit. She spits at the patriarchy. She dismantles Hindutva. She destroys capitalism. She embraces everyone with all her thousand hands.”

Someone unfamiliar with Hinduism might say Hindus are justified in their outrage. It’s important to understand, however, that the film and its poster are in line with a long tradition of diversity of Hindu practice and belief and immense personal freedom in one’s relationship with the divine. 

An Indian member of parliament, Mahua Moitra, defended the film, saying, “To me, Kali is a meat-eating, alcohol-accepting goddess. I am a Kali worshipper. I am not afraid of anything. Not your goons. Not your police. And most certainly not your trolls.” Moitra is now facing criminal charges, too.

Kali first appeared in Indian culture as an Indigenous deity before being absorbed into the Brahminical traditions and Sanskrit texts in the present-day form “as a dangerous, blood-loving battle queen.” Hindu Goddesses are at the same time fierce warriors against evil and injustice and unconditionally loving and protective, and Kali’s devotees consider her the Divine Mother of all humanity.

Neither cigarettes nor queer pride is forbidden in Hinduism. Hinduism is historically very open toward sex and sexual difference. Innumerable stories in Hindu Scriptures tell of same-sex relationships, children born of same-sex relationships and characters — some of them gods — who are gay, queer or trans.  

The South Indian Goddess Mariamman is often offered alcohol, and animals are sacrificed for her. The Guyanese “Madrassi” community comprises Hindus who worship Devi (the Mother Goddess) in all her forms, particularly Mariamman and Kateri Amma. “We firmly believe that devotion to Amma is subjective, and she comes to each of us in a unique way,” Vijah Ramjattan, president and founder of the United Madrassi Association in New York, told me. The community’s first Madrassi Day parade in 2017 featured an LGBTQ artist and dancer, Zaman, perform as the goddess Sundari.

Hindu deities smoke, drink, get high, and sometimes eat meat. It is very common for alcohol, meat, and even cigarettes to be offered to deities, particularly Kali. As the writer Shuddhabrata Sengupta explains, in the late 19th century, a Kali brand of cigarettes was produced in Calcutta.

One advertisement read, ‘If you care for the development of ‘svadeshi’ [homegrown Indian] products, if you feel responsible for the poor, miserable, working people of this land, if you can truly distinguish between good and evil, then, o Hindu brothers, you must use these ‘Kali’ cigarettes!” 

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This article was originally published by Religion News Service and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.


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9 Responses to My Kali is Queer

  1. Sastra-Vani Dasa

    Has the Sri Caitanya Sangha taken a stand on this issue?
    In case some of its members want to open up this matter for discussion, I suggest that they should not make it public by posting this write-up. They should do it in a private group such as a private Facebook group.
    I find quite a few things mentioned in the article blatant lies. I suggest that the editors of the Harmonist do a thorough check before posting such things.

    • Sastra-Vani,

      There is no particular stance implied by posting this article. One of the goals of the Harmonist is to share how others outside of the Gaudiya community may think about issues that concern us, even if we do not agree.

      Your comment would be much more constructive if you would please cite specific points made by the article that you consider to be “lies,” and provide support for your claim that they are such. We share the same concern–that Harmonist readers remain well-informed about the world around them–so a constructive comment as described above would be very helpful in supporting a meaningful discussion.

      • Sastra-Vani Dasa

        I would appreciate it if you would have checked that all points mentioned in this article are facts.

        • Since this article was originally published by a reputable news source (Religion News Service) and written by an educated woman who has co-founded multiple human rights organizations, I believe it is safe to assume that some degree of fact-checking has already occurred.

  2. “My Kali is queer. She is a free spirit. She spits at the patriarchy. She dismantles Hindutva. She destroys capitalism. She embraces everyone with all her thousand hands.”

    That’s all great but there’s nothing inherently “queer” about any of it.

  3. “Hinduism is historically very open toward sex and sexual difference. Innumerable stories in Hindu Scriptures tell of same-sex relationships, children born of same-sex relationships and characters — some of them gods — who are gay, queer or trans. ”

    I am not aware of any gay or trans deities in Hinduism. Can anyone here elaborate? Children born of same sex relationships? Does anyone know of any stores in Hindu scriptures about that?

  4. Braja sundari dasi

    Many Hindu Deities are trans- gender (beyond gender) which for modern people, not so preoccupied with theology might seem like transgender or gender fluid. To mention a few examples- Mohini Murti is a female form of Vishnu. Mahaprabhu is combined form of Radha and Krishna, he also showed himself as Laksmi in one of the pastimes. Śiva as Ardhanaisvara, Visnu as Vaikuntha Kamalaja. Then there is Harihara- Śiva and Visnu joined together.

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