The Gods That Ate Everything
The last week or two in Mumbai we have seen a lot of celebrations (and a lot of chaos!) in the streets. Ganesh Chaturthi has filled the streets with processions of drummers and dancers as bappas were paraded towards their final destinations to be immersed in water. Eid has filled the streets with proud men with plump goats on strings decorated with tinsel.
The whole affair is driving my friend crazy. He is a firm believer that religion should be celebrated in private, kept off the streets and out of people’s faces. He feels that the whole show and pomp put on by the competing revelers is dissolving the meaning behind the festivals, rendering them a pointless, noisy menace.
Me on the other hand, I love a good street party. I love the colour, music, atmosphere and community spirit. I think it is important to keep cultures and traditions alive plus I always welcome the prompt to explore the deeper meanings and lessons to be learnt from these traditions.
However, several weeks in, suffering from a fever bed bound, the cacophony of the endless festivities outside was too much even for me. Poor Ganesh with his large elephant ears must have himself been half deafened.
A particular highlight of Ganpati celebration is the troops of drummers that are accompanied by a keyboard player. The keyboard is often amplified through tinny-screechy sounding tannoy speakers strapped to the top of a rickshaw or car. You can be certain that whatever they keyboard player is playing (seemingly random notes that occasionally bear some resemblance to popular Bollywood songs from the 1970s) will have absolutely no correlation with the accompanying drummers. The dancing public seem to be blissfully unaware/ indifferent to this dissonance and continue to whirl around, let off crackers and shout ‘Morya!’ with great enthusiasm. My head felt like it was going to explode.
“So now you understand?” says my friend, “the whole affair is about show-off; who has the biggest Bappa covered in the most glitter, spent the most money, hired the biggest troop of drummers, put up a mobile soundsystem. Last year there were many complaints because the DJs were playing trashy songs like ‘I’m sexy and I know it’ and ‘Gangnam Style.’ What has that got to do with religion? And with Eid – it is about coming on the road and showing off who has the fattest goat. It used to be that the meat was given to the poor but that rarely happens anymore. They just shit everywhere and cause a nuisance all for ego not god. Why can’t people keep religion in their own homes?”
While, despite my headache I did not entirely agree with him, our conversation got me thinking about a story I had read our daughter about Ganesh and Kubera. Here is my retelling of it in my own words:
Kubera was the god of wealth and he was a massive show-off. He loved to put on the most lavish parties to prove his status as the richest (and therefore most important) god around. He had the finest wines, the most gourmet food and the most opulent décor. All that was lacking to complete the perfection was the caliber of the guests.
Kubera knew what he had to do – he had to persuade Shiva and Parvati, the heads of all the gods to be his guests. He would spend so much money on them that everyone in the whole world would admire him!
Off he went to Kailash with golden invitations and a heart full of pride at his genius idea. Shiva and Parvati were busy however, and in their place sent their son Ganesh, assuring Kubera that he would be a most fitting guest for the occasion.
Undeterred, Kubera pulled out all the stops and showered his guest with compliments and expensive canapes.
“I want the main course!” Demanded Ganesh.
Kubera presented an enormous spread on a mile long banquet table. Ganesh gobbled it up in ten seconds flat. “More!” the god demanded, “I’m still hungry! I will tell my parents what a stingy miser you are not feeding me enough!”
Kubera was starting to get worried. Ganesh had eaten all the food in the palace so he sent his men out to get all the food in the city and the surrounding villages. The village people cried as Kubera’s men took away their food. “What will we feed our children?” They cried.
When all the food in all the land was presented at the palace once more Ganesh swallowed it all, without even chewing. “Still hungry!” shouted Ganesh, his belly filling half the hall.
“But Ganesh!” pleaded Kubera, “I have no food left!”
“You miser! You peasant! I thought you were rich!” Exclaimed Ganesh before starting to eat up all the guards and servants and anyone else who crossed his path. “Next Kubera I am going to eat you!” Shouted Ganesh.
Kubera ran away in fright. Outside he saw the starving people. “Oh great rich king!” they pleaded, “help us as you are so wealthy and generous!”
Kubera ran faster, he could not bear to admit he had nothing and was now as poor as them. There was only one place left to go – back to Kailash to ask for help.
When Shiva and Parvati saw Kubera’s panicked face they laughed. “How silly you are,” said Parvati kindly, “you made the mistake of thinking that people will respect and admire you more if you show off your wealth. Us enlightened gods know the truth however, if you want to impress and honor us then it does not matter how big or small your offering is – what matters is that it is done with humility and love. We have no use for these offerings of food and material riches so afterwards they should be given to the people who need them. Only then will we be satisfied.”
Kubera knew then what he had to do. He went back to Ganesh and knelt before him.
“Oh lord Ganesh! I have nothing left to offer you to demonstrate my wealth. I found these few grains of rice on the kitchen floor. It is not much but I offer them now to you to show my respect for you. They are merely a token. What I really offer to you is my heart and myself as your humble servant and my thanks for all that is good. I offer my prayers that everyone else can be rich in happiness and never go hungry.”
Ganesh smiled and took the rice. “Now I am full. In fact I am too full!” And with that Ganesh opened his mouth and out came all the people, all their food and everything Kubera had fed Ganesh. Kubera was so grateful he used to food to put on a feast for all the poorest citizens of his kingdom and made sure that in the future if he ever held a party that everyone was invited, regardless of how rich or poor they were!
I think this story teaches a valuable lesson. With my friend being a Hindu he celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi at home for three days. On the third day he took all the sweets and fruits he had offered down along with his Bappa and distributed the food to all the children who live on his road. When I say they live on his road I literally mean ON his road – in small shacks built from tarpaulin or just on the pavement. My daughter handed out the sweets and played with the children and finally understood why the sweets that had tempted her for days were not for her. Then we took his Bappa and immersed him in the purpose built pool at the end of the street where he could biodegrade and not cause any pollution. He bought him from a street-side craftsman as opposed to from a mall or supermarket and next year, inspired by a story I read last year we want to make a Bappa out of chocolate, immerse in milk and make chocolate milkshake for all the kids.
My Muslim friend at work told me how he would go home for Eid the following week and his family would take their goat to a special community place where after sacrifice, one third of the meat would be donated for the poor and needy with the remaining two thirds going to family and friends. He also mentioned how each year his family gives alms as part of a Muslim festival.
We have a duty as both individuals and the community to celebrate festivals, both religious and secular for the right reasons and in a responsible way for the environment and our neighbors. The solution is not banning public displays of religion, much as it would please my friend, but to look at the lessons those religions are trying to teach us and do our best to understand and abide by them.
Wishing you all a (slightly belated) happy Ganesh Chaturthi and Eid. !
Cultural Appropriation – My Two-pennies Worth!
A lot has been written on this subject recently, both in the world of fellow intercultural-relationship bloggers and in the mainstream media. The whole debate has on more than a few occasions ruffled my feathers. There seems to be an increasing number of condescending and negative anti-cultural appropriation articles out there (amongst some quite valid ones) so I thought I would do my bit to re-dress the balance and put my point of view out there. As usual there is a comprehensive list of links to other articles and blogs at the end.
So, cultural appropriation, what is it? Dictionary definition says:
“Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.”
So why is it such a touchy subject? Wikipedia says:
“Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights… According to authors in the field, cultural (mis)appropriation differs from acculturation or assimilation in that the “appropriation” or “misappropriation” refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context.”
Well thanks for clearing that up Wikipedia. I could carry on in a very academic discourse now about the “exotic” and the “other” and how neither of them are particularly wholesome terms when you are at the receiving end. I will state from the very beginning that I do not support cultural (mis)appropriation when it is done with bad intent and despite not being the biggest fan of stringent political correctness, when it is done in an uneducated and disrespectful way that causes offence or hardship to the culture in question. However, this article is not an essay – I want to share with you my thoughts on why it is not always a bad thing – or at least that certain acts need to be re-termed as per wikipedia above suggests.
So why am I in such a tizz about it all? Well there have sprung up actual hate groups – internet trolls who set out to harass and humiliate the ever growing number of white women in relationships with Indian men (I’m sure there are equivalents for other nationalities/races also but I’m going to talk about the one relevant to me). I find this bizarre and shocking. I’ve also read a great deal of articles also with subjects covering everything from white people shouldn’t be allowed to practice yoga or wear bindis to horrified reactions to various pop star’s costume/ dance move / music video locations choices. A lot of these are more than a little over zealous in their condemnation of the act.
I like to think that we have moved on somewhat from the hate and prejudice of the colonial and apartheid eras and that the world is slowly embracing this concept of a ‘global village’ where idealistically, we are all in it together and equal. OK so we are not quite ready for world peace just yet and intolerance is rife but on the whole, we are living in increasingly progressive times. Due to the internet and wider accessibility of air travel, cultures are mixing now more than ever with more bridges being built than burnt. I am ever the optimist.
More and more as we occupy the same geographical spaces, we are naturally mixing our cultures together – our music, art, fashion, marriage, religion. It’s a natural and I would argue healthy process. It is certainly an unavoidable one – so why are some people so determined to fight against it? Minority cultures are not being lost – if anything they are spreading and receiving new acceptance, recognition and appreciation and without some degree of cultural exchange this would not be possible.
In this day and age it is so important that we learn about and try to understand each other’s cultures – ignorance breeds fear and contempt and therefore oppression. When the unknown becomes known it is less threatening. Popular culture and imagery is a very effective way of spreading ideas and concepts – even though often they may be in a very base and stereotypical form. Children learn through role play and make believe – why can’t we allow a degree of that in adulthood and in popular culture and accept the innocence of it? If we look at the bigger picture and the greater good, global society as a whole is making an effort to understand each other. In this organic process there is bound to be a few misguided (mis)appropriations and reactions to them, but this is all part of the natural process of communicating and understanding each other better. A constructive critique is a much more positive way to approach public acts of cultural (mis)appropriation as well as a degree of tolerance and maybe a few ‘ten points for effort’ pats on the back where it has been done, perhaps badly, but with the best of intentions.
Anyway moving back to how this affects me personally, when you are in an intercultural relationship you are in love first and foremost. You don’t consider that you are white and your culture is ‘dominant’ over your partner’s Indian culture – it doesn’t even enter your brain. If you happen to live in India you feel very much the opposite on occasion as this is what is going on in your daily life – you are the foreigner and the minority. You consider that this is the person you love and both of your culture’s are of equal importance. You participate in each other’s cultures. You respect each other’s families by adopting each other’s customs. You learn each other’s languages. You celebrate each other’s festivals. You are a unit – two into one – and when you raise a child together it becomes even more so as that child has a right to know and feel a part of both cultures.
When I hear of these hate groups protesting at a white woman in a relationship with an Indian man having a Hindu or Sikh wedding ceremony or wearing a saree or bindi at a formal event and accusing her of appropriation I think this is hugely unfair. It’s not appropriation – it is the unifying of cultures and done in a very respectful way. Then you see the idiotic counter arguments “well you Desi girls wear Western clothes – why is that OK but me in a saree not?” Then you see the argument back “well your culture is dominant and mine is not so my prejudice is OK!” I find the whole thing totally ridiculous and pointless and detrimental to discussion and resolution of the core issue.
Should I feel guilty that I happen to be born white and have more advantages to those born brown or black – what good will guilt do for the situation? That is a negative emotion will only drive division. What I should do however is check my white privilege, understand history, why it is ‘black lives matter’ not ‘all lives matter’ and why these prejudices exist and make it my duty to fight for racial equality and stand up for people who are oppressed or disadvantaged so that history never repeats itself.
Should something out of my control like my genetics equate to not being allowed to respectfully wear an item of clothing? Reality check ladies! It just does not matter. It’s a piece of cloth. Inside our clothes and skin we are all the same. Everyone, no matter what colour they are needs to eliminate prejudice and hate and only then can we have true equality and resign discrimination to the vaults of history where it belongs.
We have to move with the times and fashion, art, music all now use elements of different cultures together because they are aesthetically beautiful and now accessible to all in the modern age. I wear Indian clothes sometimes because I think they are beautiful, for the same reasons I love the cut of Chinese dresses – so elegant, and I adore the colourful traditional woven fabric of my Moroccan skirt. Me and my Indian friends both love DJ Shadow’s ‘Bombay The Hard Way’ album – the Bollywood samples sound great with hip-hop beats and electro sounds. I have some stunning artwork from Thailand hanging on my wall. Many would (I feel wrongly) argue that this is appropriation – but is any of it negative or disrespectful or destructive in any way?
To suggest that only Black people should be allowed to listen to Black music as it is ‘theirs’ or only born Hindus should be allowed to pray to Ganesh and practice yoga because it is ‘theirs’ or that no artist should be allowed to explore working using an ancient technique from tribal South America because it is ‘theirs’- is an unhealthy attitude to take. None of these acts are done with the motive of oppression nor do they result in it.
Knowingly capitalising on or exploiting another culture or appropriating it in a derogatory way is never ok.
To restrict the freedom to be able to explore, understand, experience first-hand and participate in each other’s cultures will only encourage division and intolerance. If we can get out of the mind set of viewing White, Western culture as dominant and consider everyone to be equal and start treating each other as such – resigning the past to the past and moving on together towards an ideal future, then maybe we can manifest a better reality- one where we have a vibrant and diverse global culture that has learnt lessons from the past but refuses to stay there. It will for sure take years to redress the balance and a lot of uncomfortable conversations and a tonne of education and rebalancing of opportunity. I still remain the optimist.
Just a note – I’m not endorsing any of the views here – just giving some different opinions and resources.
What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm
Lessons I learnt from Durga
This is the auspicious time of Navaratri so happy Maha Navaratri to you all!
This nine day festival was the first I celebrated when I lived in Mumbai, joining my neighbours for nine nights of dancing and celebration in honour of the goddess Durga. On the eighth day Ashtami my daughter had the honour of being invited to my neighbour’s house to represent one of the nine forms of the mother goddess – kanjak devis and take part in a puja which involved being treated as the goddess herself. Much to her bemusement and delight they washed her feet, fed her the most delicious puri, halwa and chana and given a red chunni scarf and some pocket money (which was duly spent on sweets!)
Recently I have been having a tough time of it and more than ever am feeling the need to welcome the mother goddess into my life and realise her within myself. I’ve not chosen to fast, but have given up alcohol and am generally participating in the idea of purification and reflection of oneself.
The festival has different rituals associated with it in different areas of India but all have the same sentiment – the triumph of good over evil, the appreciation of fertility and creative, feminine energy as a force to accomplish that and the importance of learning (in some states this is when children write their first alphabet or begin tutoring). The way in which I have chosen to interpret this festival is to meditate and learn about myself and better ways of thinking positively and to how appreciate myself and gain much needed confidence in order to have the strength to nurture and care for the loved ones in my life.
Here, in order, are the nine forms of the goddess and my reflections on each:
She is the wife of Shiva and mother nature. She is the daughter of the mountain and the rock foundation or root of spirituality. Worshiped on the first day she represents to me the beginning of my spiritual journey and the importance of being grounded and to understand that each and every one of us are a part of nature. In every reincarnation she marries Shiva. From a romantic angle she makes me think how the feminine energy unites with the masculine and how this is part of becoming spiritually whole. This also has the meaning of hope that every person can obtain enlightenment.
This form of the goddess is to do with penance. By submitting herself to suffer every torment and overcoming them she was rewarded by acceptance as wife to Shiva. While this may annoy feminists it can be interpreted in a different way and this is it’s meaning to me (see my previous article on Vat Savitri here). On a very personal level it means that I cannot progress in any relationship or be a good wife to my future husband until I have found the strength within myself to overcome all my demons, both physical and mental. Only I can do this and it is not a gift any man can give to me.
She is the goddess form of grave and bravery. She defeats demons and persuades lord Shiva to change his form to something much nicer to save her mother. For me she represents the fearless warrior that is inside each one of us that can be unleashed to save the ones we care for. As a mother her spirit is strong and she represents the protective feelings I have for my family. She teaches that to be this triumphant warrior one must remain serene and calm and not lose our grace in anger.
She is known as the cosmic egg from which the universe was created. I love the fact that the Hindu creation story has a female creator. Though creation is a loose term as everything, both masculine and feminine are part of her. Her story reminds me that I am a part of something great – the universe and that it is all one thing and many things at the same time. To be whole you need to accept all of it – positive and negative, masculine and feminine as part of the same cosmic egg. Plus I love the phrase cosmic egg.
This goddess took an adopted son and he defeated an evil demon and saved the world. She is about selfless love. As an adopted person this story is a dear one to my heart. She teaches me to love selflessly and not for personal gain and in return good karma will be attained. One day I hope to adopt a child and return the gift that was given to me.
I’m not sure how much I understand this form of the goddess – I know she is known as the third eye goddess and her legend includes details where she slays a king who thinks he can win her love through fighting. I have also hear that if you fast in her honour you will get the husband you wish to obtain unless that happens to be Krishna, in which case he will steal your clothes while you are bathing.
She is the most violent form of the goddess – the destroyer. However what she destroys are negative things like demons and fear. She teaches me to behave the same with my negative emotions and remove all negative energy from my life.
Another goddess form I do not entirely understand. She is to do with Parvati having fair and dark complexions and fairness being the desired one. Explains a bit about the obsession in India with having fair skin (goes way back before the British ever colonised India). All a bit dubious to me. I think the reading I take out of her story is that Lord Shiva washed away all of the dirt and suffering from Parvati in the river Ganga. If I can strive towards enlightenment then I can look forward to the same and become spiritually ‘fair’.
She is the giver of supernatural power and indeed gave to Lord Shiva. When I think of this I think back to Shailaputri – the root and mother nature. Supernatural power and divine knowledge can be attained by all of us as it is a part of all of us as we all come from mother nature. For some reason this revelation makes me very happy and makes my everyday problems disappear into insignificance.