The Familiar Antics of Armin Navabi: An Abrahamic View of Hindu Identity.

Neelkanthanatha, Silchar: I had first thought of writing this piece in Bengali. That was last evening, when I was reading up on some material related to the goddess Kali in the Tantras of the Hindus and the Buddhists. Today morning I woke up to another Armin Navabi fallacy – I hear that the Atheist Republic has printed t-shirts (and maybe similar merch) with a sexily posed Kali, or a form that looks like her, anyway. I found all of it quite funny, and suddenly, rather curiously, I decided that this tract would write itself better in the English language.

Why did I find Armin Navabi’s Kali statements, and Atheist Republic’s Kali merch, quite funny? Well, because for all that they claim to be, Armin Navabi and his cronies are sort of enjoying the blissful complacence of the Hindu community of the world in spite of their attempts to stick us with the blasphemy tag. That, and the fact that Armin Navabi and similar other self-professed atheists, in their activist frenzy, have very apparently lost touch with the idea of root cultures, and the historically nuanced arena of esoterica and rituality in general.

But then, any publicity is good publicity. For all that I can say about the Hindu Dharma in general, I feel that at this juncture in real historical time, we Hindus and our deities need a lot of exposure, no pun intended. Too much has been written and said about us from etic sources. It is time that our emic sources are fortified as well. Hindu Studies, I feel must become a new area of academic interrogation.

But before I continue, in the context of my comment about rituality and root cultures, I possibly would need to remind my readers that art itself, and literature, poetry, drama, most it all began with the enactment of rituality in root cultures. It might be hard to believe that – I would suggest you look up the word ‘tragedy’ and the original context of its root word ‘tragoideia’ (literally, ‘goat song’). Or possibly also look up how cuneiform writing developed in the Anubis Houses of pre-Ptolemaic Egypt.

Do not forget India too. Possibly also even look at the hoary lineage of the Bengali language which begins with the Charyagitikosha, an amcient anthology of mystic poems by Vajrayana practitioners and Mahasiddhas which is, literally and historically, the source text for the Bengali language as it is today. The reason why I consider rituality the original ontogenetic source of the creative arts will possibly be very beneficially substantiated by even a cursory study of these examples.

The first song of the Charyagitikosha, titled “Ka Aa Torubar” composed by the Mahasiddha Luiipa. These songs are sung by Bauls or itinerant singers in Bengal even now.

So, yes, Armin Navabi’s antics are funny. The Atheist Republic is rather cute for printing such a beautifully drawn Kali image on their merch. And Hindus who are offended by these antics should read the following line and ponder, and relax –

mahAmeghaprabhAm SyAmAm tathA caeva digambarim

She who is of the colour of great storm clouds, the Dark One,
Clad in the ten directions she is (literally, sans clothes, naked).

The line is from the first couplet of the Dakshinakalika Dhyanamantra practised inside of the Kali Kula, or the school of Kali worship, in Bengal and ancillary, connected spaces. The meaning is well legible in the translation, of course. To the dedicated worshipper, and not the occasional drunkard thinking of scoring some alcohol at a Kalipuja, the goddess Kali is naked, digvasana, because she is samhritirupa, or embodied destruction. In his poem on Kali titled Kali the Mother, Swami Vivekananda refers to this darkly aspect of the goddess when he writes in his poem “Kali the Mother”:

Dancing mad with joy,
Come, Mother, come!
For Terror is Thy name,
Death is in Thy breath,
And every shaking step
Destroys a world for e’er.
Thou “Time”, the All-Destroyer!
Come, O Mother, come!

In Neil Gaiman’s famous fantasy fiction novel American Gods, which recently was out as a web series for two seasons on Amazon Prime, a similar role is assigned to the diner owner Mamaji, which is what Mr. Wednesday, Odin disguised as a human, calls the ‘immigrant’ goddess Kali. In the second season, I came across that part where Mamaji shows forth in her fiery avatar as a terrible, dark form with fangs and falchions in her hands only because the dead Laura Moon had decided to contradict her.

Courtesy: American Gods, on YouTube.

Though I do not set much store by Western, or American notions of Hindu divinity unless they come from well read sources, Gaiman’s use of the character of Kali with Odin in the context of Death in the novel is quite enlightened, I feel. For what is Kali if she is not, as Vivekananda and a host of other sages have called her, Death personified?

Having said this to the Hindu hurt by Navabi’s acts, I turn to the absence of blasphemy in Hindu law and canon. Simply speaking, there is no blasphemy or punitive laws about blasphemy in Hindu law. While Navabi claims to ‘normalise’ blasphemy and thinks Hindutva proponents are quite a joke for him, it seems that he doesn’t realise that no Hindu, however, incensed by disrespect to their dharma and to their deities, will demand his head for his transgression, or maybe he actually does, which is why he thinks it to be cool mischief to do what he has done and is continuing doing. And if you look at the whole gamut of anti-Navabi tirades quite carefully, you will find that there are a lot of insults, and maybe even threats, and sexual slurs against Navabi by many, many Hindus on Twitter and on Facebook.

But there is also this point to consider, Navabi is far more in mortal danger from having spat on the Qu’ran than for having painted Kali naked. In fact, he is in no danger at all from a Hindu who is indignant about this intended insult to the goddess Kali. Why? Because at the end of the day we know that our practice of worship is not in the least bit deterred or our sense of cultural and religious prestige shaken by atheistic statements on Hindu deities like Armin Navabi has done, or on Hindu rituals, much like our home grown Heer Khan and Sushmita Sinha and Munawar Faruqui have done, but only because what the latter three did was plainly hateful, while Navabi is being mischievous. For now, I think he is projecting his sexual fantasies on Hindu cultures because of what he tweeted this morning.

Mischief? Yes. Mischief. The sort that obnoxious children will indulge in, and then go cry to their parents about being threatened or bullied by ‘that boy’.

When I was a volunteer at Karimganj’s Sri Ramakrishna Math, I and my friends used to follow this senior boy around like devotees almost. Debu Da had a melodious voice that sounded honeyed even when he was humming a lyric to himself. He was an old hand at the volunteering at the Math and his grasp of the systems and rules at the Math during pujas and festivals was something we all young men there aspired to. One of the songs Debu Da used to sing often when he was in the bhandar ghar, the quarters where puja essentials used to be organised and stored was this – amra lengta maayer lengta chhele go – we are the naked children of our naked mother.

Courtesy: Nantu Kahar

This ‘nakedness’ was obviously a reference to Kali as the Divine Mother. I loved to listen to this song myself. But in spite of getting into the habit of humming such Shyamasangeet at all times, I never could bring myself to singing this particular song aloud myself. The reason for this lies embedded in an incident that happened to me when I was at school.

Let us call this school Holy Class and the principal of the school, Sister February. I have changed names for obvious reasons. It was a high school run by Roman Catholic nuns. Everyone in my family had studied there ever since my father became one of the first matriculates from that school in the 1970s. I was no exception.

The atmosphere inside of the school as I now recall it was pretty nondescript except for one factor that was really very much accentuated – students were not allowed to speak in any of the local languages, except a little bit of cursory Hindi (but that was because the sisters themselves knew only that one language to communicate with the local hired help). All Indian languages except a breezy Malayali accented English was anathema to the principal and to the authorities of the school. Our pistachio green and sometimes teal blue report cards had a special section for grades for “Spoken English”. And everyone did follow that injunction to the letter, from us students to our parents.

I was not very conflicted by this – I was thankfully a regular reader, and English being the one language we had to study all the while, I did my leisure reading in that language as well. Comics were my favourite, like they were for many children who grew up with me. From Diamond Comics and Indrajal Comics and Amar Chitra Katha to Asterix and Tintin and other similar stuff, I gorged on a diet of bande desinee and American action comics and graphic renderings of Indian epics thanks to the late Anant Pai.

Chacha Chaudhury, Super Commando Dhruv, Fauladi Singh, Nagraj and other Indian characters featured extensively in my comics closet. As did Bengali comics like Nonte Fonte, Batul the Great and others. But those were limited in scope and number, of course. But I was enamoured with the images in Amar Chitra Katha editions. The year when this particular incident happened, I had been gifted an edition of Amar Chitra Katha’s Tales of Durga on my birthday in April. Since then, that book had constantly occupied my thoughts. As a member of a family where the tradition of the autumnal Durga worship was more than four generations old, the figure of the Goddess for me inside of such a medium as a graphic novel was simply too much of a treat.

Courtesy: Chacha Chaudhury Official Channel.

In that book, there was a portion where the goddess Kali emerges as Chamunda out of the brows of the goddess Ambika (as the Amar Chitra Katha edition narrated it). I was transfixed by the sheer fluency of the artist’s portrayal of the image of Kali. Smoke gray in complexion, reddish eyes, falchion in hand, destroying asuras with her bare hands, I was utterly moved by Kali’s form in the book.

Courtesy: Amar Chitra Katha on YouTube.

And guess what? I tried to draw that very image. Now the fact that my mother was not really very keen on me spending too much time doing art was the reason why I did not do that out in the open, using regular art tools, but behind my notebooks, on that last page where I used to place all my random notes and calculations. I had figured that I could get practice for Kali’s anatomy there without attracting my mother’s attention so that she didn’t think I was wasting time doing sketches instead of my maths homework.

I kept doing this – month after month – at least for a couple of months. Most of the end pages of my school notebooks were filled up with classic Kali and Durga poses, martial and belligerent, exuding the vira rasa only as these goddess forms can. I was getting good at the shapes and was trying to get Durga’s lion right when a terrifying thing happened to me in school. I was in class in the first period at school that day. It was the month before the Durgapuja I remember.

Our class teacher Mrs. Sen was taking in our attendance when Sister February entered the classroom quite very silently. She asked me to collect my bag and books and accompany her to the office. I was non plussed, not a little bit afraid. But I did what she said, and I ran after her towards her office, trying to keep up with all my books on the verge of spilling out of my bag. When she entered and sat at her large desk, I was trying to look at the Maggi Quiz trophy I and two of my friends had won for the school a month back.

Sister February asked me to take out all my notebooks. I was nervous since I had not updated a couple of my notebooks with the class work and the home work assigned to us over the months after the summer vacation. But what happened next was something I had not dreamt of in my wildest dreams. Sister February took all my notebooks and immediately turned over to the last pages of each of them. When she had browsed through all of them, she looked up at me and made this one terrible set of statements – “Aren’t you ashamed, you rascal? Drawing nude women in your school notebooks, huh? I will call your parents right now to my office. You just wait! How dare you!! Why does this woman have a knife? Why so violent, boy?”

I was too shocked to even think of what I should respond with. The accusation was, to my teenaged ears, one of absolute shame. I had drawn Kali and Durga and Saraswati and other goddesses in my notebook. I had not drawn nude women. Why was sister making such an accusation against me? All I could do at that moment was to keep quiet because I did not know how to respond to this perception that Sister February had about my innocuous sketches. She kept threatening me for some time until I blurted out that I wanted to call my parents. Sister looked taken aback at this request but she did call my father. My father sent a car to pick me up from school. By the time I had reached home, I was miserable, thinking that I was done for, and that there would be hell at home for this whole matter.

A snippet from the Amar Chitra Katha edition of Tales of Durga depicting the birth of Kali. Courtesy: Amar Chitra Katha

I found my mother and my grandmother seated in the living room waiting for me. Very strangely enough, my grandmother looked livid, and my mother looked as if she was indeed very sad for me. I trembled inwards, waiting for my father to come back home from the estate office. But when that happened, all that I saw was my father smile at me rather fleetingly before he entered his room. I was non plussed again the next day when my parents called me to the breakfast table the next day and asked me to stay at home to prepare for my school finals.

I did not go to school for three months after that, and my parents did not let especially. I do not know even now what had happened to all the scolding I was expecting. But when I went back to school after three months to receive my school leaving certificates and other documents, my parents accompanied me, and Sister February looked rather frazzled when my father entered her office leading me and my mother behind him.

In the end, I put it down as just another school adventure. When I look back now at those days, I remember all the fixation about nudity and Hindu deities that the sisters at school had. There was Sister February whose bullying of a boy drawing Hindu deities I have already narrated. But there were others also – like Sister Palisse who often used to comment that worshipping any god is ‘superstitious’ and Sister Corn Alley, who used to teach us moral science lessons where she spoke of how it was a shame that Hindu gods like Krishna had no shame and how they cavorted around half naked and dallied with women. Her statements ended with how one Son of God died on the Cross for all our sins, and how it was shameful that we did not pay heed to that story. For my reader’s information, every morning and afternoon, all us students had to recite the Roman Catholic Lord’s Prayer before and after school as part of our daily prayers.

I realise where this whole thing has its genesis – the Abrahamic view of God and the condemnation of free, untrammelled sexuality that such cultures are embedded with. While Roman Catholic Christianity was born out of a coalescing of pagan deities like Sol Invictus and Mithras during Constantine the Great, Islam was born after the breaking of idols and the Ka’aba turning into Baytik al-Muharram, or ironically, ‘the Inviolable House’.

Courtesy: Mark Wilson.

Both these religious cultures of catholicity emerged out of a usurpation of existing pagan cultures of idol worship which did not think of nudity as being something harmful at all. Whereas sources about the origin of Christianity may be found in the works of Michael Baigent and others, the source about Islam where the destruction of idols is mentioned in canonical Islamic literature can be authoritatively cited to be Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah which can be found and read here.

Courtesy: The History TV

Blasphemy thus for Armin Navabi is essentially the portrayal of a Deity, and not the sexualising of the same figure. When he speaks of ‘normalising’ blasphemy, he has no other option but to turn to Hindu iconography because other religions are not concerned with forms of a deity. It is simply not in Navabi’s cultural antecedents to understand that the Hindus who are affronted by his commentary are not concerned about any blasphemy being done in the name of their deities. The indignation lies somewhere else. The indignation comes from the fact that we Hindus have historically been called superstitious and all assorted names by people like Sister Corn Alley and Sister February.

We Hindus have also been called casteist and misogynist for all reasons under the sun by the very Atheists who sponsor Armin Navabi. We have also been historically and even in the contemporary been called malaun, mushrikun, kafirun and so on and so forth by Armin Navabi’s brothers and sisters in faith before Armin Navabi became, well, the Armin Navabi of Twitter fame. It no longer matters to us, really.

In the year 2007, when I visited my family’s generations old Chandimandapa in Tippera in Brahmanbaria, now in Bangladesh, I found the makara, the sea deities featured on the walls of the mandapa still hanging on to the walls of that building while the whole house and the mandapa had been converted into a market with the beef sellers’ shops located exactly where centuries ago, my ancestors had worshipped the goddess with mahishabali. Animal blood then, and animal blood now after the chanting of the kalma, what is the difference, one might ask?

A documentary on the ‘malaun’, the Bengali Hindus of Bangladesh. Courtesy: Shahbag Updates

The difference is in the fact that animal meat eating Rohingyas unfairly thrown out of their households receive all the mercy and pity in the world, but the meat eating and deity worshipping Kashmiri Pandit is, for Barkha Dutt and her cronies, a result of a class uprising. The difference is in the fact that Armin Navabi in France has Macron to speak in support of free speech, but in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru and later in 1975, his daughter Indira Priyadarshini, had nothing to say to the fish eating Hindus who fled to India and to Barak Valley with their stone symbols of Narayana tied on to their necks and only with the clothes on their back and their lives in their clasped hands.

Advocate Faiz Syed from Aurangabad in India reflects on Hindus and their cultures.

What Armin Navabi has done or will do with the images of Hindu deities is nothing at all compared to the historical derogation and insult that Hindus have faced in their own motherland. We must therefore remember this and laugh at the Antics of the Atheist Republic or Armin Navabi, because they are, if not always but at this point certainly, doing the same thing to this generation of Hindus across the world as Armin Navabi’s forefather of sorts, the pillaging Nadir Shah had done centuries back.  

Courtesy: The History Guy on YouTube