When we think about getting in touch with religion, it’s not always about reimagining our relationship with the deity (or deities) we serve. The great thing about being a Hindu is that our relationship with our gods stems from mythologies and stories, which is pretty awesome considering that you get to pray to a Goddess of Birth and Destruction once a year. The somewhat-unfortunate thing is that nowadays, Hindu kids in the U.S, or even outside of India, don’t really get exposed to these myths and tales of the divine.
I will continuously point out that most school curriculums (In the Western world) teach way too much Greek and Roman mythologies, and not enough about Asian or other lesser-known pagan ones. Of course, there is nothing wrong with Ancient Greek and Roman epics (heck, I was a big fan of those and Egyptian mythologies in particular. Still kind of am), but leaving out one of the oldest and still vastly-practiced polytheistic religions from a social studies textbook is a big fat shame.
So I decide to start at phase one, asking myself the question: How can I make some of the gods I know more familiar (and fun) to not only those kids, but anyone who wants to learn about them?
Behold my “Hindu Deities with A Modern Twist Collection.” Yes, it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s also super cute. More importantly, it’s a series I started to interpret some of the gods and goddesses we follow reimagined in a way we are all familiar with, depending on their associated attributes.
Now note, Hindu deities are complicated, and I mean they are all interpreted differently in style, form, and manifestations across South Asia and beyond. In this particular case, I worked with how they are generally viewed in West Bengal – a.k.a the eastern part of India – and I added a twist: how they would look like in a more modern context:
Goddess Durga, the divine mother, the ten-armed no-nonsense-get-things-done power mama! There is an amazing five-day celebration in her name starting with Mahalaya (a week earlier) and ending with Dashami in east India where it tells the story of her descending to earth to defeat the demon king, Mohishashur. Don’t forget about the fact that she was summoned by the gods who felt like this was a job for a woman to handle! Oh, and she is accompanied by her own animal sidekick as well, either a lion or a tiger. Thus she is the warrior goddess of strength, victory, and protection, and what better way of drawing her than as a leader,a CEO, a busy-body and doer of all things? It’s power to the ladies, because it honestly does feel like we have to sprout ten arms to get stuff done!
For Bengalis like me, this celebration around September or October is called Durga Pujo, (also widely called Navaratri in other parts of India). Her festival marks as one of our biggest celebrations, but she is not honored alone. In fact, she is almost always worshipped with her four children around her – Lakshmi, Ganesh, Saraswati, and Kartikeya.
Goddess Lakshmi is broadly deemed as the goddess of wealth and prosperity, which also makes her one of the popular deities for people to worship. In fact, my own home has prayer every Thursday for Lakshmi to bring those shiny blessings into our household. There is a general celebration for her in the Fall as well, but most importantly, she is worshipped alongside her mother, Durga, during the Hindu Bengali celebration of Durga Pujo, and is always placed on her right.
She is a patron of spiritual and material wealth, so drawing her as the modern shopping girl with the raddest bling and gadgets only scratched the surface. She is definitely popular for economic prosperity regardless.
Maybe I should have put this guy in the beginning of the series, because Lord Ganesh is probably the most popular god celebrated in South Asia (next to Krishna). He is broadly known as the god of good fortune, wisdom, and success, and receiving his blessings is like being the luckiest man (or woman) on Earth. See why he is so popular?
Most importantly, he represents growth and overcoming obstacles through clarity. So drawing him in his super care-free way watering a money tree isn’t unlike him at all! In Western and central parts of India, he is an iconic deity and probably one of the very few gods you will without a human head. In the Hindu Bengali celebration of Durga Pujo, Ganesh is placed on the right of Lakshmi. If you are curious, there is an entire story as to how he got his elephant head in the first place. P.S – It’s not pretty.
Goddess Saraswati is personally one of my favorites, and it’s no surprise. She is broadly known as the goddess of knowledge, music, and the arts (see?) and is a patron of great wisdom and creativity, which is why depicting her in all her laid-back glory by plucking on a sitar and singing a tune with her headphones on was the way to go.
Her solo festival in the Bengali calendar is usually around February, but during Durga Pujo, she is placed on the left of her mother, Durga. In our house, we do a little prayer between January to February in her name and display our books and pencils in front of our shrine to get her blessings. Usually this would be something I would do a lot when I was in school, you know, to pass my exams and all. There is also a popular ritual called “Hathe Lekha” which is a baby’s first time writing the Bengali Alphabet in front of her deity. There are art competitions in her name as well. And this is why I – your local artist and writer – loves her.
Lord Kartikeya is the god of war and philosophy, and considered one of the most handsome and pious ones in his strive to rid the world of harm and disorder. In fact, his theme revolves around striving for perfection in life, which a lot of his devotees pray for. Thus he is depicted as the charming archer, a hunter in his prime.
He has several names, such as Subrahmanya and Shadanana where he is depicted with having six-heads, and has predominant influence in South India. Many archeological evidences suggest that he was worshipped in ancient times during the Vedic era. As the patron of beauty, strength, and youthfulness, it is no doubt that some pregnant mothers worship him to bless their child with good looks and good spirits. There are many cool stories and ancient myths associated to Kartikeya, including how he came to be and his epic tales of going to war with demons. One of my favorites is a challenge put forth by his his father, Shiva, to see who was the elder of his two sons, Kartikeya or Ganesh, but I won’t spoil it. During Durga Pujo, he is placed on the left of Saraswati.
Lastly, we can’t forget about Goddess Kali, the avatar of the divine mother, Durga, herself. When I say we pray to the lady of destruction, we are not kidding. Nor do we lie that her story is quite bloody and involves a lot of heads getting sliced off (of the bad guys of course). Kali is depicted in blue or black skin as a darker version of Durga, who summons her to defeat the demon Rakta-bija in the Devi Mahatmyam text to gain the upper hand. Kali’s famous depiction of her tongue sticking out is used to show her swallowing every demon and evil on the battlefield, including Rakta-bija who was using his power to make multiple clones of himself.
Further tales go into how after drinking Rakta-bija’s blood to defeat him permanently, Kali goes mad from bloodlust and go into a hysterical killing spree, destroying everything in her path. Her, husband, Lord Shiva, then appears to lie in front of her path to stop her, thus allowing Kali to return back to her senses in embarrassment.
In conclusion: All these gods have various versions and celebrations to their names across India and beyond, and I mean not just in Hinduism but in Buddhism, Jainism, and other distinct sects. But of course, capturing them all would be a whole other ballpark. The main themes, however, remain, and as a Hindu, it’s cool and liberating to reimagine them in creative ways. In fact, there are are quite a few children’s books to help Hindu children learn about the religion, and mediums like art, novels, video-games and shows to recreate the myths and epics in new forms. It’s the type of relationship that makes this project so much cooler.
My “Hindu Deities with A Modern Twist Collection” can be seen in my art portfolio on https://julisabasak.myportfolio.com