Katy Perry's Instagram post on Hindu goddess Kali drew an infuriated (and amusing) Indian response. The American singer and songwriter had posted an image of Goddess Kali, with the caption “Current mood”. Like moths to a flame, we descended.
There were many more abusive comments that don’t bear repeating here. Mercifully, there were some who politely prayed only that Katy see the error of her ways, and a few that didn’t see any offence at all.
The outrage that prompted these creative insults is over cultural appropriation – the 'appropriating' of cultural/traditional practices of a certain culture by another, for commercial (or other) gain. A kind of cheapening of the original practice – something Katy Perry has been accused of before. Here's the thing about Katy Perry and Kali Maa – Indian culture is in absolutely no danger of being 'cheapened' or otherwise threatened in any way.
Our Persistent Inferiority Complex
Does the West ever complain about cultural appropriation when we here in India celebrate Valentine's Day, or commodify Christmas, or set all of our movies in their countries with an all-Indian cast? Obviously not. But why is that? Perhaps because the West is secure in the power of its culture.
Those guys refuse to revere anything. Even their own national symbols are ‘cheapened’... you’ll find the American flag and Union Jack on everything from doormats to underwear. When has the West ever objected to anyone else wearing jeans, or depicting Jesus, or Norse gods, or modifying Christianity in accordance with local customs? Never – that's because they see their culture in a position of strength, they see the spread of their culture as an advantage, not an insult. In significant part, their cultural reach is what forms their soft power – a boon when it comes to negotiating a globalising world – and they know it.
There is no reason for us to believe our culture is not in a similar position of strength, by sheer numbers alone. India is home to over 1.25 billion people – around 300 million more than the combined population of Western Europe, North America, and Australia.
We have an ancient, rich heritage that gave rise to four major religions – Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as well as strains of atheism – a wealth of sophisticated philosophy, and epic texts. Whatever the downsides of Indian culture, being subsumed by another is not one of them. It is us who do the subsuming, with our strong syncretic tradition.
We have Indianised every religion, culture, and tradition we've come into contact with, from Islam, to Christianity, to food, to clothing. Will you ever see the Chinese bemoaning that we have mangled the original hakka noodles?
No! As a big international player, China too likely sees the benefit of its soft power.
But Wait, This Is a Goddess... Doesn't That Count for Something?
Indians post pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses with great frequency. Hinduism is unlike Islam in that it is not considered “blasphemous” to depict religious figures. We have illustrated Mahabharata and Ramayana storybooks depicting the gods. So it's not the depiction itself that is offending us, but the ‘disrespectful’ context.
But that's a fairly low bar for offence. All poor Katy said was, "Current mood". Do we really need to get our panties in a bunch?
That the West wears bindis at Coachella, or Instagrams Kali Maa, is no threat to us and we gain nothing in stifling others’ interest in our ways of life. Katy Perry had a Hindu ceremony for her wedding and has Sanskrit tattooed on her! Aren’t we forever extolling the virtues of Sanskrit?!
In the end, cultural segregation of this kind cannot be a long-term strategy. The world is globalising, and the evolution and mixing of cultures is inescapable.
Instead, we ought to start seeing ourselves as the fountainhead of a profusion of cultural value – and it’s beneath us to feel threatened by a pop singer posting a picture of a Hindu goddess on Instagram.