Trinamool Congress might have distanced themselves from MP Mahua Moitra’s comments about a “meat-eating, alcohol-accepting” Kali but for most Bengalis, it’s a non-issue. There are far too many versions of the Goddess to keep track of—from the fiery Ugra Tara of Tarapeeth to the “domesticated” Maa Kali of Kalighat and the less fiery Adya Kali of Dakshineswar. The real reason for the controversy, as usual, lies in its politics.
Mansgher jhol (mutton curry) and whiskey are indeed an important part of many households in Kolkata and Bengal during Kali Pujo, which coincides with Diwali in north India. As Moitra said, the practice of giving Maa Tara karon sudha or alcohol is an established one in Tarapeeth. In my 23 years living and growing up in Kolkata, I have always seen the first peg kept at the Goddess’ feet.
The question, therefore, is why would a party from Bengal raise an objection to their leader talking about an accepted practice in the state? This is where Mamata Banerjee’s national expansion plans in north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana come at odds with her party’s politics in Bengal.
The many Kalis of Bengal
Tarapeeth, one of Goddess Sati’s ‘shakti peeth’, is said to be where her eyeball fell when Lord Vishnu cut her body into 51 pieces. Lord Shiva later roamed around the Universe with the body, mourning her death. There are 51 such shakti peeths in India, where each body part of the Goddess is said to have fallen. Maa Ugra Tara, a Tantric version of the Goddess Kali, is worshipped here.
Maa Tara with her forehead smeared with vermillion, her mouth coloured in blood and wearing a necklace of skulls, is seen as a Tantric goddess who fulfils the wishes of those who sacrifice at her altar. Animal sacrifice or boli is a well-known ritual here, and the meat is served to the Goddess to appease her. Offering liquor to the goddess, known as karon sudha, is also an established practice.
Adya Kali in Adyapith of Dakshineswar is more demure but still depicts Kali as a demon goddess with her tongue out, wearing a skull necklace and standing on Lord Shiva. However, in Dakshineswar, there is no practice of animal sacrifice or alcohol offering.
Kalighat, in Kolkata, is one of the most well-known and important Kali temples in West Bengal. The form of Kali depicted here has her “demonic” qualities toned down. It has a more “motherly” image. Scholar of Hindus studies, Sanjukta Gupta, in her article The domestication of the Goddess writes about the Kali in Kalighat calling her the “perfection of youthful charming and feminine beauty”. Wide-eyed, devoid of skulls and with her mouth closed, the Kali here is quite unlike the one in Tarapith or Dakshineswar—a fusion of both the non-vegetarian Tantric (Sakta) tradition as well as the vegetarian Vaishnava tradition, both of which had a strong influence over Bengal in the 17th century.
What is true, however, is that for years, the worship of all forms of the Goddess, even when customs of some clash with the other, has continued to co-exist.
During the 2021 Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party didn’t find many takers for its vegetarian, Ram-worshipping form of Hinduism in the state. As the TMC had repeatedly said, the BJP “does not understand Bengal”.
The same argument now leaves TMC vulnerable in the states of north India, which the BJP, going by numbers, does understand. And associating any Goddess, with the practice of meat-eating and alcohol consumption is not likely to fly in any of the states of the Hindi heartland where Mamata Banerjee plans to expand. What kind of Hinduism, in that case, should the TMC espouse? The one that Bengal apparently believes in, or the one that has won the BJP more than half the seats in Parliament?
It is not unlikely, for any regional party that is looking to expand nationally, to face such a dilemma. Most do their politics in the states based on their regional identities, and therefore, building a national identity becomes difficult. But it doesn’t take a political expert to figure that in this cricket match, a lot depends on the deliveries you let go.
But Mahua Moitra’s condemnation now has many (including the BJP) telling the TMC that mere condemnation is not enough. After all, the BJP suspended Nupur Sharma.
The TMC has averted the risk of being seen as anti-Hindu, only to now fall into the trap of being seen as “not doing enough” against someone who, as per the party’s own admission, has made condemnable comments against a Hindu Goddess.
For now, Moitra and the TMC leadership need to have a conversation. And maybe, the party should send her and everyone else a memo: Protecting Bengali identity is not the party’s only line anymore.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)