Indian Hindu gods are getting a whole lot sexier—thanks to new graphic novels that seek to makeover the deities for a new generation. These fallible gods have always been over-the-top in plenty of ways: Hanuman once lifted a mountain on one hand, Shiva has a third eye capable of emitting fire and Krishna kills demons and tames serpents. And while Indians of all ages know the classic Hindu epics, thought to be thousands of years old, contemporary artists feel its high time for these gods and goddesses to get an update—super hero style.
Of Muscles and Man-Gods
Iconography of the past century often portrayed Hindu deities in modest attire, covering their curvy/soft forms and sitting in repose. Contrast the image of old Vishnu, Hinduism’s four-armed, blue god of preservation, reclining next to his wife, Lakshimi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, with new Vishnu of the graphic novel, "Dashaavatar.” Gone is the passive pose and feminized features (and apparently two of his arms). This version posits a ripped, bow-slinging badass who shoots laser beams from his eyes (motherfucker!).
Yes, in new comics and popular books, the all-time greats of Hindu mythology are reimagined with broad shoulders, strapping muscles, edgy new get-ups and beguiling good looks. Some of the clothes and props look straight out of Western comics, and depictions of goddesses show the previously-covered up deities in varying levels of undress.
It’s all part of a revamp that instigators feel makes Hindu stories more relevant to the increasing segment of middle-class youths in India who live in a different societal context than generations before them. The country is rapidly developing as an economic powerhouse, and young people are more connected with international trends and Western culture than ever before. Correspondingly, the new vision of Hindu deities is proving popular: A recent trilogy of novels based on Shiva—traditionally one of the most popular gods—blends elements of science fiction and fantasy and has become a best-seller in India.
The Old Guard
Despite this trend toward a new vision of the deities, traditional depictions still populate much of the mainstream media, conventional comic books and décor of many households. Some dislike the new trends, which includes distaste for the sexualized depictions of goddesses. A spokesman for the World Hindu Council, whose stated objective is "to organise, consolidate the Hindu society and to serve, protect the Hindu Dharma,” says the organization isn’t opposed to presenting Hindu gods as physically strong, “But there should not be an effort to change the original character” of the deities, nor should new portrayals demean them.
Graphic novel publishers say they are taking care to be respectful of the gods and story lines, though some of the new comic books do explore different angles on formerly entrenched narratives. For example, historically portrayed as omniscient if emotional, new storylines portray Shiva as questioning traditions, emotionally passionate and conflicted over questions of morality. Ravana, traditionally portrayed as a villain with no less than ten heads, has been re-invented as more of a romantic and scholarly anti-hero (and like Vishnu, the modern incarnation has lost his extra appendages).
Uniqueness of Hinduism
The jury may be out on these new characters among some Indian segments, but I’m pretty intrigued with this new Hindu phenomenon. While some Christian cartoons depict Jesus and other key figures as mighty-of-flesh, they lack an avant-garde super hero flair, and don’t really appeal to the larger American population. Jewish artists have been heavily involved in many of the conventional super heroes in America, but there’s not much of a focus on actual Jewish theology. And clearly Islam has taken itself out of the graphic novel running with their aversion to depicting images of religious figures generally.
So Hinduism is unique as a major world religion in lending itself to this type of modern-day comic genre. A plethora of larger-than-life gods + encouragement to actively study and depict the stories = classic comic fodder. And there’s some fortuitous self-preservation built in here, since the ability to legitimately make a religion seem cool can surely only help root its place in the minds of young people (for better or worse).
Funnily enough, a key factor in Hindu mythology’s continued relevance in the modern world may in fact be beefcake Vishnu and his band of chiseled god-compatriots. Keep pumping that iron, deities.
Image: Vimanika Comics