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Black gods and White gods

Indian Mythology, Modern Mythmaking 34 Comments

First Published in Verve, July 2009

We were introduced to the politics of color very early on in our lives, in the most surprising of places: in children’s comic books. And in all probability the illustrators did not even known what they were doing. There was nothing strategically racist/colorist in what they did – though hindsight may not give them the benefit of doubt. And so we had gods who were always pink, demons who were always brown and dark gods who were always blue. Indra, Brahma and Durga were pink, Asuras and Rakshasas were brown. Vishnu, Ram and Krishna were blue. Somehow, an unnaturally blue Krishna was preferred over a naturally dark Krishna. ‘Because blue is the color of the sky, of ether, of divinity,’ we were told. No one dared point out that Krishna and Shyam were both proper nouns and common nouns which referred to gods as well as the color black. We forgot to refer to traditional Patta chitras in Orissa where Krishna and Vishnu are always shown using black paint while Balarama and Shiva are always shown using white. When making Krishna blue, we forgot all folk songs, even Hindi film songs, where there is constant reference to Krishna’s dark complexion. So Raj Kapoor’s ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’, is the song, ‘Yashomati mayya se bole Nanda-lala, Radha kyon gori, mein kyon kala? (Nanda’s son, Krishna, asks his mother, Yashoda, why is Radha fair and why am I dark?). In the song, the mother offers many explanations to pacify the son, the angst ridden son who clearly would have been the target consumer for Fair & Lovely. Our discomfort with black is so deep that even today we don’t mind being publicly racist – what according to Madhur Bhandarka’s Fashion is the lowest a fair model can sink to? Sleeping with a black man! Kala kaloota, baingan loota! Even a channel called ‘colors’ uses a fair child to depict the black, or blue, Krishna. And no one is outraged.
Wherefrom comes this love for gori-chitti complexion, this desire for fair brides in matrimonials? People say it is the hangover of our Aryan past – that the nomadic tribes who came from the North West held the dark skinned settled communities of the subcontinent in disdain. Aryan gods like Indra were white. But this white supremacist flavor does not hold firm in the face of other evidence. Some say Shiva was a Dravidian god, a god of the settled communities – but he is described as Karpura-Goranga, he who is as fair as camphor. Some say that Vishnu and Ram are gods of the Aryan imperialists – but both are described as dark. This theory of Aryan invasion, with roots in 19th century racial theory, seems too simplistic and rather pedestrian to modern scholars despite its great popularity, no thanks to its acceptance and propaganda by many founding fathers of our nation, who were educated in Europe.
As colors, black and white have great symbolic meaning, and more than racial memory, these mythic codes perhaps yield a great influence over our views about complexion and our color prejudices. The Goddess in her more primal form is dark, dark as the night. She is Kali, the dark one, who is wild – so wild that she unbinds her hair, dances naked, copulates in public and drinks blood. She is indifferent to disapproving stares. This is not defiance. This is her prakriti, her nature, her being. In calendar art, this blackness of Kali has turned blue and purple, and ornaments are strategically placed to hide her nakedness and she is shown merely stepping on Shiva, not copulating with him. But this, say the devotees, is Bhadra Kali, the modest Kali, a slightly domesticated form of the Goddess who devotees can enshrine in their homes and worship. The other Kali, the truly wild and primal one, who cannot be brought into the house is not bhadra. That Kali is a-bhadra – dark, naked, ferocious, gaunt, aroused and bloodthirsty. Her name is rarely spoken; she is worshipped in the wilderness, in crematoriums, by followers of Tantrik doctrines that are best kept away from the household.
Black color then means nature red in tooth and claw, the most primal of elements, the undiluted rawness of being which thrives in sex and violence. One day, says the scriptures, the gods begged her to seduce and marry Shiva, the ascetic, who shut his eyes in indifference to the world. Kali then took a dip in the river Yamuna and emerged as Gauri, the radiant one, the golden one, the fair one, smeared with turmeric.  If Kali was Chandi, the wild one, then Gauri was Mangala, the auspicious one. If Kali was Bhairavi, the fearsome one, then Gauri was Lalita, the graceful one. If Kali was Raktapriya, the one who loves blood, then Gauri was Kamakshi, the one whose glances stirs desire. Thus black and white become symbols of wildness and domestication in the context of the Goddess.
Kali’s blackness percolates into the river Yamuna which is constantly described by poets as being a sad river, sluggish in its flow, morose in its character. Her vahana or mount is the river turtle. She is linked with Yamini, the goddess of the night, who mourns for her brother, Yama, the god of death, who lives on the other side of the Vaitarni, the river that separates the bright land of the living from the dark land of the dead. Yamuna needs to be contrasted with Ganga, the fair river-goddess, who bounds over rocks and cascades down mountains, gurgling with foam, riding river-dolphins, cheerful and mischievous and full of life.
Yamuna is associated with Vishnu. On her banks, he dances as Krishna. Like her, he is dark. Ganga is associated with Shiva. She emerges from his topknot while he meditates. He, like her, is fair. Just as Kali is what Gauri is not, Krishna is what Shiva is not. Krishna is full of life, a lover, a dancer, a warrior. Shiva is the still, serene mendicant. Krishna lives on river banks in pastures and fields. Shiva lives on icy mountain tops away from civilization. Krishna is dressed in silks and gold and pearls and anointed with sandal paste. Shiva wears animal hide and is smeared with ash. Krishna is a worldly god; Shiva an otherworldly sage. Krishna is black, Shiva is white. Why? Perhaps physics has the answer.
Physics informs us that when light is thrown on a surface and all colors of the light spectrum are absorbed then what we see is the color black. If instead all colors of the light spectrum are reflected back then what we see is the color white. Krishna, who is Ranganatha, lord of colors and drama, embraces all the colors of life, and who celebrates all the emotions of worldliness, is therefore black. Shiva, the ascetic, who reflects back all emotions and chooses to stay disengaged, is naturally white.
Thus the colors convey deeper truths. On the body of the Goddess, black is about wild nature. On the body of God, black is about worldliness. On the body of the Goddess, white is about domestic culture. On the body of God, white is about ascetic transcendence. Perhaps in our desire to be cultured and in our aspiration to otherworldly, we choose white over black. But then the wild side beckons and the thrills of simple worldly joys enchant, and we surrender to the black. And as we struggle between white and black, we realize it is human to be grey.

We were introduced to the politics of color very early on in our lives, in the most surprising of places: in children’s comic books. And in all probability the illustrators did not even known what they were doing. There was nothing strategically racist/colorist in what they did – though hindsight may not give them the benefit of doubt. And so we had gods who were always pink, demons who were always brown and dark gods who were always blue. Indra, Brahma and Durga were pink, Asuras and Rakshasas were brown. Vishnu, Ram and Krishna were blue. Somehow, an unnaturally blue Krishna was preferred over a naturally dark Krishna. ‘Because blue is the color of the sky, of ether, of divinity,’ we were told. No one dared point out that Krishna and Shyam were both proper nouns and common nouns which referred to gods as well as the color black. We forgot to refer to traditional Patta chitras in Orissa where Krishna and Vishnu are always shown using black paint while Balarama and Shiva are always shown using white. When making Krishna blue, we forgot all folk songs, even Hindi film songs, where there is constant reference to Krishna’s dark complexion. So in Raj Kapoor’s ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’, is the song, ‘Yashomati mayya se bole Nanda-lala, Radha kyon gori, mein kyon kala? (Nanda’s son, Krishna, asks his mother, Yashoda, why is Radha fair and why am I dark?). In the song, the mother offers many explanations to pacify the son, the angst ridden son who clearly would have been the target consumer for Fair & Lovely. Our discomfort with black is so deep that even today we don’t mind being publicly racist – what according to Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion is the lowest a fair model can sink to? Sleeping with a black man! Kala kaloota, baingan loota! Even a channel called ‘Colors’ uses a fair child to depict the black, or blue, Krishna. And no one is outraged.

Wherefrom comes this love for gori-chitti complexion, this desire for fair brides in matrimonials? People say it is the hangover of our Aryan past – that the nomadic tribes who came from the North West held the dark skinned settled communities of the subcontinent in disdain. Aryan gods like Indra were white. But this white supremacist flavor does not hold firm in the face of other evidence. Some say Shiva was a Dravidian god, a god of the settled communities – but he is described as Karpura-Goranga, he who is as fair as camphor. Some say that Vishnu and Ram are gods of the Aryan imperialists – but both are described as dark. This theory of Aryan invasion, with roots in 19th century racial theory, seems too simplistic and rather pedestrian to modern scholars despite its great popularity, no thanks to its acceptance and propaganda by many founding fathers of our nation, who were educated in Europe.

As colors, black and white have great symbolic meaning, and more than racial memory, these mythic codes perhaps yield a great influence over our views about complexion and our color prejudices. The Goddess in her more primal form is dark, dark as the night. She is Kali, the dark one, who is wild – so wild that she unbinds her hair, dances naked, copulates in public and drinks blood. She is indifferent to disapproving stares. This is not defiance. This is her prakriti, her nature, her being. In calendar art, this blackness of Kali has turned blue and purple, and ornaments are strategically placed to hide her nakedness and she is shown merely stepping on Shiva, not copulating with him. But this, say the devotees, is Bhadra Kali, the modest Kali, a slightly domesticated form of the Goddess who devotees can enshrine in their homes and worship. The other Kali, the truly wild and primal one, who cannot be brought into the house is not bhadra. That Kali is a-bhadra – dark, naked, ferocious, gaunt, aroused and bloodthirsty. Her name is rarely spoken; she is worshipped in the wilderness, in crematoriums, by followers of Tantrik doctrines that are best kept away from the household.

Black color then means nature red in tooth and claw, the most primal of elements, the undiluted rawness of being which thrives in sex and violence. One day, says the scriptures, the gods begged her to seduce and marry Shiva, the ascetic, who shut his eyes in indifference to the world. Kali then took a dip in the river Yamuna and emerged as Gauri, the radiant one, the golden one, the fair one, smeared with turmeric.  If Kali was Chandi, the wild one, then Gauri was Mangala, the auspicious one. If Kali was Bhairavi, the fearsome one, then Gauri was Lalita, the graceful one. If Kali was Raktapriya, the one who loves blood, then Gauri was Kamakshi, the one whose glance stirs desire. Thus black and white become symbols of wildness and domestication in the context of the Goddess.

Kali’s blackness percolates into the river Yamuna which is constantly described by poets as being a sad river, sluggish in its flow, morose in its character. Her vahana or mount is the river turtle. She is linked with Yamini, the goddess of the night, who mourns for her brother, Yama, the god of death, who lives on the other side of the Vaitarni, the river that separates the bright land of the living from the dark land of the dead. Yamuna needs to be contrasted with Ganga, the fair river-goddess, who bounds over rocks and cascades down mountains, gurgling with foam, riding river-dolphins, cheerful and mischievous and full of life.

Yamuna is associated with Vishnu. On her banks, he dances as Krishna. Like her, he is dark. Ganga is associated with Shiva. She emerges from his topknot while he meditates. He, like her, is fair. Just as Kali is what Gauri is not, Krishna is what Shiva is not. Krishna is full of life, a lover, a dancer, a warrior. Shiva is the still, serene mendicant. Krishna lives on river banks in pastures and fields. Shiva lives on icy mountain tops away from civilization. Krishna is dressed in silks and gold and pearls and anointed with sandal paste. Shiva wears animal hide and is smeared with ash. Krishna is a worldly god; Shiva an otherworldly sage. Krishna is black, Shiva is white. Why? Perhaps physics has the answer.

Physics informs us that when light is thrown on a surface and all colors of the light spectrum are absorbed then what we see is the color black. If instead all colors of the light spectrum are reflected back then what we see is the color white. Krishna, who is Ranganatha, lord of colors and drama, embraces all the colors of life, and who celebrates all the emotions of worldliness, is therefore black. Shiva, the ascetic, who reflects back all emotions and chooses to stay disengaged, is naturally white.

Thus the colors convey deeper truths. On the body of the Goddess, black is about wild nature. On the body of God, black is about worldliness. On the body of the Goddess, white is about domestic culture. On the body of God, white is about ascetic transcendence. Perhaps in our desire to be cultured and in our aspiration to be otherworldly, we choose white over black. But then the wild side beckons and the thrills of simple worldly joys enchant, and we surrender to the black. And as we struggle between white and black, we realize it is human to be grey.

  • hema

    I guess one can never say after this article – mythology is just black and white anymore :-)

    Mythology seems to be a dance of emotions and not about evil and good. Or more accurately, truth happens in different colors. But culture is a matter of color (perception of good over bad)and reduces truth to grey shades – and therefore is very human indeed !

  • Brilliant illustration !
    The article too is enlightening, just as every other piece of your writing.

  • One of the most enchanting articles I have ever read. The point put forth are subtle, but profound.
    An article that is worth reading again and again, especially over a period of time.
    The last few lines are the real takeaway of the article.

    Thank you!

  • Yashvardhan Gupta

    This article really enlightened me! Thanks for such insightful articles!!!

  • Very interesting analysis. The things that stuck me most were a) the breadth of knowledge required to interpret even a single aspect of a mythological tale, b) your ability to see mythology as such.

    In India, there is a common tendency to be lazy towards the study of mythology and to parry questions by deifying mythical characters, thereby placing their characters/actions beyond question.

    This article demonstrates clearly the level of philosophical insight that one may gain from a careful and systematic study of mythology. Further, the stories people tell can reveal a lot about them. Thus, mythology is a window into India’s past. And yet, mythology does not merit a place in most school curricula. Doesn’t this smack of ignorance?

  • ananta dhar

    very interesting

  • Richa

    Very interesting articles…….
    If we take a look at the gods depicted in Southern part of the country they are all pretty much darker in shade with moustaches :D

  • Clelia Moraes

    A standing ovation to a writer with brilliant insight on his own culture! Sir, you are able to literally picture Indian elements with all colours! May God grant you always with this gift!

  • Amazing and so insightful….suddenly every aspect of hindu mythology has become so meaningful and profound. looking forward to read more of your articles, thank you once again.

  • Wesley-Anne Rodrigues

    This is a brilliant holistic look at mythology and culture – truly enlightening and insightful.

  • Jahnavi Sanghvi

    Amazing article!

    Your deep understanding of mythology and luminous interpretations make reading these parables enjoyable. Your elucidation, makes me sit at the edge of my seat, wanting to read more!

    Keep writing!

  • Neetant Arora

    Hi Devdutt,

    can you elaborate the role of procreation and sex in Indian context and how did it evolve as a taboo in the Indian society…in the current form…
    even though this is disjointed if you can shed some light on kamasutra and its tabooness in indian society though i am aware the original journal isnt about sex.. its about how to maintain physical relationship between a man & a woman…

    Thanks in advance

    Regards
    Neetant

  • Sanket Sunand Dash

    Brilliant analysis but I would like to disagree on one issue – black and worldliness. Despite his asceticism, the prototype of all households in India is Shiva with his wife and two sons rather than Krishna with his 16,008 wives.

    Krishna represents the pinnacle of worldly success – in courting, in marrying, in power,and in tact and diplomacy.

    • Notice you always see a family photo (father, mother, children) of the ‘ascetic’ Shiva but never of the ‘worldly’ Krishna…..criss crossing of ideas and visuals is a hallmark of Hindu philosophy, but that is another article.

  • Sarabjot

    it amazes me as to how some one could take something so simple as black and white colours and be used by our forefathers to demonstrate the working of the world. and it has sunk in so deep that without ever knowing why we would make our choices.

  • another insightful article.

    i was waiting patiently to see what you would come up with :)

    you didn’t disappoint, am passing this to some African-American friends and of course use it as an excuse to be Wild-er from now on !!!

    dhanyavaad.

  • hat can i say. wow.

  • Karan

    Nice article….but I guess white symbolizes light, illumination, transparency and knowledge whereas black symbolizes darkness, illusion, opacity and ignorance. Hope is always symbolized by a tiny ray of light in the dark.
    White symbolizes giving and life whereas black symbolizes receiving and death.

    So, maybe thats why we prefer white to black.

  • Ritu

    A beautiful description… Gives a lot of insight and peace to the inquiring soul.

  • deepti kukreja

    amazing sir…u have really enlightened me!everytime after reading ur articles my perception towards life changes.i m getting towards positive side.thank you so much.keep writing.

  • Pawan

    In my experience the whole black vs white perception has progressively changed its roots from religion to the British rule to the current fascination with the West.

    I have lived in Mumbai, New York and now in Cape Town and the one thing that is common across the world is the superior white vs the inferior black difference and having lived for most part in Mumbai its funny how I always found myself more attracted to white/fair women than to the not so fair/white women regardless of how they looked white was better. Just like regardless of how good/bad a commodity is, you associate quality with price and so beauty with color. What is even more interesting is that India ia predominantly brown and we are white obsessed and I personally know a lot of white men who are brown obsessed so its also a “grass is greener on the other side” situation.
    But its not as simplistic as white vs black problem, lets say in the next 20 years India will be the superpower that america is with top of the line infrastructure, schools very littly unemployement excellent technical skills and the Indian Rupee replaces the USD as the global currency, it will certainly fix the color inferiority globally but still not cure the obssession within India for fair/white people. Although better education, intelligence and awareness will reduce this unwanted seggregation.
    However being brown has not really impacted me siginificantly and if ever it did, I realised I was brown only when I moved away from India.

  • Ihappen to be a big fan of yours after watching you on Shastrath on T.V. Recently I have bought ten of your books and find my hard earned money well spent.A very nice effort indeed……..
    Dr.Somesh kumar Gupta
    M.S. ( ortho. )
    Muzaffar nagar

  • shirish

    isn’t it natural that we prefer fair and even white women over the black ones and same for women, prefering white men over black ones? If its all about choosing on the basis of physical beauty, we’ll always go for the fair ones over blacks. So, it is natural in nature. Why? I do not know. May be its our natural instinct to select the fair one for mating.

    ———–
    Krishn being represented as the one engaged in worldly affairs and hence became dark by working in the sun. While shiv is disengaged in worldly activities, not doing any worldly affair.. Disengaged. And hence white.
    Well, that’s just my expression on shiv. I knw shiv is an aghori, and white color is of the ashes he puts on himself to survive the cold weather.

    • Artikaldon

      White people think of even the fairest Indian as simply a nigger with long hair. Don’t fool ur self into thinking fair is beauty. The white man has caused this madness in you. Not nature. White an hates nature and you.

  • Ved T

    One of your best articles! Liked it a lot.

  • Anusha

    Namaste… I always thought that Lord Shiva was dark… Just like Krishna, Shiva is also painted blue in most of the pictures…. I also think that he is described as “Karpura Gauram” which means ‘the one who is pure and sublime like camphor’.. That does not decribe his complexion..
    If fair Godesses are associated with being domesticated, then how will you explain the dark complexion of Draupadi? Draupadi is considered to be a domesticated form of Goddess who is worshipped at many places in south India… Can you please clarify my doubts?

    • Aditya Raj Bhatt

      thank you for clarifying the point about shiva. i wanted to say the same. i think, symbolically, both shivji and krishna bhagwan/vishnuji the same absolute ends of two different paths. if you reject everything in the world, all impurities and attachements, the black of nothingness is attained by the Self. if you embrace the world, with all its colours and waves, riding it by giving your everything inside, fully enjoying every golden drop of Life, of both that within you and outside in the world, you are also left with divine peace.

      shivji brings you the magic of something even in nothing.
      krishnji playfully shows you the amusing nothingness of everything, and how to glide through life with the inner smile of God.

    • bhaktdas

      Shiva is not white but he is having ashes covering his skin , which is slightly whitish black.

  • Roshan

    First we had a colonial interpretation of Indian history, then northern and southern Indian interpretations, each catering to a certain audience. Now, we have Devdutt Pattnaik’s even more simplistic interpretation of race and religion in the subcontinent – ‘Perhaps in our desire to be cultured and in our aspiration to be otherworldly, we choose white over black. But then the wild side beckons and the thrills of simple worldly joys enchant, and we surrender to the black.’

    By the way, why is Ganesh frequently painted in vermillion? Does it have anything to do with the blood from animal sacrifices used to anoint the idol in earlier days as Damodar Kosambi postulated? If so, can it be that we wish to surrender to ‘vermillion’ when the thrill of animal sacrifice beckons?

  • bhaktdas

    may be dogs are the only anti racist lot… as they are truly depicted as GOD when read from other side.

  • Pingback: Saint Alphonsa: From Hindu gods to Catholic saints, Indians worship the fair and lovely — Quartz()

  • Aniketh Akin

    Cannot Describe.. How much I loved this article… Love u author.

  • Shivakumar Selvaraj

    There is no way in hell Shiva was white!
    He is the father of the Tamil people who are the original black naga of India.
    If he was walking today he would classified as an ‘adivasi’ and dismissed by racist Indians.
    There is a possibility that he applied ash and paint to his body like some of the black tribes in Australia and Africa do. Which may have given him a ‘white’ look.