I’m a quarter of the way through American Gods and Kali has made her appearance. Out of all the deities in the Hindu pantheon, Western writers are most fixated on Kali. She’s made appearances in Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire series and on Supernatural that were far more prominent than any other god. My family is Hindu, so I make mental notes of every time Western culture makes a reference to the religion. (When you’re in a small minority, it’s nice to feel “acknowledged” by the majority.)
For every appearance Kali has made in Western entertainment, her portrayal is always wrong in some crucial way. In The Last Vampire, the narrator thought Kali was evil, which was something no Hindu would make an error on. It’s like a Christian calling St. Paul an evil demon. Kali does get demonized in a really bad way in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (of course that movie was all kinds of wrong about “Hinduism” to begin with). In Supernatural, she’s made into this sort of stupid waify creature (but bear in mind all the gods were screwed in that episode) and considering the context of the episode, Durga would have been a much much better deity to go with. Kali would also be a much more decisive and Gordon-like character. In American Gods, it’s made to sound like she’s not worshiped anymore which I find hard to believe since Navaratri (which celebrates the nine major female deities) was just two weeks ago, there are temples and sects still devoted to her, and every so often someone mentions a blood sacrifice made in her name. Plus she made the cover of the temple’s monthly newsletter… So why would anyone say she’s forgotten? She’s as popular as she ever was. Perhaps it’s that Western culture thinks because it sees her so much that the West thinks Hindus have forgotten?
I’m not exactly sure why Westerners find Kali the most fascinating, but it’s probably because she’s the dark side of “goodness.” The hard decisions, the cold and calculating dark actions we make to preserve goodness. The goddess images are also graphic and bewildering. She doesn’t come up very often in Hindu functions I’ve been to compared to Lakshmi, Saraswati or Durga, but no one ever skimps on her offerings when they come up. She’s also not a common idol found in people’s houses either. So for Hindus, it’s a little odd to see her come up so much in Western culture, more than Shiva, Ganesh or Durga.
The West chose Kali as the representative for Hindu culture, but then still doesn’t quite understand her or the role she plays. She’s not forgotten or neglected, but rather an extreme that people don’t always want to face. (Moral ambiguity is a never-ending source of fun for Hindu philosophy.) Kali is an awesome goddess by all means, but I’m waiting for the day when Western culture will get right what her role is…