Two posters caught the attention of the Indian media in January this year, and each happened to portray a sibling from the same political family. One – a badly photoshopped merger – showed the god Rama’s torso, complete with a quiver hanging from his back, but with the face of a political leader, Rahul Gandhi, superimposed on the deity’s head. The other posters compared Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul’s sister and also a politician, to goddess Durga, a deity that represents the feminine cosmic power in the universe. One of those posters was a double reference: Priyanka Gandhi is the granddaughter of Indira Gandhi, the famous prime minister of India who had been, if very seldom, portrayed as Durga herself. Thus, somebody chose to portray Priyanka Gandhi as not only the reincarnation of Indira Gandhi but, by default, also Durga’s coming to this earth.
There are more such instances. There is a temple dedicated to the deceased Indira Gandhi in central India, and worship there continued at least as of 2017. The same Rahul Gandhi was also portrayed as Rama on posters a year ago. At that time he was shown aiming a bow at his political rival, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was likened to the demon Ravana, a mythological figure whom Rama killed. Like Ravana, Modi was portrayed with 10 heads, his face copied into each of them. No nuances here – our leader is a god, their leader is the king of demons.
Ironically, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi represent the Indian National Congress, a party usually perceived as the socialist and secular power, the biggest alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP is now led by Modi and his associates – and is currently ruling India. It is this party that is more often accused of arousing religious sentiments and more often refers to Hindu traditions. The ground reality, however, shows the Congress and the BJP are not as far from each other as many would like to think.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But the BJP has had its share of district-level deifications as well. During the 2014 elections, a chant often raised in favor of Modi was a remake of a religious mantra that worships the god Shiva (“Har Har Modi” instead of “Har Har Mahadev”). Local party members from the holy Hindu city of Varanasi – a constituency where Modi was fighting elections at that time – even changed the words of a Sanskrit prayer, putting “Modi” instead of “Devi” (Goddess). Moreover, just like Indira Gandhi, Modi was also supposed to have a temple built for him in Meerut (though I do not know how this story has ended).
The same, perhaps even more rarely, may happen to politicians of other parties as well. A member of the All India Trinamool Congress – the party now ruling West Bengal – once suggested that its members should wear the picture of the undisputed party leader, Mamata Banerjee, as a lucky charm against the evil magic of their political rivals (the communists).
All of these, however, are scattered and regional instances and we should not read too much into them. Religion and politics are obviously intertwined in many ways in India – as they are in many places. But this does not mean that Indian politicians are often portrayed as gods and that this is the national trend.
These occurrences can perhaps be explained by looking at the nature of Hinduism. First of all, it is not a centralized religion with a hierarchical clergy and a strict doctrine, like the Roman Catholic Church. The actions of the people who established an Indira Gandhi temple or those who planned to found a Narendra Modi temple were not authorized by any central institution, and there was no such decisive apex body they could have asked anyway. Many, if not most, Hindu priests would perhaps disapprove of such acts. I do not have any survey at hand to prove this but there have been instances of highly respected Hindu figures criticizing such deifications. Media pundits may sometimes raise the hype but the orthodox pandits are not really behind all of this.
These initiatives are usually not even endorsed by the central party leadership. Most of these deifying posters and slogans were prepared by regional party workers, or others. It is the local tribal community that worships Indira Gandhi in central India. When Rahul Gandhi was depicted as Rama fighting the “Ravana Modi,” the Congress leadership pointed out that the posters were “unofficial” (but did not reject them). When Modi’s name was included in a Sanskrit prayer, the state president of the BJP criticized this and declared that it should not have been done. Modi himself, while very much focused on building and sustaining his image, spoke against the cult-like adoration of people (vyakti-puja). Such deifications happen because the district-level gung-ho party activists may sometimes go to extremes to make their efforts noticed and their voices heard.
Second, with no centralized and strict doctrine to go by, Hinduism is a collection of many different cults and traditions which do not have to be – and often are not – coherent. Or, to put it differently: In the 19th century, when the image of Hinduism in the West had been established, the benchmark for any religion as defined in Europe was the Roman Catholic Church. This is the only reason why Hinduism was and is described as “a less organized” and “less centralized” religion – in comparison only, by arbitrarily using Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) as the yardstick for all religions. Many examples of local Hindu cults may be challenged with completely different instances from other regions but this does not negate them or make them less true or genuine. It is the same on the political level. There is historical evidence that in some marginal cases Mahatma Gandhi was worshiped like a near-god or a saintly figure. Nowadays, a fringe radical party, Hindu Mahasabha, has established a temple where Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, is believed to be worshiped. Once again, neither of these cults are authorized by established religious figures nor must they be perceived as representing the same religious tradition (or any tradition). Defining and understanding Hinduism is certainly not arrived at by stamping each tradition with a “Hindu cult” brand.
Third, some of the deities of Hinduism live “closer” to men. Holy men are often worshiped as gods and some deities were believed to have descended to Earth in various myths (such as those about Vishnu’s avatars). This is perhaps why it is easier for some politicians to bandwagon behind these religious traditions by trying to deify party leaders.
While there should be no hype around these attempts, they do confirm the significant role of Hinduism in modern Indian society and as a rallying force in the country’s politics.