As early as next week, Burnside Brewery in Portland Oregon planned to release a spiced wheat beer, “Kali-Ma”. Needless to say, the ‘cultural theft’ of a popular demonic form of a Hindu goddess has rubbed a number of Hindu Organizations the wrong way, provoking condemnations of Burnside’s choice on the grounds that it would “hurt the devotees.” In ways that mimic disputes over the appropriations of yoga earlier this year, and Heidi Klum’s dressing up as Kali-Ma for a 2008 Halloween Party, Burnside has argued that it was not their intent to offend devotees by using Kali-Ma.
Of course,it is not only commercial interests who appropriate cultural goods in ways that serve their own self-interest. Post colonial governments regularly do so. In 2008, for instance, the Egyptian government sought patents for the use of the image of pyramids . Their proprietary claim stemmed from a desire to identify certain images as cultural signifiers, and perhaps also the considerable revenues, and the ability to enforce limitations upon how such images are used by others, patents typically provide.
Such practices provoke questions about the appropriate contexts for determining when cultural images are used (or abused) and who gets to draw these boundaries. On the one hand, some devotees claim to be harmed by the ‘theft’ (and especially the commodification) of their cultural resources. It is worth noting that at least one other commercial vendor of alcohol, Sula, the winery from Nasik, India, use the image of the mustached Sun (also a Hindu god) to label their bottles.
Thus, it is worth inquiring further as to precisely how why Burnsides’ Kali-Ma beer might be construed as harmful. Kali, the black, naked, and terrifying goddess, is depicted in the Devi-Mahatmya (a Hindu devotional text from the Markandeya Purana) as drunk (on blood) and wielding tremendous power. Just as some followers of yoga sought to sanitize the practice and remove some of the tantric connotations associated with practices, do modern Hindus hope to sanitize representations of Kali? On the other hand, cultural images of all sorts quickly become part of an endless repertoire shared the world-over. With the Internet, culturally specific images from one community soon evoke sentimental value in those from others. Should we, then, expect their appropriation, even commodification?
Perhaps what irks the critics of Burnside (and Heidi) is that a non-Hindu may get to use and promote one particular image of the goddess, while they themselves hope to promote a “purer” image of Kali-Ma. However, this too stems from a need to polish Hindu gods, making the gods palatable to a non-Hindu gaze that may not understand the diverse stories of the Hindu goddess. I do not wish to marginalize the possible “suffering” Kali-Ma beer may cause some (sanitized) Hindus, but it does lead on to ask: when we stand up to lay claim to cultural signifiers, does this serve the purpose we have explicitly claimed? It may in fact have little to do with Kali-Ma beer offending Hindu sentiments, and much more to do with wanting to claim authority over the appropriate use of symbols, and the high that goes with wielding that power.