“Dark skinned” venerable beings in the Hindu Pantheon
This morning I was browsing the tweets from Vikram Babu. He cited an article by s. varatharajah. Varatharajah has written this very nice essay on the unrecognised South Asian East African divide and shared heritage (see the main article of this quote that sparked this post). It’s a very thought provoking essay and I strongly recommend you read it. At an interesting point in the essay, Varatharajaiah writes that Hinduism vilifies dark bodies by construing them as death or demons and fair skinned bodies are seen as saints and saviours.
Interesting point, and indeed, if you look at popularly available wall calenders and images by Raja Ravi Varma — a nineteenth century painter credited with painting and depiction of Hindu deities, this does appear ot be the case. As it happens, the reality is more complex. Let’s take a look at some points about the position of “dark skinned” beings in the Hinduism tradition and pantheon. Just a few examples may illustrate the complexity of the situation.
“Dark skinned’ beings are venerated in the tradition of Hinduism (also known as Sanatana Dharma) as long as known history and mythology are around. The foremost example is the example of Goddess Kali, the dark skinned deity of Hinduism venerated among the “Shakta”, or the Shakti traditionists of Hinduism and widely venerated among people all over India.
There are other prominent instancse of veneration of “dark skinned” beings. One of them is Veda Vyasa, the “saint” who wrote the epic Mahabharatha. Vyasa is said to be the author of the epic and is one of the “immortal” beings. The other, from Mahabharatha (read the full text at the Sacred Texts Archive) is the central character Draupadi (also referred to as Krishnaa). The most venerated of all Indian mythological characters, also an avatar of Vishnu, is Lord Krishna. Lord Krishna belonged to the clan of the cowherds in North India and was dark skinned (here’s more on Lord Krishna)
Wait. It becomes even more complicated when it comes to veneration of other “demons”, for example the demon Ravana. Ravana was a worshipper of Lord Shiva and is said to be a Brahmin in all counts. In the epic Ramayana, he was the king of the land of Lankapuri and he was slayed by the North Indian prince Rama (who in turn is the avatar of Lord Vishnu). What was his complexion? We do not know for certain, but he was the king of the clan of Rakshashas. Even though Ravana was a “villain” in the portrayal of Ramayana, nevertheless he is venerated as a great purveyor of knowledge (see “The sermon from a dying Ravana”)
The point here is that, the reality is far more complex when it comes to Hinduism. There are “dark skinned” beings that are venerated in Hinduism and they are part of Hindu pantheon, as are fair skinned persons who have been “denigrated” (;-) …).