In new comics, paintings and popular books, depictions of Vishnu, Rama and other greats in the Hindu pantheon are being re–imagined to give the deities broad shoulders, six-pack abs, flashy get-ups and smouldering good looks… The changes are part of a re-imagining of Hindu stories that supporters say makes them more relevant to India’s middle-class youth, who are navigating a far different world than the one in which their parents lived… A trilogy of recent novels on Shiva blends Indian stories with the hot genres of science fiction and fantasy, and has become a best-selling book series in India, with 2 million copies in print…
India’s Hindu gods and goddesses are getting a superhero makeover. In new comics, paintings and popular books, depictions of Vishnu, Rama and other greats in the Hindu pantheon are being re–imagined to give the deities broad shoulders, six-pack abs, flashy get-ups and smoldering good looks. In “Shiva: The Legends of the Immortal,” a series of graphic novels, the title character boasts bulging muscles that ripple under his tiger-skin wrap and dark tresses that blow in the wind as he battles with his trident. That is a big shift from the standard iconography of the past century, which has tended to portray the gods in beneficent and contemplative poses, modestly clad and with bodies that are often curvy and, well, soft.
Hindu gods “were also warriors. They were supposed to be strong so they could fight anybody,” says Satyaki Pal, a 24-year-old business school student who reads graphic novels. The tougher, new look “is appealing to younger people,” he says. In traditional depictions, for instance, Vishnu, Hinduism’s four-armed god of preservation is often shown reclining, with his wife, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, sitting at his feet. But in the graphic novel “Dashaavatar,” a ripped Vishnu, in one of his incarnations as half fish, battles a demon that is part horse, part fish. Surrounded by roiling ocean waters, the god clenches his four fists—then shoots laser beams from his eyes. “Sszzzttt!” People today require “a little bit more visual convincing” of gods’ extraordinary powers, says Sandeep Virdi, a 26-year-old graphic-novel fan from Delhi who applauds the new looks.
Prakash Sharma, a spokesman for Vishva Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, says his organisation isn’t opposed to presenting Hindu gods as muscular and strong. “But there should not be an effort to change the original character” of the deities, he says, adding the portrayal shouldn’t be demeaning. The changes are part of a re-imagining of Hindu stories that supporters say makes them more relevant to India’s middle-class youth, who are navigating a far different world than the one in which their parents lived.
Young Indians “want to connect to the tradition in a very different manner,” says Joseph M.T., assistant professor of sociology at University ofMumbai. The gods’ new look has “resonance to an aspiring India at some level.” Graphic novel publishers say they are careful to show respect to the gods in the story lines, even while giving them a more powerful look. And to be sure, traditional depictions still abound in mainstream media, including old-school comic books and the calendars that hang in many Hindu households.
Indian stories are populated with larger-than-life deities. Hanuman, for instance, lifted a mountain on one hand. Shiva has a third eye on his forehead, which when he is angry can release fire. Indians young and old share a basic knowledge of the Hindu epics, the “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata,” believed to be thousands of years old.
Contemporary artists and authors say Hinduism’s multitude of gods and goddesses deserve an updated look. One New Delhi artist, 23-year-old Anirudh Sainath Krishnamani, says he was disappointed as a child by the fair-skinned and clean-shaven depiction of Lord Rama in a TV serialisation of the god’s story in the “Ramayana.” Mr. Krishnamani says that image doesn’t comport with the Rama described in Hindu texts, where Rama fights many battles and single-handedly slays 14,000 demons. Rama “was this really macho, warrior kind of person,” he says. He shouldn’t be “looking like this really soft and nice-nice person.”
A recent digitally-rendered piece by Mr. Krishnamani shows Rama with a dark complexion, dreadlocks and broad chest, aiming an arrow while riding on the back of Hanuman, the monkey-god, who is slicing through the sky like a jet. Another Delhi-based artist, Anant Mishra, shows gods in clothes and settings that might not seem out of place in a Western comic book. In one painting, Hanuman lounges in a Batmobile-like vehicle in the sky, wearing armor appropriate for a sci-fi film, watching over an apocalyptic scene on earth. Not everyone is thrilled with the changed iconography. Mr. Krishnamani was asked to remove three of his paintings from an exhibition in Bangalore last year because they showed goddesses in various states of undress. In one, Shiva kissed his wife Sati, who was topless.
Indian publishers such as Holy Cow Entertainment, Vimanika Comics and Campfire Graphic Novels have launched comic books and graphic novels that combine familiar story lines with new scenes and dialogue. “We’re trying to give cutting-edge art to the same old mythological stories,” says Vivek Goel, founder of Holy Cow Entertainment. Some readers like that the new comic books explore different themes. One of the best-selling graphic novels in India is about Ravana, who kidnaps Rama’s wife Sita in the epic “Ramayana.”
Ravana has typically been portrayed as a villain in India. In an early TV serial, his character was played by an actor with a double chin. But in the new graphic novels Ravana sports a lean, muscular physique, and the story lines turn him into a romantic anti-hero of sorts, who was a scholar before he took Sita. A trilogy of recent novels on Shiva blends Indian stories with the hot genres of science fiction and fantasy, and has become a best-selling book series in India, with 2 million copies in print, according to its publisher Westland Ltd.
The author, Amish Tripathi, “is humanising these characters into Tolkienean heroes,” says Layne Little, a professor of religious studies at theUniversity of California, Berkeley, referring to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Mr. Tripathi says he has read “The Lord of the Rings,” but didn’t specifically draw inspiration from it. He says readers of his books have told him that by reading about their god in a modern idiom “they felt more connected with their heritage.” The books also humanise these larger-than-life figures in unfamiliar ways. Shiva is shown as a man questioning traditions. He burns with romance and anger and is conflicted over right and wrong. Historically, Shiva is shown as omniscient though given to bursts of anger.
At one point in the Shiva trilogy, Shiva talks about people’s expectations. “By the Holy Lake, can I really deliver these people from their troubles?” he asks his companion. “If there was a one-on-one battle, I could take on any enemy in order to protect your people. But I am no leader. And I am certainly not a ‘destroyer of evil.’ ”