[caption id="attachment_8746" align="alignnone" width="540" caption="A scantily-clad blue-skinned woman with four arms, meant to be a representation of the Hindu goddess Kali. Her upper arms are carrying a pair of serrated curved swords, while her lower hands are respectively holding a severed head and a censer made of skulls. the SMITE logo is at the bottom right."]
SMITE is an upcoming MOBA where players battle it out as deities from the Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, Norse, and Hindu pantheons.
American pop culture has long appropriated other cultures and histories. Many of us have noticed this and we have talked about it, but we were always dismissed with the same arguments over and over. This time is no different.
Rajan Zed, President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, has recently requested that Hi-Rez Studios removed the Hindu deities Agni, Kali, and Vamana from the game. He argued that their depiction in the game is disrespectful, among the many reasons of which are that the game has turned these deities into tools for the player to take control of. You can read more about it here.
So what is the response Zed got? Well, this gem here by Hi-Rez co-founder, Todd Harris:
SMITE includes deities inspired from a diverse and ever expanding set of pantheons including Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and Norse. Hinduism, being one of the world’s oldest, largest and most diverse traditions, also provides inspiration toward deities in our game. In fact, given Hinduism’s concept of a single truth with multiple physical manifestations one could validly interpret ALL the gods within SMITE to be Hindu. And all gods outside of SMITE as well. Ponder that for a minute. Anyway, going forward SMITE will include even more deities, not fewer.
A white man misusing the ideas of a religion (probably) not his own and then implying he knows better than a (PoC) leader of said religion? Par for the course, really. Can this get any worse? Yes. Let’s examine how Kali, one of the Hindu deities in SMITE, is depicted.
Before moving on, first reacquaint yourself with Kali’s design in the game. Have you done that? Now, have an example of how Kali is portrayed in religious art:
[caption id="attachment_8779" align="alignnone" width="313" caption="The Goddess Kali: A four-armed woman with blue skinned. She has very long and dishevelled black hair. Her tongue is sticking out. Unlike her depiction in SMITE which is conventionally skinny with large breasts; she has a round figure here. All she wears are jewellery with a garland of severed heads and a skirt of severed hands. She has a curved sword in her upper right arm, a trident in her lower right, a severed demon head in her upper left, and a bowl on her lower left to collect the blood of the above head. Under her feet is the inert body of the Hindu god Shiva."]
What SMITE has is not Kali. What they have is a generic monster girl with traits of Kali’s manifestations and lore tacked on.
Perhaps the most well known myth about Kali is her defeat of the demon Raktabija. A basic version of this myth tells of Raktabija, who has attained the ability to replicate himself with every drop of his blood spilled, and who once fought against the Hindu deities. When most the entire pantheon could do nothing against the demon, the goddess Parvati stepped into battle and assumed the form of Kali. By drinking the blood of every Raktabija, Kali won the battle but had gotten drunk on the blood.
The myth tells of only one aspect of Kali. What does the developer do upon hearing this? They give her skills named “Siphon Blood” and “Kali Rage.” In fact, they base her design around a monstrous vampire. The wild hair of the goddess has been replaced with something which makes her resemble Medusa. Her eyes are now blank white and she has been given fangs. The weapons she holds plays up her image as a beheader. She even has tribal tattoos! What else can we do to make her more like a vampiric monster? Well, vampires are sexy so…
Oh yes! The sexualisation! The difference in nudity between the above two examples are quite clear. While Kali in religious art tends to be nude and adorned with severed hands and heads, Kali in SMITE is instead put into an outfit meant to show as much skin as possible without being considered naked. Not to mention that her outfit is not Indian at all. And of course, she is not allowed to have plumpness in any part of her body except her breasts.
This is truly disgusting. Not only is a faith appropriated, but it is done so in a way which turns a widely revered deity into a male sexual fantasy. A goddess in non-sexual nudity is somehow less preferable to a caricature in which she is put in a costume for the male gaze. Whether you agree with Rajan Zed or not about controlling Hindu deities as combat tools is not the issue. The cultural imperialistic mindset which allows a westerner to pornify symbols of Hinduism and yet think he has the right to lecture a Hindu about the religion, this is the issue.