A couple of days ago, I went on a mini Twitter rant about the representation of Hindu gods in fantasy. Being Hindu in the United States puts you in an odd position; the frame of reference most Americans have for a poly/henotheistic faith is Norse and Greco-Roman paganism from some 1500+ years ago. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s way rougher being Muslim in the United States than it is being Hindu, but oddly, most Americans have a way easier time understanding Allah than they do Ganesh.
This comes up from time to time in Western fantasy works. Some interpretations of Hindu folklore/myth etc. are relatively benign; for example, Dungeons & Dragons treats asuras and rakshasas as different creatures, and neither are depicted anything like they are in scripture or lore.
But some of the misunderstandings are a little more troublesome. For some reasons that are mystifying to me as a Hindu and others that are painfully obvious, westerners often have a hard time getting that the stories of ancient Hinduism are scripture, and that the gods of Hinduism are gods.
The thing is that it’s neither fair nor accurate to represent the gods of Hinduism through the same filter by which the West sees the gods of Norse or Greco-Roman paganism— especially since so much of their relationship to those religious traditions is one of negative contrast. Justifiably or not, the relationship of most westerners to ancient pagan gods is one of rejection and simplification. One of the stories that Christians, Muslims and Jews told themselves to keep their faiths robust was that Odin, Freja, Zeus, Bhaal, Athena etc. are finite, fallible and relatively limited beings compared to the all-knowing, benevolent capital-G God. The result is that even when we portray them positively (as we often do post-Enlightenment), their cosmological grandeur falls drastically short. We can write a heroic version of Thor, but it’s still a version that Iron Man and Hulk can take in a fair fight.
Here’s the thing though: Hinduism didn’t stop growing and adapting two thousand years ago. (Neither did Norse or Hellenistic religion, I imagine, but that’s a different post for a different writer). Our conception of the gods, the roles they play and the scale on which they operate have grown and changed with us. You may not believe in the god of the Bhagavad Gita, but you can still get that his grandeur rivals that of the monotheistic faiths. Describing Ganesh as an elephant-headed god or Vishnu as a four-armed blue god is like describing the God of Christianity as a white bearded man in a robe. It’s accurate from a certain standpoint and literally believed by some, but mostly it’s a drastic oversimplification of a much more ephemeral, complex idea.
Anyway, I don’t totally expect people to understand if they don’t actually come from a poly/henotheistic faith. But if you incorporate Hindu elements into your storytelling, please at least get that this is very much a living religion practiced by upwards of one billion people. That’s one billion people, literally over one in seven people on the planet right now. Whether or not you believe in them, please understand that our gods mean to us what Allah means to Muslims, and what Christ means to Christians.