Indian rail authorities allocated a berth on a train on Sunday for the Hindu god Shiva, raising eyebrows in a country led by Narendra Modi’s hardline Hindu nationalist BJP party.
Officials in charge of the Kashi-Mahakal Express, which was flagged off by the Indian prime minister, booked the upper berth in a second-class, air-conditioned compartment for the god known as the cosmic destroyer on the train’s inaugural run.
The train will take passengers to important Shiva pilgrimage centres.
Some social media users wondered why Shiva had not been booked in first class and why he was only given a berth, not an entire compartment. Others joked that while other countries talked about making their trains better with more hi-tech equipment, improved tracks and modern signalling, Indian Railways’ idea of improving its service was to get Shiva onboard.
Followers of other Hindu gods were miffed. Why not a seat for Hanuman or Vishnu, they asked. And what about extending the idea to buses, metros and airlines?
Sounding defensive, Indian Railways explained that the seat for the large-framed picture of Shiva was a “one-off” for the inaugural ride and was intended to “seek blessings” for the success of the new train.
“There is going to be no such reserved or dedicated berth for this purpose in the commercial run of the train,” it said.
The Times of India said in an editorial that “assigning an upper berth to Shiva is illogical, because he has transcended the plane on which berths exist”.
Hindu deities can turn up in unexpected places. In a legal dispute over the birthplace of Lord Ram, which concluded last year, the god was assigned the position of a non-human, legal entity in the case, recognised by the law and entitled to rights and duties in the same way as humans.
Pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses also turn up in unusual public spaces, such as staircases. Municipal cleaners fed up with cleaning the orange stains of betel nuts, which are chewed and then spat out in such places, realised some years ago that painting images of gods on the walls made spitters think twice about dirtying them.