The Dark Side of the Comics That Redefined Hinduism

Beloved by generations of Indian children like myself, the illustrated-book series Amar Chitra Katha also reinforced many forms of intolerance.

Part of a panel from the inside of 'The Lord of Lanka'
Part of a panel from the inside of 'The Lord of Lanka' featuring the demon king Ravana (left) and his righteous brother (center) (Amar Chitra Katha Pvt. Ltd. / The Atlantic)

Fifty years ago, a junior executive at the Times of India named Anant Pai watched Indian children on a TV quiz show fail to answer a basic question about the Hindu epic Ramayana. Concerned that young people in his country had lost touch with their cultural heritage, Pai acted. He eventually teamed up with the publisher India Book House to launch an educational comic series that presented kid-friendly Indian religious and historical stories. The comics, titled Amar Chitra Katha (also known as ACK, or Immortal Illustrated Stories), slowly became a massive hit. While schools and shopkeepers initially hesitated to stock the issues, ACK was a household name in India by the late 1970s. Today, the series has sold 100 million-plus copies of more than 400 comics in upwards of 20 languages, primarily English and Hindi.

Pai revolutionized children’s entertainment as much as he did religious education. ACK was the first major indigenous comic-book series to sell within India, and its success also heralded the development of a broader domestic comics industry. ACK’s first successors were primarily Western-inspired action and adventure series, but by the 1990s Indian institutions like Diamond Comics and Raj Comics were publishing mysteries, funnies, and science-fiction works. Even within this crowded field, ACK remained beloved and novel for both its edutainment value and its role as the grandfather of an industry.

And yet, since its debut in 1967, ACK has also helped supply impressionable generations of middle-class children a vision of “immortal” Indian identity wedded to prejudiced norms. ACK’s writing and illustrative team (led by Pai as the primary “storyteller”) constructed a legendary past for India by tying masculinity, Hinduism, fair skin, and high caste to authority, excellence, and virtue. On top of that, his comics often erased non-Hindu subjects from India’s historic and religious fabric. Consequently, ACK reinforced many of the most problematic tenets of Hindu nationalism—tenets that partially drive the platform of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, currently under fire domestically and internationally for policies and rhetoric targeting religious minorities and lower castes.

Yet millions of children—myself included—revered “Uncle Pai” for creating a popular avenue to an Indian heritage, however limited. Like many other Indian diaspora kids, my mother brought her own collection when she immigrated to the United States as a 9-year-old in 1973. My family had built a library of some 90 issues by the time I began to read them, tattered from decades of swapping between cousins. When I was a boy growing up in upstate New York, my parents had no Indian friends or nearby relatives. We only spoke in English and ate burritos more often than dal bhat.

The heroes of ACK became my superheroes long before I discovered Spider-Man or the Flash. They also became my first window into a culture I barely knew. I didn’t care that the protagonists I was reading about were drawn with white skin. I was unaware of the broader, ongoing effort by Hindu nationalists to define a doctrine devaluing lower castes, women, tribal populations, and religious minorities. I didn’t understand how ideals of obedience to authority—something the comics taught—can feed systemic inequality. I was just reading about heroes who made me feel stronger than I was, and who would teach me, I believed, how to be Indian.

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ACK defines Indian identity via stories—which naturally appealed to a bookish child like me who constantly escaped into the worlds of Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, and C.S. Lewis. Most histories in the comics feature virtuous Hindus who fight against evil rulers, an encroaching Muslim horde, or arrogant British imperialists. The religious stories are drawn from (usually Hindu) epics, sacred texts, and folktales, and they frequently weave the same gods and heroes among minor vignettes and massive story arcs. Though many ACK issues could stand alone, roughly 30 pages at a time the series constructed a limited and tonally consistent India sanitized through a distinctively Hindu lens.

While many scholars reject the notion of a single Hindu doctrine, they have some opponents. In 2008, Hindu nationalist students at Delhi University protested the inclusion of A.K. Ramanujan’s landmark essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” in the history syllabus. The protestors alleged that it demeaned Hinduism to imply nonclassical versions of the epic were equally legitimate. Under a renewed wave of dissent in 2011, the university dropped the essay from the syllabus.

But outside the Ivory Tower, ACK’s panels bring the power struggles, great feats, and sacrifices of Hindu lore and Indian history to life. With simple brushstrokes, illustrators evoke spare landscape backgrounds or classical architecture. Though light-hearted folktales like Panchatantra or Jataka Tales often tend toward caricature, ACK illustrators typically draw both mythological and historical protagonists in the image of Hindu deities of Indian classical sculpture. With characters’ dramatic facial expressions and body postures, the lessons, political scheming, and battles become captivating.

For his part, Pai said “his comics had helped foster the ‘integration’ of India, which is made up of hundreds of ethnic groups, by teaching children about its history and legends,” according to a 2011 New York Times story about the creator’s death. Still, these dialogues, plot arcs, and illustrations often erase or negatively portray many groups. ACK largely omits religious minorities, including Christians and Sikhs, from its extensive “Makers of Modern India” collection. Muslims fare the worst among these groups. In the series’ medieval histories, adherents of Islam often play the boogeymen, a menacing, green-clad horde threatening brave Hindus.

ACK also upholds popular, but regressive beauty standards by representing nearly all the stories’ “good” characters as fair-skinned, lithe women or fair-skinned, muscular men. (Canonically dark-skinned gods are shaded blue.) By contrast, demons, “ruffians,” and “ruthless killers” are given dark brown or black skin. In Issue #67 The Lord of Lanka (1974), Pai even distinguishes a demonic family’s virtuous members from its evil members by shading them white. In Indian culture, where dark skin is frequently associated with lower castes, colorism fuels casteism.

Low-caste and tribal individuals are sometimes valorized in ACK for self-sacrifice with disturbing overtones. In one scene of the epic Mahabharata, a boy named Ekalavya, who’s from a disparaged hill tribe, is denied instruction by a teacher of arms. After building a statue to practice in front of, Ekalavya becomes a fearsome archer. When the teacher discovers this, he demands the boy sever his thumbs in payment. Ekalavya’s obedience is framed as a model of deference toward elders.

ACK similarly establishes women as collaborators in their own oppression. As Issue #71 Indra and Shachi (1974) proclaims from the inside cover, even goddesses cheerfully demonstrate “unselfish subordination of their own selves and service to their husbands.” Men receive virginal wives as gifts from other men—or heroically kidnap them. At their most shocking, some ACK comics venerate women’s suicide as a means to inspire or defy men. Many heroines choose sati, a long-banned practice in which widows like Padmini and Ranak Devi burn alive on funeral pyres.

Some readers and critics might blame Hinduism as a whole for these inequalities. But Hinduism lacks a central authoritative text like the Bible or Qur’an, and the sprawling canon of Hindu stories means there are many divergent messages on the subject of inequality. Rather than offering a more neutral take on Hinduism, ACK excluded subversive viewpoints from many stories. For instance, ACK’s Valmiki’s Ramayana does not challenge the caste system. By contrast, some folk traditions identify the divine Lord Rama, who spent 14 years cast out of society in the forest, as a symbol of low-caste peasants or tribal groups. In southern states like Tamil Nadu, some narratives lionize Lord Rama’s dark-skinned foes as representatives of the Dravidian population.

As an adult returning to the series after many years, I struggle to reconcile ACK’s recurrent bigoted portrayals with my enduring affection for the characters whose selflessness and courage left me in awe as a child. I idolized Ekalavya. I wanted to be determined like Dhruva, the child who worshipped so intensely the heavens could not breathe. Most of all, I loved Karna—the adoptive son of a charioteer in the Mahabharata. Facing abandonment, insults, emotional blackmail, and two different curses, Karna gave to the world with a generosity it rarely returned. On the eve of the battle that claimed his life, Karna relinquished the armor and earrings that provided him the protection of his divine father, the sun god Surya. Handing the jewelry over, Karna said, “Never let it be said that Karna refused anyone anything.”

To ACK’s credit, many of its comic issues occasionally complicated the norms it established. For example, Ghatotkacha is a virtuous character with dark skin. In Issue #89 Ganesha (1975), the goddess Parvati proves to be more powerful than the collective might of all male gods. Though the (Muslim) Mughal emperor Akbar the Great typically plays second fiddle to his Hindu minister Birbal, he is still portrayed favorably. Furthermore, he and several other Mughal rulers are the protagonist of their own comics. Originally christened “the great Mughal” in Issue #200, ACK’s newer Issue #603 praises Akbar as “a visionary monarch.” The series positively profiles the Dalit (or untouchable) leader Bhimrao Ambedkar, as well, although that issue sanitizes his anti-Hindu politics to better align with the comics’ platform.

ACK’s form and rhetoric have also evolved since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. (Pai died in 2011.) Some classically inspired panels have given way to a dynamic style of illustration resembling Western graphic novels, and the comic series even has its own app. More substantively, the ACK executive editor Reena Puri acknowledged in 2016, “It is so easy to fall into the trap of stereotyping. … We are changing some of that.” Though several issues have been pulled from circulation entirely, many regressive comics from the old canon (like Padmini and Indra and Shachi) are still published.

Academics, writers, and social-justice advocates have criticized ACK’s myriad prejudices for years. Yet, it remains a hallowed institution in India for providing millions of children a path to their heritage, however fraught. As for my family, my parents have given many of our comics away to my younger relatives. When I visited one cousin earlier this year, she had just read an issue her father brought from India. Her parents made sure to discuss with her the story’s dangerous assumptions about color, caste, gender, and religion. And then, they read the next one.