To Use or Not To Use: The Question for Hindu Images and The West

The N-word -- it's not a sacred image, but it is an example of how the acceptability of a word, whether in common usage, the media or commercial contexts, depends entirely on who's saying it and why. As most Americans have agreed, the N-word's usage is not okay for Caucasians, at times accepted between African Americans, and yet debates continue amongst African Americans over its acceptability. We, as a society, have agreed to differing, essentially race-based "rules" of discourse that are neither based on notions of logic nor fairness. But given the history, connotations and relevance of the N-word to African Americans, today it is primarily African Americans, the affected group, who get to set those rules.

One would assume then that a similar understanding would be afforded vis a vis Western appropriations of Hindu imagery -- allowing Hindus to set the rules as to what is and isn't okay. After all, there has certainly been intense emotion and eventually deference accorded to imagery associated with the Quran and the Prophet Muhammed. In stark contrast, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) heard a shrill, yet typical accusation of "Hypocrisy!" and even the scholarly equivalent of "take a chill pill" emerging from corners of academia and media when FOX News carried HAF's reaction to a Newsweek cover depicting President Obama in the likeness of the Hindu God, Nataraja. The cover featured Obama with multiple arms, balancing several policy issues while raising his left leg mimicking the cosmic dance of the Hindu deity that is considered a manifestation of Lord Shiva.

'Hindus don't respect their own icons so why the big deal over Newsweek' was the rumbling of some. One need only take a quick stroll through the aisles of an Indian grocery store anywhere in America and, especially throughout India, to find Lakshmi brand flour, Ganesh brand rice or Saraswati brand camphor (all brands named after Hindu Gods). These are but a few examples of the infinite commercial invocations of sacred images seen throughout the Indian, majority Hindu context. Why then should Hindu Americans be upset by the Newsweek cover or even Burger King's placement of the Goddess Lakshmi on a burger?

The answer is simple -- it matters who is using the image, and even more importantly, why. For decades, we've watched Hinduism's sacred images plastered on advertising, packaging and billboards on an ever-increasing variety of consumer products throughout India. Indeed, not every Indian or Hindu use is done with a nod to the sacred, but one will often sense an inside understanding -- even reverence -- in its use. Manufacturing companies in the Hindu world also use images of Hindu deities to invoke God's blessings for the success of their endeavor, or it may be that the business is a family business with a family name that has religious connotations.

In the West, however, Hindu Americans have grown accustomed to a "come discover and take what works best for you," cafeteria-style taking when it comes to the gifts of our tradition. Yoga, meditation and Ayurvedic ancient healing arts -- all are part of the Western landscape but often divorced from their Hindu roots -- are an entirely different conversation. The commercial misappropriation of Hindu iconography, however, raises different concerns.

The Newsweek cover is actually one of the more benign caricatures of Hindu imagery. Nearly every week, the HAF receives requests from its members to consider addressing the use of Hindu icons on items being sold by American companies that range from t-shirts to beer steins, underwear to flip flops and even toilet seats -- yes, even toilet seats. These products may simply display a Hindu deity, but many times, the manufacturers have chosen to take not-so-respectful, even perverted liberties with them -- contorting them or photoshopping them for an end to which we are uncertain, except that it ultimately exoticizes and defiles that which is not theirs. All this is not to suggest that any and every Western use of Hindu imagery is offensive or wrong. One simply need to peruse the $6 billion strong yoga industry where, on the whole, we find respectful and contextually correct commerical uses of Om's, Hindu deities and Sanskrit mantras (though they may not acknowledge the images as Hindu).

As to the criticism that Hindus should not be so reactive because 'after all its only the media' -- perhaps my perspective is different here on the ground than that from the lofty ivory tower. In a time when "google" has become a verb and more Americans own computers than encyclopedias, we cannot underestimate the power (and failings) of mass media, online or otherwise. It goes without saying that Hinduism acknowledges the existence of multiple paths, so too must we, as advocates for the Hindu American community, acknowledge the multitude of perspectives. We understand that what may be offensive to one Hindu is not offensive to another. But at least for what appears to many to be "misuses", Hindus should and must assert the right to rule-making that others have asserted before us.