KNBC-TV (Los Angeles): 11/29/00
Pop Culture’s appropriation of Hindu deities sparks controversy.
Take a walk down Haight Street in San Francisco and you’ll notice that colorful and exotic Hindu imagery is the height of fashion in many trendy clothing stores. T-shirts, shoes, purses are emblazoned with the images of Hindu deities such as the elephant god Ganesha and Lord Shiva. And it’s not just on clothing: music artists and advertisers are also using Hindu religious imagery to hawk their wares. It may seem that pop culture is embracing the Hindu religion. But some Hindus object to the appropriation of their icons, saying it is often sacrilegious. American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) is closely monitoring the use of Hindu icons. The group has been quick to protest what they see as inappropriate use of their religious idols. Through use of letters, faxes, email and the threat of mass consumer boycotts, they have been successful in curtailing production of various consumer items that they find offensive.
AHAD formed in 1997 to protest the release of the rock band Aerosmith’s “Nine Lives” album. The album cover featured a collaged image of the God Vishnu, with the head of a cat replacing Vishnu’s. AHAD found the disfigurement of Vishnu offensive, and objected to what they saw as a trivializing and demeaning portrayal of one of their most important gods for commercial gain. Sony Music was flooded with over 20,000 irate emails from Hindus, and agreed to redesign the album cover.
Since then AHAD has organized other protests. The Karma Club, a strip club in Chicago, stopped using the masks of Hindu deities on its exotic dancers when it received mass protests. Vanity Fair magazine was with deluged with criticism for running a 1999 photo-spread of comedian Mike Myers painted with blue body paint and dressed as a Hindu God. The recitation of the Bhagavad-Gita, a sacred Hindu text, during an orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film, “Eyes Wide Shut” was deleted after AHAD called its inclusion “utterly tasteless and insensitive”. And most recently, in July 2000, a Los Angeles shoe company discontinued production of shoes decorated with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi after receiving thousands of protests via email.
AHAD says that a general lack of knowledge about Hinduism sometimes leads to insensitive usage of sacred images. It’s not that the use of the images themselves that they find sacrilegious; it’s when they are used in inappropriate ways.
Shoes for example are seen as an extremely inappropriate place for a deity. The shoe protest illuminates how a general ignorance of Hindu religion and culture can backfire. Hindus always remove their shoes before entering a home or temple, because the feet are considered unclean. Feet are always pointed away from other people as a gesture of respect. Wearing shoes that bear the image of the god means tracking the image through the dirt, as well as treading upon it. Also, printing the image of a deity on any kind of leather is definitely offensive to Hindus. The cow is a sacred animal in India, and most Hindus are vegetarian.
While a Hindu goddess on a T-shirt or purse is not offensive in and of itself, some Hindus say that the overuse of these images trivialize their religion, making it nothing more than a consumable commodity. They object to the wholesale acceptance of the fad as just another fashion statement, because the underlying symbolism is minimized. They say that many of the deities are associated with ancient moral parables and myths that provide life instruction; they do not just exist as colorful novelty items. They want Westerners to look more carefully at the underlying religious and cultural significance behind the imagery, rather than simply co-opting religious imagery to make a fashion statement.