A few days ago, I saw a full-page ad for a copy machine in a professional magazine. It said, "Improve Office Karma" and depicted a serious-faced, six-armed, bikini-clad, Hindu goddess figure doing various tasks at the copy machine with each of her hands. While it is a small victory to see Hinduism represented in popular culture at all, I feel a twinge in my heart when I see how it is represented. You would never, ever see the Virgin Mary promoting baby products or cosmetics, or Jesus promoting vitamins or farming tools! Christians would not tolerate it. When a controversial movie came out recently that poorly depicted Muslims, local groups contacted the media to voice their disapproval, held candlelight vigils at the theatres on opening night, and took the opportunity to peacefully educate the public about their faith. I respect them for that.
Madonna, in her latest phase, has done her bit to introduce the West to Hinduism. She has shown the world's youth provocative Indian temple dancers swaying to her tunes and has been seen wearing bindis on her forehead. As we know, the bindi represents someone who is in a holy state of mind. While I won't venture forth to judge Madonna's state of mind, I would have to say that she appears less than holy most of the time. When Madonna was going through her Catholic phase, she was openly criticized by Catholics who were quick to point out that Madonna is not what Catholicism is all about.
In the last week, I started taking note of Hinduism in the popular culture. Here is what I found: I heard tablas in the background music for a commercial for cured ham. I heard sacred music used to represent paradise resorts and cruises overflowing with material satisfaction and carnal pleasure. In an ad for a re-writable CD recorder, I heard veena music and Sanskrit entertaining blue-haired, multi-pierced teens. I heard terms like karma, dharma, mantra, and guru being used in the media without discrimination. For example, "President Clinton's mantra is that he will not resign." I saw a violent martial arts video game where the backdrop was a giant meditating Buddha. I saw an episode of The Simpsons where a turbaned taxi driver spoke in a heavy Indian accent and acted less-than-intelligent, and a second Hindu-Indian character owned a hamburger restaurant. You never see other groups being portrayed like this. No one would stand for it. Sure, my husband and I smile along with the others when we see Hindus depicted in popular culture, but inside, it smarts a little.
We have to laugh at ourselves, because everyone else is laughing (and yes, some of the jokes are funny if you forget that you are laughing at real people with real feelings). It's easier to laugh along than to hold a straight face, or better yet, explain to the jokester that it's not funny because it hurts someone's culture.
Many Western young people are going around saying that they are Hindus without the foggiest idea of what it means. The youth say that if Madonna is Hindu, and she can go around doing what she does, then they are Hindu, too. I think to the general population, Hinduism means "freedom"-- lack of rules and dogma, rebelling against parents, exotica, erotica, and narcotica. It is a welcome path for many who are trying to find themselves in relation to the world and do not find themselves fitting into society. I just wish it wasn't such a fad right now.
If I have to find a bright side to all this, at least Hinduism is being acknowledged in society. I would not go so far to say it is accepted and respected. If the media would promote ahimsa, modesty, or family values along with Hindu icons, I might be less disheartened. If National Geographic would stop showing episodes on Hindus who "worship" rats and start showing how they respect all creatures, it would be nice. But I can't see the Gap or Madonna promoting moral values all of the sudden, can you? Maybe in one or two generations, we will actually be recognized for who we are-human beings with dignity and a sense of purpose who are constantly trying to better ourselves and the world for every living creature-even those who don't understand or accept us yet.
Copyright 1999 by Amber Sukumaran. All rights reserved. This may be distributed freely intact if author's name and this copyright are attached.