Hinduism, Indo-Paganism, and Cultural Appropriation

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 22, 2010 — 3 Comments

Namaste, Wild Hunt readers! Many thanks to Jason for his invitation to bring some perspective on a subject that is more and more relevant – the issue of worshipping Hindu deities as a Pagan.

As the Pagan community grows, so do the various approaches to deity and ritual. While much of the Pagan world is involved in creating new traditions, reconstructing ancient ones, and everything in between, there are more and more Pagans who are drawn to living traditions such as the various African diasporic religions, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These practitioners typically want to maintain their basic philosophy and approach to religion, which often allows them to worship many deities in a spontaneous, eclectic way, and allows them to connect with many different Gods and Goddesses, while also incorporating deities or practices they find themselves drawn to.

One of the issues that comes up when this happens is appropriation. Cultural appropriation happens when someone from one culture borrows symbols, rituals, and practices from another culture without fully understanding the context, meaning, and complexity of those things, and then passes them off as one’s own, or uses their own interpretations and then passes them off as “authentic.” This becomes especially problematic when dealing with interactions between members of cultures with historical roots in colonialism, slavery, and exploitation.

With Hinduism, we often see Gods and Goddesses appropriated to give an “exotic” feel to a product, and in a religious sense when someone wants to worship a Hindu deity, but believes that their personal interpretation and experience of the deity is all that matters, and use pop cultural knowledge to essentialize these deities (i.e. Ganesha is reduced to a “remover of obstacles,” or Lakshmi becomes a “money goddess”). While putting a Hindu deity on a T-shirt isn’t so culturally offensive like putting one on a toilet seat is, plenty of my fellow Hindus are rightfully upset about the various appropriations of our religion, as it often betrays a simple disrespect or ignorance of Hindu culture and Indian history and philosophy, or a sense of entitlement to colonize and appropriate important symbols and deities.

From my own experience talking to and teaching people in the Pagan community about Hindu worship and deity, I have seen how paralyzing the fear of cultural appropriation can be, and I’ve also seen plenty of positive and negative sycretism. Some people feel drawn to these deities, but don’t know where to begin, and don’t want to step on any toes while they’re learning, so they never pursue it. I’ve seen plenty of neo-Pagans doing a great job at respectfully approaching Hindu deities and incorporating Hindu worship into their own with some amount of care and respect. At the same time, I’ve also seen a few neo-Pagans worship Hindu deities with some bravado, and have seen and heard about some rituals that are at best ignorant and at worst blatantly disrespectful of Hindu traditions and culture.

So what does it mean to worship a Hindu deity? Can you worship a Hindu deity if you are not Indian or Hindu? If you can, what does it require? I’ve run into a lot of spoken (and unspoken) misconceptions in the Pagan community around these questions, and I’d like to share some of my own perspective by debunking three common myths. You’ll also find this discussion relevant to approaching other living traditions.

Myth #1: You have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities.

There are some very orthodox Hindus who believe that you have to be an Indian to be a Hindu, and there are many temples that bar entrance to non-Hindus (generally meaning non-Indians, but that can also mean those of low-caste, or who have any known non-Hindu ancestry). But there are also plenty of Hindus who believe that it’s what is in your heart that makes you a Hindu, not your nationality or the color of your skin. Hinduism at its best is incredibly accepting of many ways of knowing Truth. There are also plenty of temples that welcome people from all religions to worship the deities housed there, with a recognition that no one can put a limit on God, or on the human heart.

So, you don’t have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities, but you do have to have respect for Hindu traditions and culture if you decide to become a devotee of a particular deity.

For example, I am a student of classical Indian music, and I can relate to you countless examples of Muslim music masters who were devout Muslims, but nevertheless worshipped Hindu deities, often through heartfelt religious songs and Sanskrit prayers. In the same way, if you are a neo-Pagan and you feel drawn to a Hindu deity, it’s important to learn the ways in which that deity is worshipped, so that you can be respectful to the tradition from which it comes.

Learning how to do a simple puja (worship ritual) and sing a couple of simple traditional songs is a good first step. Learning from a qualified teacher within the tradition is a great way to deepen your knowledge and practice, and there are a number of books, free videos, articles, and even email listservs that can help you with the basics. The best way to respectfully incorporate worship of Hindu deities into your own Pagan worship is to put in the time and energy to learn how they are worshipped traditionally.

Myth #2: You have to learn Sanskrit to worship Hindu deities.

I hear this one a lot! Hindu deities are worshipped with Sanskrit, and in order to develop your worship, you should learn a few basic Sanskrit prayers (mantras) to offer to your chosen deity. This is both a sign of devotion to your deity, as well as a sign of respect for the tradition.

But the fact is, most Hindus, regardless of nationality, don’t know Sanskrit beyond the basic chants and mantras they have learned from going to temples or performing simple worship in their own home, and history is full of saints who worshipped deities with ecstatic poetry and songs in their own native language. And most Hindus have small shrines in their homes where they offer very regular, very simple worship.

Sanskrit has two levels of power – the meaning of a given word or phrase, and the vibration created when spoken. Some mantras cannot be translated, but are purely spoken for their vibrational power. Even if you don’t know the meaning of a mantra, speaking it will evoke the power and blessing of the deity for which it was formulated hundreds or thousands of years ago. Thus, it’s important to learn some Sanskrit in order to perform basic worship, both to honor the tradition and to honor the deity properly. But you need not learn the entire language. Just learn the mantras you need to worship your deity, and learn them well so that you can infuse them with your devotion.

Myth #3: I can worship this deity any way I want, because it’s all about my relationship with them, and what I intuit.

This is a tricky one. Intuition is important when working with any deity, but what we see when we look at a symbol (including representation of deity) is informed by our own cultural information. Cultural appropriation happens most egregiously when we adopt symbols from other cultures, and then reassign meaning without regard to their original meaning or purpose. This is why the sacred texts and reputable gurus and teachers are important – they help us to understand the deeper meaning of mantra and ritual, contextualize symbols and experiences, and help us learn how to listen to our highest selves in more meaningful ways.

When we look at the Goddess Kali, for instance, one might see a terrifying Goddess of death and destruction. In fact, many in the Pagan community misconstrue and appropriate Kali as a Crone Goddess, emphasize Her as destroyer even while acknowledging Her role as creator, or essentialize Her as a Goddess of transformation. But this would be a terrible misconception of this Goddess who embodies but is also beyond Maiden, Mother and Crone (in fact, She is nothing less than Infinite Being), who is understood as benevolent and loving in West Bengal, where some of Her most famous temples are, as well as in Kerala, Assam, Bihar, and elsewhere throughout India.

To say it more succinctly, Hindu deities don’t exist without Hinduism. Hinduism doesn’t exist without community. So the best way to understand Hindu deities and offer respectful worship is to actually understand Hinduism and Hindu culture by participating in it. If you haven’t had the benefit of being raised in a Hindu culture, that means you’ll have to spend some time learning about it.

Although it’s uncomfortable to talk about, I also find that there are a surprising number of white Pagans who are afraid to visit Indian temples because they are afraid of being the only white people, not because they are worried about religious differences. This is an important fear to acknowledge and confront, because it goes to the heart of the cultural appropriation problem. If you can’t worship a Hindu deity in the midst of Indian Hindus, if you can’t be yourself and make friends in a community of people who share your devotion to this deity, then how can you claim to really respect the deity and the culture? If you feel uncomfortable, then good! That means you’re probably ready to learn something! Not just about the worship and the community, but about yourself, which is part of both the Hindu and the Pagan journey toward Truth.

I’ll say it again: Hindu deities are not separate from Hindu culture, and have been worshipped in much the same way for thousands of years. Learn and respect the path!

I now consider myself a Hindu, but I have been a practitioner of Goddess spirituality for nearly 20 years, and I started firmly rooted in the Pagan community. I’m also not Indian – I’m of European descent – and so being a Hindu and running a very small Hindu Goddess temple constantly challenges me to learn more and interact fully with the culture and the traditions from which the Hindu tradition comes. But I’m grateful for the generosity and good will of those who have shared their knowledge and their traditions with me, which includes my gurus, teachers, and friends. And I’m committed to helping people of all faiths learn more about respectful, traditional worship in a way that is simple and straightforward for the average devotee.

My own temple is explicitly a Hindu Shakta Tantric temple, and we welcome anyone from any path who wishes to come and worship the Goddess. We also offer a number of articles and a podcast to help both Hindus and non-Hindus learn more about the deeper meanings of deity and worship. There are also plenty of Indo-Pagan groups out there, and you may find that someone has already forged a path that speaks to your own desire to worship Hindu deities within a Pagan context. And finally, Hindu temples are generally welcoming to non-Hindus, as long as you are a respectful devotee. Dress conservatively, and if you don’t know what to do or how to worship, just ask someone to help you. Human beings are generally helpful and generous creatures when asked sincerely, and Hindus are no exception.

Even if you don’t worship Hindu deities, if you feel drawn to deities from a living tradition that is from a culture other than your own, the guidelines above – learn the worship from a qualified teacher, learn the basic prayers, engage in the community of devotees – are good ones to follow. I hope that this has been helpful, and I look forward to seeing the discussion develop!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Adrienne

    I have a problem with one aspect of this analysis. I think we are treating cultural appropriation as a "stepping on the toes" of people within that culture. That is just one part of it. What about the problem of privilege and the erasing of a culture's identity?

    For instance, as a white American, I would NEVER touch Native American practices ever, ever, ever. And to be quite honest, I wouldn't want anyone else of my background to do so, either. Why? Because in no way is it okay for us to take a marginalized culture that our own people helped to nearly decimate and use it in religious practices just because we like it. Cultures and religions are not just amorphous blobs we can take and mold. They have a history and a tradition and a tie to real people.

    I'd really like to see this addressed in discussions of cultural appropriation because it isn't just about plagiarizing or borrowing from cultures. It can and often is about how a privileged group alters the history and meaning of a culture's symbols, beliefs, and history. I just don't think that is okay.

  • chuck_cosimano

    Well, there is the simple, pragmatic answer that it is perfectly ok to worship any deity in any way no matter where it comes from because there is no one who is going to be able to stop you. That is not a myth, that is reality. As long as it is ok with you and the deity, who probably does have some small say in this after all, it really is no one else's business and they can take all of their talk of appropriation and they know what they can do with it.

    On the other hand, deities do have cultural baggage and most of them are not syncretic and malleable like pleasant Old Jehovah. It is necessary to adapt to that cultural stuff and that can be a real problem if you try to worship Quetzacoatl (much less try to pronounce his name) because our culture, with its spiritual bigotry, frowns on human sacrifice, the same being true for such venerable middle eastern gods as Moloch and Baal.

  • brannen

    Wonderfully written, thank you for this. And even better for me, addressing some of the very issues I’ve been trying to find a way to approach with some local friends and acquaintances. Once again, thank you.