Quick Note: The Hindu Right to Rule-Making

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 18, 2010 — 54 Comments

At the Huffington Post, Hindu American Foundation co-founder Suhag Shukla talks about Western culture’s use and appropriation of Hindu sacred imagery using the recent Newsweek Obama-Nataraj cover as one example.

‘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.

Shukla acknowledges that there are many different Hindu perspectives on these appropriations, but that Hindus should “assert the right to rule-making” when it comes to their sacred iconography.

As ties between the Hindu community and modern Pagans continues to deepen, we’ll have to decide where we stand as the American Hindu community tries to draw boundaries between what is and isn’t an acceptable usage of their sacred images. It also raises the question of how modern Pagan faiths should respond to usages of our own iconography within popular culture and advertising. How would we have felt if, instead of Nataraj, they portrayed Obama as Cernunnos? What about terrible movies that mangle pre-Christian mythology? HAF seems to be advocating that religious groups take a more active role in policing their iconography and imagery, should we be following their example?

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • kenneth

    Political correctness made it uncool to ridicule Native American religion and culture, so what's left to rednecks? The OTHER kind of Indian, naturally! As long as all taboos are off, I have an idea for an ad campaign that's been floating around for a few years: an ad for pneumatic framing nailers featuring Roman soldiers on the crucifixion grounds of Mount Calvary. At the least, it would create much more buzz for the brand than any lame placement on a Saturday morning home improvement show!

    • Robin Artisson

      I'd buy that nail gun. And I don't have a use for nail guns, but I'd still buy it.

  • Robin Artisson

    I don't think that "they" own the images of the Gods. Modern day Hindus- particularly those living in the West- have about as much direct connection to the ancient Indus Valley-dwelling people who first shaped those images as a modern American of Greek ancestry has to the Ancient Greeks of the Homeric age, or the Classical age, when images of the Greek Gods were being shaped. That is to say, not much at all.

    If a bunch of modern Greeks (pagan or non-pagan) got angry and said "Stop using the image of Zeus on that hamburger wrapper- that image belongs to us." Everyone would laugh. And they'd laugh rightly. Images that come into being in ancient times and pass, over thousands of years, into the fund of human dreams, memory, imagination, and iconography no longer belong to an architect or an artist of one particular ancient group of people, but to everyone.

    Just because I might accidentally be .02% genetically related to a sculptor who, in ancient times, carved an iconic image of Venus or Aphrodite doesn't mean that me and others of similar genetic makeup can shit a brick over someone putting Aphrodite's face on a champagne bottle or the cover of a magazine. Even if we belonged to a non-interrupted line of worship of Aphrodite down through the ages, it wouldn't matter. Aphrodite doesn't belong to the Greeks. This Goddess belongs to nothing and no one beyond the Cosmos; some Greeks just named her "Aphrodite", which in their language expressed something important about her spirit as they encountered it. They didn't make her.

    And the "racial" argument is absurd, to clarify- because I can almost guarantee that the "genetic makeup" of the Indus-Valley people who first innovated the multi-armed Shiva image (or multi-armed any divinity image) bears very little resemblance to the genetic makeup of the Hindus claiming they "own" the image.

    So let's switch over to cultural continuity: you can make a stronger case there, but then, not really much stronger. Cultures, too, particularly in that turbulent and well-trodden region of the world (India) can be likened to a churning ocean of mixtures and admixtures and outflows and inflows… Sorta like cultures in other places. I'm not saying that culture is unimportant, or so unsteady as to ignore- it needs study and preservation, such that it is; but part of preserving it is being honest about it, and another thing you have to accept about it is that it doesn't exist in a vacuum- nor do its innovations and creations.

    Sorry Hindu guys. Find something real, something of essence to get upset about. And, your possible ancient sorta-ancestors weren't the only people on the planet to visualize divinities with more than two arms. But I do thank your ancient forebears for some striking, beautiful art. I think they added a marvelous chapter of expression to the human canon.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Robin, your position on this is unexpected. How do you come down on Native American claims that whites shouldn't burn sage or indulge in sweat lodges because, not being raised Native, the don't know what they're doing?

      • Robin Artisson

        If a white person who is totally alien to a particular Native American culture is claiming to utilize sacred aspects of that culture in the same manner as the Natives, that white person is falsely appropriating the rituals and other sacred things, and that white person should stop.

        Of course, we needn't pick on whites; if the person was Asian, or Polynesian, or African, and doing the same thing, they should stop, too. And if it happened to be a Native American of another nation who had no connection to that nation's cultural rites, that Native American is making the same transgression.

        Sage doesn't belong to the Native Americans. It grows out of the earth for the use of all people. Burning sage to purify an area is a no-brainer; you don't have to be a red man or woman who is schooled in some Native culture for Sage's natural power of purification to "work". Sage doesn't care who happens to be burning it. People burn all sorts of incenses, powders, and plants from many, many different parts of the world, some of which were once used by a particular culture long ago, without "appropriating" anything.

        Now, the Inipi ritual- the Sweat Lodge- of the Sioux nations is a totally different story. That ritual is long, complex, highly culturally nuanced and unique to them. Other native nations have created a similar ritual, but it began (as far as we know) with the Sioux people, and from them, passed to others. Only those who have a legitimate lineage of the practice from the original people can "do it" properly. One of my close friends happens to be a lore-keeper and famous activist of the Omaha nation, and they do sweat lodges. You know why? For the same reason many nations do- because the American government destroyed their native religion and forced it to stop, making them lose nearly all of their ancestral rites and lore.

        After they got the right back to practice their own religion, they literally had to reconstruct it- in precisely the same way Asatruar or Hellenes reconstruct their native religions. They borrowed the sweat-lodge from Sioux neighbors and friends, and created their own version of it, under the guidance of the original keepers. Most people don't get how much Native American religion was actually lost in the last 2 centuries, and how reconstructed a lot of it really is. This doesn't mean it isn't legitimate or powerful.

        Now, nothing stops outsider white people (or anyone else) from making a lodge, getting inside, burning any herbs they want, praying for purification to whomever or whatever they want, for the purpose of spiritual cleansing- so long as they aren't claiming to be doing an Inipi ritual. When they make that claim and advertise it, they are stepping wrong in a serious way. But just "purification" rites don't belong to anyone in particular.

        And none of these issues extend to the issue at hand- that of sacred images of Gods and Goddesses from ancient Indo-European cultures. Those sacred expressions entered into the world of iconography and art over the space of 4 millenia or more, and the bare image doesn't "belong" to anyone anymore.

        Besides, don't forget- if you are of Indo-European heritage (assuming you are; I don't know your ancestral background, but just by using the English language like you do, you are culturally in the line of descent of the mighty Indo-European culture-stream) you are part of the same family that includes the Hindu people. The Vedic Indians were Indo-Europeans, just like the people that would become the Celts, the Romans, the Persians, the Greeks, the Germans, and everyone else you can think of in or around Europe. The images of the Hindu Gods are a distant part of your cultural heritage, no matter what, just like images of Odhinn, or Aphrodite, or Zeus, or Thor would be.

        Now, if I walked around claiming to be a priest of Shiva and advertised that I was holding Pujas for Shiva and his Shakti, but I had never encountered or been integrated or taught on any level in the Hindu culture, or made a commitment to that culture (particularly that part of it that maintains the worship of Shiva) I'd be a new-ager butthole who needed to be destroyed. That would be disrespectful, I think, in the same way holding an "instant Indian sweat lodge" would be.

        • sarenth

          I've been told this same thing, more or less, by a Native American practicing their people's faith. " Burning sage to purify an area is a no-brainer; you don't have to be a red man or woman who is schooled in some Native culture for Sage's natural power of purification to "work". Sage doesn't care who happens to be burning it. People burn all sorts of incenses, powders, and plants from many, many different parts of the world, some of which were once used by a particular culture long ago, without "appropriating" anything. "

          We talked at length about cultural appropriation and she was actually quite surprised people were so worried about it. I think that the level of reaction to what some would call 'cultural appropriation' differs person-to-person…but I wonder how much cultural appropriation gets blown out of proportion.

          • kauko

            Makes me think of an incident on a linguistics community I follow online. Someone, presumably non-Jewish, asked about a phrase in Hebrew for a tattoo they were going to get, and half of the community went bat shit over it and issues of cultural appropriation. You'd think that someone had murdered an infant with how outraged the PC crowd there was. There were people saying they would spit on the person, calling her a 'white supremecist' and claiming that they wish all white people would disappear from the earth all over this girl wanting to know how to say something in Hebrew.

      • Robin Artisson

        And one more thing I didn't mention- vapour baths and sweat-houses have been used all over the world, even among the ancient Scythians, Finns, and Irish, for purification and healing. The Sioux Indians are especially known for the Inipi rite thanks largely to white anthropologists who interviewed the famous Wicasa Wakan Black Elk, but certain other Native Americans had similar rites.

        • kauko

          There is a saying in Finnish: Jos ei viina, terva tai sauna auta, tauti on kuolemaksi ("If booze, tar, or the sauna won't help, the illness is fatal") .

          • sarenth

            That's hysterical; I hadn't heard of that.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    As far as Pagan commercial images go, that horse left the barn a long time ago. Look on your supermarket shelves: the Green Man selling peas, a Harvest Goddess selling corn meal. The very name "cereal" comes from Ceres.

    • Robin Artisson

      Absolutely correct. And that's how sacred images work. That's another role they serve. Trying to say they should be kept hidden in dark alcoves in temples that only the "people who own them and made them" can enter into is absurd. In fact, I'd say it sounded almost "high churchy"- like Catholics and other Christians who scream every time Jesus is depicted in some less than flattering way. That's revealed religious paranoia, not organic religious diffusion and symbolic association.

    • http://sari0009.xanga.com/603410074/imagination-and-virtues-of-equality/ KarenAScofield

      Don't forget the Goddess razors.

  • bard08

    In the Hindu faith, the material idols are not worshipped so why the problem? The idols are seen as teaching tools for those who need a material object to connect with the real spirit the idol represents. So with that in mind, and if the culture is already using idols for advertising, why are 'outsiders' restricted? Sounds silly.
    Also, I thought Pagan images are already used incorrectly (i.e. pentagrams) and misunderstood.
    Maybe that is the issue then, a lack of understanding of the material being used.

    • Robin Artisson

      You'd think they'd be excited to see their cultural iconography being so prominent in mainstream media. That alone shows their great presence and impact at a deep level. I wouldn't have cared at all if they had depicted Obama as Odin- I would have thought that was awesome.

      • sarenth

        You know, the idea of a photoshopped pic with Obama wielding Gungnir would be hysterical.

  • Don

    This mistake here is that this has anything to do with marginalizing Hindus. This is just one manifestation of a larger problem: a culture that does not respect anything holy because it does not recognize the holy in the world.

  • blah

    complaining about this is just political correctness gone mad. and this meme "only we can use certain words or images otherwise it's offensive" is racist, and i can't believe that lefties are enforcing it. people are either equal regardless of their color of skin, heritage and culture or they are not, you can't have it both ways. i hate it when people try to pick both choices and try to worm their way around cognitive dissonance.

    • Robin Artisson

      And this notion that only certain people can use certain images in certain ways can lead to further dissonance- what about that hippie chick who sells psychedelic-colored prints of Dancing Shiva? Is she out of business? What about people that have a portrait of Krishna and Rada in their homes, just as a piece of decor, not for any religious reasons. Are they insulting the Hindu community now by marginalizing an image of "their" God by using it in a secular way?

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      "[...T]his meme [...] is racist, and i can't believe that lefties are enforcing it."

      You haven't been around enough lefties lately.

      • chuck_cosimano

        I stay away from lefties. They cannot enforce anything on those of us who simply ignore them.

  • Wendy

    I rather like the idea of Obama as Lord of the Dance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fedwardsmiller Florence Edwards-Miller

    I absolutely think that American Pagans (particularly those of us of white/christian ancestry) need to be very aware of the dangers of cultural appropriation, particularly in our own practices, and should support our allies in the Hindu and other communities when they're fighting for respect.

    That said, boy do I disagree that we should be on the alert for appropriation of 'our' deities. We are a new religion. All of our practices and gods are appropriated from somewhere. When western media makes a crappy movie about old gods (Clash of the Titans) or a good one (The Secret of Kells) it isn't stealing from our religion, its pulling from the same source material. That's like saying that Disney appropriated from the sculptor Edvard Eriksen because their movie The Little Mermaid was made after his sculpture, The Little Mermaid. Greek and Roman mythology, in particular, is part of the shared cultural heritage of western civilization. If we publicly got our panties in a wad about stupid uses of pre-Christian mythology we're going to look very stupid and ruin our credibility.

    And I think we as a community need our credibility intact, because there ARE many appropriations of our original practices that hurt us in the public eye. Think 'Charmed' or 'Supernatural' for examples. The media likes using 'real' witch stuff to spice up their modern day supernatural stories, and we need to be able to register our objections without being written off as reactionary froot loops.

    • Rowan Rose

      "That's like saying that Disney appropriated from the sculptor Edvard Eriksen because their movie The Little Mermaid was made after his sculpture, The Little Mermaid. "

      Point of information. You do realize that the statue was created to celebrate the Hans Christian Anderson story, the Little Mermaid, yes? Disney changed the story into a happily ever after, which is not how the story was written. While appreciating the strong heroine aspect of the Disney, life doesn't always turn out as one wants, which the Anderson story illustrates. Just saying.

  • http://www.tigerseyetemple.org/ DanMiller

    Better Barack Obama in this image, say rather than Bush or McCain/Palin. ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667952307 Jennifer Parsons

    I find this post interesting in that it comes a day after Chas Clifton's "The 14th Thing to Love about Pagans– namely, according to Clifton, "'Borrowing' with both hands. Mad eclecticism."

  • Ed H

    No imagery is Sacred, nor completely unique. Everyone has a right to use anything at all image wise, except what the law defines as Trademark. All knowledge is worth knowing…and the whole concept of Cultural Appropriation is a silly old concept for old thinkers, who want to find something to fight over. With the Internet their is a whole new way to use imagery, and we will see it blend further and further.

    Any culture or society that cuts off knowledge, and the use of symbolism to explain it, is seeking to control that society and arbitrate the right of usage for personal and political use. So open knowledge means knowledge of all cultures. It's that simple.

  • http://badassbard.blogspot.com Thomas

    I agree with Ed H's conclusion but for different reasons.

    In the USA, the right of free speech afforded to all trumps the privilege of any subset to hold an image or idea sacred.

    That principle, that anyone can make any statement they like without obligation to the sensibilities of others, is an intrinsic underpinning of a free society and we abridge it at our own peril.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas S. Clifton

    The Olympian deities got along fine for all those Christian centuries being portrayed in art, in literature, architecture, as dramatic allegories, and finally to sell products–Venus pencils, Mercury cars, Jupiter Veterinary Products, Athena Technologies, and all the rest. (And that is not to slight "Thor Stainless Steel Cleaner and Polish.") Maybe it is a way of staying with us even after the temples are closed.

    The last thing that we need is a bunch of self-righteous Pagans trying to make rules about the gods.

    • Robin Artisson

      Chas, with a heavy heart I must inform you that those Pagans already exist, and are working hard to show the rest of us how we're doing it wrong.

    • harmonyfb

      I've seen many a worshiper of Hermes use a Mercury dime as a religious pendant. ::shrug:: Personally, I think these images have been used in so many different ways because the human heart is wired to respond to the sacred. The images are instantly recognizable because they are so firmly ensconced in our collective unconscious. That's why the Newsweek cover works visually – everyone who sees it will recognize the allusion. (Though Christian religious symbols don't get a pass in American pop culture, either – I've seen plenty of works which draw upon Christian iconography to give meaning to unrelated art/articles – for example, the Mad Magazine cover from the early '70's which depicted a junkie crucified on a needle. My mother had a conniption fit over that one – I wasn't allowed to read Mad after she saw it.)

      Sure, sometimes it's being used in a way that's deliberately offensive, but I think for the most part, it's just visual shorthand.

      The Aphrodite e-list I'm on spent a while discussing the POM commercial which depicted Aphrodite. I think consensus was that we were happy to see Her on our television screens, even if the intent was to sell pomegranate juice. I imagine that she called many worshipers through it, since images like that were the focus of a lot of my childhood devotion – those 'It's not nice to fool Mother Nature' ads loom large in my memory. I like to think that right now, there's a child called by Aphrodite whose heart leaps at the sight of her on the POM commercial…or a future worshiper of Hermes who feels drawn to the FTD logo. Having images of the Gods in everyday life reminds people – even if it's unconsciously – that the gods are eternally present.

  • Pitch313

    Images and symbols like this one shift into a sort of super-cultural zone from which they take on meanings and creative roles across and, so to speak, above, the historical cultures that gave rise to them. And where they may continue to function in their established roles.

    The cover image may be less about Shiva and more about depicting Obama as a multitasking world leader. Allusions to and connotations of Hindu content (or whatever culture of origin content) seem to attenuate in the shift to the super-culture.

  • http://www.eternalhavestwicca.org Lady GreenFlame

    I believe in both free speech AND in respect. There is a difference between exploitation and metaphor. Crappy C-movies that depict our Deities and our practices inaccurately offend me by the deliberate cynicism with which they are made, and the purpose, which is just to make a cheap buck regardless of accuracy or the damage they might do to a fledgling religious subculture. There's no teaching opportunity in these cases, no chance to seize a moment of dialogue.

    The "we're a new religion" doesn't fly. How old does a religion have to be for respect? The Baha'i faith originated in the 19th century. Do we respect them because they passed the 100-year mark? Who arbitrates how old a religion has to be before it gets equal stature?

    Just because our current practices were promulgated in modern times without an unbroken lineage back to ancient Gaul or whatever, absolutely does not lessen our connection or validity, and those of us who hold this view should not be termed "whiny."

    As far as cultural appropriation: undoubtedly the world would be a better place if everyone thought a moment about the source of the image they wanted to use, why they wanted to use it, and took into consideration if it would potentially offend a bunch of people needlessly. "Political correctness" originated as an effort to try to teach people some manners and plain old respect: sound virtues On the other hand, it's gotten out of hand, and "cultural appropriation" has become yet another thing for well-meaning people to feel guilty about.

    We all do share a common humanity and I believe the storehouse of cultural and Deity images ultimately belong to all. Art (or Spirit) does not recognize racial or ethnic boundaries, and that's a good thing. Using the image of Jesus on the cross (as some artists have done, to the dismay of conservative politicians), Kali, Lakshmi, Aphrodite, Atlas, Rhiannon, Jupiter, Ogun, Odin or whomever as a metaphor does not desecrate or detract from the Deity or the culture.

    The Newsweek cover seems to fall into this category. Perhaps the Hindu-American group could make this into a teaching moment and use it to educate more people about who they are and the rich heritage of their religious tradition.

    • Anna

      Perhaps the Hindu-American group could make this into a teaching moment and use it to educate more people about who they are and the rich heritage of their religious tradition.

      Okay. I take this as an invitation.

      Hindus believe that the world is destroyed and remade many times. In the Western world, you might think of this as the oscillating model of the universe. That particular pose is from the god Shiva dancing the creation and destruction of the world. Destruction is in fact a creative force, because one must do away with something that has outlasted its use before anything new can be created.

      That's what is so curious about the use of this particular image in this particular context. The editors obviously wanted to depict Barack Obama carefully balancing too many things, with the implication that he's inevitably going to drop one or all of them. But if you know this particular image, you get a VERY different message: Obama, like Shiva, is destroying and creating the world.

      Which is actually cool, and arguably true, in my opinion, but from the article obviously NOT what they intended. They were saying that the modern presidency is completely impossible for one man to handle. They are NOT saying that Barack Obama is a god, standing at a cosmic moment in American history.

      Aside from issues of cultural appropriation, it is probably a good idea, if you are going to use symbols from a living religious tradition, that people do a little research and figure out what the image actually means.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    The relationship between Hindus and western Pagans should be based on two things: (1) the deep spiritual commonalities between our traditions, and (2) opposition to the spiritual aggression of Christianity and Islam.

    On the other hand, multi-culti PC mumbo jumbo about some non-existent "right to make rules" is a dead end. There is no "right to make rules". There is freedom of religion, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.

    No religion has any "right", whatsoever, to control who says what. Period.

    • http://www.bryonmorrigan.blogspot.com BryonMorrigan

      I don't think anyone, even the HAF, is asserting a "right" to abridge anyone's freedoms. I believe they are just discussing their right to decide what is and is not "offensive." If anything, Hindus in this country have been awfully polite in regards to showing people (who are usually doing it unintentionally, as with this magazine) where they have acted in an offensive manner. If anything, groups like the HAF should be used as an "example" to some of these Islamic and Christian groups that have issued death threats and what-not. I mean, there's a huge difference between saying, "Look…Dude…we think that picture's a little, um….you know…uncool and stuff?" and "OH MY F@#$ING GOD! WE ARE GONNA KILL YOU, YOU @#$%ING INFIDEL!"

      Frankly, this is why Muslim and Christian icons are so often the targets of blasphemy: They let that stuff "get" to them. If they just rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and said, "Dude, seriously? Can you stop now?"…it probably would.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

        Well, it was Suhag Shukla who chose to express herself in terms of a "right to rule-making". Maybe she doesn't understands what is directly implied by phrasing things in terms of "rights". But I do.

        She also chooses to frame her argument in terms of the "deference accorded to imagery associated with the Quran and the Prophet Muhammed", and she voices disappointment that Hinduism doesn't get the same kind of "deference". But this "deference" boils down to nothing more and nothing less than forms of censorship that blatantly abrogate freedom of speech. Seeking to emulate that paradigm of "deference" is wrong-headed, and it won't work unless Hindus are ready to start murdering people who offend them and videotaping it for replay on youtube.

  • Bookhousegal

    In many ways, a key distinction is really about showing some respect for other cultures, vs, say, using the familiar.

    Defamatory/trivializing portrayals of the Gods in absence of other contexts or understanding has a very different effect from social commentary on things ubiquitous and familiar to the audience.

    Much of it has to do *actually* with the religions involved. If someone used a Christian divinity in the cutesy-commercialist way that is familiar in Green Giant veggies, as in an example someone raised, they'd be screaming 'sacrilege,' themselves, odds are. In its very limited way, the cartooney portrayal kinda makes *sense.*

    Certainly this Obama image (and caption) doesn't make much sense in terms of Hindu religion as I understand the meaning of those Shiva images. From a Western point of view, it's more about 'He's only got so many hands,' …adding in the 'Who does he think he is, Lord Shiva?' implication with the headline is not only othering, but uses the promotion of an ignorant/trivializing view of someone else's religion to do it.

    We see a lot of portrayals of Pagan Gods and Pagan ancestors in all kinds of ways that are disrespectful out there, some which even quietly demonize the very idea of our religion and heritage, often in the guise of satirizing us or someone else. But satire based in ignorance, implying and promoting it, is different from satire that actually is based in some kind of insight.

    Commercializing things can mean a number of things. The Athens Olympics using the Classical Gods for bobble-head dolls might have been received somewhat differently if it wasn't in a context where the Orthodox Chuch and others have been simultaneously claiming dominance over the freedom of Their modern-day followers, for instance.

    Certainly, in America, Pagans put up with a lot more about everything, ourselves. We're the 'mirth and reverence' people, ourselves and have some notion at least that everything doesn't have to be treated with kid gloves to *be* reverent. Sometimes things offend, sometimes they don't. I recall being pretty offended at some company using an image of a chain-smoking, martini-swilling Mother Nature to sell something to do with like SUV's, …. Not sure what message that was supposed to send, but it looked like it was just trying to ridicule the very *idea* of Her.

    (Funny thing was, at first I was amused, myself: the funny bit is that the image of the matrons of my own family actually involves like a Pall Mall pasted to their lips, and as a city Pagan, that much was amusing. Going on to show Her as clueless and whatnot got to pretty not-funny in a hurry, though.)

    We know it's offensive when a lot of horror-TV type shows portray others' Gods as demons, or tribal practices as ignorant, …these things are very much part of a history of oppression and othering, whereas most branding/merchandising of these names and images is kind of par for the course, often something that gets a wry smile out of us. Someone wearing a Tara image on a T-shirt may not really know what it is, but it usually comes off as a positive sentiment, however possibly incorrect (I don't think there's any good way to spin the oft-mentioned *toilet seats* in either Hindu or Western culture, mind you)

    As Pagans in this culture, we're accustomed to more often seeing our Gods used as symbols, (usually of good things in art and architecture) than as portrayals of religious sentiment. We've grown up in a context where Lady Liberty is both venerated in a civic sense, and used in cheesy advertising, often badly. While generally treating Her as an actual Goddess tends to be treated as ridiculous.

    We're used to a lot of that going on simultaneously, even when we have little say in how such sacred images and names are used. It's not always so for everybody. As we start appearing more on the radar of people who are very much opposed to the rebirth of Paganism as a religion of the world, we can probably expect those people to start trying to take these things too far.

    I think if *we* say, 'Hey, fun is fun, but there are boundaries of taste and respect for other humans to bear in mind. I think we'd all rather have this be in a context of real freedom and real respect than yet another form of 'culture war.'

  • http://sari0009.xanga.com/603410074/imagination-and-virtues-of-equality/ KarenAScofield

    Imagination is very important. So then is creativity. Imagination doesn't just link us, encircling the globe, it provides a bridge between cognitive development and ethics, values, morals and the like. Naturally, as an artist, I'm suspicious of such full scale attacks on "cultural appropriation."

    There are times when it is appropriate to give credit where credit is due. There are times when it is lifesaving or crucial to thoroughly understand what we appropriate in all its contextual glory. There are times when cultural appropriation may seem to cheapen powerful iconography to some and keep it alive in others' perception — we really need to differentiate opinion from fact when it comes to such things.

    But there are also times when we need the Lokis, the Matangis, the rule breakers and the artists to give us all a few giant tweaks, nudge or yank us toward shift paradigms, help us question or help us introduce some levity, awe and an array of other responses. There is a ying yang effect between not dualism and perversity (reference to the Laws of Magic, as discussed by Isaac Bonewits) but duality and perversity. Do we understand that? Do we understand how this ties in with synthesis and human "evolution?" Should we have more dialog on these sorts of things? (I'd like to explore this more.) Wouldn't this too be incredibly important too? Especially considering its deep roots in Paganism, other religions and art?

    "HAF seems to be advocating that religious groups take a more active role in policing their iconography and imagery, should we be following their example?"

    For the most part, no. **It's better to teach people how to think than to tell them their cultural appropriation is wrong.** There are exceptions to that, of course, but I think them more rare than most would care to admit.

    We humans have the nasty habit of getting into pack mode and causing damage, of taking up what could be a worthwhile cause and making it a can't better choose our battles type of thing. And we often do it in ways that stifle imagination and the crucial role it plays as a bridge to a lot of good stuff. We often stifle ourselves/others without an understanding of the crucial role "confusing the status monster" plays in avoiding our more binary nature or awful pack modes. http://sari0009.xanga.com/728305777/pack-behavior… It can't be that only _____ own _____ and should therefore police iconography (there are exceptions, such as with sweat lodges), that's too proprietary (I have a gag reaction to the implications mixing religious politics and branding), and we can't go on thinking that it's just the monotheists that can get mired down by and poison the waters with dualisms.

    We tend to forget that one of the most dangerous things we can do is try to be so damn safe…to shut out all of the funny, controversial, odd and beneficial for fear that some not so wonderful stuff might creep in. I am so sick of that. I'm sick of the proprietary attitudes in religion, the insurance driven corporatist mentality and everything else that trusts trying to play it so safe and so proper.

    Those are bridge burners. And "the least restrictive alternative" really is the best idea when it comes to freedom of expression.

    Instead of bridge burners, we need to be able to differentiate. People fear it because it puts us to task and separates those who can and those who can't or won't. People fear it because it takes them out of their (sometimes dysfunctional) comfort zones. People fear it because it may not be so acceptable to live as if they are operating on remote control, as it were. Let them be challenged. Let them grow up or not. At least the rest of us will feel a little more comfortable about spreading our wings (and not in an Apollonian vs. Dionysian false dilemma sort of way).

    We need to differentiate when it's okay to borrow/appropriate, when we should give credit where credit is due, when we should rip off the surface of reality for some raw exposure of things that need to be unearthed, examined…and so on. We need to be able to differentiate such things and understand that reaching a consensus on matters of borrowing or cultural appropriation is desirable and when the majority isn't right. We need to keep dialog open.

    Therefore, "HAF seems to be advocating that religious groups take a more active role in policing their iconography and imagery, should we be following their example?" isn't really the best question to ask in most cases. It's a door opener type of a question only and is very valuable as that. But if people meet it with either / or, all or nothing or black and white thinking…bah to those, specifically.

    There really is an inverse relationship between PCness and imagination and we should understand imagination's role. It is so powerful that we have a litany of quotes, including the famous one from Einstein, which point us in that direction.

    "Imagination is more important than knowledge." — Albert Einstein
    "Art is an intersection of many human needs." — Carl Andre
    "If all the world were clear, art would not exist." — Albert Camus

  • http://sari0009.xanga.com/603410074/imagination-and-virtues-of-equality/ KarenAScofield

    "How would we have felt if, instead of Nataraj, they portrayed Obama as Cernunnos? What about terrible movies that mangle pre-Christian mythology?"

    To the former, eh, it's not that earth shaking.

    To the latter, if (and that's a big if) it crosses over into demonizing (literally or figuratively) pre-Christian mythology or anything that doesn't roll over and die under the steam roller of triumphalism, if it can potentially endanger Pagan lives and civil rights, then it's truly something to counter, to challenge, to expose intelligently in a way that educates. Confronting this sort of thing then would then be a worthwhile battle we'd be wise to pick.

  • http://sari0009.xanga.com/603410074/imagination-and-virtues-of-equality/ KarenAScofield

    Would we silence artists like this? http://kuksi.com/

    This artist and sculptor will tweak your brain, and he uses iconography and other things symbolic from an array of sources, including those religious. He practices a lot of "appropriation!" I think he does it best in his sculptures.

    And I'm in awe of his work.

    • http://sari0009.xanga.com/603410074/imagination-and-virtues-of-equality/ KarenAScofield

      From the artist's (Kris Kuksi's) site:

      "Each sculpture embodies the trademarks of his philosophy and practice, while serving as a testament to the multifaceted nature of perception – From timeless iconic references of Gods and Goddess, to challenging ideas of organized religion and morality, …"

      IT's my observation that you can't have robust pluralism if you don't have a more "multifaceted nature of perception" allowed…and expressed.

    • http://www.bryonmorrigan.blogspot.com BryonMorrigan

      Speaking of using iconography in paintings like this, the artist Charles Wish is a friend of mine, and he uses a lot of Hindu iconography in his artwork. (He also spent a few years in a Hindu monastery…) Google him.

      • http://sari0009.xanga.com/603410074/imagination-and-virtues-of-equality/ KarenAScofield

        He's a riot! :) Thanks.

  • Rombald

    A lot of this is just about Hindus flexing their muscles a bit. After being downtrodden for 1,000 years, India is getting richer, there are increasing numbers of Hindus in the USA, and the UK's longstanding Hindu community has become prosperous. On one level, I sympathise, but my main reaction is to tell them not to be as stupid as Muslims and Christians.

    Another point is that the image of a many-armed god is not specific to Shiva. It's widely used for bodhisattvas in Buddhism for example. It indicates a being's many-powered nature, rather than a specific being. By analogy, if Newsweek had shown someone with a halo to represent virtue, I don't think many Christians would have objected.

    Finally, Christian symbolism IS widely used in commerce, especially in Catholic Europe – think of all the pictures of saints on French cheeses, the Madonna and Child label on Liebfraumilch, etc.

    • sarenth

      The Cross on Jagermeister…

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

      Rombald: "On one level, I sympathise, but my main reaction is to tell them not to be as stupid as Muslims and Christians."

      This point is all the more important because Suhag Shukla explicitly treats the Islamic response to criticism as a positive example to be copied.

    • Anna

      It's not the many arms … it's the pose that is specific to Shiva. It's a particular mythic thing, the cosmic dance.

      And as I said below, it does not mean what the reporters of the piece think it means.

      It's not insulting. It's just … stupid. Which I think non-Hindus are entitled to be.

      But then when Hindus say, hey, that's really an inaccurate or moronic use of that symbol, don't come crying to me.

  • Anna

    I am of Hindu origin and I loved this Newsweek cover. I did read the article and say, oh wow, that does not mean what you think it means. But the image of Barack Obama dancing the dance that makes and unmakes the world … wow, that is an eloquent expression of the position he finds himself in as he presides over the unmaking of Cold War/Superpower America and the making of something new. I don't think the photo editors at Newsweek knew that … or they might have.

  • Deborah Bender

    I'm late to this party, but I want to point out that the Newsweek cover is a drag version of the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine. Not a Hindu myself but I would find the placement of an image of Lakshmi or any other Hindu deity on the wrapper of a hamburger deeply offensive and even blasphemous, given that Hindus regard cows as sacred animals and do not eat them. The Newsweek cover makes several reasonable points in one image and I don't think it's disrespectful to Lord Shiva. Anyone familiar with the history of Western art would know that giving a religious community or its leaders the power to decide what kind of iconography is unacceptable brings artistic creativity to a halt.

  • http://apel.livejournal.com Apel Mjausson

    I can see how devout Hindus wouldn’t like seeing a mortal portrayed as one of their deities. As a follower of Aphrodite, if I saw an image of her iconic pose on a half-shell but with Sarah Palin’s face, I wouldn’t be particularly happy about it either.

    On the other hand, I can’t see that publicly reacting to the Newsweek cover is going to do them any good in an American mainstream context, however. For many Americans it will evoke similar feelings to the Muslim uproar over Lars Vilks’ drawings of Muhammad — they’ll be seen as a threatening Other that doesn’t understand free speech. In fact I’m not sure if the Fow News viewing public can tell Hinduism and Islam apart, never mind their followers. After 9/11 there were reports of attacks on Sikhs…

    From a American politics perspective, I find it interesting that Newsweek is choosing to enforce the image of Obama as Other, by using imagery taken from a minority religion. It’s not as obvious as if they’d chosen Muslim imagery but it is still pretty blatant.

    To me it looks as if Newsweek are marginalizing Obama on purpose and Hindus just happen to stand in the line of fire. Hindus are seen as so unimportant that their iconography can be used without fear of losing advertising revenue. What if Newsweek had used Christian iconography instead? They could have shown Obama as Jesus, transforming 5 loaves and 2 fish into health care, homeownership, world peace etc.

  • chuck_cosimano

    Or they could have had some fun showing Obama turning two fish and five loaves into one fish and no loaves or maybe attempting to walk on water and sinking. But yes, all such a reaction is going to do is make Hindus fair game, if only to show them that they will not be allowed to control anything.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The difference between the Hindu and Moslem protests is that the Moslems are objecting to something they regard as blasphemy for themselves as well as others, while the Hindus are saying it's OK for them to do it but not for the rest of us.

    I don't see Newsweek cover as marginalizing Obama but as portryaing him as a powerful figure with a lot of responsibilities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000390176778 Jacquie Minerva Georges

    Interesting and I do understand the indifference Hindi’s have with the photo. Yet, I do recall the Republican [preferable McCain] campaign during the 2008 election, likened Obama to Moses. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mopkn0lPzM8 I believe McCain’s campaign commercial backfired for many felt that Obama was indeed “The One”

    If a person within that religion use “holy” symbols—they get a pass. Just not “outsiders”? Wouldn’t that cause “the others” to use it in “our” way for we did it? Am I making myself clear?Similar to when one speaks harshly about their own parents–it is "acceptable". Just don't let anyone else speak harshly about our parents. That is what I am sensing and it does blur the lines of "acceptable" and "not acceptable"