The Question of Hindu Images And The West

UNITED STATES, December 17, 2010, (by Suhag A. Shukla): 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. 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!” 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.
One need only take a quick stroll through the aisles of an Indian grocery store 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?
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.

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