Last week in Queens, young Hindu-American organized a screening and discussion of an animated film called "Sita Sings the Blues," to draw other young Hindus and Sikhs into conversation about their faiths.
Rather than recap the entire debacle here, you can read what happened next in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. You can watch the movie yourself, free of charge, at filmmaker Nina Paley's website. You can read the call for protest here.
To sum up, "Sita Sings the Blues" is based on an adaptation of the the Ramayana, a Hindu epic, and some Hindus find the film offensive. An organized (lawful and peaceful) protest caused the venue to cancel the showing, which later took place in a private home.
While I loved the film, I also felt sympathetic toward people who are hurt and offended by what feels like an attack on their faith. Hinduism has a strong scriptural tradition of commentary and debate; there is often virulent disagreement. But disagreement is not the same thing as suppression. My sympathy and understanding falter when people use their power to disrupt others' experiences. In an email interview, Paley, who is obviously familiar with the controversy surrounding her own film, said "what was different this time is that [the screening] was organized by a devout Hindu for his ... Hindu community."
While I support anyone, of any or no faith, who wants to screen and discuss the film, this is a game-changer. These are Hindus being shut down, and shut out, by other Hindus. This no longer about an American filmmaker interpreting the Ramayana, or a feminist perspective on ancient texts. This isn't about colonialism or cultural appropriation. It's about a controlling group trying to bully their opinion into being the only opinion. Not only is this distressing, it illuminates a lack of education in the very tradition they claim to uphold.
Hinduism has a long tradition of debate, and critical thinking. While there is extensive writing on that subject, a very accessible introductory book, "The Argumentative Indian" by Nobel Prize winner and Economist Amartya Sen, gives a good outline. Sen observes that we Indians have been arguing, commenting and re-interpreting for thousands of years. We talk things over. I would also point out that to place the phenomenon of criticism and interpretation in "the West" (wherever that is), is to deny our own rich heritage in debate and commentary. To suppress opinion and claim offense, rather than engage in a deliberation with acknowledged equals, is as un-Hindu as it gets. Now, I'm not saying that this is historically how Hindus behaved. But it's one of the deepest and most neglected aspects of our heritage. We need to do better by it.
Paley does not claim to be Hindu. However, she seems to have a deep respect for the tradition, going so far as to claim that the people who protested the film's screening are not Hindu at all:
It's like calling the Ku Klux Klan "Christians." Calling Hindutvadis "Hindus" is especially misleading in the U.S. where people are mostly unaware of violent nationalist groups in India. Last I checked, Hinduism wasn't a religion of hate and intolerance. Hindutvadis' motives are political, not religious, and they hide behind a religious label. Not only does this confuse many Americans into thinking they have some legitimacy, it also, over the long run, harms real Hindus, who are nothing like Hindutvadis.
I see her point, but will also admit that it makes me uncomfortable, after all my harping on about dialogue and inclusiveness. Although the Hindutva movement has been associated with terrorist activity, and I would like to distance myself from them as much as possible, I don't personally feel that I have a right to define who is and isn't Hindu. But then, unlike Paley, I've never received death threats from people claiming to uphold Hinduism. I might start drawing some lines, too.
I do not want to in any way imply that everyone who objects to the film also advocates for protest against it, has a political agenda and/or supports terrorism. I do believe that there are Hindus who find "Sita Sings the Blues" offensive but who do not advocate for or endorse suppression. I have heard reasoned, intelligent arguments against the point of view it puts forward. There are ways to disagree that are based in mutual respect, intellectual engagement and so on. I've written elsewhere about the need for, and difficulty with, dialogue within a faith. It can be educational and fun to argue. It's one way we hone and evolve our perspectives. It's one way we honor our heritage.
However, there are the hard-line objectors too: people who believe that suppression (and in some cases, violence) are part of, or justified by, their faith. As much as I would like to believe that, as Paley so generously puts it, "Hinduism [isn't] a religion of hate," people who call themselves Hindus do seem to be expressing hatred. I also believe that much of human history -- be it religious, political, or otherwise -- shows a worrying tendency toward intolerance and violence. I'm not going to stop calling myself human because of it. I can choose what kind of human I'm going to be. I can choose what kind of Hindu.
The Ramayana is especially sacred to many of us. But there is not only one Ramayana -- there are dozens, if not hundreds, of versions. It is not only scripture, but a living, verbal tradition. It is handed down through the lineages of warriors and priests, cleaning ladies and shopkeepers. Ram Leela (an often informal stage production) is performed in countless villages: there is no script; it is different everywhere. When it is recited, there are often countless interruptions and arguments, because everyone has their own lineage, their own opinion. I have seen it performed live with bewildering, blaring Bollywood music; observed politicians and community leaders squirm during a version that included current events and pointed satire; heard it recited on a lonely road by a semi-nomadic shepherd, the only soundtrack the wind. I have watched Ram strut in sunglasses and Sita wave a sword (she chased Ram off the stage, amid gales of laughter). But I have never ever seen it shut it down. Until now.
I started out feeling sympathetic and seeing all sides of this debate, and I still struggle to. But I have a message for the people who shut down the public showing of "Sita Sings the Blues": You do not own this story. The Ramayana is of the people and for the people. You cannot take it from us. Either join the conversation, or be quiet so we can talk in peace. If you're Hindu, you don't need me to tell you this -- it is the nature of forms to flow, move and change. The essence remains, inviolable.
Follow Saumya Arya Haas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nsomniasaum