As I write this post, a row of beautiful images and icons look down at me from above my desk. A chubby Ganesha with big eyes and eight hands, a present at a wedding in India last winter. A small picture of Goddess Saraswathi from Basara in Andhra Pradesh. A beautiful wood-carving of Vishnu asleep on his serpent, as Narada, Lakshmi, and Vyasa look adoringly on. A small figure of Hanuman playing the veena. And my most recent blessing, a statue of Rama found in a heap of trinkets in a whimsical California furniture store. Every face is smiling, every goddess and god looks kind.
Consider my surprise, then, as my eyes fell upon the images from the "Abused Hindu Goddess Campaign" as I was reading HuffPost this week. This ad campaign depicts widely recognized images of the Goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswathi as victims of domestic violence. The effect is quite jarring -- we do not like to see our beloved Mother Goddesses with bruises on their faces. The goal of the campaign, as I understand it, is to draw attention to violent crimes against women in India by using the powerful images of widely worshipped goddesses. I can understand the attempted symbolism. Our stories of gods and saints are not without instances where a hurt caused to a human being somehow shows up as a bruise on the arm of a revered deity in the temple. It is a reminder of a sensibility many Hindus would appreciate; to see ourselves in the divine, and to see the divine in us, and learn to conduct ourselves with each other with the same reverence and love the gods inspire in us.
Unfortunately though, there has been such a great deal of misrepresentation, if not outright malicious propaganda, about Hinduism, that the campaign already seems to many Hindus to be a perpetuation of that, rather than a sincere attempt to address the real problem of domestic violence. Since last December's rape and murder of a young woman in a bus in New Delhi, there have been few concerns India has debated with a greater urgency than that of the well-being of women. While women's safety is on many peoples' minds, there seems to have emerged two broad kinds of opinion (among others) that are relevant. First, in the many protests and marches that took place, and on the comment boards of various Indian newspapers and websites, we find what Indians like to call the "common-man's" view: this holds that attacks on women are a serious law-and-order problem and can be best solved by imposing harsh punishments on criminals such as castration or execution (their position may sound jingoistic, but we cannot dismiss the frustration they feel too; one of the men accused in the horrific December attack was just sentenced as a juvenile and received what the victims' family and others thought was a very light punishment).
The other broad opinion about crimes against women in India, and this is where the "abused goddesses" campaign strikes a disturbing note, is one that seems to hold culture, and specifically Hindu culture, responsible for all these atrocities on women. The gist of this view, which was forcefully argued by a number of experts and commentators in India and abroad since last December, is that Hinduism is full of all kinds of misogynistic beliefs and practices, and the whole culture of Goddess-worship in India is hypocritical. Apart from the obvious inconvenience to this position presented by the fact that violence against women in India is by no means perpetrated by Hindu men alone, there is also the fact that no major living Hindu institution, tradition or movement has ever sanctioned an active program that goes against the dignity or safety of women. I am also not aware if any of the accused in any of the recent cases of domestic abuse have ever quoted Hindu scriptures to justify their actions, nor, frankly, do I think they would have the faintest knowledge of Hindu philosophy and practice. Simply put, there has been a tremendously distorted and unsubstantiated discourse of blaming Hinduism for the problem of modern India's brutal crimes against women (and poverty too, but that is for another post). A discourse, as media scholars tell us, is a powerful thing. It has the power to pick up a few anecdotes from here and there, ignore important claims to the contrary, and build and perpetuate its own fabrication. Bruising the goddesses' faces does not show us what you think is the cause of the problem. It only shows us your ignorance.
For many devout Hindus who abhor violence and attribute their aversion to violence to precisely their religious philosophy, such a position is of course, not only unconvincing and inaccurate, but rude and offensive too. It seems to perpetuate a vested interest in blaming Hinduism for the faults of a few criminals whose ideologies of brutality may have come from outside Hindu thought and practice, and, more importantly, in denying what many Hindus know for a fact: Hindu philosophy, history, and popular sensibility contain many more precepts and ideals against violence, for women, and for ethical conduct in general, than the occasional line or two from some obscure text taken out of context by critics to malign Hinduism (example: an obscure verse that says women, lower-castes, and animals are worthy of being beaten featured at the beginning of the movie Bandit Queen is widely quoted by critics of Hinduism these days; let me just say that my view of Hindu ethics comes not from that one line I never even heard about till I saw that movie, but from the songs of Tyagaraja and Ramadasu, from the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, from the movies of Bapu and Ramana, the scholarship of Chaturvedi Badrinath, and too many cultural sources that too many critics of Hinduism today have pretended do not exist). The bigger problem is not in Hinduism's view of women, but in the way that a small group of privileged commentators have misled well-meaning but befuddled observers of India abroad about what Hinduism means to those who believe in it today; as philosophy, religion, or simply as culture. Strangely enough, the same intellectuals who blame Hinduism for all of India's ills today also end up denying that such a thing called Hinduism even exists, when it suits them (see my review essay on this at the India Site, here).
Given this highly mistaken and one-sided portrayal of Hinduism in the media in the West, and in parts of the Indian media too, the "Abused Goddess" campaign would do well to distinguish its good intentions of restoring respect for women from the tendency to be co-opted as another piece of malicious anti-Hindu propaganda. Many Hindus today would probably have appreciated the goal of the campaign a lot more had it gone along with the spirit in which we view our Goddesses, rather than as wounded victims. Why not an image of Goddess Lakshmi withholding her bounty to a thug who hurts a woman? Or of Goddess Durga or Kali punishing an abuser (wait, that image exists already, doesn't it?) The way in which Goddesses and Gods are depicted is important to Hindus. For us, the aesthetics of sacred representation are an integral part of how we view the divine. Our philosophical sensibilities encourage us to see the divine in everyday life too, to see God in each other; and to act with each other with the same love and reverence our Gods inspire in us. That is why we know our gods not just as abstract ideals but as characters in our stories about them; we know Krishna as parents would a child, and the Goddesses as one would know a mother. For thousands of years, innumerable voices have sung the gods as we know them today into existence, and many, many, great sculptors, artists, and poets have given them the form in which we can see them. The problem that Hinduism faces today is not that it is becoming fundamentalist as critics allege, but that it is evolving too slowly perhaps to find an answer to a challenging problem mostly not of its making.
The most recent aspect of that challenge is of course the rise of media and the proliferation of a culture of near-confusion in general. While the Hindu community has found a new sense of assertiveness in responding to misrepresentations coming from outside, there is also a need to cultivate a sense of aesthetic and philosophical discrimination closer home as well. In my grandparents' and even my parents' generation, any image of a God or Goddess was deemed sacred. As a modern, educated child I used to think it was quaint. But now I respect the fact that my mother clips out and preserves every image of Ganesha that she finds on wedding invitation cards before throwing out the cards for recycling. It is a practice in mindfulness, and it is important in this age when digital media and mass reproduction have made it impossible for us to practice any kind of respect for the written word or published image. I also remember that my mother long ago stopped the purchase of a Deepavali firework called the "Lakshmi Bomb" (those of you with Indian childhoods probably still hear the ringing in your ear) because the aftermath of shredded images of the Goddess the next morning were disturbing. Again, I thought all this quaint once, but I see it now as a way of returning to Hinduism its environmental and social sensibilities that are constantly being eroded by the forces of commerce and consumerism.
The broader question that we need to think about today is really how useful Hinduism can be in addressing the many ills that plague human conduct today. We need better stories about Hinduism, and to make that happen, the many talented and creative minds who are thinking about these issues should be careful not to play into the pervasive Hinduphobic propaganda that exists in some circles to this day. At the same time, I believe that Hindu parents should also be more mindful about the messages about violence the culture is producing today (we live in a media environment with much more violence in it than two generations ago, and just much more media in it than two generations ago). While my sadhana with sacred imagery may not be as rigorous or intense as that my elders, I am extremely careful about the way the tales of Krishna, Ganesha and the gods are narrated to my four-year-old son. There has been a glut of comics, books, YouTube videos and DVDs purporting to tell the tales of the gods in recent years. Many of them are simply sick. I have skipped over too many crudely drawn (or even superbly illustrated) images of decapitations and hackings, and softened stories about what happens to Ravana or Kamsa for now (in my version, they are "mean," not "evil," and they are "taught," not "killed").
Hindu parents should be aware that their children are living in a culture where the only peaceful characters they see are Elmo, Caillou, and Thomas, while their Krishna, Bheem, and all the rest are depicted as fighting or killing. This is not the way my generation acquired its understanding about the gods -- the action was merely a small part of the story and seldom rendered in graphic detail. The present generation of Hindu parents, my generation, is perhaps a lot more fascinated now by the assertive and martial aspects of Hindu thought for obvious reasons, but it is important not to lose sight of the everyday nuances and charms of our stories too. I have seen animated mythological films become increasingly graphic in their depictions of violence and cruelty in the last few years. Concerned Hindus should be as responsive to this as they have been to other sources of misrepresentation too. After all, much of the present popular activism in the Hindu-American community began with an important criticism of a scholarly book that compared the beloved god Ganesha's trunk to a phallus. Non-Hindu scholars of Hinduism perhaps could not see even a bit of what Ganesha means to us when we worship him today; we see kindness in his eyes, and majesty in his form, and inspiration in his actions as a scholar and scribe, while others only see a tale of violence and bloodshed. It is important though that we also recognize, as we pass on our sensibilities about our gods to the next generation, what we consider important, eternal, and dharma-friendly, and what we brush aside as mere distortions of desa and kala (time and place) in the great flow of sanathana dharma.
But to end on a happy note, at the feet of the Lord of Beginnings at that, I was delighted to find a copy yesterday of Sanjay Patel and Emily Hayne's new book Ganesha's Sweet Tooth. While the illustrations are enchanting and imaginative, what is most wonderful about the book is the completely innocent, child-like, and loving way in which each of the characters are depicted in the story. This is the sort of work that makes me appreciate that Hinduism is perhaps as much a religion as a popular culture; a highly aesthetic, creative, dynamic, and pluralistic carnival of devotion rising again and again from a great diversity of people (simply put, it is not the rigid, narrow, elitist conspiracy of oppression critics have made it out to be). It has survived centuries of conquest, decades of imperfect self-rule, and still continues to thrive, only because it is more democratic, egalitarian, and non-violent than critics or even supporters have ever recognized. The present problem of violence against nations, human beings, the environment, and most of all against women, is too complex though to expect Hindus to solve single-handedly, and all the more so if they are singularly blamed for a mess mostly not of their making, and denied the legitimacy of their own cultural resources to repair it. In any case, as Ganesha Chaturthi, and examples like Ganesha's Sweet Tooth remind us, it is good to to see that Hinduism's best spirit is being felt, respected, and breathed anew in both its altars and its popular culture. May Ganesha bring wisdom where it is needed, strength where it is wanted, and kindness every where.