08/23/2011 07:48 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

Lord Shiva and The Economist: A New Low for Journalism

Like millions of people, I grew up thinking of Lord Shiva simply as Lord Shiva, a God, one of the many forms of God. From his depictions in paintings and sculpture, he was clearly a smiling, adoring, adored sort, despite slightly wild hair and wild creatures around him. His consort, the Goddess Parvathi, was the Mother-supreme in our minds -- Ammavaru, we called her in Telugu. There was even a term our elders used for the two of them: Aadi dampatulu, the primeval couple. Prime Mother, Prime Father. They were parental, but not in an abstract or authoritarian sense. We knew them with affection, their lives and their world. We knew their children. After all, they had two of the most adorable and cool child-gods of our pantheon, the beloved Ganesha and the tiny warrior-prince Subramanya. The four of them were the first family of Hinduism. We rarely cared to debate whether they were real or imaginary, fiction or non-fiction. We knew them as gods. And what that meant to us was that we also knew them in the ways we humans know one another in this world: as parents, as brothers, as sons, in the trusted terms of relationships and affections. And since we humans, even in these verbally liberated times, generally refrain from thinking and speaking of our fathers and mothers and daughters and sons in terms of private bodily organs, we do not, ever, ever, remotely think when we worship Shiva in the form of a Lingam that we are paying homage to a bodily organ.

For most Hindus, this is self-evident. A Lingam is Lord Shiva.

For The Economist, though, a lingam (and specifically, the deity at the sacred Amarnath caves in the Himalayas) is a "penis-shaped lump of ice."

First of all, to start with the hilariously obvious, if that's what the ice-formation in Amarnath looks like to The Economist, then let us just say they have different ideas about human anatomy from the rest of us in the human race.

Naturally, and sadly, that is not the main point. The main point is that it is hurtful, extremely mean-spirited and, most of all, blatantly inaccurate.

The Hindu American Foundation and numerous online readers of The Economist have conveyed their disappointment to the news magazine. The Economist has apparently responded to the HAF's concerns with a Wikipedia defense. To be precise, a one-of-several-lines-from-Wikipedia defense. I paraphrase and summarize the correspondence below (read the whole thing here):

The Economist: But Wikipedia says the Lingam is a phallic symbol.

Hindu American Foundation: That is one of several theories, and not necessarily the most resonant one among Hindus. In fact, the very next line in the Wiki page you mention states that the Lingam is a symbol of infinity.

The Economist: We are frank in our reporting.

To be fair to The Economist, I would say that the article is indeed fraught with frankness as far as the writer's agenda is concerned. This agenda is simply to say that Kashmir is just about doing better, and the Indian government will surely muck it up. That argument is pursued vigorously, directly, without pause for distracting competing viewpoints and details. It is frank, in terms of its own logic. Good Economist writing. And frankly, it really should not have hit this Lord Shiva and Hindu sentiments bump at all. But it has. Perhaps the writer wished to pass some of the blame for Kashmir's problems to Lord Shiva, I mean, the frozen puddle of water that the tropical natives have obviously failed to recognize as a "lump of ice." Maybe the writer believes that the ice-fetish-totem-seeking Hindus have something to do with the suffering of the people of Kashmir. Maybe he hopes that his frankness in exposing the Hindoo's superstition will bring peace to the troubled valley. All this, I do not know. But if there is a desire in that article for peace, I salute it (and this part I say without irony, for the record).

In any case, that is just a guess. On the other hand, maybe the writer did not really intend to dump on the poor Hindu pilgrims for the valley's problems, and just got led a little too far down the Wiki-saurus garden path on what was perhaps to him just a trifling detail for which journalistic convention, let us call it that, demanded a certain kind of treatment expected of Hindu topics.

Now, in normal journalism, as I understand it, a reporter reports. At one level, as we know, it often means quoting accurately, or at the very least refraining from imposing outlandish external ideas on the subjects' viewpoint. That would be distortion, error, anything but decent journalism. So a normal piece of journalism, as I understand it, would have handled the same sentence quite differently. The journalist would have asked some of the tens of thousands of people who have gone to Amarnath what they were going to see, and more importantly, he would have listened to what they said.

And what the grannies, uncles, aunties and other pilgrims going to Amarnath might have told the reporter would in all likelihood have been anything but "going to worship a penis-shaped lump of ice." They might have said "Lord Shiva." They might have said the "Linga." In any case, it should have been very clear to a normal mind what they were talking about. That is all a good reporter needed to have noted. Not an anatomical literalization of a questionable anthropological concept floating among many others on a fun, yes, but scarcely reliable website even students are cautioned against taking too seriously. To put it plainly: describing a sacred Lingam as a "lump of ice" in this manner is not frankness. It is absurdity. It is like describing the Sistine Chapel as smears of paint, or The Economist as pre-cycled future toilet paper. There may be some truth to it at a very oddly literal level, but it is so odd and out of the realm of sane discourse we don't even bother with such characterizations for the most part.

But ignoring the words of the subjects for a thrice-twisted detour through Wikipedia is not the only journalistic low here. It is related to a more widespread tendency in the international media when it comes to Hinduism. It is the compulsion to anthropologize -- often with great pain, as if each letter were carrying the burden of civilizing a backward human race -- every Hindu god, figure or idea that is written about. We don't find some sort of "expert" explanation following every mention of Jesus Christ, the Buddha or other religious figures in the international press. But Shiva and Vishnu always warrant a superior-toned translation. I feel that we really don't need to insult our readers' intelligence with explanatory epithets and inner psychological exegeses. We know the world's gods and saints by now. It is the 21st century. We are globalized, and every third or fifth or even 50tth person on the planet who reads The Economist or the international English press is probably an Indian. We do not need the Colonizer's Tourist Guide of Native Customs Practices and Beliefs any more. The Economist fiasco is an example of what happens when this is taken too far. The anthropological zeal to explain falls flat, turns seasoned reporters into Wiki-stubs of their own selves, lets loose fantasy and delusion and, worst of all, raises serious questions not only about journalistic standards, but about one's human sensitivities as well.

Was it that hard for one human being to sense that a lot of people -- not just the supposed religious fanatics, but a lot of ordinary people, readers of your words, intelligent beings who have invested money, tim, and energy into taking your arguments with some seriousness -- are going to be deeply hurt when you describe their deity in words more suited to abuse?

I do not even blame The Economist's writer alone for this lapse of judgment about human feelings. It is a cultural ill that has settled on Hindus more than any other community in recent years. Even common-sense notions about respect and civility that we would extend to the feelings of Muslims, Jews and Christians seem to vanish when it comes to the feelings of Hindus. There is an unspoken phobia that seems to haunt journalism, academia and other areas of otherwise high intelligence. It is the unspoken consensus that anyone who points out the obvious, glaring truths about anti-Hindu prejudice must be a raving right-wing Hindu fundamentalist. To some extent, naturally, the raving right-wing Hindu fundamentalists must take the blame for this. But those of us who can tell decency and fanaticism apart must also take responsibility for this situation. If we are unable to acknowledge that there are grievances that Hindus face, only the harshest and most intolerant voices will.

And finally, just in case someone wishes to point out to me that the Lingam really is a phallic symbol, or that I am making too much of this and all this is puritanical because our temples have erotic sculptures and we are the land of the glorious Kama Sutra, I respond, in anticipation, as follows:

I have no problems with acknowledging India's glorious erotic past, present or future. I just don't want you to confuse the erotic art ON some temples with the way we relate to the deities IN most of our major temples. No problem acknowledging also that among the many different traditions, practices and stories that have fused and sometimes not even touched and just hung around together in what we now call Hinduism, there is room, and maybe even some intellectual and spiritual value in some contexts, for what is still quite crudely called the "phallic" perspective. But let us be wary of taking one perspective too literally and too severely over others; that is after all something we often accuse religious fundamentalists of doing.

Some foreign academic experts and some Hindus too may like to think of their Shiva-Linga in such terms, and they are entitled to their thoughts. My preference though, if pushed for an interpretation beyond Lord Shiva, is the idea that the Linga represents the emergence of divinity from formlessness (God) into form (the gods). I first heard it in the discourses of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, and it also appears in some studies of Indian religious art. For the record, I also do not claim this to be the real, authentic, original or pure meaning of the Linga. It is the interpretation that speaks to me about the ungraspable truth and beauty of this world. But all interpretations aside, we must come back to just one thing. In the future, if a public statement demands that its subject is "Lord Shiva," just say Lord Shiva. Those who see him as a kind, father-like god will do so. Those who see him as a pushover ATM for boons will do so. Those who see him as a metaphor for science, nature, art and everything else will do so. In fact, those who want to see something mean and weird in him may also retain their freedom of speech and thought to do so. It is a truly victorious proposition for all concerned -- believers, agnostics, critics.

Just don't say something about our gods that you wouldn't say about your own parents. It may or may not matter to Lord Shiva, but it should matter to you. You are going to look really bad if you do.