05/02/2013 11:58 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

Who Owns Hinduism?

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Another good question to ask concerns the propriety of appropriating or merely utilizing purportedly proprietary Hindu symbols, practices, clothing, images and so on.

The question -- basically, "Who owns Hinduism?" -- revolves around a number of separate, but related questions: First, who speaks on behalf of, or represents the sentiment of, (all?) Hindus? Second, which items and practices are decidedly "Hindu"? And who determines this? Third, among these Hindu items/artifacts, which are untouchable and can only be appropriated or applied with appropriate approval? And who determines this? Fourth, and significant in the American context, how should courts and sensitive citizens balance the sentiments of individual communities with freedom of speech, blasphemy laws and censorship?

As I have mentioned elsewhere (See my "Hindu Leaders in North America?"), the establishment and invention of Hindu leaders in North America, much less the world, and, for that matter, of "Hinduism," has been somewhat problematic. The combination of Hinduism's colonial and post-colonial, and now diasporic reification, seeking to homogenize diversity, has propelled both unprepared, reluctant and, in the many suspect cases, self-proclaimed, leaders to the forefront. And it is these who claim or who are burdened with authority who (arbitrarily) decide or proclaim which practices, patterns and so on are "Hindu" and which, among these, are off-limits for use by non-Hindus, or ought to be used in approved ways.

So when a self-proclaimed Hindu statesman proclaims authority, her/his authority is somewhat suspicious.

Consider, for example, Selena Gomez's use of the bindi, which seemed to a few to be a significant Hindu symbol. Would these same self-proclaimed spokespeople contend that the use of a bindi by a Muslim actress in a Bollywood movie to be equally blasphemous? If so then at least the self-proclaimed spokespeople are being consistent. If not, then is there something about Selena or about the context within which she used, and uses, the bindi that makes it unauthorized? And would the spokespeople be happier if the bindi was trademarked and that its use could be used to generate royalties for the "Hindu" community?

Or, giving the self-proclaimed spokespeople the benefit of the doubt, are they confused as to whether Selena is mimicking or mocking what seems to them to be an archetypal Hindu symbol and Hindus in general?

And given the importance of freedom of speech in the United States, isn't it the proper/authorized/ or improper/unauthorized use of religious symbols irrelevant anyway?