Saturday, July 5, 2008

Hinduism Seen Through a Glass-Very Very Darkly

When attempting to keep track of current trends and events in religion, I am constantly reminded of the varying ways that different media sources frame those events. For example, in many newspapers of record across the world, there is no "Religion" section, as you often find in U.S. newspapers. Stories with overtly religious content are often instead covered under News or Culture. In some cases, newspapers that appear on first glance to cover religious stories instead offer a section of devotionals, as does Qatar's web-based edition of its English-language newspaper.

The upshot of this is that while religious events and stories in other countries often are not covered in the U.S. press, there is a category that consistently features such content. Unfortunately, that News Section is called "WEIRD." That's right. In an era where many complain that there is too much political correctness, one has to look long and hard to find coverage of worldwide religious events in mainstream news coverage, unless, like the Burmese protests or the Chinese conflict with Tibet, the event reaches a large critical magnitude.

The "Weird" section of news coverage is often where you will find material relating to Hinduism. Given the open admittance of ignorance that many Americans have concerning religious traditions such as Mormonism or Islam, one can begin to see that there is almost no framework in which to comprehend such a different set of cultural traditions and assumptions. Many Hindus are quite devoted, and see little use for a separation of religion from other everyday concerns. This is certainly not unique to Hinduism, as indigenous religion coverage also ends up in the "Weird" section as well.

There are movements afoot to change some of the cultural illiteracy behind this. Hindu leaders and institutions are asserting themselves in U.S. public discourse in ways unheard of since Swami Vivekananda lectured attendees at the Parliament of World Religions in the 1800's. Nevada Hindu leader and priest Rajan Zed, columnist for the Washington Post's "On Faith," gave a gentle Hindu invocation in the U.S. Senate last year, sparking an outburst from evangelical Christian protesters in attendance. Now Chaplain Zed has organized a series of protests against the film "The Love Guru," a new Mike Myers film suspiciously similar in tone to the 2002 film "The Guru." Other Hindu spiritual leaders have also condemned the film.

Chaplain Zed is not alone either in the interfaith world. The scatological and urinary humor replete in the movie has aroused the ire of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has condemned the movie, and in doing so won the praise of Zed. Prominent Hinduism scholar, Vasudha Narayanan, has also given some unfavorable comments about the movie's use and lampooning of Hinduism and its cultural symbology. At least in India, the movie may be banned.

When coverage of very real Hindu-Muslim tensions over sacred space are minimized in Western media, and even coverage of Hindu thoughts and opinions about the U.S. Presidential Election are covered under "Weird News" it is small wonder that the most coverage Hinduism gets involves spoof movies from popular comedic actors. Meanwhile, Hindu images have become part and parcel of American culture, from Jimi Hendrix's appropriation of Vishnu's universal form in Axis: Bold As Love to Kali lunchboxes and even Ganesha toilet seats, there is little sense of the way that Hinduism influences the daily lives of 900 million people. Except perhaps, through a taste of (or fear of) the exotic.

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