The Western Condescension of Hinduism


As a child, I moved around frequently. My parents emigrated from India to the U.S. when I wasn’t even five years old, and we moved from place to place. When most kids my age were toting around new lunch boxes,  I was carrying moving boxes. It seems that, for most of my life, I’ve perpetually been stuck with the “New Kid Syndrome”.

Unfortunately for me, the schools I attended weren’t ever very religiously diverse. Christians usually made up the vast majority of my peers, and at times it was quite lonely for a little Hindu child like me not having anyone or anything to which to relate.  Ah, but then there was always Social Studies – my favorite subject! No matter what book we learned from, we always covered India. As the second most populated country in the world – it was guaranteed to have a spot on the year’s lesson plan. Finally, something I could relate to! With the mention of India also came mention of Hinduism, the religion that millions of families like mine practiced. I always looked forward to talking about Hinduism in school because I was almost always the only Hindu around, and this meant instant stardom.

“Wow, cool! All these weird-looking gods and goddesses with so many heads and arms! You really believe in all of them?” kids would ask me.

“Some of them look like monsters from scary movies!”

Hey, wait a second, there’s not really more than God; they’re just differences faces of one Supreme Being. And why are Shiva, Vishnu, Saraswati, and Lakshmi being referred to as ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses?’ Monsters? No, that’s not right at all! The Bhagavad-Gita is mythology? Like Greek mythology? This is all wrong…

This was an experience I dealt with many years ago, and interestingly enough many Hindus are still dealing with today: the misrepresentation and subsequent belittlement of Hinduism. For a religion as established and tolerant as Hinduism, Western cultures have disrespected it through outlets of public education, media, and marketable fashions and trends. The result: the face of Hinduism becomes no more than what is represented by many in the West, a “mythological”, pagan religion.

Some say ignorance is bliss, but I have to disagree when it comes to education because it only leads to misconception, and that is definitely not bliss. Misconceptions in the hands of scholars and educators are dangerous and destructive. Incorrect and misleading information about Hinduism has often been printed in textbooks and reference books. Public education is a powerful source of information, especially for young people, who are exposed to world religions for the first time. Young minds soak up information like a sponge, especially when they are learning about something they have little to no prior exposure to.

So then, what happens when a child goes to school and reads, “Durga and Kali are terrible and extremely bloodthirsty forms of this goddess,” in a textbook like “The Ancient South Asian World,” printed by the Oxford University Press? What about learning that The Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu scripture is described as being, “…like adventure movies of today [that tell] thrilling stories about great heroes” as described in Glencoe-McGraw Hill’s “Discovering Our Past – Ancient Civilizations” textbook?

These certainly aren’t accurate statements about Hinduism, and what’s worse is that they’re superficial. Jesus’s crucifixion is never referred to as a “gripping, emotional roller coaster,” so why precede the description of a Hindu script with such an introduction? Furthermore, describing Durga and Kali with such adjectives as “terrible” and “bloodthirsty” paints vivid pictures in impressionable minds of demons and monsters like those straight out of fairytales. Of course it’s understandable that Hindus and non-Hindus, alike, assume that Hinduism is a pagan religion when scholars describe important figures as elaborate and animalistic idols. Monsters can’t be worshipped as God, so the very idea of Hindu teachings seems ridiculous.

Dictionary.com’s description of Krishna is as “one of the most popular gods…[who is] worshipped in several forms [such as] as the divine cowherd whose erotic exploits, esp. with his favorite, Radha, have produced both romantic and religious literature.” The relationship between Krishna and Radha is one of pure, eternal love as described by Hindu scriptures, and to reduce it to an “erotic exploit” conveys it solely as sexual relationship, in which Krishna is the hunk who gets all the girls. This description reduces a major form of God to human form, and worse, portrays him in an especially bad light by making him sound like a perpetual flirt.

Jasneshwari Devi, a spiritual teacher at Barsana Dham Temple in Austin, Texas has written letters to book publishers and conveyed the Hindu community’s disappointment in such inaccurate descriptions in hopes to promote better education of Westerners about Hinduism.  She says the description of Krishna is completely inappropriate and misleading.

“Using the word “erotic” to describe the love between Radha and Krishna shows the ignorance of the writer.  God’s love is beyond the conception of the human mind,” she says. “Hinduism does teaches us that God is beyond all such human emotions of lust, anger, greed, jealously.  The use of this word to describe God is highly offensive to Hindus.”

The second issue to address is the fact that many in the West, including scholars, refer to Hinduism as “mythology.” This is by far one of the most insulting descriptions to characterize any religion with. By describing Hinduism as mythology, it is suggested that Hindu beliefs are simply a collection of folklore and tales, too fantastic to be real. In reality, however, all religions are theoretically mythological because no one religion can prove its validity.

Can Christians prove that the word of The Bible comes directly from God? Can they prove that the world was created in seven days? No, but even so, Christianity’s core beliefs are rarely described as myths, especially in the West. Rather, they are referred to as “teachings of Christ.” Why then refer to Hindu beliefs as myths and not just what they are also – beliefs? Perhaps in a part of the world where monotheistic religions rule, it is difficult to see truth in a religion with so many faces of God. It is simply easier to cast it off as a sensational belief system. Many don’t regard how insulting it is to Hindus to be told they believe in something that’s, frankly, false. We’re not asking for special treatment or a pretty little pedestal, but it really would be nice if we could stop with the “mythology” nonsense.

Then there’s the issue of referring to the deities as “gods” and “goddesses” rather than “Gods” and “Goddesses”. Again, because the West is dominated by monotheistic religions, it seems nonsensical to give a respectful title to many forms that claim to be “God.” Major religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam prevail in numbers of worshippers and they give claim to only one God. The truth is, Hindus also believe in one Supreme entity.

Alas, most still don’t understand how there can be so many forms and therefore, they must be referred to as less important “gods.” What many don’t realize is that this is truly disrespectful to Hindus to have Shiva or Ganesh or Krishna referred to as a lowly god, when they serve as core representations of their faith.

As a journalist, I often refer to my AP Stylebook, as many editors require their reporters to follow guidelines set by the Associated Press. Unfortunately for me and other Hindu writers, it requires that we refer to these deities in lowercase form. Although because AP Style instructs to “lowercase gods and goddesses in references to the deities of polytheistic religions,” and Hinduism is not polytheistic, as many people assume, but actually polymorphic, I technically could capitalize “God” and “Goddess” when referring to any of the Hindu deities. I doubt, though, an editor would side with me on a technicality he/she believes to be minor. Of course – therein lies the problem – it is a minor technicality to those outside the religion and the exact opposite to those within.

Former AP reporter and current religion reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, Abe Levy says the rules probably won’t change because numbers usually rule, and the numbers unfortunately don’t lie with Hindus in the West. The majority of worldwide followers belong to the ‘Big 3’: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.” (He’s probably right, and this is evident since even he makes the mistake of calling Hinduism polytheistic, during our interview)

“I think the honest truth is that monotheistic faiths…share this belief in one God and so until polytheistic faiths in the U.S. break out of their minority status numerically and politically, it won’t change. Is that fair?” he asks. “No. It’s more of a pragmatic solution given the sheer numbers of [monotheism], and [its] stamp on U.S. history and culture.”

It’s interesting the fascination people have with fantasy and things that seem non-human and unrealistic. Hinduism again falls into this superficial category and over the years, it has become increasingly “cool” (and profitable) to use colorful images of Hindu figures and symbols on anything from T-shirts and home furnishings to even costumes and restaurant advertisements. Most have no idea what any of these images represent, but again the obsession with things that seem out-of-this-world prevails. And if it makes a product sell, then by all means go for it, right? Sadly, many would jump on this bandwagon without a second thought.

Goddess Lakshmi in Burger King Ad

In Spain during the summer of 2009, fast food giant Burger King revealed a new ad campaign depicting an image of Lakshmi sitting on a hamburger. The caption underneath translated to, “This snack is sacred.” The image was used to increase Burger King’s profits and many Hindus saw it as sacrilege. It seemed to be a mockery and a sarcastic pun at the fact that it is a well-known truth that Hindus don’t eat beef. It would be interesting to see how Muslims would feel if maybe Burger King’s rival McDonald’s launched a marketing campaign with a burger dressed in some sort of burqa like a Muslim woman with a slogan something like, “Unveil the goodness.” Catchy? Yes, but should that trump mockery? That’s how Hindus feel too.

In 2008, supermodel Heidi Klum, known for her extravagant Halloween parties, dressed to impress – in a Goddess Kalicostume. While it was a very colorful and elaborate costume – complete with blue body paint, multiple prosthetic arms, and an unruly wig of black hair – it was despicable that she would choose a very sacred figure to inspire her Halloween costume.

Heidi Klum as Goddess Kali

It’s time to take the rose-colored glasses off and think: How would Christians feel if someone showed up with an expensive costume depicting the Virgin Mary – or worse – Jesus Christ? Would Muslims be okay with a costume of Mohammed or a ghastly interpretation of what Allah might look like? Perhaps a jokester carrying a version of the Torah, as if he were really Jewish, wouldn’t offend Jews. Maybe it wouldn’t bother many, but what if the culprit were the last person in the world that should to be representing a pious Mary or a selfless Jesus, or the all-mighty Allah who has no pictured form. Jews, too, would most likely be a little unnerved if a bit of alcohol spilled on a cheap version of the Torah at a party.  No one wants others badly representing something they hold dear, and Hindus are no different.

Cafepress.com is one of the many clothing sites, that has a variety of fashions available with Hindu imprints to them. A few include a couple with the images of Ganesh and Shiva reading “Ganesh/Shiva is my Om Boy” playing off the popular slang term “homeboy” referring to a good friend. It’s funny and looks cool, but I doubt most of the people wearing those shirts have any spiritual relationship with either God to lay claim to the phrase. But of course, “cool and funny” often trump offensive.

Some might say these things aren’t a big deal because many don’t mean any blatant disrespect, but what they don’t realize is the sheer disregard these actions shows for Hinduism as a religion deserving of respect. Small actions have big impacts. Western cultures often heavily stress tolerance, but maybe empathy and education should be stressed more. Knowledge opens doors and it could be the key for Hinduism finally to receive more respect as the ancient, established, and welcoming religion it really is. It’s not a matter of shoving Hinduism’s teachings in others’ face and expecting them to adhere. Hindus are simply asking others to understand the impact and the disrespect they are being subjected to. And the truth is: we simply don’t deserve that condescension.

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13 thoughts on “The Western Condescension of Hinduism

  1. Really insightful and love it! Things like this is what we all think about but fail to really voice our opinions and concerns. Good job!

  2. I agree with a lot of this, but growing up Hindu myself, I have a few disagreements. There’s this sense among Hindus (like Muslims) that our religion should not be touched by parody, imitation, or what have you. We hold our religion high on this pedestal and want it not to be touched. Any time Hinduism is shown in media, even in India itself, people analyze it profusely to make sure it’s not offensive. I, personally, see no harm in Heidi Klum dressing up like Kali. People dress up like Jesus and Mary, etc for Halloween all the time in America. Jesus is parodied immensely. Yes, I do find it a little degrading as this is someone who probably knows little to anything about Hinduism before dressing up like a deity, but I do feel like Hindus take everything a little too seriously sometimes. I find the “om boy” shirt, personally, hilarious.

    I agree 100% with your comments on the way Hinduism is depicted in the Western world, but I also feel that Hindus sometimes put their armor up too high. I wonder if Hindus allowed self-parody and reflection, like Christians and Jews do in the Western world, whether that would allow more people in the world to understand that we are not just some mystic pagan culture.

    • Hm, I do see your point. I think it’s an automatic defense tactic though because Indians get teased and picked on through a lot of outlets.

      Personally though I don’t think that religion should be too heavily parodied. A dry joke here and there to break up the seriousness is one thing, but it’s a touchy area that I think should be laid off by people of any faith. It’s just safer not to go there.

  3. This is, hands down, my favorite post on your blog. I need you to send this to different newspapers and news websites as a religion editorial. Seriously. I think someone will pick this up.

  4. I’m so happy to have read you’re blog post. I’ve found where traditional Buddhism reaches back to Hinduism and with the help of Google and my circle of friends (most of whom are Indian) started exploring. I had started to feel very fond for the umbrella of Hinduism and has begun to even find it preferable to the Abrahamic religions for it’s inclusiveness, creativity, and diversity of opinion. Then, I caught myself and wondered if my surroundings (non-Hindus and the well-educated who take it as it has been proven historically -an amalgamation of rather diverse, though ancient, beliefs arising from Indus-based culture) had been pushing me to see it so warmly because my information came from the tolerant, the well (and broadly) educated, and the understanding. I wondered if this was how some people in the Eastern and Southeastern reaches of Asia (where the Abrahamic religions are less well-ingrained) saw the religions -that so sicken me- in an analogous way. You’ve confirmed that I should take this bias-adjusted view of things. To be upset with a pigeon-holing and characterizing of your country’s major collection of spiritual/philosophical history is one thing (and it is something I myself noticed as I learned more about it), but to act as though Hinduism is itself a religion is to greatly misunderstand what the term (though originally somewhat derogatory, and certainly of foreign invention) has come to mean in modern, educated circles. Even amongst the older reaches of consolidation of Aryan beliefs into the so-called Hindu system, there are enormous discrepancies about dualism vs monism, theism vs atheism, and so on; discrepancies that are, for the most part, very much permitted even in the scriptures. To say you’re Hindu with no further specification is absolutely no more qualifying than saying that you’re Indian and not a Jain, Sikh, Muslim, etc.. It is disappointing but not surprising to find the same disregard for very readily apparent information, a disregard that must be an intentional dismissal for the sake of one’s cognitive unity (a very cheap motivator). It is even more unsettling to see you use your utterly unforgivable ignorance concerning your own “religion” in the name of censorship and borderline ethnocentrism -a term which I was hesitant to even use until I considered that you are a journalist and are therefore likely quite precise in your writing (an accomplishment I don’t share, sadly). I hope that no one who reads this article is pushed away from the very rich, sometimes lovely, sometimes saddening socio-cultural library that is now termed Hinduism.

  5. Nice Article Foram, I too have similar experience as you have had.

    Things are changing, and it does not matter what the westerners think of our religion. It is very important that we Hindus as a community know and understand and follow our scriptures. We may have different schools of thoughts but our basic principles are one “Universal principle”. Which we Hindus follow. Why should we be judged by the western thought to be accepted? We are not at anyone’s mercy. We as a religion are tolerant and that is the innate nature of most hindus. It is important to stand up for ourselves as a community and educate the people in India to know more about our own religion. Many Hindus in India are “westernized” and do not exhibit any true understanding of our own religion. It is important for people like yourself to re-establish an understanding of Hinduism. In India and among the younger generations.

    Good Luck and best wishes!!

  6. Hi Foram,

    I enjoyed your article very much, and would add the following comments:

    Hinduism is a unique kind of “religion”, most regard it as a way of life, whose animist origins are lost in the mist of history. Over time however, it developed into a strong system of beliefs based on profound philosophical and spiritual concepts understood through Learning, Action, Yoga and Worship.
    Unlike other religions, Hinduism encourages new knowledge and ideas which accounts for its inherent tolerance. The opening lines of the Rig Veda wonders what existed before the Universe and Life, and concludes that nobody knows – which is the truth. No one was around then to prove the contrary.
    It has no prophets, no popes, no “divine” revelations, no one “godly” book, no dogmas. This explains its survival when other contemporary religions (Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian,etc..) vanished, and also in spite of 1,000 years of Islamic and Christian (British) rule in India.

    The early Western missionaries in India who called Hinduism an “abomination” never understood this. Later Western scholars who studied Indian thought and philosophy did.
    To Western thought nurtured on monotheism, Hinduism indeed appears as a deluded and confused thought system, and Hindus need to be “brought back to the fold” for “soul redemption”. I don’t feel Hindus should unduly stress the monotheism of their religion to meet others’ expectations and criteria.There are supposed to be 330 million Gods in Hinduism ,1 for every 4 Hindus , which means better customer service!
    Jokes apart, is monotheism really a virtue to be strived for? We have one God/Goddess/Animal for every specific problem : Mata Saraswati for passing exams, Shri Ganesh for overcoming life obstacles. Isn’t this better than seeking the help of one God submerged by the problems of 7 billion people?

    It boils down to a clash of cultures with different, even opposite criteria of appreciation.
    If Mata Durga is viewed as “scary” and “weird” by others, it must also be realised that no Hindu would like to see his God be tortured and killed by mortals, and much less that the torture instrument be taken as an object of worship.

    I conclude with this quotation of Bertrand Russell which can be addressed to people of all religious convictions:
    ” Any average selection of mankind, set apart and told that it excels the rest in virtue, must tend to sink below the average”.

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