* JULY 31, 2009
By SALIL TRIPATHI
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA
Earlier this month, Burger King in Spain used an image of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, in promotional posters inside three restaurants. Few Hindus were likely to see those posters — most of the world’s Hindus live in India, where they form 81% of its population of one billion people. But several Hindu groups in the United States protested by writing to Burger King and publicizing their protest on the Internet, stressing, among other things, that Lakshmi’s image should not be used to sell hamburgers because most Hindus are vegetarians.
Welcome to the new world of Hindu grievance politics. Some Hindus — emphasis on “some” — increasingly are voicing their displeasure with what they view as unfavorable or offensive depictions of their religion in business and popular culture. Targets have included rock star Madonna for sporting a bindi, a decorative dot, on her forehead — which married Hindu women traditionally wear. Rock group Aerosmith came in for criticism over a 1997 CD cover for its album “Nine Lives,” in which the Hindu god Krishna’s face was replaced with that of a cat. So too an episode in the TV series “Xena: The Warrior Princess” where the princess seeks Krishna’s help to fight rivals.
Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, is behind many of these efforts. Since being invited to offer a Hindu prayer at the U.S. Senate in 2007 — the first Hindu priest to do so — he has used his nationwide prominence in the U.S. to become the spokesman for the aggrieved Hindu and a guardian of the faith. Nor is Mr. Zed alone. Over the past decade, many Hindus outside India have actively campaigned against representations of their faith they don’t like. In the U.S., these include the Forum for Hindu Reawakening, the Texas-based Vedic Foundation, the Hindu Anti-Defamation Coalition and the Hindu Education Foundation. In Britain, the Hindu Human Rights Forum has campaigned against art works that the organization claims depict Hinduism in a poor light. These and other such groups are informally associated with the World Hindu Council, based in India.
The trend is even touching the academy. The Vedic Foundation and the Hindu American Foundation have been quarreling with California’s state education board over a curriculum they say portrays Hinduism “negatively” and “inaccurately” over the position of women in the faith and treatment of different castes. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 Hindus petitioned the Library of Congress to oppose the nomination of Romila Thapar, a distinguished Indian historian, to the Kluge Chair for the Countries and Cultures of the South. Her intellectual “crime” is to have conducted research that challenges Hindu nationalist views about the relationship between Hindus, Christians and Muslims.
The Library ignored Ms. Thapar’s opponents, showing such protests don’t always bear fruit. But other times they do — and inside India itself, Hindu protests can turn violent. Consider the case of Macalester College religious studies professor James W. Laine, who wrote a book in 2003, challenging traditional views about the family life of Shivaji, the 16th-century Maratha warrior king. The Sambhaji Brigade (named after Shivaji’s son) in India in 2004 assaulted Mr. Laine’s research associate Shrikant Bahulkar and destroyed rare manuscripts at the institute in India where Mr. Laine had conducted his primary research.
The politics of nationalism also play a part. While Hindus abroad generally have avoided debates about identity politics, some activists have started noticing the attention other faiths are demanding — and receiving. If newspapers outside India pay heed to Muslim concerns and avoid republishing the Danish cartoons; if governments ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” and publishers drop plans to distribute Sherry Jones’s “The Jewel of Medina;” if Jewish groups vigilantly pursue Holocaust deniers; and if Christian groups can challenge films like “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons,” why can’t Hindus assert themselves too?
The image of Hindus abroad is hardly going to improve if they take offense at every hamburger ad or movie poster, or whenever a rock star adopts Hindu or Indian cultural practices. It only makes them appear hypersensitive, hurting the image of Hindus far more than a Burger King poster does. Hindus would do better by developing the kind of self confidence that will allow them to take in stride any slights the world wants to throw their way.
Mr. Tripathi, a writer based in London, is the author of “Taking Offense: The Hindu Case” (Seagull Books/University of Chicago Press, 2009).