A TV mainstay, Indian-born Apu tries to peddle tofu dogs on The Simpsons. But the people of Springfield still can’t pronounce his last name.
Pop culture is veering into Hinduism — sort of. Call it a Hindu-esque sampling of the flavor, images and style of a 6,000-year-old faith but with no actual theology involved.
“This is how the culture manages everything,” says Luis Gonzalez-Reimann, who teaches Southeast Asian studies and religious studies at the University of California-Berkeley. “Remember Dharma & Greg?”
That 1997 sitcom featured a free-spirited gal, named Dharma by her hippie parents. Forget the Hindu idea of dharma as a way of living that leads to spiritual advancement. It just sounded flip.
The latest sign of infatuation with the Hindu-esque is NBC’s new Thursday night hit My Name Is Earl.
It starts with a mangled take on the concept of karma as the low-life main character tries to reverse a lifetime of scamming and stealing by undoing a life list of misdeeds.
That’s a slick, quick notion of karma, rather than a true reflection of the Hindu idea of action and reaction as the “neutral, self-perpetuating law of the inner cosmos,” says Hindu monk Sannyasin Arumugaswami, editor of Hinduism Today magazine.
Then there’s Alicia Keys warbling in her song Karma, “It’s called karma, baby. And it goes around. What goes around comes around. What goes up must come down.”
But “that isn’t karma,” gripes Shoba Narayan, Hindu columnist for the spirituality website Beliefnet.com. “That is Newton’s Law of Physics.”
Watch for reincarnation Hindu-esque style if an Ashton Kutcher-produced sitcom lands on TV in the fall. For Pete’s Sake is actually an interfaith goof: St. Peter plays bouncer at the Pearly Gates, sending five main characters off to rebirth instead of hell, garbling both Christian and Hindu theology.
After all, there’s no law that TV or movies must teach correct doctrine, says Dick Staub, a writer on faith and culture for Christianity Today online.
Yoga, the 5,000-year-old Hindu physical and meditative discipline, is everywhere now. Yoga Journal says 31% of Americans who have tried it say they’re seeking “spiritual development.”
But authentic Hindu yoga schooling is outnumbered by variations more focused on six-pack abs or non-denominational inner serenity. One entrepreneur hits every trend button with DVDs teaching Kabbalah Yoga, borrowing very loosely from Jewish mysticism.
Celebrities long have had an affinity for mystical mishmash. Shirley MacLaine, joking about her many lives, is no longer news.
Kutcher, who once sported a “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirt, wed Demi Moore in a Kabbalah-esque ceremony before veering toward the Hindu-esque. And Britney Spears brought her 4-month-old son to be blessed at a Hindu temple in Malibu, Calif., last month.
No one begrudges a blessing.
“Hinduism is a complicated and beautiful religion but much more complicated to adopt as a lifestyle, particularly in our short-cut culture,” says California author Mark Hawthorne, who writes about hidden Hindu elements in popular culture for Hinduism Today magazine.
But believers object when riffs plunder serious spiritual teachings or venerable images.
Hindu groups’ complaints led to cutting Sanskrit chanting from an orgy scene in the 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut. The American Hindu Anti-Defamation Coalition protested a Chicago strip club that put Hindu deity masks on its dancers, fashion retailers who slapped god and goddess images on underwear and the soles of shoes, and the portrayal of Hare Krishnas as a gang forcing conversions in the video game Grand Theft Auto 2.
It’s not easy for Americans to recognize when a slight glance crosses over to an offensive slap. Americans’ exposure to expressions of Hinduism largely is limited to travelogues of India, Bollywood song-and-dance movies and the Fox TV cartoon antics of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian Kwik-E-Mart clerk on The Simpsons.
Hinduism, followed by 930 million people worldwide, 98% in India, actually is a 19th-century term for a spectrum of ancient teachings, just as Christianity covers denominations as varied as Catholics, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As Christians are unified by the centrality of Christ, so Hindus, divided among thousands of sects and sub-sects, are unified by “one, all-pervasive supreme God, though he or she may be worshiped in many forms,” says Suhag Shukla.
Shukla is the author of a fact sheet on the faith for the Hindu American Foundation, a U.S.-based human rights group that defends and explains Hinduism for an estimated 2 million Hindus in the USA.
The foundation finds mass media often present Hindus as polytheistic (not) and idol worshipers (not) and confuses religious teachings with controversial social practices such as providing a dowry.
“The truth is one. The wise call it by many names,” she says, quoting the Vedas, the 6,000-year-old texts that form the basis of the faith.
So what else is new? Hollywood has been mocking Christian culture for years. Recent examples:
• NBC’s The Book of Daniel, starring a pill-popping Episcopal priest and his family of prolific sinners, already has flopped off the schedule.
• An NBC press release says an upcoming Will & Grace episode would include a Christian cooking show called Cruci-fixin’s. Two days after the Christian conservative American Family Association blasted NBC, the network said the release was mistaken and the script will contain no such thing.
It could be argued that exposing the West to Hindu ideas and images — short of blasphemy — can’t be all bad if it provokes further study.
“Theology is understood by scriptwriters as an a la carte menu of ideas,” says Staub. “Blenderism accepts the relativity of truth. There’s no requirement to assert any one thing is right or wrong. Put it in the blender, and there you go.”
Never underestimate our ability to ignore theological distinctions, says Jana Riess, religion book review editor for Publishers Weekly and author of What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. “Whatever we appropriate from Hinduism is fairly superficial, and television crystallizes this for dramatic effect,” she says.
“Hindu ideas evolved over thousands of lifetimes. We don’t have the patience for this.”
Sidebar: Western take on Hinduism
My Name Is Earl features Earl’s misadventures as he tries to undo a list of 200-plus misdeeds and bank the benefits. Karma à la Earl: “Whether picking up trash, returning stolen merchandise or helping a homosexual find love, it always has the same reward: feeling good about yourself.”
But the point of Hinduism isn’t present-day happiness. “You don’t work for the fruits of your labor; you do your best for the sake of your spiritual duty to do the best,” says Suhag Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation.
For Pete’s Sake, Ashton Kutcher’s sitcom-in-the-works, plays on reincarnation. It’s named for St. Peter, but when characters die, they get to try life over again. “The message is, when you’re down here, you’re here to learn a lesson. And if you don’t get it right, they keep sending you back until hopefully you do,” Kutcher’s co-producer Jason Goldberg told Daily Variety.
Reincarnation is a core belief in Hinduism, says Mark Hawthorne, who writes for Hinduism Today, but the ultimate aim is for the soul to transcend its individuality and reunite with the one God.
Yoga’s mind-body workout has attracted at least 16.5 million Americans, says Yoga Journal. And, the magazine assures readers, it’s not necessary to study or follow a Hindu or Buddhist path to practice.
However, authentic Hindu yoga is a 5,000-year-old discipline “designed to change your consciousness,” says Hawthorne. Yoga’s meditative chanting is believed to carry spiritual vibrations that bring one close to God.