USA Today religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman has a great piece today on the superficial treatment Hinduism receives in America. She looks at everything from The Simpsons' Apu to the mangled version of Karma in the TV hit My Name is Earl:
Throw another ingredient in the American spirituality blender.
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.
Though small in terms of American adherents, Hinduism has had a profound influence on Americans since it was introduced in the 19th century. Grossman looks at its recent incarnations and provides a bit of perspective. There are 930 million Hindus worldwide, 98 percent of whom are in India. Hinduism is a 19th-century term for a spectrum of ancient teachings, she says:
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.
Hmm. I'm really not sure it's accurate to call Hindus either polytheistic or not polytheistic. Those terms are very Western and fail to accurately convey Hindu beliefs. Hindus do worship many, many Gods. They also believe that there is one supreme deity in many incarnations. It is very difficult for people raised with Western ideas to wrap their heads around this seeming contradiction, but it is not difficult for Hindu thinkers. God is one and many, they might say. In fact, the Rig Veda says "Truth is one and the learned call it by many names." Hinduism is rather pantheistic with polytheistic attributes. And the idol-worshiper contention is similarly debatable. It is true that when Christians went to India to convert Hindus, they derided the Hindu believers there as idol worshipers and that insult was taken to heart. But Hindus do also appreciate fashioning murtis, images used during worship to help focus devotion and meditation. They tend to represent forms of God like Ganesh, Krishna, or Kali.
The thing is that the Suhag Shukla is not an impartial representative of Hinduism. Rather, she has ties to a very specific brand of Hinduism. We've discussed these Hindu Nationalist folks before, as they are very involved in the textbook fights going on in California. They are very political and not without controversy. And in America these Hindus are very sensitive to American-style criticisms against polytheism, idol worship, and the inequality inherent in the caste system, etc.
Anyway, the article is great and it's nice to see some much-needed coverage of an influential religion. And it's nice how Grossman compares Hollywood's trivializing of Hinduism with the trivializing of Christianity. She finds the upside for Hindus:
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 [Dick] Staub, [a writer on faith and culture for Christianity Today Online]. "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."
The funny thing is how the scriptwriters' view reflects the influence of Hinduism's many paths as introduced to America long ago through Emerson and Thoreau.