A while back, the Ithaca Myth blog published an article with the title, Arjuna and Krishna Have A Coke And A Smile.
The article was intended to begin a discussion. The text accompanying the picture read: “How would the Baghavad Gita have been different if Arjuna and Krishna, instead of blowing on their conch shells, took a long drink of Coca-Cola? That’s the scenario that this mythological mashup imagines. Is it appropriate, or not? Why do you think so?“
The reactions to this very brief article have been extreme.
Some have suggested that the Ithaca Myth blog intends to pick on Hindus, while sparing iconography of other religions from similar mashups with popular commercial imagery. There never was any intent to target Hinduism exclusively. The purpose of the combination of popular religious imagery and popular commercial imagery was to provoke discussion about the similarities and differences between the two cultural categories. One Hindu writes, for example, “This is dirty gimmick and cheap work. don’t you think that this hurts sentiments of Hindus?, Do you dare to give a coke bottle to Jesus or Prophet?”
In order to dispel the notion that Hinduism was meant to be singled out in any way, we now offer up a similar image, but this time altering the Christian holy image of the crucifix, placing pieces of Halloween candy where the wooden beams of the cross are supposed to be.
Other comments have demanded that the picture be censored and threatened legal actions if the image is not withdrawn. Such pro-censorship comments include:
“you can be booked for this image. Pay some respect for religious values and emotions”
“Warning : Delete this photo in 48 hours, this make Shame of Hinduism, otherwise we will take legal action on you.
(Hindu Nayay Petth)”
No legal action has been taken, of course, because there is nothing illegal about the picture. We have freedom of speech in the United States, which includes the right to satirical representations, even of copyrighted works.
Another set of comments by Hindus has threatened physical violence against the creator of the mashup image:
“How would it be if all Krishna devotees beat you like a dog…. Be in your limits…”
“these people should be hanged”
“How would it be different if somebody rapes your mother in a open street.”
That these threats do not reflect well upon Hindus is, I hope, obvious.
Another set of comments have suggested an activist campaign directed against Coca-Cola, under the belief that the image was created by Coca-Cola and used in an advertisement for Coke. “Hello every Hindhu,” writes Shiva, “let’s stop drinking coke. Please please please take it as a oath and follow it. Let’s teach them a lesson.”
In fact, Coca-Cola neither created this image nor endorses it. The image is not used in any advertisement for Coke.
It’s worth noting that the the instinct of anxiety and outrage is strong in all manner of religious communities – not a unique trait of Hinduism. Christians have demanded that images of Jesus smoking a cigarette be banned. Muslims have engaged in violent protests in reaction to cartoons of Mohammed.
In the context of this specific image, there were members of the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca who were outraged that a discussion series at the organization was being promoted through a web site at all. The idea of putting the discussion of religious ideas online at all was enough to send some members of that religious group into a tizzy – as if there was something morally polluted about the Internet itself.
The point is that it’s quite difficult to have any open and honest discussion of religion at all these days without someone getting upset about it. When religious beliefs are formed in insulated communities, it can be shocking for members of those communities to realize that their own assumptions are not regarded reverentially by everybody else in the world.
Yet, religious pluralism is increasing everywhere around the world – in India as well as in the United States. We all will have to get used to seeing our own cherished symbols reconstituted by others into forms that we regard as profane. One person’s profanity is another person’s sacred insight, and there is no single authority that has the right to declare what must be done and what must not be done with religious symbols.
To demand that a particular religious symbol be only presented in a single manner is to treat it as the exclusive property of just one group. If we were to go down that road, only the most insipid art could be produced: Watercolors of kittens perhaps would remain tolerable.
We live in a world where cultures meet and mix. The sacred images, words and ideas of one culture will be encountered by other cultures, and picked up, and used.
Is this a problem?
The use of religious imagery will offend some. It will bother even more.
Should, then religious imagery be off-limits in art, and for satire? Should mashups be banned?
One problem with the censorship approach is that it presumes that there exists a single central authority that is capable of approving or disapproving all images for any given religion. Who shall that be? Will the Pope be given the power to decide what is censored for all of Christianity, even though he only has authority over Catholics, and not protestants? Who gets to decide what kinds of Muslim imagery will be allowed – the Sunnis or the Shiites? Is there one person or one group within Hinduism or Buddhism that has the power to decide which pictures should be banned for all Hindus or Buddhists?
Beyond this simple political problem, there’s a cross-cultural problem. Who gives Hindus the authority to decide what everyone else in the world can do and cannot do? What gives Christians the right to demand that Jesus be depicted only in some ways? Since when do Muslims have the power to stop other people from drawing pictures of Mohammed?
Where would this leave atheists? Would they have to obey everyone else’s religious laws, even though they believe in no religions at all?
In a world where everybody else has to obey the taboos of other people’s religions, nobody has freedom of speech, and nobody has freedom of religion.
What’s to stop a group of Californians from declaring that they have formed a new religion, which believes that pictures of children should never appear in advertisements? Would everybody have to obey this new religious rule?
Where would this new standard for universal observation of religious laws end? Would non-Hindus be banned from eating beef? Would non-Muslims no longer be able to eat pork? Would non-Jews have to observe Kosher laws? Would everybody have to eat fish on Fridays during Lent, just because that’s what Catholics do?
A far easier solution is to embrace cultural diversity, and show respect for freedom. Free speech sometimes makes people angry, or feel disrespected, but the alternative is far, far worse.
POSTSCRIPT: A Hindu reader now responds that we ought to be showing an image of Mohammed that will offend Muslims, too. All right, here’s a picture of Mohammed with a face. Many Muslims object strongly to this kind of thing.
What’s next? Is someone going to demand that I step on an ant in order to offend Jains?
Peter Morales, head of the Unitarian Universalist Association, warns us of the temptations of “consumerism”:
“Heaven knows, we live in a time of distractions. The holidays, especially, can become frenzied. We can so easily lose our way pursuing the lures of consumerism.”
When I read this statement, my attention was captured by the use of the word “lures”. The statement, read one way, can reflect the old Christian concept of the need to remain chaste in the face of dark satanic appeals to sinful desires.
Every year, we hear this idea preached from Unitarian Universalist pulpits, online and offline, – that purchasing material things for other people is a superficial, morally questionable activity. Although we may be giving, it’s suggested, these sort of gifts do not truly come from ourselves. We would do better, it’s said, to give the kinds of things that money can’t buy.
This perspective isn’t anything new. It’s more ancient than Christianity, older than Judaism. Though we may think that the habit of decrying the materialism of the winter “holiday season” is a modern thing, it actually is just the latest manifestation of an ancient, world-denying philosophy that began with Zarathustra.
This philosophy began with the idea that the world is divided by a battle between good and evil. The evil came to be identified with the material, and the good to be identified with the immaterial. Money, when it was invented, was associated with the fallen, wicked world. Now, speaking out of our Zoroastrian heritage, we are in the knee-jerk habit of saying that gifts bought with money must be morally tainted as well, tools of deception wrought by Ahriman and the dark forces conspiring against Ahura Mazda.
There is another way of looking at the “lures of consumerism” that’s less judgmental.
Joseph Campbell talks about the motif in mythology of the hunter who comes across a mysterious animal, white or glowing or in some other way suggestive of transcendent significance. The hunter is lured by this animal, pursing it deep into the forest, into unknown territory, becoming lost, where a profound and meaningful mystery may begin.
Could the lures of consumerism be like the lure of the golden stag, appearing to the hunter, and initiating the hunter into a participant in a higher quest?
Perhaps, if we were to take the time to truly appreciate the material things that we receive as gifts and that we give to others, instead of sniffing at them as lowly manifestations of a sinful, fallen world, we might find a deeper appreciation of the gift-giving ritual of the winter holidays.
These objects that we exchange could be revealed as symbols of deep meaning in our lives, if we had the courage to pursue their lures, rather than dismissing them as manifestations of the Satan that we name “Consumerism”.
This weekend’s mythological discussion (9:00 AM in the Arch Room of the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca at the corners of Buffalo and Aurora street) will be the first of December, the month of Solstice, of Yule, of Christmas – all holidays that to some extent claim Santa Claus.
Some say that Santa Claus is a remnant mythological image derived from an ancient shamanistic tradition that stretched through the reindeer peoples of the far north, from Siberia over to Scandinavia.
Here are some sources that make that argument. If you’re curious, have a read through them. It may be the beginning of a long, interesting midwinter trip.
Santa the Shaman… originally covered in fur
This Sunday morning, at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca (corner of Buffalo and Aurora streets), the 10:30 AM sermon to be delivered by David Grimm is entitled “Personifications of the Ineffable”.
It just so happens that the very same morning, at 9:00 AM in the Arch Room of the First Unitarian Society, the Adult Religious Education session, a part of an ongoing series of discussions on mythology, will start with a section of The Power of Myth in which Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers talk about the very same subject – personification of the ineffable.
I have no idea what David Grimm will be saying about the personification of the ineffable, but let’s take a look at part of what Joseph Campbell has to say on the subject. In the comparable section of the book version of The Power of Myth, there’s a passage which isn’t included in the video version. This passage reads:
“Time and space form the sensibilities that bound our experiences. Our senses are enclosed in the field of time and space, and our minds are enclosed in a frame of the categories of thought. But the ultimate thing (which is no thing) that we are trying to get in touch with is not so enclosed. We enclose it as we try to think of it.
The transcendent transcends all of these categories of thinking. Being and nonbeing – those are categories. The word ‘God’ properly refers to what transcends all thinking but the word ‘God’ itself is something thought about.
Now you can personify God in many, many ways. Is there one god? Are there many gods? Those are merely categories of thought. What you are talking and trying to think about transcends all that.
One problem with Yahweh, as they used to say in the old Christian Gnostic texts, is that he forgot he was a metaphor. He thought he was a fact. And when he said, ‘I am God,’ a voice was heard to say, ‘You are mistaken, Samael.’ ‘Samael’ means ‘blind god’: blind to the infinite Light of which he is a local historical manifestation. this is known as the blasphemy of Jehovah – that he thought he was God.”
That’s one opinion, one interpretation.
What do you think about it?
After the end of last weekend’s mythological discussion group, one of the people participating commented to me that language seems to be an obstacle to contemplation of the realm of mythos. I’ve been thinking about this issue for several days, but it was only last night that I came upon a relevant passage in the book version of The Power of Myth, which contains some parts of the Moyers-Campbell conversation that were edited out of the video version that we’re watching.
In the passage I found, which is within the larger segment we’ll be watching this coming Sunday morning, Bill Moyers observes, “It seems to me that we have lost the art in our society of thinking in images.”
Joseph Campbell then agrees, and states, “Our thinking is largely discursive, verbal, linear. There is more reality in an image than in a word.”
Is our discussion of mythology too linguistic? This coming week, we’ll try something new. We’ll talk, but we will first, literally draw upon the power of the symbolic, visual way of thinking. Before we discuss our opinions, we’ll get graphic by manipulating our visual impressions of the ideas discussed by Moyers and Campbell. We’ll reflect, then, upon the difference between using words and imagery to experience and contemplate mythological themes.