The most abused religion in the world is certainly Hinduism. The use of Hindu symbols in the media and within consumer culture has led to tensions as symbols become dislocated from their religious or socio-political meaning and are perceived to be distorted. This concept is known as cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is a topic that is often discussed in the media, usually with a sensationalist spin. In 2015 the bindi, a Hindu symbol of religious significance, became a key cultural trend and the latest fashion accessory at Coachella and other music festivals in the U.S. In early 2017 Amazon came under fire for selling flip flops depicting the Father of India, Mahatma Gandhi.
This came shortly after Amazon Canada apologized for selling doormats featuring the Indian flag. Desecration of the flag is a punishable offence in India resulting in fines or imprisonment. Almost on a weekly basis a new controversy arises raising questions about borrowing rights and entitlement.
All of these incidents involve the adoption of elements from one culture – which may include artistic styles and representations, land, artefacts, intellectual property, folklore and religious symbols – by members of another. The act of taking becomes political where there is an imbalance of power between the two cultures.
This is the basis of the conceptualisation of cultural appropriation within post-colonial discourse. All the above examples show the extent of cultural transmission where a symbol can be taken up in a culture completely unrelated to it in ways that transform the meaning of the symbol and its reception. It also shows how, through the processes of globalisation, the world is becoming increasingly connected though not necessarily unified.
The first such instance of cultural appropriation is Swastika. It is among the most pious religious symbol in India, which has been used almost everywhere. However, it has been labelled as the symbol used by the Nazis in Germany. Indeed, to uninformed westerners, the swastika represents the face of fascism and hatred.
We couldn’t help wondering what it was doing in India. Although we are relieved to learn of its ancient existence and use as a positive symbol of well-being by various communities around the world, it still disturbs us how this sacred symbol has been twisted and tainted in the worst possible way.
The main issue pertinent to the study of Hindu symbols concerns the boundaries between purity (sanctity) and impurity. In India images of gods are circulated within the hub of everyday life; they are sold by roadsides, feature in workplaces, are plastered on walls – but in all these spaces they are treated reverentially as sacred objects.
This means the conditions on how they are articulated, viewed, touched, circulated has to be done with due attention to their sacred status. This means that they are to be kept apart from the realm of the mundane or the profane. The same boundaries are not necessarily adhered to in the West, which is why the presence of a bindi on a festival goer, or an image of the goddess Laxmi on a swimsuit, is regarded as blasphemous.
To restate, it is not the imprint of Hindu deities on clothing or other surfaces that causes offence per se but the way these objects are subsequently (mis)treated, meaning their special status as sacred symbols is not being accorded.
Celebrities are going to continue appropriating Indian culture regardless, and instead of telling them to stop, the Indian community could teach them to correctly embrace their culture if they wanted to. However, this may not apply to everything; parts of cultures that stem from oppression should not be celebrated. When it comes to India, colorism which comes from colonialism is an example of a cultural aspect that should not be celebrated but discouraged.