'The Love Guru': Lessons for Hindus

With 'The Love Guru' about to hit American theaters, Hindus must ask themselves: How will we handle this film?

BY: Vineet Chander


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Depictions in the bad category, on the other hand, play on the stereotypes or ignorance and don't go much further. Sometimes they are thoughtless in the way they portray imagery which Hindus hold as sacred; at other time, they emphasize the exotic or strange to the point of presenting a skewed or distorted picture of the religion.

A colleague recently showed me an advertisement for a humor website featuring a picture of the Hindu deity Vishnu (traditionally portrayed as having four arms) as a call-center operator, holding phones in his multiple hands. By disfiguring a traditional iconic image and then combining it with outsourcing (an unrelated phenomenon that evokes negativity in many Americans), the ad goes for cheap laughs while reinforcing an unbalanced and distorted view of Hinduism.

Finally, when the depiction is so grossly twisted, cruel, or disrespectful that it is almost certain to offend even the most tolerant or reasonable Hindu, it fits into the ugly category. Such portrayals seem like they were created with the intention to belittle or denigrate others, or are in such poor taste that their creator ought to have known better.

I recall dealing with a particularly egregious example of the ugly a few years ago. A popular men's magazine ran an article mockingly comparing cocktails, sexual positions, and yoga poses. To make matters worse, the article was accompanied by graphic illustrations of Hindu deities holding liquor bottles and enthusiastically having sex! The whole thing seemed so outrageous that one could only conclude that it was either designed to be shocking and hurtful, or that the magazine was so dismissive of Hindus' feelings that they couldn't be bothered to do their research and make sure they weren't offending anyone.

Of course, I realize that this three-prong approach is largely subjective. For instance, several years ago when the television series "Xena: Warrior Princess" included Lord Krishna in an episode, I was overjoyed, viewing it as a positive and creative way of sharing Hinduism with audiences. A number of Hindu organizations, however, equated the episode with blasphemy and demanded the studio issue an apology! Offense, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But this subjectivity is very much the point. Rather than try to establish a magic formula for evaluating portrayals of Hinduism in the media, the community can learn to approach the subject in a more thoughtful and less emotionally reactive way.

With "The Love Guru," the question seems to come down to this: Will the film help us to laugh with one another or cause others to laugh at Hindus? Not having yet seen the film in its entirety, I don't think its fair for me to render a verdict. From the trailer, though, it seems like the film is a silly, irreverent, and intentionally over-the-top spoof of many things at once--in other words, typical Mike Myers satire. One reason people find satire so appealing is that like a fun-house mirror, it cleverly replaces reality with contradictions and exaggerations.

If audiences leave "The Love Guru" laughing because the film presents a good-natured spoof that is so obviously removed from the reality of Hinduism, it will have succeeded. But if they walk away thinking the caricature they saw on the screen accurately represents Hinduism, then aren’t we in the Hindu community largely to blame? If people are religiously illiterate enough to take satire for truth, then mustn’t we examine how to proactively educate them?

On June 20, Hindu-Americans will have little control over what "The Love Guru" throws at them. But we will have the choice of how to react. Will we use the film as a way to start conversations and encourage dialogue with friends, co-workers, and neighbors? Will we help our chaplains and student groups to hold panel discussions and Q&A sessions on the themes raised by the movie on college campuses? And even if the pessimists' worst fears are confirmed and the movie does seriously misrepresent the faith, will we use the opportunity to articulately clarify misrepresentations and educate others about who we are (much as the Catholic

Opus Dei

organization did when their group was cast as villains in "

The Da Vinci Code

" film) or just protest and wallow in indignation? The choice, it seems, is ours.

Good, bad, or ugly, "The Love Guru" may have come to teach us all something yet--if we can only muster up the humility and long-term vision to become worthy disciples.

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