But the real test came on our second night in the city on our way to a tango show. I’ve found that most Indians who are fluent in their native tongue – mine being Gujarati – are able to replicate the Spanish accent, especially with the simplest of words and phrases: “Hola!” “Como estas?” “Gracias.” As our driver started the car, I said, “Hola! Como estas?” My seemingly native Spanish accent was met with a mile-a-minute response in Spanish from our very friendly driver. When he saw my perplexed face in the rear-view mirror, he quickly understood I was just a poser. But he was a gracious and chatty fellow, and I was on a quest to improve my Spanish, so he tried to speak slower while I tried to speak faster.
The conversation began as all conversations with the locals there do – how do you love our city? I managed to hold my own until we shifted gears. Once our driver learned that we were Hindu, my Spanish skills were truly tested. He had two questions for me:
“Why do Hindu women wear the dot on their forehead?”
“Why do Hindus hold the cow sacred?”
Having spent so much time at Hindu American Foundation (HAF) focusing on the portrayal and image of Hinduism, I was immediately struck by the fact that even in Argentina, a country that is likely not home to many Hindus and is still not a popular tourist destination for Indians, the two things immediately associated with Hinduism were bindis and cows. To be clear, I wasn’t offended or annoyed in the slightest – the bindi has a beautiful symbolic meaning, and the cow holds a special place in the hearts of Hindus. But for once, it would be nice to be asked about yoga or meditation or the deeper, philosophical aspects of Hinduism.
When a 5,000-year-old way of life is overwhelmingly and only associated with colorful rituals, cows, and multiple-armed gods, something needs to change. Hinduism’s image needs a massive rebranding effort. According to the American Marketing Association, brand image is “the perception of a brand in the minds of people…it is what people believe about a brand – their thoughts, feelings, expectations.” If all people have come to expect of Hinduism are bindis and cows, then it’s time to take a fresh approach to our image. Hinduism needs to be re-associated with its philosophical nature – the teaching that the Divine resides in us all, the holistic practice of yoga, the innate concept of pluralism, the knowledge that this world is an interconnected family and should be treated as one. It’s beginning here in America with various Hindu leaders. HAF, for one, has been reaching out to the media, academics, and interfaith groups for years in an effort to share this side of Hinduism. But its clear that the Hindu community at large needs to take a bigger role in rebranding the image of Hinduism.
I should also point out that our driver was clearly astute and knowledgeable. He never once confused Hindu with Hindi – a common and irritating mistake made by countless highly educated individuals that I’ve come across, i.e. “Do you speak Hindu? Are you Hindi?” After I confirmed that he correctly guessed my Indian background, he laughingly said, “Phew…because the Pakistanis don’t like it when we confuse them for Indian. They say ‘No! No! No! We are Pakistani!’” So, if my learned driver immediately associated Hinduism with bindis and cows, what are the less knowledgeable in the country thinking?
Finally, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the curiosity behind the sacred cow, since beef is a staple of the Argentinian diet. And it was actually the easier of the two questions to answer since I knew enough Spanish to convey the importance of a purely grass-eating animal that provides us with milk. Comically enough, I even managed a slightly garbled explanation of how cow dung is used to keep Indian village homes cooler in the scorching summer heat. Our driver understood what I was saying…but I’m pretty sure it didn’t convince him to give up his steak.