Om Sweet Om

Today marks the last day of the lunar month of Kartika (???????), a sacred time of year chock full of holidays on the Hindu calendar. Some of these, like Diwali, are well-known and celebrated widely. Others — days like Karva Chauth or Bhaya Duja or Bahulastami — are observed regionally or are specific to particular traditions or denominations.

The month itself, also known by the name of Damodara, is considered holy in itself and is venerated by all Hindus, but especially cherished by devotees of Lord Krishna, the Divine in its most intimate, charming, and personal manifestation.

The name Damodara — which denotes both the month and the particular aspect of Krishna that is celebrated within it — gives us a special glimpse into that intimate, charming, personal side of God. It literally means “He whose belly is tied up” (damo = tied, udara = belly), and honors the lila (pastime) of Krishna as a naughty boy being tied up by his mother, Yasoda Mayi. So beloved is this episode, that to this day devotees place a picture or murti commemorating it on their altars and offer candles and oil lamps before it every day of the month.

But how did this come to be? And what can it tell us about our own faith today?

Halloween has come and gone, without incident. Heidi Klum played it safe this year dressing as a crow, none of the neighborhood kids donned Lil’ Ganesh costumes after all, and my daughter Shruti’s first Halloween costume (an adorable pumpkin) was a hit. 

But fresh on the heels of my Halloween hypothetical about the bona fides of dressing up as a Hindu deity, a real-life example of the ultra-fine line between good-natured fun and tasteless pot-shot. I give you…

… the Hare Krishna Halloween costume.

Growing up, I always experienced Halloween as a clashing of cultures. More than any other American holiday, Halloween seemed to draw a line in the sand between the world that my Hindu immigrant parents resided in and the American suburban world around me. Since Halloween usually tends to coincide with a number of Hindu holidays (Hindus use a lunar calendar, so exact dates switch around), when Diwali happened to fall on October 31, the two holidays went head-to-head.  Either I could go trick-or-treating and watch the Nightmare on Elm Street marathon (my desire), or visit temple and exchange sweets with relatives (my parents’ orders), but I couldn’t really do both.

Even when there wasn’t a direct conflict, though, there was always a disconnect.

“What kind of depressing holiday is this supposed to be, anyway?” my Mom would ask, disapproval in her voice as she suspiciously surveyed the plastic skeletons and cardboard tombstones now decorating our neighbors’ lawns. “A waste of time,” my father would mutter even as he begrudgingly bought bags of cheap candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters.

(Some of their more orthodox Hindu friends had even stronger objections to the holiday. “All this meditating on death and gore, and openly celebrating ghosts and goblins! It’s ashubh, inauspicious.”)

My parents tried, of course, but somehow they were never able to quite get it. Sure, they proudly displayed the jack-o-lanterns that my sister and I carved at school; but we’d never carve one together as a family. They dutifully doled out the candy to the neighborhood kids, though without the gusto of the other parents, who’d often dress up themselves and distribute treats in character. And of course, they were content to let us go out trick-or-treating, though I can’t really remember them getting too excited about it.

And then there was the issue of costumes.

Most years — as long as it wasn’t too expensive — we could just convince them to buy whatever superhero or horror movie monster costume was popular that year.

But there were those years that our parents (and other Desi parents, I’ve since learned) stumbled across what they thought was brilliance– to have us dress up as an “Indian prince” or “Indian princess”. This feat in creative laziness they accomplished by dolling us up in our finest Indian party clothes, perhaps with the addition of a makeshift turban or tiara, and sending us out to impress our candy-giving neighbors with our exotic apparel.

The neighbors loved it, our parents felt the euphoric mix of cultural pride and saving money, and we (the Association of Involuntary Indian Princes and Princesses) thought that it was incredibly lame.

(Full Disclosure: Years later, when we were old enough to see trick-or-treating only as a means to free candy, but still young enough to get away with it, we Indian-American kids co-opted this tactic by willingly donning our kurta pyjama or salwar kameez outfits to feed our candy fix without going through the trouble of actually buying a costume.)

As much as we resented it, though, now that I look back at it, I can appreciate a certain mingling of cultures that it engendered. And now that I am a parent myself, I wonder about how to minimize the culture clash for my own Indian-American daughter, and how to integrate the worlds of Halloween and Hinduism for her.

Recently, a reader included this concern in his or her following comment to one of my earlier posts:

Lastly, I do want to mention that I am not sure that the title of the
blog refers to the sacred mantra Om in a respectful manner.
When I lived in a (Bhakti Yoga) ashram, we were specifically instructed
not to use holy names in this kind of joking context. Namaste

I can certainly sympathize. I too have been taught (and believe) that a mantra (sacred sound) like Om should be afforded all respect. And, as I noted in my post about President Obama’s uttering the name of Lord Rama, I come from a tradition that teaches that ultimately the holy names of the Divine are identical with the Supreme Himself. Such sound vibrations should definitely not be mocked or used in a disrespectful manner.

At the same time, I recognize that religious humor can be a, well, funny thing. It is, like beauty, in the eye and the ear (and the belly laugh) of the beholder. One man’s “hilarious” is another’s “offensive.”

pitka_mike_myers.jpgI’ve written about this tension on Beliefnet before; when some Hindus were complaining that the Mike Meyer’s movie The Love Guru was anti-Hindu, I argued that the film was not unfairly targeting Hinduism and that it may even have something to teach our faith community about how to educate others with taking ourselves too seriously. (To clarify: I wrote that article before the film actually was released and subsequently bombed at the box office. I did see the movie, and found it to be one of the most crude, asinine, poorly made films I’d seen. However I maintain that, repugnant as the film was to my good taste as a moviegoer, it wasn’t anti-Hindu per se.)

I have a good friend — a fellow Vaishnava-Hindu — who is my comedy hero. This friend — lets just call him Yadunath Das Joe — happens to be a professional comedian. (By the way, being friends with a professional comedian is not nearly as hard as it sounds; despite what you might expect he doesn’t tell knock-knock jokes incessantly or keep slipping on banana peels or anything like that.)

A few months ago, Joe and his wife — lets call her Beth Beth — co-wrote and performed a skit at our temple’s Krishna Janmashtami celebrations. The piece (a dialogue between a daughter and her mother, where Joe-in-drag played the mother) was hilarious– silly enough that the audience was roaring with laughter, but not so silly that it compromised the sanctity of the occasion. Afterwards, I was discussing the skit with a mutual friend, and we both began to appreciate Joe’s ability to walk that line and do everything with class and good taste. “Of course,” the mutual friend said with confidence, “he’s a man of substance.”

That idea struck me then, and continues to strike me now: that good humor (as opposed to Good Humor) is necessarily intertwined with the character, integrity, and substance of the joke-teller.