Images of Hindu deities are showing up in trendy boutiques on a huge variety ofhousehold objects--even nightlights--but the lunchbox is the most popular.Accoutrements, a Seattle-based wholesale distributor of the "novelty items," liststhe "Hindu Krishna lunchbox" as its fourth biggest seller and the goddess Kalilunchbox as its fifth biggest seller, right behind the "wiggly hula girl" and the"nun punching puppet." The lunchboxes, which Accoutrements first introduced to theAmerican market in 1998, were inspired by the "beautiful, bright, and appealing"depictions of Hindu gods on Indian posters, says Heather Conrad, the company'spublic relations director.
In India, images of deities are ubiquitous, with religious stickers and posterscovering virtually every Hindu-owned rickshaw, phone booth and tea stall in thecountry. Sacred images are even common in Indian advertisements, with baby Krishnaendorsing his favorite brand of butter and Lakshmi promising prosperity to thosewho eat her own brand of rice. While one can hardly imagine a parched Jesuswandering through the desert and then gulping down a bottle of Coca-Cola in anAmerican commercial, the Hindu equivalent is not uncommon in Indian advertising. Such ads are always done with an unquestionable reverence for the divine.
In the United States, however, the Hindu sacred image has taken on a secular lifeof its own. Few American consumers understand the religious orcultural significance of such images, and value them for their "exotic" novelty andthird-world kitsch. Varun Soni, a graduate student in religion at University ofCalifornia at Santa Barbara and a devout Hindu, sees the lunchboxes as part of arecent fad of "commodifying Hinduism as exotic to appeal to the trendy sense ofNew Age orientalists." The attraction of "other people's gods" wears away oncethe consumer realizes how complex and different the other civilizatoin really is,says Soni. Ajoy Vachler, a Hindu working in finance in New York, does notlike seeing pictures of his religion's gods on American consumer goods. WhileIndians invoke sacred images for reasons of "comfort, affection, respect or goodluck," he says, in the United States the same images are "at the very leastdistasteful" when they appear on lunchboxes and T-shirts.
But not all Hindus agree. Malini Saith-Doddamani, a New Haven, Conn.-based writerand member of the South Asian Journalist Association, says that many of herco-religionists "relish the idea that something so isolated to India appeared, inwhatever form, in the consciousness of the American public." Gagan Kanwar, asoftware developer in Austin, Texas, maintains that "as long as the religious iconsare not desecrated or ridiculed there should be no reason to worry" about theirappearance on American novelty items.
Concerns of Desai and others over the casual treatment of Hindu images arise fromthe significance of the sacred image in Hinduism. For Hindus, a primary medium of contact with the divine is mutual visual exchange. The images involved do not just depict the divine; they actually contain the divinepresence. In other words, that's not only a picture of Shiva on your T-shirt,it's an incarnation of Shiva himself.
A failure to understand this point can lead to grave, if usuallyinadvertent, irreverence.
I myself encountered an instance of such misunderstanding of the Hindu concept ofthe sacred when I recently visited the gift shop at the Chicago Cultural Center. The shop prominently displayed a stack of Hindu deity lunchboxes arranged carefully onthe floor, with one box's image of Kali face-down on the carpet. WhenI explained to store employees that Hindus would regard this as a desecration, theyapologized immediately and moved the display onto a table. It was clear that noone at the store had intended any disrespect; theemployees had simply not understood the special reverence that Hindus have forsacred images.
At the same time, many Hindus have a positive view of the lunchboxes and T-shirts, seeing them as tools for educating the American public aboutHinduism. Saith-Daddamani says that wearing a T-shirt bearing an image of Ganesh"may spark interest and at the very least a conversation" about Hinduism that couldultimately lead to "the beginning of knowledge, awareness and the option tounderstand." Shobhana Chandra, a Hindu living in New Jersey, expressessimilar sentiments. She contends that the images "can become ambassadors" ofHinduism, allowing "people to get interested enough to.ask questions aboutHinduism." Heather Conrad of Accoutrements insists that her company's goal is "toentertain and educate," and that "exposing Americans to diverse religious iconssupports this goal."
Nonetheless, some Hindus, such as Varun Soni, maintain that the educational effectof toting a Krishna lunchbox or installing a Kali nightlight in one's bathroom islikely to be too superficial to offset the potential for mistreating the images.The current fad for pop pictures of deities "encourages only a cursory knowledge ofHinduism," says Soni, adding that the knowledge will likely dissipate as soon asthe fad wanes.