As anyone who has ever told a "How many _____ does it take to change a light bulb?" joke knows, humor can be tricky. Attempting religious humor can be downright dangerous. On the one hand, we fear offending people's cherished beliefs; on the other, spiritual growth seems to necessitate that--from time to time, we all learn to not take ourselves quite so seriously.

"The Love Guru," a comedy starring funnyman Mike Myers in his first original character since the popular "Austin Powers" films, hits American theaters June 20, 2008. The movie tells the story of Pitka, a westerner raised at a Hindu ashram who grows up to be a high-profile and eccentric holy man come West.

As entertaining as the movie promises to be, the film's trailer and posters have many Hindu-Americans concerned that it will mock their faith. The saffron-colored cloth that the lecherous Pitka wears is supposed to signify a celibate monk or teacher in the Hindu faith and is analogous to the white collar of a Catholic priest. The relationship between guru and disciple is a central and sacred theme within Hinduism. Some Hindus worry that the silliness and bawdy humor of the movie will taint the tradition, especially in the eyes of Americans who may not have much other exposure to Hinduism.

Already there are two divergent views gaining traction within the Hindu-American community. The first seems to assume the worst about the film. Those who subscribe to this view take the approach that a juvenile comedy that engages Hinduism as a topic is, on its face, sure to be offensive and hurtful to Hindus and must be protested in strong terms.

The second view, by contrast, seeks to avoid confrontation altogether. This view is sometimes couched in religious terminology. Hinduism, advocates of this view remind us, is all about tolerance, open-mindedness, and forgiveness: "Even if it is offensive, better to just ignore it," these proponents advise.

These two views, as different as they seem, both betray the same shortsightedness and knee-jerk reactions that have become the norm with the Hindu-American community. Could there be better, more effective way of approaching this issue?

I must confess that, for me, the topic holds more than just an academic interest. As a Hindu who was born and raised in America, I've grown up with a certain sensitivity to the way the media presents my faith. Now that I work as a communications specialist, both for my particular religious organization as well as for the broader Hindu tradition, that sensitivity has evolved into a deep desire to advocate for my community. In my experience, I've come to see the benefits of approaching Hinduism in the popular media by first taking a step back and examining the context, intentions, and implications of the depiction. This allows me to classify the depiction according to broad categories and then decide on an appropriate course of action. Using the terminology of the old cowboy movie, I call these categories the "good," the "bad," and the "ugly."

Depictions that are good are ones in which the Hindu tradition is treated fairly and with due respect. These depictions may not always be flattering, and they may even be playfully irreverent. But even as they entertain or amuse, they leave the audience better informed about the faith or present Hindu characters in ways that people can relate to. They build bridges between Hindus and others or help to break down walls of prejudice or ignorance.

To me (and countless other "Simpsons" fans), Springfield's favorite Hindu, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, is an example of the good category. He embodies a number of noble qualities and is a valuable member of the town’s pluralistic landscape. Although this character definately fits certain stereotypes (a thick accent, running a convenience store, having an arranged marriage), he also speaks his mind and helps to lightheartedly educate viewers about the deeper meaning underlying those stereotypes. And through Apu's interactions with the other characters, especially boorish Homer or narrow-minded Reverend Lovejoy, we all get to confront our own prejudices or misperceptions in a healthy, safe way.
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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