Images of Hindu deities are showing up in trendy boutiques on a huge variety of household objects--even nightlights--but the lunchbox is the most popular. Accoutrements, a Seattle-based wholesale distributor of the "novelty items," lists the "Hindu Krishna lunchbox" as its fourth biggest seller and the goddess Kali lunchbox as its fifth biggest seller, right behind the "wiggly hula girl" and the "nun punching puppet." The lunchboxes, which Accoutrements first introduced to the American market in 1998, were inspired by the "beautiful, bright, and appealing" depictions of Hindu gods on Indian posters, says Heather Conrad, the company's public relations director.
In India, images of deities are ubiquitous, with religious stickers and posters covering virtually every Hindu-owned rickshaw, phone booth and tea stall in the country. Sacred images are even common in Indian advertisements, with baby Krishna endorsing his favorite brand of butter and Lakshmi promising prosperity to those who eat her own brand of rice. While one can hardly imagine a parched Jesus wandering through the desert and then gulping down a bottle of Coca-Cola in an American 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 life of its own. Few American consumers understand the religious or cultural significance of such images, and value them for their "exotic" novelty and third-world kitsch. Varun Soni, a graduate student in religion at University of California at Santa Barbara and a devout Hindu, sees the lunchboxes as part of a recent fad of "commodifying Hinduism as exotic to appeal to the trendy sense of New Age orientalists." The attraction of "other people's gods" wears away once the consumer realizes how complex and different the other civilizatoin really is, says Soni. Ajoy Vachler, a Hindu working in finance in New York, does not like seeing pictures of his religion's gods on American consumer goods. While Indians invoke sacred images for reasons of "comfort, affection, respect or good luck," he says, in the United States the same images are "at the very least distasteful" when they appear on lunchboxes and T-shirts.
But not all Hindus agree. Malini Saith-Doddamani, a New Haven, Conn.-based writer and member of the South Asian Journalist Association, says that many of her co-religionists "relish the idea that something so isolated to India appeared, in whatever form, in the consciousness of the American public." Gagan Kanwar, a software developer in Austin, Texas, maintains that "as long as the religious icons are not desecrated or ridiculed there should be no reason to worry" about their appearance on American novelty items.
Concerns of Desai and others over the casual treatment of Hindu images arise from the 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 divine presence. 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 usually inadvertent, irreverence.
I myself encountered an instance of such misunderstanding of the Hindu concept of the 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 on the floor, with one box's image of Kali face-down on the carpet. When I explained to store employees that Hindus would regard this as a desecration, they apologized immediately and moved the display onto a table. It was clear that no one at the store had intended any disrespect; the employees had simply not understood the special reverence that Hindus have for sacred 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 could ultimately lead to "the beginning of knowledge, awareness and the option to understand." Shobhana Chandra, a Hindu living in New Jersey, expresses similar sentiments. She contends that the images "can become ambassadors" of Hinduism, allowing "people to get interested enough to.ask questions about Hinduism." Heather Conrad of Accoutrements insists that her company's goal is "to entertain and educate," and that "exposing Americans to diverse religious icons supports this goal."
Nonetheless, some Hindus, such as Varun Soni, maintain that the educational effect of toting a Krishna lunchbox or installing a Kali nightlight in one's bathroom is likely 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 of Hinduism," says Soni, adding that the knowledge will likely dissipate as soon as the fad wanes.