Excerpted from The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life Of The World's Most Animated Family with permission.

With the help of [the magazine] Hinduism Today, I informally surveyed attitudes toward "The Simpsons." What I found was that Indian immigrants and adolescent and teenage children of immigrants--especially othodox Hindus--were generally offended by Apu and his stereotypes. They also have specific complaints about what they feel is doctrinal error and distortion.

“Hindu kids growing up in America have enough trouble adjusting during middle and high school, and they don’t need 'The Simpsons' fueling teasers with misinformed jokes about Hinduism,” Amit Chatwani, a Princeton University student, said. “I think that Hinduism is trampled to add more laughs to the show. People that don’t know anything about Hinduism watch the show with the idea of a 'goofy, sacred elephant statue' that is Lord Ganesh. This skewed view then becomes their only knowledge of Hinduism.”

By contrast, American converts to Hinduism, steeped in our culture of irony, seemed amused and unfazed by the portrayal of their faith on the series. “Unlike Hindus, 'The Simpsons' have no sacred cows,” said Fred Stella, an actor and yoga instructor from Michigan who identifies himself as an Italian-American adherent to Hinduism. “But more than making fun of Hinduism, the writers tend to mock people’s perception of Hinduism. They do the same with Christianity.”

Ty Schwach, an orthodox Hindu from Los Angeles, said that the humor involving Hindus and Apu “seems quite clearly to be poking fun more at the stereotypical ideas and preconceived notions of mainstream American regarding the Indian culture. The incidents involving Apu always leave me feeling a sense of respect for him and the way he responds to the provincial notions of his neighbors and friends who truly know very little about his culture and religion.”

For Acharya Palaniswami, the editor of Hinduism Today, this double-edged response to "The Simpsons" is entirely understandable. “It is often difficult for good, religious people to smile at their faith’s foibles. That’s natural. Religion is a serious matter for the devout, and when things they hold precious are held up to humorous scrutiny or even ridicule, they are offended. Among Hindus, such offense is not unknown, but Hindus are more forgiving and perhaps a little more at ease with disdain and ignorance than most. Largely due to an innate ethic of tolerance, Hindus can and do personally enjoy Homer’s stupidity and narrow-mindedness toward their religion, and Apu’s unctuous money grubbing. They’ve seen it before, and endured less good-hearted ridicule. Probably daily if they live in Memphis or London.”

Palaniswami stresses that humor can signal cultural receptivity.

“Hindus in America don’t yet understand that ridicule is actually part of the process of acceptance of minorities here, that once a minority has become prominent enough to attract ridicule in fictional pieces, be it cartoons, movies or TV shows, that is part of a process of education. It does seem strange, even cruel, but the creation of 'stock jokes' about a minority is part of letting them in, so to speak, welcoming them into the great melting pot.

“Still, Hindus will cringe knowing that 'The Simpsons' is seen by millions of Americans who don’t have a clue about the ancient and profound Hindu beliefs and customs. At least when characters go after a Christian or a Jew, most in the audience have a sense of the reality that writers are mining for humorous nuggets. They know about Christian beliefs and the people who follow Christianity, mainstream and fringe. When it comes to the Hindu references, the uninformed audience sees only the denigration, the inflated tale, the twisted view. They have met a dozen Indian spice-or-sari store owners, but probably have not been introduced to a single Indian neurosurgeon or high-tech CEO.

“Hindus will note the factual failings of the writers, who would do well to consult more with those who know.... Most Hindus will enjoy the fact that karma and reincarnation are subjects for today’s films and cartoons, reflecting the fact that the West is intensely interested in and believes in these fundamental Hindu principles. They will smile to see Apu rejecting Lord Ganesha, then coming back, just as so many Indians abroad have done, coming to America the Beautiful, Land of Money, then later rediscovering their faith.”

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