Character names have the potential to say a lot about that character. Names have power, and authors go to a lot of trouble to make sure that their characters’ names fit the people bearing them. It can be as simple as the etymology—for example, Malfoy comes from the French ‘mal foi’, or ‘bad faith’, and ‘vol de mort’ in French quite literally means ‘flight from death‘. Sometimes authors draw inspiration for their characters’ names from religious sources, but doing so is a tricky business. When employing religiously-inspired character names, it’s important that they are not used in a way that’s insulting to the original religion’s tradition.
When I was a much younger little lady, I had a falling out with the Almighty. I firmly believed that there was no god/goddess/gods or anything else of the kind. A year later my attitude grew and changed and I once again believed in something. I was raised Catholic all my life but after my year of atheism I wasn’t sure whether or not Christianity was right for me. So I began to research other religions to see if they fit me and my personal beliefs better. There was one religion that stood out to me above all the others: Hinduism. I loved Hinduism; it spoke to me in a way that no other religion had in years. I was even lucky enough to visit the Hindu temple near where I lived and talk to some of the people there. Eventually, I was led back to Christianity, but Hinduism would always have a special place in my heart.
Which is why on behalf of everyone who practices Hinduism I would like to apologize for the poor portrayal Hinduism in pop culture—at least in western culture.
Most westerners don’t know much about Hinduism. Even with the various research that I have done and the classes I have taken I would venture to say I don’t even know too much about Hinduism, because it is largely underrepresented in America. Other than Christianity, the two religions that get noticed the most are Judaism and Islam. I’d guess that this is at least partly because they are all Abrahamic religions, they share the same roots, same God, and many of the same religious figures. Many eastern religions, because they don’t have these similarities, are often a mystery to many westerns. Buddhism, for example, despite being a religion with a strong sense of pacifism, is often shown in western pop culture as having cool Kung fu fighting monks that use magic to kick your ass… yep. Hinduism gets a bad reputation I think because it is a polytheistic religion. Because most western religions our monotheistic anything that deviates from tends to look strange. This might explain while Hinduism gets portrayed as some old school pagan religion with virgin sacrifices and brutal, violent, and often evil gods.
There aren’t many examples of Hinduism in pop culture but here are two that bother me the most.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:
Oh this movie, while mildly entertaining it is one of the most racist (and sexist) movies in the Indiana Jones trilogy (there are only three, damn it). The Hindu people eat giant bugs and frozen monkey brains. Now I have never been to India, but I don’t think the food is anything like that, but basic culture aside let’s look at the religious aspects of this movie.
Indiana Jones crash-lands in the Himalayas and discovers a village where the people believe he was sent by the god Shiva to help retrieve the sacred Sivalinga stone, as well as the children, who have been kidnapped from the village. While attempting to retrieve the stones Indiana comes into conflict with a group of Kali worshippers who kidnap children, kill people, turn people into zombies (with a potion called the Blood of Kali), and commit ritualistic sacrifices lead by the evil priest Mola Ram. Mola Ram hopes to obtain all the Sivalinga stones and use them to rule the world! Mwhahaaha! His is an evil laugh.
There are so many problems it almost not worth it to pull it apart. Shiva is not really discussed at all in this movie despite the Sivalinga stones being his sacred stones. Shiva is a destroyer god and part of the Brahman so he is extremely powerful. Kali is also Shiva’s consort so I’m not sure what the writers where implying here by pitting the two groups against each other. Kali is a goddess of death and I guess many people view that then as evil or bad, but in the eastern traditions death does not mean evil. Remember Shiva is the destroyer, but death and destruction are also a part of rebirth and change. Kali and Shiva are also often connected with the death and destruction of obstacles or evil. They are both seen as good and great protectors.
Going off of Indiana Jones you’d think Shiva was a pacifist and Kali is the devil. The movie pits the two gods against each other as if they are the Christian God and the devil, but this is in no way the case. With all the great stories involving the Hindu gods why the writers of this script felt the need to invent their own Hindu traditions is beyond me.
Supernatural episode “Hammer of the Gods”:
Supernatural is a TV show that draws heavily on Judeo-Christian mythology so it’s no surprise that anything outside of that mythology isn’t handled very well in the show. In the season five episode Hammer of the Gods, Dean and Sam are led to a motel where various gods have gathered to try and find a way to stop the Judeo-Christian apocalypse. This could have been really interesting and it was, actually, it was a great episode, but as far as its portrayal of the Hindu gods goes… it was problematic.
In Supernatural pagan gods are all bad, and like to eat and kill people. Furthermore, they are all a lot weaker than they were when they had more worshippers. Okay, that’s an interesting take, but Kali and Ganesh, the two Hindu gods in this episode, are still worshipped and have many followers today. Though there are still a few groups that worship Odin or Hermes today, they pale in comparison to followers of Hinduism. After Christianity and Islam, Hinduism in the world’s third largest religion. Yet in the show, Kali and Ganesh are not nearly as powerful as the Christian God, in fact, they confess that they can’t even kill an angel.
That was something that really bothered me about this episode. I expected that Kali and Ganesh could take out an angel or two, but no, these gods don’t even faze them. Probably the most upsetting moment in the episode is when Lucifer shows up and kills all the gods! Kali only manages to survive because Gabriel, another archangel, protects her from Lucifer, but Ganesh is killed on screen. Let me repeat that, Ganesh, a god from the third largest religion in the world, is murdered on screen by Lucifer. That would be like Jesus being torn to pieces by Kali in a TV show. One major figure from one religion brutally murdering another major religious figure from a different religion. I mean, how did no one stop and ask, “hey, could this be offensive?”
Furthermore, Kali and Ganesh are shown to be of course pagan gods, which they are not. Paganism and Hinduism are very different. They are further shown killing and eating people.
I also think it shows how ignorant western culture is by the fact that the writers choose Kali and Ganesh as the two gods to represent Hinduism. If a council of gods was called, I’m pretty sure Vishnu and Shiva, of the Brahma would be the ones in attendance, not Kali and Ganesh. I assume they were chosen because these are the two most recognizable to westerners.
I find it especially interesting that Kali gives a short speech about the arrogance of westerners in this episode, but that doesn’t stop the episode itself from being exceedingly arrogant.
So I’ll say it again, for everyone who is a follower of Hinduism let me apologize on behalf of Hollywood and all America media. We are very, very sorry.
This may surprise you, dear reader, but Jesus, he’s in your house! Wait, don’t freak out. I meant, he’s on your TV and not just on EWTN or the 700 Club—I don’t think Jesus would participate in the 700 Club anyway.
Religion is everywhere. Oh, we might like to fool ourselves into thinking we have our entertainment in a separate sphere from our religion, but any author, director, or actor will tell you that they bring something of themselves and their own beliefs to the story.
Even TV shows, movies, and books that seem like they have no religion in them usually have some sort of philosophy they are trying to impart, and those philosophies often have their roots in some kind of religious tradition. Even books like the Golden Compass which supports atheistic values still says something about religion.
First, let me say something about my own social location. I have a Bachelor’s in theology, particularly Catholic theology, though I also have some background in Protestantism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. I know some things about Islam, Shintoism, and Taoism but have never been formally educated in them. I tend to be a more progressive Catholic and even have certain views that I would not say are very Catholic at all, so I guess I’m still finding my path, but on the way I have learned quite a bit.
Why am I telling you this? Well, to make completely clear as to what I’m most knowledgeable about and where my own notions of spirituality and religion derive.
That being said, a large portion of this series will be focused on the Christian religion, not just because that’s the religion I know the most about, but because it’s the religion that the large majority of Americans follow, so that is the one that shows up the most in pop-culture. However, special consideration is going to be taken to write about other religions as well. No fair leaving anyone out, is there?
So tune in next week and find some religion!