The Material Girl Goes Spiritual

Those of you who missed the MTV Music Awards last week missed one of Madonna's greatest moments. In winning five of the headline prizes, the Material Girl taught us two lessons: first, that some divas never die--they don't even fade away. Second--and more importantly--she attempted to introduce many of us to a new cultural and religious tradition by blending into her live performance elements from the sacred (and profane) life of the Indian subcontinent.

Madonna began her rendering of "Ray of Light" by chanting sacred mantras from the Vedas (the ancient Hindu scriptures) and incorporated into the performance steps derived from the traditional dance form native to the Indian region of Orissa. As American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) write on their website, the Hindu theme and use of Hindu symbols continued throughout the performance.

It impresses me that one of the world's most marketable celebrities would take the time to investigate the artistic traditions of another culture, develop an act around them and present them on the world's stage.

The problem is, what Madonna gave us isn't Hindu (or Indian or even South Asian) culture. Instead she gave us ritualistic verses and dance steps ripped completely out of context. I admire Madonna and respect her efforts to expand our collective cultural experience. Unfortunately, by using her artistic license to syncretize Hindu and South Asian cultural elements with the Western performance culture, Madonna ran the risk of trivializing the faith of others. What began as a well-intentioned impulse to enrich our multicultural milieu backfired by alienating the very people whose traditions she was attempting to introduce to the general population.

I should distinguish here between religious and cultural traditions. The latter are much more easily syncretized, with much less chance of causing insult or offense. South Asian culture is, in fact, an amalgam of all sorts of different constituent traditions. And Anglo-American culture has successfully managed to incorporate elements of South Asian culture in the past. The Beatles, for example, were influenced heavily by the music of the great sitar player, Ravi Shankar. We all know about the therapeutic powers of yoga--and, for better or worse, the teachings of Deepak Chopra. No Doubt's Gwen Stefani is oft-seen wearing a bindi on her forehead; mehndi, the decorative paint worn by many Indian brides, has become quite popular among Western women. Even Nehru jackets may someday make a comeback.

Religious traditions, however, require a bit more maturity and understanding to deal with. Pluralism and multiculturalism become trouble-some issues when we try simply to co-opt another religious tradition into our general popular culture without stopping to examine what that tradition actually means to its believers. That is why many Hindus found Madonna's performance disturbing.

It is the same reason why many Hindus took offense to the cover of Aerosmith's Nine Lives, released in 1997. According to the on-line magazine India Pulse, "in place of Lord Krishna's face Sony and Columbia artists inserted the head of a cat. They also altered the male chest of Lord Krishna to that of a female with breasts, wearing a woman's blouse." Media executives did not incorporate Hindu symbols out of love for the culture, or with a desire to educate; they simply were looking for something quaint and exotic to market better their product, with little regard for the sentiments of the people whose icons they were perverting. After receiving thousands of protest messages, the Sony higher-ups wisely decided to change the cover art in subsequent releases of the record.

The Karma Club in Chicago (the sister nightclub of the one in Boston) also came under fire recently, for its interior decor. According to AHAD, this club features extravagant displays of religious icons in "compromising environments." For example, pictures of the Hindu gods Shiva and Krishna occupy the wall of a bar, behind a number of bottles of liquor. A large statue of a dancing Shiva stands in the midst of the dance floor; a scantily clad man wearing a mask with three heads (apparently representing Lord Brahma) dances erotically on a pedestal. Finally, a statue of Lord Ganesha--the same deity that Hindus install at the entrance of their holy places--beckons people into the club.

Clearly the images of the Hindu gods in the club are divorced completely from any religious connotation--they are mere commodities meant to add to its exotic flavor. Nothing could more trivialize the faith of Hindus. It is significant to note, perhaps, that the majority owner of the Karma Club is himself a Hindu of Asian Indian origin. My comments are thus directed not only to popular performers like Madonna and Aerosmith, but also to anyone heedlessly seeking to profit off the sentiments of others.

The issue is not that Hindu religious symbols have been used inappropriately: Hinduism is one of the world's most inclusive faiths, and its adherents certainly have no monopoly over the use of its symbols. But when these symbols are abused, and Hindu religious beliefs are trivialized, the trust and respect with which we must all treat one another in a liberal, multicultural democracy is violated.

True religious understanding requires intense struggling with and rigorous study of the faith, something Madonna (and others) through their actions clearly have not bothered to undertake. Our multicultural society is weakened as a result, our sense of community diminished. Sujit Raman '99-'00 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column will appear on alternate Tuesdays.