ECIT Letter to the New York Times

ECIT Letter to the New York Times
by Dr. Cleo Kearns

To the Editors:

We write to protest the tone and temper of several remarks made in Barry Bearak’s article in the New York Times of Sept 3, 2000 on the problems of pollution associated with the Hindu festival of Ganesh in Bombay. While we applaud coverage of environmental and religious issues in India, we find that Mr Bearak has used heavily weighted Eurocentric and western terms to communicate the impression that the worship of Ganesh is a meaningless and superstitious affair, a matter of partying rather than of what in classic Hindu terms would be called bhakti devotion, and that Ganesh is a god that Hindus carelessly discard. His negative language and frivolous poking of fun reduced the Festival to a mere manifestation of politics and material
display, partying, pollution, superstition and childplay.

Describing Ganesh, tongue in cheek, as a “hard man to miss in a crowd,” with a Sumo-sized pot belly, indulging in fondness for gold jewelry, having a macabre body and riding atop a rat (points to which we will return), Bearak goes on to describe the manufacturer of these images as an “idol-maker.” This term is invidious and incorrect: Hindus do not use idols, which is a concept
alien to their traditions. Rather, they use murtis, which are points of contemplation but not idols or gods in the western sense. The Hindu concept of Ishtadevata (“chosen deity”) has no Western parallel, and represents true freedom of choice in spiritual practice. Making use of this freedom, a Hindu may sublimate the godhood in different forms without being labeled as an “apostate” and thus a “sinner”. According to Diana Eck of Harvard University, the “chosen deity” is one that a particular person has taken for special honor and devotion. Equating bhakti devotion with mere partying on the one hand or superstitious idol-worship on the other is missing the whole meaning of the Festival.

Furthermore, though the phrase intends a somewhat frivolous play on words, Ganesh is not a ‘discarded Hindu God,’ for he is neither outdated nor quite a ‘god’ in the sense implied here. To describe his body as ‘macabre’ and as ‘riding around on a rat’ is both factually wrong and has the effect of blinding readers both to the beauty and the power of this symbol. The size of Ganesh symbolizes the opposite of indulgence. As one practicing Hindu puts it, “his large form represents the Universe – the One who is willing to assimilate all our desires, for if we are willing to forego or keep them in control these desires no longer become obstacles in our spiritual journey.” As for the mouse – not a rat – it is shown sitting at His feet, but not eating the sweets in front of it – “a symbol of our desires under our control.” In any case, I doubt that Mr. Bearak would describe the
conventional image of the Virgin Mary in many Catholic churches as an anemic young girl stepping on a snake; if he did so someone would surely point out that he had missed the point. Would he also equate the Western tradition of burial of the dead with a form of pollution of the earth as most Hindus do?

In sum, this article fails to register the deeper significances of devotion to Ganesh, often falling into the orientalist stereotype of ‘exotic India,’ besotted with her multiple gods and insouciant towards their social implications and impact on the earth. What results is a picture of rational
secular environmentalists on the one side and ignorant and superstitious folk on the other which distorts both the Hindu dharma and the real situation on the ground as well.

Mr. Bearak might be helped to deepen and refine this picture of devotion to Ganesh by reading Edward Said’s famous Orientalism, which should already have been part of his education as a foreign reporter on assignment in India. He might also wish to consult John Grimes’s study, Ganesha (SUNY Press). And he might have made his article more accurate and balanced by interviewing at greater length Hindus who, while they share a concern for the environmental
and social issues around them, understand and value the deeper symbolic and religious dimensions of devotion to Ganesh.

Above all, Mr. Bearak should not dismiss a major expression of religious faith as a political carnival nor should he denigrate its symbolic expression with ridicule either at home or abroad. Mr. Bearak’s arrogant assumption that the Ganesh festival is a quaint relic, an occasion for mere political chicanery, and an obstacle to the forward march of human progress rests on narrow and dated assumptions, even in the West, assumptions that he might wish to re-examine. We would be happy to help.


Dr. Cleo Kearns and Dr. David Gray
Educational Council on Indic Traditions