CULTURE: Hindus and Kubrick

The New Statesman, Sept 20, 1999

Enraged by Madonna and Nicole.(Hindus object to the use of a verse from the Bhagavadgita in the motion picture 'Eyes Wide Shut')

By Salil Tripathi

To Hindus, Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is as offensive as Rushdie's Satanic Verses was to Muslims. Will their anger boil over in the same way?

In his 18 years in America as a petrochemical engineer, Ashish Desai had never seriously thought about his Hindu identity, nor about Stanley Kubrick's films. Yet, when he emerged out of the cinema one Friday night after seeing Eyes Wide Shut, Desai was seething with rage. "I'm angry; I feel as if somebody has kicked me in the gut and mocked me," he said.

What incensed Desai is a scene that lasts barely a few minutes in Kubrick's film, which is based on Arthur Schnitzler's meditative exploration of the erotic mind, Traumnovelle. The scene depicts an orgy, punctuated by a haunting musical score that sounds like a rhythmic oriental chant. It is a shloka, or verse, from the Bhagavadgita, an important work in the canon of Hinduism. Most viewers would be so engrossed with the languorous action on screen that they'd scarcely be aware of the deep resonance of the shloka in the hearts of Desai and other Hindus.

The shloka Kubrick has used is perhaps one of the most famous verses in the Gita, the dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna in the epic poem, the Mahabharata. Krishna exhorts - and convinces - a reluctant Arjuna, the ace Pandava archer, to raise his bow, take aim and fight the bitter war that has pitted his family against his 100 cousins. Hinduism is a faith without a book, a unitary God or a singular philosophy. But many Hindus know the Gita's key verses by heart. The devout read it daily; many more believe that the words point the karmic way to lead their lives. Ministers take their oaths of office placing their right hand on the Gita; witnesses in courts swear by it.

Millions of Hindus derive solace when Krishna tells Arjuna, in Barbara Stoller Miller's translation, "to protect men of virtue and destroy men who do evil, to set the standard of sacred duty, I appear in age after age".

Hindu outrage is fuelled by another takes notice. The Jews have their own anti-defamation league. Why are Hindus alone being taken for granted? Why are Hindus seen as soft targets? Senthil Kumar, an insurance agent in New Jersey, says: "How dare they use this shloka in such a filthy scene? They are demons! I, on behalf of 900 million Hindus, urge Warner Brothers to stop this total rascaldom." Warner has duly obliged and reportedly deleted the score in the version just released in Britain.

It is as if the worst images of the hedonistic 1960s have returned to haunt Hinduism - of stoned youth expressing free love while a saffron-robed guru mumbles some exotic chants. Rajneesh created a cult out of what many Hindus saw as decadence; Merchant-Ivory immortalised it in its early films and, encapsulating the period, Gita Mehta called it the age of Karma Cola. Swapna Venugopal, a journalist in New grievance: that the western media report only "negative" stories about India, such as rail crashes, riots and disasters. Its economic sluggishness is derided, its nuclear ambitions mocked, its politicians ridiculed. Hindus in the west ask: would they dare to do this to other countries and religions? Christians vigorously protest against Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ or Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary. Muslims can threaten to kill Salman Rushdie and burn copies of The Satanic Verses, and the world drops everything and Jersey who was distinctly uneasy after watching Eyes Wide Shut, says: "It seems, once again, Hinduism has to come to the rescue of westerners trying to portray something exotic."

Feeling under siege, Hindus in the west, uprooted from the source of their culture, have turned protective about their icons. They fear the western cultural juggernaut is devouring and appropriating their symbols. They believe Hinduism is being taken for granted, because it is an easy, safe target. There is guilt, too, in having let things come to such a pass. Venugopal adds: "The shlokas were something I held as sacred growing up. As an adult, I have not recited any of the shlokas for a long time. So maybe it was a mixture of guilt and shock."

Last year, explaining - and some would say defending - rising Hindu militancy in India, V S Naipaul told the Indian journalist Tavleen Singh in a television interview that there is an inevitability about the Hindu civilisation responding aggressively to centuries of humiliation. Hindus have stopped believing that the meek shall inherit the earth. Take, for example, Mahadevan Sheziyan's contribution to an Internet chat-group: "Hindus are perceived as meek and the world knows they will not complain, so anything goes. Had Hindus been bombing World Trade Centers (I am saying this only to contrast, and I do not advocate harming any civilian target), these idiots wouldn't have taken such liberties with the Gita."

The websites are full of such electronic insurgency, pithy and at times ungrammatical. But this anger has little to do with the perennial conflict with Pakistan, less with the definition of what constitutes the modern Indian nation and still less with any post-colonial angst. It is based on the perception that Hinduism is deliberately being misrepresented. Hindus are angry because Madonna sports a bindi (dot on the forehead) while gyrating on MTV; because Aerosmith, a rock group, releases a CD whose jacket shows Krishna with the face of a cat and the breasts of a woman; because the scantily clad lissome lass Xena in Xena: Warrior Princess, calls upon Krishna to help her tame her rivals; and because Mike Myers, wearing robes, mehendi (henna on the palm) and bindi, poses as the goddess Kali, with blue-skinned, bare-breasted buxom women lying around him. "The same artists," said Saurabh Jang, a Midwest-based software engineer, "would think real hard before causing offence to any of the Semitic religions [Judaism, Christianity or Islam], but nobody is scared of a Hindu backlash."

Nevertheless, a body known as American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD), run mainly by professional people, has had remarkable success in campaigning against such outrages (as it sees them). Sony and Aerosmith promptly apologised and agreed to modify the jacket of Nine Lives. The photographer David LaChappelle surprised an Internet chat group by apologising when some Hindus protested about his picture spread of Myers in Vanity Fair magazine. (Some Hindus interpreted the photographs as a lampoon on western stars who have reduced the ancient faith to kitsch, but the protesters prevailed all the same.) Renaissance Pictures, which produces Xena: Warrior Princess, expressed regrets over an episode entitled "The Way", in which Xena seeks Krishna's help to rescue Gabrielle and Eli from the clutches of the King of the Demons. AHAD objected because it "equates Krishna with the gods of Greek and other mythology. It thus cheapens and trivialises what is in actuality something held sacred to almost one billion Hindus".

Amardeep Assar, a Sikh professor who teaches in New York, says: "What I find disturbing is the inability of many western media vehicles and entertainment industry aficionados to look beyond their simpleminded appropriation. Madonna sporting a bindi is one thing, while shlokas from the Gita as background for tired sex is quite another.

"There is little attention to context, to the nuance, to the outcome of such appropriation, as seen by the culture from which the item or the idea is taken. The seemingly sophisticated who appropriate [the symbols] are often inept when it comes to any serious attempt at understanding other cultures."
The stunning electoral successes of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in India have made Hindu swagger respectable. The failure of the international community to grant India a seat at the head-table of affairs (permanent membership of the UN Security Council would be nice) has fed the sense of injury. It is now politically correct to be assertive and aggressive about Hindu identity.

Yet there is an air of hypocrisy surrounding the jihad against Eyes Wide Shut. The sacred and the profane have coexisted for centuries, and vulgarity lies in the eye of the beholder. This after all is a culture which boasts of the Kama Sutra, and millions of whose followers worship the phallus. It is a faith broad enough to include sects that believe enlightenment is possible only through sex, and tolerant enough for some ascetics to roam around naked.

For at least a millennium, Hindu architects have decorated the walls and pillars of temples with nude deities. Scholars have argued that nakedness connotes openness, not vulgarity. The Gangaikondacholapuram Shiva Temple (c 1025) has an almost nude Parvati (Shiva's wife), and that hasn't diminished her holiness. The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has a statue of nude Brahmani from the Chola period (c 900); the Parshvanatha Temple of Khajuraho has a nude sculpture of Vishnu and Lakshmi. And a marble Jain statue at Pallu, Bikaner (from the Solanki period, c 1200) has a nude Saraswati, clad only with exquisite and ornate chains, necklaces and bangles. Xena or Madonna would envy that outfit.

Hindu foot-soldiers in the west have little time for such arguments. Their faith has been mocked, and that's enough. Tusta Krishnadas, of the World Vaishnava Association (another overseas Hindu body), told an Indian newspaper: "Many producers continue to see Hindus and Hindu organisations that are protesting against them as being unworthy of their attention."

Hindus who have made their home in the west feel that the west is failing to listen to them. Some have conjured up colourful, apocalyptic images from a grisly past, when Hinduism suffered untold horrors from invaders. "The defaced Shiva Lingas at Hinglaj (Baluchistan) and Peshawar, the universities at Takshshila and Nalanda, thousands of demolished temples scattered all over India, are mute witnesses to the complacency of our own ancestors who once thought along the same lines, that Hinduism does not need any defence. There is no philosophical difference between a Mahamud Ghazanavi demolishing Somanath [a temple in western India] and a Kubrick defiling Gita shlokas in his third-rate movie," concludes one chat-group comment.

The success of AHAD and other saffron street-fighters has much to do with the pusillanimity of the marketing men who run the studios, who want all art to cater for the largest market. Stanley Kubrick can never win against a threat to mobilise millions of customers.

Natwar Patel, a real estate agent in southern California, understands that. "We are customers, we vote with our wallets. If we could succeed in getting Sony to withdraw an offensive cover of a very popular CD, and if we could get Universal to give up showing a TV serial, it shows our time has come."

With the BJP likely to form the next Indian government on its own terms, Hindu assertiveness - both at home and abroad - will only strengthen. And the laptop laity will remain busy.