On the occasion of Ganesha Chaturthi, celebrations of which festival concluded just a week ago, the Fort Bend County (Texas) branch of the Republican Party in the USA had published a rather cheeky advertisement featuring the Hindu deity Lord Ganesha in the India Herald in an attempt to woo voters – presumably Hindus and Non-Hindus alike. The reason for such a presumption is the “Did You Know?” character of the ad, which explains the various symbols associated with the vigraha/murti (i.e. image) of the elephant-headed Hindu deity.
This ad ended with a question, thrown squarely at voters, that read: “Would you worship a donkey or an elephant? The choice is yours.”
To bring some context into this whole matter, let me add that the symbol of the Republican Party is an elephant, while that of the Democratic Party is a donkey, in the highly unlikely event that you are unaware of these bits of trivia on American politics already.
Now, there should hardly remain any doubt about the fact that the question added at the conclusion of the ad was highly politically charged, as it minces no words in its attempt to depict the superiority of the Republican Party over its arch-rival, the Democratic Party.
Some USA-based Hindus took issue with this depiction of the Lord Ganesha. For example, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) described the advertisement as “problematic” and “offensive” while protesting the ad in an official statement, which also highlighted the reason of its objection to the same arose mainly out of the equivalence drawn by the Republican Party between the Hindu deity and the “animal symbol” of the Grand Old Party (GOP).
In response, the Chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican Party issued a statement acknowledging the objections raised by Hindu organisations and individuals across the USA and offering its sincere apologies to all who might have been offended by the ad. The statement also emphasised the point that offending anyone’s religious sensibilities or disparaging the Hindu customs and traditions were definitely not the GOP’s intention.
Back in India too, the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were set abuzz with passionate discussions over this ad. Many users fumed at the depiction of their favourite deity and registered their protests through posts and tweets.
But was any of this protestation worth the while? Let us contemplate.
For starters, of course Ganesha is no mere elephant, neither is he the ‘elephant god’ that the popular Western discourse – naïve as it is when it comes to an understanding of Hindu customs and traditions – likes to simplistically fit Ganesha into; but let’s be sincere and ask ourselves this question: don’t we feel a bit extra sensitive about elephants because of Ganesha? Doesn’t a good Hindu usually bow down in the presence of that majestic beast (while making sure he is not being trampled underfoot it)? It is difficult to understand why a Hindu should be offended even if outsiders described her as an “elephant worshipper” solely on account of their reverence to the elephant-headed Lord. For, in any case, Hindus are supposed to see The One in everything, and everything in The One. The manifestations of The One may change on account of the physical outlet through which It chooses to express Itself, but the essence remains the same – this is the core of Hindu worldview. Where is the shastric evidence for such a claim? You need look no further than the Srimad Bhagavad Gita for the required evidence. In the sixth chapter of the book, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna that “He whose self is harmonised by yoga seeth the Self abiding in all beings and all beings in the Self; everywhere he sees the same.” But then, not everyone is a yogi, and hence, not everyone is able to harmonise their self by yoga in order to be able to see “the Self abiding in all beings and all beings in the Self” as stated by Sri Krishna. What about such poor souls? They need a personal God in Whom they can contemplate everything that exists in the Creation. Sri Krishna was acutely aware of this limitation of the majority of the human species, and so He went on to add, in the immediately next shloka, that “He who sees Me everywhere and sees all in Me; I am not lost to him nor is he lost to Me.” Radhakrishnan, in his commentary on the above shloka informs us:
“The verse reveals the experience of the profound unity of all things in One who is the personal God. The more unique, the more universal. The deeper the self, the wider is its comprehension. When we are one with the Divine in us, we become one with the whole stream of life.”
And what is more unique, what can be more original, than the image of Lord Ganesha, which is a hallmark of the profound creativity of the Hindu mind? A Hindu is intimately familiar with the Asiatic elephant, the subspecies of elephants known in the scientific community as the Elephas maximus indicus, for both are indigenous to the Indian Subcontinent. As is suggested by its Latinate name, the beast invokes considerable awe on account of its sheer size. Add to that its majestic manner of movement, its social and (mostly) amiable nature and its superior level of intelligence. Aristotle is said to have observed this about elephants: “the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind”. It completely beats sense why anyone should feel anything but proud if they are culturally, even religiously, associated with such a fine species. Indeed, Hindus have made elephants an integral part of their cultural, economic and ritualistic life. There is hardly any Hindu temple architectural style which misses to depict elephants in some form or other: curved on temple walls, painted as frescos, sculpted as welcoming installments near the entrance to a temple / palace / any other important building. Even the Asokan pillar depicts elephants in high relief, through which the elephant has made its way into the symbolism of the modern Indian state.
Next, a closer look at this ad reveals an affirmation of qualities and symbolism associated with Ganesha in the context of American politics, popular culture, and by extension in the American society. That in turn helps spread a good knowledge and a positive attitude towards Hindu symbols and Hinduism. The American people reaffirm the value of the GOP and its symbolism in something which predates GOP and even the USA by several millennia. And that something happens to be a thoroughly Hindu symbol: a venerated Hindu deity known as Ganesha. What exactly is bad about that?
The usual argument against the ad, raised by those who have been offended by the ad and are vehemently condemning it, goes like this: they were referring to Ganesha as just an ordinary elephant through this ad. That seems to lie at the heart of the resentment expressed by Hindus at this political ad.
Notice that it is not at all the Hindus who have been profiled as an elephant-worshipping people in this advertisement, either implicitly or explicitly. The final reference to elephant is that of the elephant in the Republican Party’s symbol, and hence the exhortation “Would you worship a donkey or an elephant? The choice is yours” has more to with the American citizens’ veneration of one political party or another, and it has the least to do with what animal the Hindus worship.
The point is that there is no good reason why a Hindu should feel offended by this particular ad. In fact the interpretation of different parts of Lord Ganesha’s murti offered in this ad is compatible with dharma: the four purushartha-s (or goals of the human life) – dharma, artha, kama and moksha have been indicated in it without even using the dharmic jargon. It points to the axe held in the upper right arm of the Lord and indicates that its function is “to cut off all the bonds of materialistic attachment”. It points to the Lord’s large, tranquil eyes and interprets them as the ability “to look beyond what you see”. It points out that the laddoos held by the Lord are “the rewards of hard work, the sweetest thing of all”. It points out that the Lord has a broken tusk which “represents that a sacrifice is needed for the pursuit of wisdom”. It asserts that the function of Lord Ganesha’s large head is “to think out of the box”, that of His large stomach is “to peacefully digest all the good and bad in life”. The mouse, the Lord’s ride, is interpreted in the ad as representing “the desire and ability of Lord Ganesha to reach into every nook and cranny of the mind”. Thus, in reality, the ad successfully traverses the universe of meaning that Hindus have traditionally attached to the vigraha of the Lord. It is thus hard to miss the fact that this ad has the stamp of a person who is either a practicing Hindu himself/herself or at least it is someone who has a profound understanding of the Hindu worldview. In fact, the official statement of the Fort Bend County Republican Party, issued in the aftermath of this controversy, claimed that the party created this ad “with inputs from those of the Hindu faith”.
So, aren’t the Republicans, who seek only electoral gains through this ad and nothing else, equating the venerable Hindu God, a sacred symbol of Hinduism, with a mere animal? And by doing so, aren’t they laying out a reductionist narrative on Hindus and their traditions? No, they aren’t. It is more than clear that here it is they who are seeking affirmation of their century old symbol in the fact that it shares symbolism with another, millennia-old Hindu symbol revered by more than 100 crores of people worldwide. Our Hindu brethren in the USA and elsewhere should have recognised this fact and smiled at how history has come a full circle (however small the scale of things may be in this case), that this time a thoroughly western institution was trying to justify and affirm its own symbol by means of a thoroughly Hindu symbol, that it is not the other way round like it has almost always been.
What is naïve about this business of offence-taking at the ad is an implicit assumption that Hindus are capable of having only one of the two positions regarding anything: either be offended at how a western entity posits elements of Hindu traditions and culture or be able to “spread dharma” among the non-Hindu through such western depictions. I am not even sure whether dharma can ever be “spread” the way religion can be, for dharma and religion are concepts from two very different worlds. They do not exist on the same plane. Dharma is far more innate to the human nature as well as to the cosmic order than faith can ever be. Also, I believe what Hindus should really feel offended by is the very thought of looking up to western institutions and channels for the cause of “spreading” dharma, for in fact it should have been the dharma of the Hindus themselves to take up that responsibility in the first place.
If there are any takeaways from this episode for the Hindu community worldwide, it is this: the Hindus based in America, India or anywhere else need not be sanctimonious at such occasions, for that is certainly not the right way to deal with a discourse concerning their sacred traditions and customs. All they need is to be prudent, and have the capacity of recognizing what is and what is not in accordance with dharma, which should be their only guiding compass in all things moral. Was the advertisement a-dharmic, that is to say, did it lie about the symbolism of Ganesha? Did it make an attempt, either open or clandestine, to digest the venerable Hindu symbol? Were the interpretations in contradiction with Hindu shastra-s? If the answer to any of these questions raised here happens to be an emphatic “yes!”, then, why, by all means, please go ahead and raise the hell. But if that is not the case, then please keep calm and read the Srimad Bhagavad Gita (especially its sixth chapter).
For, it is of utmost importance that from among the many raging battles over narrative, small or big, local or global, an Intellectual Kshatriya be able to choose her battle wisely, lest she should score a self-goal and perish.
Featured Image: News 18
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Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit is an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres in India and abroad. He can be reached at [email protected]
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