One Voice against Desecration 

The following HAF Op-Ed was published in the News India Times on July 17, 2009.  The access the pdf print version, please click here.

From Chennai to Manipal, Sydney to London, Boston to San Jose, hundreds of internet surfers weighed in on the latest advertising blunder of international fast food giant, Burger King.  The Spanish ad depicting the Goddess Lakshmi, a representation of God symbolizing wealth and prosperity, atop a meat sandwich with the catch phrase, "A snack that's sacred," was amongst the lead stories in countless online newspapers, e-magazines and television. The flurry of activity began early last week when the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) wrote a letter demanding removal of the ad.  With mounting media coverage and pressure from HAF supporters, Burger King ceded to HAF's demands, swiftly removing the offending advertisement and issuing a public apology to Hindus worldwide. 


But to us at HAF, even more eye-opening than this quintessential "underdog non-profit versus corporate big shot" story, is the story found in what only the world wide web can offer -- arm chair analysts airing their views in the blogospheres and comment boxes strewn throughout cyberspace.  Not surprisingly, a  broad range of reactions emerged: 


 

Bewildered: "I aint a fanatic but fail to see why burger king wd even do such a thing..."
Sarcastic: "I'm waiting for McDonald's to follow up with an ad showing Mohammad and Moses eating McPork Sandwiches."
Appreciative: "Yes,it is very good step taken by both Hindu community and BKC.Hindu can forgive and forget."

 


These comments collectively signaled that HAF had done the right thing in speaking out. Voices of Hindus from every walk of life as well as Buddhists, Jews, Christians and Muslims and likely, those of no religion, overwhelmingly communicated disapproval of Burger King's use.  There were also a handful that indicated no offense. But if we didn't have a difference of opinion, it wouldn't be very Hindu, now would it? There is an important lesson in those few voices as well.


We at HAF are often criticized that there is no one Hindu perspective, especially by those who prefer a fragmented Hindu society relishing only in its differences than one that celebrates its unity in diversity. Of course there isn't just one perspective.  In fact, we have been careful not seeking to provide the voice for Hindu Americans but a voice, and a progressive one at that.  We fully acknowledge that many Hindus will agree with our stance on a variety of issues, such as the portrayal of Hinduism, religious liberty, human rights, caste discrimination and other hot-button topicsmany will not. 


Indeed the beauty of Hinduism is in its diversity, but the strength is in our commonalities -- belief in multiple paths and worship of God in multiple forms; dharma, karma and moksha.  And there are many more -- the general avoidance of meat in rituals, being one of them.  Is this statement meant to deny the existence historically of the religious use of meat or to marginalize Hindus who may still use it? Absolutely not, but amongst a billion worldwide, if such usage accounts for even 20%, if that, must we always define ourselves with the exception and not the rule? 


By no means are our generalizations meant to ostracize the minority -- we at HAF as primarily second generation Hindus understand this as religious and/or ethnic minorities and in fact, advocate for minorities across the globe.  We know that just because the many may feel one way, the experiences of the few are no less legitimate. But, we also recognize the disastrous effect of stifling the voice of the many, especially amongst Hindus.  The end result is a community who's financial, educational and social strength is pathetically disproportionate to its influence in public policy, media or on the public at large. 


As Hinduism acknowledges the existence of multiple paths, so too must we, as Hindu advocates, acknowledge a multitude of perspectives.  And that is the foundation from which we at HAF base our decisions on whether or not to pursue a particular issue.  Every week our inboxes are inundated with requests to speak out against a variety of commercial uses of sacred symbols.  Why do we not oppose every instance?  Is any commercial use of sacred symbols bad, per se?  Certainly not. Several products used by millions of Hindus, including atta and oil specifically use an image of Goddess Lakshmi.  But context and, of course, intent is everything.  A depiction of Lord Krishna on flip flops or Lord Ganesha on a toilet seat would likely to be considered offensive by HAF.  Hanuman on a t-shirt?  It would depend on a variety of factors and would be judged, at least by us at HAF, on a case by case basis based on a polling of a broad spectrum of Hindus, and yes, taking into consideration both the rules and the exceptions.