Every Friday during the football season, The Daily Pennsylvanian presents a group of Penn students who predict how Ivy League football teams will fare in each of their games. These "swamis," as they are called, adorn themselves in turbans for photographs and make light of their prognosticating powers. The DP also includes a comical cartoon of a "swami," riding on a magic carpet, and challenges readers to play the "Online Swami Challenge" to test their own mystical predictive abilities. The first "swami" article of the year disturbed me as soon as I read it. Although I am an agnostic, I know from my own family background that swami means a special Hindu religious teacher -- a person with divine knowledge. I wondered whether the DP would be willing to mock other religious figures, such as rabbis and priests, in this same manner. Would it be appropriate to have these jesting prognosticators wearing yarmalkes instead of turbans? I brought my concerns to DP Executive Editor Binyamin Appelbaum, himself one of the "swamis." Binyamin was sympathetic but did not feel that the depiction of the DP "swamis" is offensive. While the DP is sensitive to religious issues, Binyamin said, he did not feel the "swami" depictions are in any way connected to Hinduism. He pointed out that the "swami" cartoon was flying on a magic carpet, and that the article made references to snake oil. These features, and others in the article, are drawn from several different cultures. Binyamin felt that the "swami" concept was a farce, so far removed from a divine Hindu teacher that readers would not even think of the word's religious meaning. As I reflected on Binyamin's comments, it occurred to me: These religious figures have been so exotified and misappropriated that their original significance has been lost, allowing them to be mocked shamelessly. For similar instances of misappropriation, go to the Urban Outfitters at Sansom Common or any similar store, and you will see clothing and artifacts for sale with Hindu religious symbols, gods and goddesses, and even mere random Hindi letters that amount to jibberish. One friend of mine pointed out a Buddha's head candle in Urban Outfitters. How would Christians feel if Jesus' image was designed to be desecrated in a similar manner? Several other questions ran through my mind. Do consumers know the difference between Krishna and Buddha? How do Hindus and Buddhists feel about their religion and culture becoming a fashion trend? What will be the consequences of this commercial blasphemy? For years, white Americans have embraced the "spirituality" of the East and molded it to satisfy their own desires. Opportunistic South Asian "swamis" and "gurus" have aided this process, capitalizing on the alienation of modern society to market their New Age Orientalism. And as the West has incorporated these ideas into its culture, marred by ignorance of different Eastern traditions, the swami -- the divine Hindu religious teacher -- has been reduced to a farcical mystic, a combination of everything Eastern that America finds amusing. South Asian Americans need to speak up and reclaim the power to define our own culture. If we don't, it will continue to be transformed by the self-gratifying whims of American consumerism, and this will come back to haunt us. In light of our own deeply rooted struggles, how can we tolerate that the bindi -- a sign of marital fidelity -- is becoming a fashion trend when anti-South Asian gangs like the Dotbusters in New Jersey persecute us for celebrating this facet of our cultural heritage? For the predominantly white consumers of New Age Orientalism, I have a similar message. People often look to "Eastern spirituality" for "good karma." But the true meaning of karma is not spiritual currency -- it is action. The word kar in Hindi means "to do." So if you are understandably disillusioned with Western society, don't support American corruption of Eastern traditions. Instead, do something to change America.Comments powered by Disqus
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