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Health & Spirit

Hindus strive to end commercialization of their faith's sacred images

Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

Bathroom mats. Toilet seats. Shoes. Dog tags.

All of these items have, in recent years, gone on sale adorned with images of Hindu deities, particularly that of Ganesha, known most commonly in the West for his elephant face.

"It is inappropriate, and it is offensive to devotees," said Rajan Zed, a Reno-based Hindu activist who protests against such commercial products.

"I haven't seen Christ on toilet seat covers. Or any symbol of Islam," said Vasudha Narayanan, a professor of religion at the University of Florida. "If you wouldn't do it with one, why do you want to do it with something else? Or at least wouldn't it behoove you to check?"

Every few months, Zed said, he receives a message about some insensitive commercial use of a Hindu image.

Most recently, Zed called on Amazon to pull deity-decorated skateboards and bedding from its online shelves. (This was not the first time the retailer got itself into hot water over such practices. In June, the hashtag #boycottAmazon trended on Twitter in India after users discovered doormats with images of Hindu deities available for sale. Amazon removed the items within days.)

Earlier this month, Zed asked online retailers Wayfair and Kess In House to stop selling bathmats, doormats, dog beds, leggings and rugs with images of Ganesha, who often is invoked in prayers for prosperity and success at the beginning of new ventures.

Another time, there was the Burger King commercial in Spain that featured Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, sitting atop a hamburger with the caption, "The snack is sacred" in Spanish. (Many Hindus are vegetarian, with beef considered especially off-limits because cows are considered sacred.)

The use of these images in a secular context, and particularly in a context that is in direct opposition to the basic tenets of the Hindu religion, displays a lack of respect, Narayanan said.

In Hinduism, myriad deities and their representation through images, sounds (like the chanting of "om") and expressive forms like dance or music are an attempt to capture the many facets of a supreme being whose existence is difficult to grasp, Narayanan said. As such, "depictions of the sacred are themselves considered to be sacred," she said.

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