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Mickey Mouse Hinduism
Priest or pop star? Rama or Rambo? Sara Chamberlain finds an ancient religion being
pushed away from spirituality by the disco-beat of Western consumerism.

My thoughts, as I slipped down the Ganges past eerie, shadow-shrouded palaces under a yellow-rimmed full moon, were drifting backwards through time.

A rickety two-storey barge lit by ghostly neon lights bore down on my small canoe. Fifty young men were feverishly gyrating, hip to hip, on its roof. I stared at their ecstatic faces in disbelief. A floating disco on India’s most sacred river, and in the holy city of Benares to boot! The cheap sensuality of a Hindi film song drowned the sounds of temple bells. This was modern Indian youth culture brazenly asserting itself in the face of Hindu tradition.

The tide of Western consumerism washes even the most sacred shores of the Ganges.

Hinduism encompasses a broad spectrum of different sects, a vast array of gods and goddesses and an even more varied collection of adherents. Some say there are almost as many Hinduisms as there are Hindus. It has withstood the threat of alternative systems of belief for over three thousand years. But now certain popular aspects of the religion seem to be mutating. ‘Mickey Mouse Hinduism’ is evolving in response to modern Western influences.

Because of the pervasive influence of satellite television, many Hindu teenagers want to dance like Michael Jackson, look like supermodels and have sex before marriage. They want to drink and smoke, to break out of their families and go on dates. However, Hindu-ism still has a powerful hold over Indian society and, at least for the moment, most young Indians can’t reject its norms completely.

Ceremonies provide the framework for socializing in Hindu society. The village comes together each evening at the temple to give praise, to gossip, complain, commiserate and even fall in love. Similarly, the births, marriages and triumphs of the gods and goddesses are an opportunity for Hindus to eat, drink and celebrate. In the past, there seems to have been an harmonious relationship between socializing and devotion. Temple compounds buzzed with gossip, but during the arti (fire ritual) all mundane interests were submerged in communal worship. Private rituals and pujas in many rural temples still retain this fragile balance between the sacred and the profane.

Hinduism is a way of life as well as a religion. Young Hindus unable to break from tradition are bringing their consumer instincts and increasingly explosive sexuality to their parents’ festivals and ceremonies. As a result Rama is beginning to resemble Rambo and, blaring from temple loudspeakers, comes disco music rather than religious chant.

A thousand miles away and 13 hours by bus is Kulu in the Himalayas. High in an autumn-streaked valley, Kulu during the Dussera festival ijs the bustling meeting-place of the regions’ gods and their devotees. Emerging from my hotel room I became submerged in a sea of temporary canvas stalls. Crowds of excited shoppers searched through mountains of sweaters while film music blared and young men drank tea and gambled. This was a harvest festival of sorts – but where were the deities and their devotees? I left the tent city in search of religiosity and ritual. Instead I discovered an amusement park, a circus and a zoo. Ferris wheels jerkily revolved, tinsel flags flapped and men sold cotton candy and balloons.

I began to wonder if this festival had any spiritual content at all. Street entertainers, magicians and musicians have always played a part in India’s religious festivals, but my doubts intensified that night when I watched a Hindi pop star sing to an immense crowd of drunken young men. The next day I watched an animal sacrifice which seemed devoid of any spirituality. As the sacrificial bulls’ head fell into the mud, the audience screamed just as they had the night before, at the rock concert. Priest and pop star seemed synonymous.

Five months later I travelled to the Kumbha mela in Ujiain. The Kumbha mela is perhaps the largest religious festival in the world. When I arrived, traffic had come to a standstill, flags flew from a sea of multicoloured canvas tents and naked, ash-covered sadhus (holy men) rode elephants through the streets.

Unfortunately there was also a Ferris wheel, numerous stalls selling bangles, earrings and lipstick, carts selling plastic toys, and disco music blasting from all directions. Many of the pilgrims resembled day-trippers to Disney Land. Children clutched pinwheels and ate cotton candy while their mothers smeared on different-coloured lipsticks and inspected a staggering array of cotton bras. For them the Khumba mela was a shopping spree sanctioned by religion. The atmosphere was one of commerce and materialism rather than transcendence and devotion. Many of the young male pilgrims were drunk, walking round in large, rowdy groups, swearing and yelling. They leered at girls and seemed to lack any respect for the religious men they were supposed to be honouring.

Indian society might benefit if certain Hindu traditions were disregarded. Many Indian women would be happier without the dowry system and untouchables long for the constitutional abolition of caste to become a social reality. But in my opinion, Indian culture will lose one of its most vibrant and inspirational components if Hinduism disintegrates into a charade of super-hero gods and shopping-arcade festivals.

Sara Chamberlain has spent half her life in India. She is currently working on a forest-friendly paper campaign for the Earth Island Institute, San Francisco.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

New Internationalist issue 271 magazine cover This article is from the September 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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