Saturday, June 21, 2008

5608: Loving Or Hating Love Guru.


Hindus divided on whether to laugh or cry at ‘Love Guru’

By David Briggs, Religion News Service

First there was Apu, the stereotypical convenience store owner parodied on The Simpsons. Then there was Kumar, the brilliant stoner-slacker of the Harold and Kumar films.

Now the latest character to test the good humor of Indian Americans is Mike Myers’ The Love Guru, a narcissistic, sucker-punching spiritual leader whose goals in life are to meet girls and appear on Oprah. The film opened Friday (June 20) in theaters nationwide.

Enough is enough, some Hindu activists are saying. Lampooning a guru — a revered spiritual teacher in Hindu tradition — crosses the line from acceptable social satire to mockery of a minority religious culture little understood by Americans, they say.

Some Hindu groups have asked Paramount Pictures for an apology and to work with them on a study guide on Hinduism for moviegoers. Rajan Zed, a Hindu chaplain from Nevada and a leader of the protest movement, said “the problem is that cinema is a powerful medium, and people who are not well-versed in Hinduism … they get misinformed. They start stereotyping Hinduism.”

The movie pokes fun at egotistical spiritual leaders who fool gullible people with nonsensical jargon, said Vijaya Emani, immediate past president of the Federation of India Community Associations, based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Her advice to Hindu protesters after seeing the film: “Lighten up.”

But Deepak Sarma, an associate professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, expressed concern that the film could fuel “a kind of jingoistic Americanism” that makes fun of those who are different among unsophisticated audiences.

“The amount of damage that’s going to be done for the understanding of Hinduism in America is tremendous,” said Sarma, editor of Hinduism: A Reader, who also screened the film.

The Washington-based Hindu American Foundation had taken a wait-and-see approach and after a screening in Minneapolis on Thursday, board members found it “vulgar, crude … and tasteless” but nonetheless few screeners thought it “anti-Hindu or mean-spirited.”

And for its part, the U.S. branch on the Hare Krishna movement dismissed the idea of a boycott and said the movie should remind all religious people to “take the time to laugh (even at ourselves) once in a while.”

Despite the great diversity within Hinduism, a guru is generally considered a spiritual teacher who leads disciples to a state of higher consciousness. Students are encouraged to treat their guides with humble reverence.

“The guru tradition is so much of a core tradition of Hinduism that this movie tends to denigrate it so the core of Hinduism is being attacked,” said Surinder Bhardwaj, a professor emeritus at Kent State University.

In the movie, Myers portrays the Indian-trained “Guru Pitka,” who oversees a self-help empire built on books such as If You’re Happy and You Know It, Think Again. Much of the humor seems to be aimed at 8-year-olds, with scores of attempts to elicit laughs based on bodily functions. Yet, from his long beard and saffron robe to his title as guru, Myers’ character evokes comparisons to Hindu guides.

Zed, the Nevada activist, said he tried to work with the film studio before the movie’s release but was rebuffed. He said he understands the importance of artistic freedom, but particularly when addressing matters of faith, “with the freedom comes the responsibility also.”

Virginia Lam, a spokeswoman for Paramount said the new film is in the same spirit as Myers’ Austin Powers films.

“No one could confuse, or has confused, this film as intending to tackle serious issues surrounding faith and religion — just as no one confused Austin Powers as being a commentary on globalism and trans-Atlantic relations,” Lam said in a statement.

While some advocate a boycott, and others advise critics to get a sense of humor, still others see the controversy as an opportunity to explain Hinduism to a larger population.

Sometimes, it takes perceived provocations such as the depiction of Jews in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ or the portrayal of a guru in Myers’ new movie to address topics such as Jewish-Christian relations and Hinduism, said Brent Plate, an associate professor of religion and the visual arts at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

“In a strange way,” he said, “in retrospect, they get us talking about these issues.”

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