Religious slights are the buzz as India marks Republic Day
Followers of India's three main religions - Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism - have balked loudly at cultural slights this week. There's a reason for it, and it's not all politics.
No one likes to have their religion slighted. This is especially true in India, where there are thousands of gods, and tensions are close to the surface when it comes to ill-considered comments about religion.Skip to next paragraph
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Last week, author Salman Rushdie canceled his much anticipated visit to India’s biggest literary festival because of reported threats of assassination. Many Muslims regard his 1988 novel, "Satanic Verses," to be blasphemous, and some Muslim clerics threatened massive protests if Mr. Rushdie showed up at the festival in Jaipur. A handful of authors attempted to read the book – which is banned in India – on Rushdie’s behalf in a form of protest, but organizers stopped them.
Just the day before, American late night talk show host Jay Leno managed to offend India’s Sikh community with a satirical sketch, involving the Sikh faith’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple. In a video showing the homes of the GOP presidential candidates, Leno showed a photo of the Golden Temple, calling it “Mitt Romney’s summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee.”
But that wasn’t all.
On Jan. 25, a Chicago-based sports commentator offended Hindus in his post-game description of a hockey match between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators. Sportscasters are famous for stretching metaphors to the breaking point, but the Chicago commentator was quoted by Indian websites as saying the Predators were “swallowing up space like some weird Hindu god."
The objection is to the word “weird,” which a Nevada-based Hindu community leader Rajan Zed – president of the Universal Society of Hindus – said was hurtful to the feelings of the world’s 1 billion Hindu people.
Offending all three of the main faiths of the world’s second largest country is quite a feat. In hockey games this is called a hat trick.
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What outsiders generally don't quite grasp about India is that sacredness is woven into almost every act of every day. Unlike post-religious societies, where Westerners may attend church once a week (or once a year), many Indians are constantly aware of their religious duties at work, at play, at meal times. I can't tell you how many times I've sat in the back of a taxi cab, in fear, as a Delhi taxi driver takes his hands off the wheel and puts them together in a sign of respect as he passes a holy shrine.