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.
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.
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.
Americans speak of sacred cows as an abstract metaphor; but for Hindus, they are a living symbol of motherhood, and a very real and tangible piece of a greater cosmic whole.
Unlike some Western Christians, who have come to see the Bible as a book of good behaviors, wrapped around a few ancient fables, many Hindus regard their own sacred scriptures, such as the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, as literal truth. Sikhs see the Golden Temple as a sacred space in which men and women from all classes and religions can worship God equally. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent tanks in to the temple grounds to go after a violent separatist group in 1984, destroying parts of the temple and killing more than 500 people, it kicked up immense controversy. She was later killed by her own Sikh bodyguards.
What politics have to do with it
Education has rubbed off the sharper corners of bigotry that many Indians may have once had for each other's faiths, but it has done very little to weaken Indian reverence for their own faith. So when Indians say they are offended by a certain statement, they generally mean it.
Even so, such offense is often overstated by Indian politicians, for their own political agendas.
It’s important to note that this is an election year in India. Even though India's Constitution – enacted 62 years ago and celebrated today on Republic Day – enshrines secular values and religious freedom, in practice India is a nation where different religious communities live with their own, vote for their own, and protect their own interests, sometimes ahead of national interests.
The break down
Islam is the second-most practiced religion in India after Hinduism, but at 13.4 percent of the population, it's still a minority group looked upon with suspicion and treated as one would treat an enemy. A constant theme at Delhi dinner parties, is conversation on the penchant for Indian Muslims to root for Pakistan during cricket matches. Indian Muslims frequently seek protection under the Indian Constitution, which prohibits the abuse of any religion.
The large but disparate Hindu majority often feels threatened by smaller and better organized minorities, and is quick to take offense when the ancient faith of Hinduism is disparaged by outsiders. (Many British colonial administrators showed favoritism for Muslim princes, because at least they found the Islamic faith more comprehensible than Hinduism.)
Sikhs, meanwhile, are a much smaller group, concentrated in the border state of Punjab, and after an ugly separatist movement tipped the country toward war and succeeded in assassinating Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, today’s Sikh leaders are trying to find a place for themselves in a newly globalized India. Within India, Sikhs are also often the butt of ethnic jokes, so it’s not a surprise if they take Leno’s joke as yet another slight.