The cosmic dance of Obama-Raja on Newsweek

By Pankaj Jain A recent issue of Newsweek has on its cover page President Barack Obama in the cosmic dance … Continued

By Pankaj Jain

A recent issue of Newsweek has on its cover page President Barack Obama in the cosmic dance pose of the Hindu deity Lord Nataraja (some have called it the Obama-Raja posture).

Within a matter of hours after Newsweek depicted this image on its website, several Hindu organizations, Hindu websites, Hindus on social media sites, started reacting to this portrayal of one of their major gods. This also caught the attention of several scholars of Hinduism. Unlike many other issues in the past, this latest episode of Hindu deities used or misused in non-religious context in the West aroused mixed reactions both from practicing Hindus and from practicing and non-practicing scholars of Hinduism. Some shrugged it off saying that portrayal of Hindu deities is quite common even in the commercial advertisements in India and that the Hindu texts were full of such humorous references to their gods and goddesses. Others compared and contrasted such portrayal with Abrahmic religions and demanded the fair and balanced treatment of Hinduism in popular culture.

I think in addition to all the above reactions and responses, there are few more ‘cosmic’ questions that we can raise from this Obama-Raja ‘cosmic’ dance posture. For one, why should we let the hyper-active media dominate our thought process? Granted that we live in a 24/7 global media spin-machine, but should we only react to what and how media chooses to write and portray? Media, as a profit making business in most cases, chooses to sensationalize even trivial issues such as the President of a major nation trying to multi-task his responsibilities. Worse, even the academic world seems to be susceptible to such sensationalized patterns.

Just as an instance, in the last more than sixty years of India’s independence, there can be several success stories that can be role-model for several other developing nations in the world. However, what gets most attention of the media – and of scholars – are the controversial topics such as the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, deployment of martial law style ’emergency’ by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, destruction of the (Babri) Mosque in 1992, or the Hindu Muslim violence in 2002. These events have continued to represent the historic milestones in the history of independent India even as the millions of Indians made remarkable progress in basic literacy and thousands of Indians reached almost every part of the USA and the rest of the world with their software and other technological skills. Several other epidemics and other gigantic problems were quietly eradicated from India.

The success of Indian democracy and pluralism remains one of the most understated stories in the recent history of humankind which is what caught my attention when President Obama mentioned this in glorious terms when he addressed the Indian parliament. Unfortunately, these historic remarks were not sensational enough for many and were relegated to quiet archives of news while Obama-Raja image suddenly woke everybody up. Ironies of ‘cosmic’ proportions indeed!

Perhaps, more direct question is of the portrayal itself of the Hindu and other religions in the academia and media. Aren’t Hindus familiar with the humorous references to their gods in their own texts and in their urban billboards and advertisements? Aren’t they aware of poet-saints like Kabir who ridiculed several Hindu (and Muslim) superstitions and other social practices of that time? Why do Hindus continue to revere one of the most vocal critics of Hindu practices like Kabir while they react quite differently when their symbols and legends are portrayed or critiqued by contemporary academia and media?

One way to interpret this could be to remind ourselves that the social reformers like Gandhi and Kabir despite their vociferous criticism for some of the social practices, had deep love and reverence for humans irrespective of their caste, creed, or religion. This may also be the place to mention that Lord Shiva (another manifestation of Lord Nataraja in Hindu tradition) is often portrayed by Hindus as one who drinks poison but adorns the moon on his head. This is frequently interpreted to mean that the ‘good’ of others must be decorated upfront but the ‘bad’ must be hidden within us. Before critiquing, criticising, or ridiculing others, one must find their qualities to appreciate and magnify. I can only imagine how this Hindu method of social interactaction could help foster world peace and harmony. And in the style of Lord Shiva, let’s meditate on this biggest ‘cosmic’ question of our times!

Pankaj Jain is an assistant professor at the University of North Texas.

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  • wijackso

    I think you’re right. The media grabs attention using whatever it finds at hand. The statue of liberty is adapted for every issue that comes along, with some other symbols replacing the torch. I’ve seen the dancing Shiva image used to sell computer products–a different one in each hand. The phrase The God of Small Things is known from the famous Indian novel of that name, and so it becomes The God of All Things, because it rings a bell. No reason to get excited, just paid media people using free association to catch the buying public’s eye.

  • jigerster

    Dr. Jain, I really like you giving this issue a spiritual dimension, which ironically many times religious discussion miss out on! Though I will say I was little disappointed when I saw Newsweek cover, the reason being it seems that many forms of God that Hinduism portrays through different deities are used as “mythological” figures, which implies that Hindu perception of God is not respectable. Aum!

  • sonia7

    Very interesting, balanced and thought provoking article. It’s high time that somebody starts seeing the positive aspects rather than the negative ones which often get all the attention….Congrats for taking the first step!

  • varunmehtak

    I appreciate such a response from an academic expert. Of course, very well written!! I look forward to reading many more of your views in The Post

  • kishorev

    Pankaj, You are absolutely right. Unfortunately, we are living in an age where yellow journalism is rampant. It makes perfect sense on the business front as most of the media outlets try to outbeat the competition by sensationalizing the news and grabbing people’s attention. Part of the reason for this situation is people themselves. They are so occupied with their daily lives and do not focus on things happening around them until they see “Breaking News” alert on a TV or come across a sensational headline on a daily newspaper. Coming to the topic of discussion, we can interpret this picture in two ways. One way is that the writer/editor wants to show the problems that Obama is currently facing and how he is trying to balance them. He used the posture of Nataraja as a reference to his balancing act. Other way is his/her ignorance to the fact that such portrayal will hurt the feelings of a community.

  • Manohar-MT

    I don’t think I would be hurt just because of President Obama’s depiction of Natraj’s posture. I think Newsweek wanted to say that Mr. President is trying to be like Lord Shiva’s dancing posture to handle and balance many tasks, but can he ? If Newsweek used this posture, that means rest of the World is getting educated as to what it means? and there will be a learning process for each of them to know what it means and how it came about ? Lets not be that reactive. Thanks Pankaj for explaining it further and in better way.

  • dhiraj01dec

    Very well written and balanced article. Way to go Pankaj.

  • orionatpalms

    Very nice article depicting the true face of media around the world. Media only shows what sells.