Small Errors, Big Impact: Correcting Media Portrayals of Hinduism

Hindu Americans comprise one of the fastest growing groups in the United States, currently making up roughly 1 percent of the population. This does not include the millions of people who derive inspiration from Hindu spirituality and engage in Hindu practices such as yoga, kirtan and meditation.

With growing numbers comes an increased need for understanding of Hindus and their traditions. But this need has heretofore been left unmet or, worse yet, undermined by the dichotomy between Hindu understandings of their traditions and how they are described in mainstream media. Too often media coverage of Hinduism relies on stereotypical fallacies and the analyses of non-Hindu “experts,” who sometimes are not committed to understanding the tradition as it is lived and understood by its adherents.

The following examples are just a small sample of the common omissions, oversights and errors in media coverage and public discussions of Hinduism. Each typical error, derived from actual references in print and broadcast media, is followed by broader context and detailed explanation in a collaborative effort to correct these inaccuracies.

Misrepresentation: Avoiding the Term ‘Hindu’

The popularity of yoga in the West has skyrocketed in the past several decades, today forming a multi-billion dollar industry, with more than 36 million participants in the United States alone. But as yoga has become mainstream in American culture, all too often, its Hindu roots become ignored or delinked. From yoga magazines to articles on yoga in mainstream media, avoiding or eliminating the term ‘Hindu’, even when referring to definitively Hindu teachings, practices, and sources of knowledge, is common practice. Replacing ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ are terms such as Eastern, ancient Indian, Indic, yogic, or Vedic. 

While these substitute terms are not entirely inaccurate, articles in these same media outlets frequently refer to or attribute directly other teachings, practices, and sacred texts to the appropriate, major world religion, including Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. 

For example, a specific style of meditation may be referred to as ‘Buddhist,’ but decidedly Hindu sources of knowledge, such as the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita, or Hindu practices such as bhakti (the path of loving devotion of God) and kirtan (call and repeat singing of devotionals), are not attributed to the Hindu Dharma Traditions.

Hindu Dharma teachings and traditions continue to be widely misunderstood because of inaccurate or stereotyped, caricatured “caste, cows, and karma” portrayals. Misunderstanding often leads to bias, bullying and discrimination. Yoga as well as other Hindu spiritual practices, that benefit people of all backgrounds, should be attributed as Hindu in the interest of accuracy, dispelling stereotypes, avoiding cultural appropriation and improving religious literacy.

Misconception: Hinduism is ancient and unchanging

One frequent stereotype about Hinduism — admittedly sometimes played into by Hindus themselves and tourism departments drumming up business for travel to India — is that Hindu spiritual traditions are impossibly ancient and that Hindu practices today are the same as they were hundreds and hundreds of years ago. 

There is partial but not complete truth in this. 

Hinduism is the world’s oldest still-practiced collection of spiritual traditions going back at least five millennia with astronomical references in sacred texts going back even farther. Some of the temple rituals and individual spiritual practices still done today do have roots in a variety of Hindu sources of knowledge (sacred texts, oral transmission, stories, songs, customs, etc.) that are several thousand years old. One can go to India and find temples that are on sites used for dharmic worship going back just as long — even if the current structure is much more modern. 

Where the mistake enters is making the leap from those true statements to the assumption that these spiritual philosophies and associated practices, as well as the cultural practices of the Hindu people, have not changed or evolved over the past millennia. 

One way in how this manifests in coverage of Hinduism is either citing the centuries-old text Manusmriti, or relying on sources who cite this ancient text of social codes, as being somehow indicative of contemporary Hindu attitudes about social issues or even attitudes of 150 years ago. The fact is that no Hindus today look to Manusmriti as a means of regulating their lives or society. It is only read by historians as a window into ideas about life centuries upon centuries ago. 

Saying that Manusmriti at all represents contemporary Hindu society or contemporary India is as incorrect as trying to argue that laws from post-Roman Britain or religious laws in the middle ages in Europe are how contemporary Europeans live their lives and interact with their neighbors.  

The fact is that Hinduism and Hindus have been in dialogue with the world around them, throughout history, in similar ways to every major religion and society. Social mores in India and for Hindus in numerous diasporas are constantly evolving, often in ways that are roughly in step with how they are evolving around the world as a whole in an interconnected, global society. 

Most Hindus do not look to the literal word of ancient texts for guidance, but rather to the principles in them, to explore or test the relevance of ancient principles on contemporary issues. 

Misrepresentation: Hindus are Polytheistic

Hindu understandings of the Divine cannot be easily pigeon-holed in the binary of monotheistic and polytheistic. Rather, Hindu teachings describe one Supreme Divinity or Absolute that is the formless underlying reality, which can manifest and be venerated through infinite forms. This concept is best described as monism. The many traditions, lore, regional beliefs, and languages have contributed to an unprecedented variety of forms of the Absolute that are venerated as manifestations or God(s). 

Editors should ensure that capitalization is consistent across religious traditions, so that if “God” is capitalized in the context of Judeo-Christian stories, it should also be for those covering Hinduism. Furthermore Hindu deities are rarely referred to by their names alone. For example, Hindus tend to preface “Krishna” with the word, “Lord” or “God” purely out of respect.

Misconception: Hindus Worship Cows

Although Hindus respect the cow, and sometimes do puja or rituals venerating cows, the cow is not seen as a deity. There is, however, a bovine-goddess, Kamadhenu, described in various Hindu sources of knowledg that is considered the mother of all cows. Hindus consider all living things to be sacred, an attitude reflected in reverence for the cow.

Hindu cultures view the cow as a generous, ever-giving source, which takes nothing but that which is necessary for its own sustenance. Hindus treat the cow with the same respect accorded to the mother, as the cow is a vital sustainer of life, providing milk for sustenance and a means of plowing the earth to grow crops.

The cow received such status as a result of the historical need of early agrarian Hindu civilization. The Rig Veda (6.28.1, 6) recorded, “The cows have come and have brought us good fortune. In our stalls, contented may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us, many colored, giving milk for Indra each day. You make, O cows, the thin man sleek; to the unlovely you bring beauty. Rejoice our homestead with pleasant lowing. In our assemblies we laud your vigor.”

The cow thus represents Hindu values of selfless service, strength, compassion, and ahimsa (non-harming). Though not all Hindus are vegetarian, many traditionally abstain from eating beef for these reasons.

Misconception: Hindus Worship Idols

The use of the word ‘idol’ to refer to the representations Hindus use in honoring Supreme Beings is inaccurate. The correct term in Sanskrit is murti and refers to a powerful visual tool for contemplating the nature of God. In English, the closest word would be ‘embodiment’ or ‘deity.’ In fact, there is no Sanskrit word exactly equivalent to the English word ‘idol,’ as that word is usually used as a false god or graven image in an Abrahamic context.

Rather than worshiping a murti as God, Hindus use these divine images as focal points designed to be aids in prayer and meditation. Hindus do not consider God to be limited to the murti, rather it is a sacred symbol that offers a medium for adoration. Indeed, Hindus perceive the Divine as being infinite and with the ability of being honored in infinite ways. The multiple Gods and Goddesses are seen as a manifestations of that infinite Divine.

Misconception: The Shiva Lingam is an Erotic Symbol

The lingam or linga — a vertical rounded column, represents the infinite, indescribable nature of Divine — is the simplest and most ancient symbol of Lord Shiva and is said to represent the Ultimate Reality beyond all forms and qualities. 

According to Hindu seers and various sources of knowledge, the lingam is a visible symbol of the Ultimate Reality which is present in all objects of creation. It is believed by many that at the end of the various aspects of creation, all of the different aspects of the Divine find a resting place in the Lingam.

When reporters describe the lingam as a penis or phallic symbol, as is often done, particularly when referring to the naturally forming ice-lingam at the Amarnath temple in the mountains of Kashmir, it is highly offensive and fails to represent how Hindus view the linga. 

Misconception: Hinduism’s Scriptures Promote Violence

“The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata… Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self- destructive behaviors such as war…The Gita is a dishonest book; it justifies war.” — Professor Wendy Doniger, quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 2000

That the Bhagavad Gita is set against the backdrop of a battle, as part of the epic poem the Mahabharata, is sometimes used to imply that Hinduism promotes violence. This is a profound misportrayal. 

While battle is discussed in the Bhagavad Gita, it is not the primary message nor is that a main point that the overwhelming majority of Hindus derive from it. 

The Bhagavad Gita relays that upholding dharma, or one’s duty performed towards a greater good, can be challenging, especially in situations where there is not a clear right or wrong. In modern times, many people, including non-Hindus, have read the Gita and drawn inspiration and guidance from it.

The Bhagavad Gita captures a conversation between Sri Krishna, believed to be an avatar (incarnation) of God, and the warrior prince, Arjuna, in the middle of a battlefield. Arjuna is despondent as he faces the fact that in order for him to uphold justice, he must wage war against his family members, friends and teachers. Sri Krishna relays to the prince why he must pick up arms in this situation, and fight against injustice.

The Bhagavad Gita is widely read and referred to by many Hindus and non-Hindus. Although it is technically classified as a smriti text, it is traditionally accorded the rank of an Upanishad, which are understood to be realized (shruti) texts of eternal truths. The teachings of the Gita have been interpreted differently by various lineages, thinkers, and people across time. The fact is, however, that in several millennia of recorded history, it has never been interpreted literally by Hindu rulers, nor by contemporary Hindus, as justification to attack a land in the name of religion or with the goal of conversion.

Misconception: Karma Means Fate, Luck, or Destiny

Karma is frequently misinterpreted to mean luck, fate, or destiny — something over which one has no control. However, Hindu sources of knowledge express that every person is responsible for, and in control of, their own thoughts and actions. Karma is the universal principle of action and reaction on physical, mental and spiritual levels. The fruits of our thoughts and actions, good or bad, will return to us either in this life or future lives. Since each action has a reaction, the cycle of karma is endless. To avoid being trapped in this cycle, Hindu teachings advise one to act selflessly, uphold dharma, and be of service to society, while remaining affectionately detached from the fruits of their actions. When a person can act without thought of reward, they are freed from the cycle of karma.

Misrepresentation: Portraying Debates About Diets as Unique to Hinduism

With at least 30% of the population of India being full-time committed vegetarians and some 80% abstaining from meat for certain periods of the week or year, there is a global perception is that India is mostly a vegetarian nation, if not fully accurate statistically. 

With that though, comes a reportage that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: That India’s vegetarians are all from so-called upper castes, that the practice of vegetarianism amongst Hindus has something to do with ritual purity, or even that parents or communities raising vegetarian children deserve public criticism admonition because they are depriving them of a balanced and nutritious diet. 

In fact, the distribution of vegetarians in India cannot strictly be discussed in terms of religion or caste or community identity. Regional aspects play at least as much of a factor in determining whether any individual Hindu is vegetarian as does their means, ancestral or familial  culture and concerns about animal welfare, environmental considerations, and personal health.

Also, wearing one’s “diet like a badge of…status” as some articles proclaim is not exclusive to Hindu vegetarians. Non-vegetarians can often be observed boasting about not being able to “live without a good steak,” or fitness experts swearing by a particular diet like Low Carb High Fat, High Protein, or Raw Food Diet. The same can be said about parents giving their children the same food that they eat. Parents everywhere, regardless of religion, naturally place such dietary preferences on their own children without comment.

As for strict vegetarian Hindus refusing to eat in restaurants that also serve non-vegetarian food, so as not to have their food “contaminated”, similar self-imposed preferences can be found amongst adherents of other faiths, such as Muslims and Jews who only eat at Halal or Kosher establishments, or even strict vegetarians or vegans around the world, regardless of their faith tradition or none.

Portraying this debate as something unique to Hindu society and rooted in caste identity is lazy journalism, as well as ignorant of the growing vegetarian and vegan movement around the globe. it also perpetuates racist, colonial stereotypes about Indian society that never reflected ground realities, not historically and not today.

Finally, if one looks to other societies or subsections of societies, non-vegetarian dietary choices and traditions are just as hotly debated and loaded with emotion. Every culture and religious tradition engages in this sort of discussion in one form or another. 

Misconception: Hinduism Treats Women Particularly Badly

Ideas or attitudes that negatively stereotype or place restrictions on women are not unique to the Hindu Dharma traditions. Such stereotypes and restrictions are found in all world religions. However, insinuating that the denigration of women is a focus of Hindu teachings disregards the central, deeper message found across the Hindu Dharma traditions — that all of existence is Divine regardless of its outer characteristics. It also ignores entirely the reality that Hindu women are respected as pillars of religious life, as well as the fact that Hinduism has always had a profound tradition of honoring the Divine in feminine form and today is the single example among the world’s largest traditions where the Divine Feminine is revered.

That there has been and remains a disconnect between teachings of equality and respect for women and veneration of Goddess, and examples of mistreatment of women in Hindu society is indeed unfortunate. However, to claim that the norms of Hindu society are any more patriarchal or oppressive in its treatment of women as a whole than those of any other culture, in comparable historical time periods, or today, simply isn’t true and reflective of double standards in reporting.

Misconception: Hindus’ ideas of their past is based on ‘beliefs’ and not historical knowledge

Often when discussing Hindus’ and Hinduism’s past, a curious thing happens: Authors will write something like “Hindus believe” x happened or y is the location of, et cetera. “Hindus believe”, the phrasing goes, that the Babri Masjid was built atop a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, or that there was a physical Saraswati River that later dried up, or thousands of temples were destroyed by Muslim rulers out of religious animus towards “unbelievers”. 

The use of the word ‘believe’ in these circumstances implies that such ideas may not only be false, but perhaps that they could not possibly be proved or disproved by research, be it archeological, textual, or scientific. There’s a subtle intimation that these ideas are rooted in religious faith, even conspiracy, and hence unverifiable, not physical evidence, cultural memory or historical documentation.

Both these latter implications of course can be less than accurate. Cultural memory can misremember the specific details of events rooted in fact, no matter which culture is doing the remembering. And most people are aware that history is often written by the victors, as the maxim goes. 

However, in the case of the archaeological and textual research into what the Babri Masjid was built over, the evidence shows that some sort of pre-Islamic religious structure did exist and that the site was used for sacred purposes by Hindus and adherents of other Dharma traditions since the second millennia BCE. It does not say that it was the birthplace of Lord Ram or that there was a historical person of Ram, but it does broadly vindicate what is too often labeled a mere ‘belief’ of Hindus. 

These intimations also are indicative of a double standard. Reportage referring to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or Mecca, for example, rarely refer to either in terms of belief. More often, they are simply described as sacred sites for Christians or Muslims or their respective traditional histories portrayed as fact without the types of evidence either required of Hindus or all but ignored.

In the case of the Saraswati River, satellite imagery shows that there was in fact a river which flowed in the broad vicinity of where ancient Hindu texts say there was one. This research cannot say that it was exactly the Saraswati River, but it does support the notion of the Hindu texts. 

Similarly, historical research does not provide one specific number of Hindu temples that were destroyed due to religious hostility of Muslim rulers, but there is documentation by these victorious rulers both of a great many temples being destroyed and their purported pious motivations for doing so. 

When writing about India’s past, writers should avoid double standards as well as be actively aware that their phrasing doesn’t inadvertently downplay an incident or location that Hindus traditionally assert happened or existed, and take responsibility for accuracy by consulting primary sources.

Misrepresentation: Kashmir’s past and present

When writing about the situation in Kashmir, the mid-20th century history, crucial events of a few decades ago, and the motivations of those people advocating for an independent Kashmir are often omitted. 

There is no debate that there has been international dispute of what, prior to the creation of the modern nations of India and Pakistan, had been the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir. However the nature of this dispute, which has been at times to this day violent, is stripped of its context when it is presented as an equal argument between India and Pakistan. It isn’t an equal-sided situation.

The historical fact of the matter is that Kashmir’s ruler, just prior to Independence, decided to join India as Pakistan-backed militias invaded the princely state to try to take the entire region for Pakistan. The UN, upon then Prime Minister Jawarhalal Nehru’s request, determined that a popular vote should happen to resolve the situation. But there was on one critical condition: the militias had to leave the land they had invaded prior to any vote. This never happened, placing the cause that the conflict is ongoing squarely on the back of Pakistan. This weight of blame is only increased as since that time, Pakistan has carried on a cross-border proxy war, repeatedly and consistently sending Islamist terrorists across the so-called Line of Control into India and backing Islamist separatists in India. 

More recently, the historically documented fact that the Hindu population of Kashmir, the Kashmiri Pandit community, was ethnically cleansed in the early 1990s is curiously omitted from many media-created histories of the region. Thousands upon thousands of Hindus were forced to flee their ancestral homeland on pain of land grabs, violence and death, yet this fact is omitted or downplayed when discussing the Kashmir conflict. 

Also omitted are the cultural motivations of those Pakistan-backed forces attempting to either bring all of Kashmir under the control of Pakistan or create an independent Kashmir (which would be a proxy-state of Pakistan). This would not be some bastion of secular liberal sentiment, standing up against a “Hindu India”, as the implication seems to be. Rather, as it stands now, any future Kashmir outside of India would be a profoundly illiberal, Islamic theocratic state, one in which religious or cultural minorities and women, both Muslim and non-Muslim, would face the sort of well-documented repression that these groups face in Pakistan today. 

Mischaracterization: Public expression of Hindu belief doesn’t mean you are a Hindu nationalist or right-wing

In the past decade, critics of Hindutva, the political philosophy often described as Hindu nationalism, have weaponized the term against Hindus in the United States they believe support the present BJP-led government in India. 

Regardless of the person’s exact political beliefs and even if they are objectively left wing in the US political spectrum, for critics of Hindutva and the BJP, if you are not actively denouncing both, then you are labeled far-right wing, an extremist, a Hindu nationalist, a Hindu supremacist, or a Hindu fascist. It is used to place an individual into a category beyond the pale of reasonable discussion and shut down consideration of the details of their beliefs. 

This intellectual crib sheet says that if you are a Hindu not condemning Hindutva, you are actively supporting it and therefore need to be called out for your ethical and moral failings, viewed with suspicion, and treated as dangerous. 

The fact is that Hindu Americans have a wide range of views on the political philosophy of Hindutva — an ideology which is, it should be noted, both highly misunderstood in the West and understood through a variety of interpretations among its supporters. Some Hindu Americans do support their respective interpretation of Hindutva; some are opposed to it; and others still, particularly Hindu Americans born outside of India or who are not of Indian origin at all, are entirely ambivalent about it. 

Reporters should be careful of mistaking public expressions of Hindu identity as being an indicator of support for Hindu nationalism. As being proudly Christian doesn’t make you a Christian nationalist or being proudly Muslim doesn’t mean you support Islamism, being publicly and proudly Hindu doesn’t automatically indicate you ascribe to Hindutva.