Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor.
On April 16, a young Latin American singer/actress named Selena Gomez created some waves with her live performance at the MTV movie awards- a rendition of the song Come and Get it featuring a prominent bindi on her face. A number of Indians and particularly Hindus were upset by this 20-year old American girl wearing the traditional female forehead accessory during a suggestive pop song and dance number. As you may know, many believe the bindi or “red dot” is supposed to be worn by married Hindu women only as a “third eye of wisdom.”
People emerged to publicly chastise the pop star and defend the honor of Indian women. A Hindu leader named Rajan Zed whined to the media, “(The bindi) is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed. Selena should apologize and then she should get acquainted with the basics of world religion.”
We are going to dive into some sensitive and controversial waters here, so it is probably worth getting a few things out of the way up front. I know little to nothing about Miss Gomez, have never heard her music or watched her on film before, and I honestly never cared about her. I am certainly not a fan. But then I read about this silly controversy she caused, and decided that someone needed to forcefully and rationally defend her right to wear a bindi, even though I don’t think it looked particularly good or tasteful on her. Secondly, I am a practicing Hindu, though I have never worn it on my sleeve or proselytized about my beliefs as some do. I also don’t intend to do so here. However, my understanding of Hinduism is going to shape what I’m about to say. Finally, I have spent a great deal of time in both India and the United States, and this gives me a certain perspective on the situation as well.
Responses such as Zed’s are ABSOLUTE NONSENSE. Nobody religious or otherwise has the right to demand that one cannot wear a particular fashion accessory, demand an apology for it, or shame someone into learning about their religion, or any for that matter. I’m no stranger to bindis or what they are supposed to mean; my mother has worn one every day that I have ever known her while living in multiple countries- carrying its meaning wherever we went. So here’s why this so-called moral outrage outrages me so much:
Hinduism is meant for all. Some of the critics need to learn more about their own religion first. Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest existing organized religion, and by no accident it has some of the most liberal views on lifestyles and society. Anyone can be a Hindu. A person who knows nothing about Hinduism can be a Hindu. Even an atheist can be a Hindu– something that clearly separates it from other major religions at its core. It’s not a special, exclusive club with traditions that cannot be shared. Anyone can enter a Hindu temple anywhere. Anyone can wear a bindi, sari, dhoti, or OM symbol without needing to convert formally or getting the equivalent of a “baptism.” One could wear it for the simple reason that they think it looks cool. The only exception here is for particular advanced traditions of the swamis or brahmin priests, such as wearing the sacred thread, and this requires passing through some proverbial gates as I have done. These involve a status bestowed by others, and are not being questioned here.
Selena thinks she knows something about Hinduism, though her interview answer makes me think she might be confusing my Indians with the “other” Indians: “I think the song has that Hindu, tribal feel and I wanted to translate that,” Selena explained. “I’ve been learning about my chakra and bindis and the culture … It’s beautiful.” However much or little she knows is not the point though; she should be accepted by all Hindus without judgment or questioning of motives.
So what is the point? Unfortunately, I know all too well what all this is really about. Many Indians and Hindus are exceedingly insecure when it comes to their history and culture. They are deathly afraid of the onset of modern culture at home and abroad, especially because young people are choosing it over their own in droves. They are threatened by a Hispanic girl sporting it. How dare a non-Indian girl wear a bindi seductively to make money off of it!!! This controversy is really about Selena’s skin color.
Have you ever seen a Bollywood movie? Indian pop tarts make piles of money strutting around seductively every single day with various bindis on, and just as tastelessly as Miss Gomez if not more. So why single out this poor girl for it? Are we so sure all those good little brown girls know the religion? Why aren’t they being asked to apologize? This is about racism, pure and simple.
We’ve seen this movie before, folks. When Liz Hurley got married in India, a court case was opened against her by religious zealots for drinking alcohol and wearing shoes (heinous crimes, I know). The subcontinental moral majority also came out of the woodwork in full force when Gwen Stefani and Madonna decided to put on the bindi years before Selena even had her first menstrual cycle. What’s the common thread here? Yes, the prejudice extends beyond skin color; there is sexism going on too. Perhaps Hindus are a little afraid of bindi-wearing foreign women because they might be rakshasis– roughly translated as demons in female form? They are going to swoop in, steal away good Indian men and also ancient Hindu traditions!
You can’t speak for all of us. This is America. Like India, there is freedom of the press and speech in general. This also includes freedom of expression, such as wearing whatever the hell you want. By the same token, I respect the right of people to criticize Selena’s or Gwen’s little bindi experiments. But fortunately for us, there are no popes in Hinduism, no grand leader that everyone has to listen to and conform to. It’s a disparate sort of system, with millions of gods and over a billion adherents following various traditions. When I claim to speak for Hindus by saying it’s OK for Selena Gomez to wear her bindi, I can say it with just as much authority and probably more adherents than those who would denounce her for it. Keep doing it, Selena!
I look forward to a debate about this in the comments section; I’m quite certain some of you reading this would disagree. I’ll be here. When you’re ready, come and get it.
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