By KELLY SMITH
Deepali Puri entered her friend’s dorm room at The University of Tampa and was immediately faced with one of her Gods: Ganesh. He sat before them, his many hands intertwined between each other and his elephant head stared down upon them. Knowing the ancient religion of Hinduism well enough to know that dirt should be kept far away from any god at any time, she slipped off her shoes before going any closer. But what lay in front of it couldn’t be overcome with her simple shoe removal.
“There were shoes, dirty dishes, and trash in front of it,” the junior human performance major remembers. “Wrappers, dirty mugs, all of it. It’s bad luck, it’s not okay. It’s disrespectful.”
But, as the forest green tapestry with the god on it kept hanging, the trash kept piling up. Puri continued to remove her shoes every time she entered the room. Her friends eventually noticed and when she explained why it’s important to keep the area clean, their reply was simple:
In recent years, there has been an obvious upswing in South Asian religious and cultural symbols being used in Western fashion and decor. In 2013, Selena Gomez wore a bindi, a ceremonial piece of jewelry worn by Hindu women to mark their status of being married during her performance at the MTV Music Video Awards. There are now retail stores popping up all around Tampa, such as Agora in Ybor City and Earth Bound Trading in Citrus Park Mall, that specialize in selling items that relate to the culture: statues of Ganesh, the god of education and overcoming obstacles, tapestries with the om symbol on them, a Sanskrit symbol that represents the divinity of the universe, statues of Shivas, little gods that represent harmony and balance in the universe, hamsa wall hangers to keep away the evil spirits and negative energy; the list goes on and on.
On top of fashion statements and home knickknacks, these symbols are now tattooed on people of all ages all around the country. On Instagram, there are accounts specifically created to post photos of these types of tattoos, one being titled “Hippie Tattoos.” It has 82,800 followers.
But, as Puri spoke about the disrespect she felt her roommates showed her god hanging on their wall, her feelings seemed to reflect the media’s backlash towards Gomez for being “culturally insensitive.” According to Puri, it really is a big deal to borrow these symbols.
“No one knows what they actually mean, and that’s the problem. These aren’t just decorations,” said Puri. “They’re symbols that have been around for thousands upon thousands of years—that obviously means something.”
Professor Daniel Dooghan is a seasoned professor who has specialized in a variety of topics, including Chinese religion and culture. When it comes to discussing how we represent people from cultures other than what is considered the Western “norm,” his eyes light up and his mouth never stops moving. He has taught numerous theory classes at UT, including Post-Colonial Literature and Theory, which focuses heavily on problems such as exploitation of minority groups, most commonly defined as cultural appropriation.
“Yes, it’s a problem, but—no one owns anything, ultimately. We have been borrowing things from other cultures for a very long time and weird stuff happens,”
In Dooghan’s opinion, the tattooing of Hindu gods and symbols on the body is just kids trying to look cool. These types of tattoo fads go back to the 90’s, when getting Chinese symbols tattooed seemed to be the “it” thing. Now South Asian styled ones are “it.” He describes putting these devotional symbols onto one’s body as “a dick move.”
“When you do this and you don’t have a connection to it, you’re reducing something that is different and saying that you can possess it. You’re saying [Hindu people’s beliefs] are irrelevant compared to your need to look cool at the bar,” says Dooghan.
Phillip Wolves is a twenty six year old beast topping nearly six feet and tattooed from head to toe. He has been in the tattooing profession for five years and splits his time between shops found in both New York and Boca Raton. He specializes in South Asian symbolic tattoos: Ganesh’s, lotus flowers, and hamsas. According to him, the average walk-in customer requesting an eastern motif based in spiritualism is female, ranging from the ages 18-26. Of the three, they most commonly request the sacred symbol of a lotus flower. These customers usually have a shallow understandings of their cultural context, he says, but explains that each comes requesting them with a story that is valid and memorable in its own right.
“I think we as human beings are all connected by things that transcend race, gender, religion and creed. Every culture has their versions of social structure and iconography that help illustrate the same concepts as anyone else’s,” said Wolves. “It’s only natural that there might be appeal to these concepts and ideals.”
Kayla Cunningham, a 23-year-old mother of two who lives in Tampa, Florida, feels strongly about non-Hindu people being able to borrow these symbols without criticism. She thinks that the people who are offended by this should be happy that their symbols have become so influential among people of other religions and cultures; it supports the fact that their power is timeless.
She has accumulated three Asian styled tattoos over the years: a lotus flower, a Geisha, and a cherry blossom tree. Although Cunningham claims she doesn’t have much knowledge about any religious associations that her tattoos may have, she has created her own stories and meanings behind them.
Her Geisha, for example, was placed on her body after she escaped an abusive relationship because of a Geisha’s reputation of holding great power over men. Her lotus flower represents the rebirth she experienced when she left addiction behind her. And, her cherry blossom tree reminds her of how fragile life is.
When Puri looks at the symbols that remind her so much of her belief system, she also feels connected to the billions of people that share them with her; and what she really wants is for people to just understand the tremendous importance of that.
“What it really comes down to, for me at least, is that everyone just needs to just start listening and being more aware and open about it all: these aren’t just fashion statements, they’re so much more than that,” said Puri.
They’re gods. They’re symbols that people turn to in times of need. They’re comforts from a land across the globe that some Hindus here won’t ever visit, but will still claim to be their home. They’re images of familiarity that brings a place as massive and as populated as India completely together, as one. They aren’t just a trend.
And, while some people say you may be an asshole for exploiting a group of people on the other side of the world at your expense of looking cool, Dooghan thinks that at the end of the day, there are bigger problems to be solved here.
“None of these things make you a horrible racist,” Dooghan said. “We just need to talk about how we collectively talk about other parts of the world.”