When you think of Urban Outfitters, what do you think of? I think of young people who want to wear clothes that will be designed by a known national brand, but will be just a little bit outside of what they would find at a suburban shopping mall. It’s a baby step toward hipster, but not at all really hipster.
I don’t think of Hindu gods.
Apparently, Urban Outfitters wanted to stretch its brand a little bit, so they posted some bed sheets for sale online, featuring a large image of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh.
When Hindus found out about it, some became very upset. Murali Balaji, director of education at the Hindu American Foundation, called the Urban Outfitters Ganesh bedsheets “hipster racism”, though it’s not clear how offending the religious sensibilities of Hindus is racist. The bedsheets didn’t depict people with ancestry on the Indian subcontinent in any negative way. The bedsheets didn’t communicate any message about human beings at all, but about a god that some human beings believe in.
When non-Hindus didn’t understand the controversy, Rajan Zed, President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, issued a code for the proper display of Ganesh: “You can put him in a frame and on the wall. That is fine, but not to be put on the bed, on which you lie and your feet will go on. That is very inappropriate.”
Even the Council for Secular Humanism, which claims to “defend the rights of those who reject religious beliefs”, has gotten in on the outrage, issuing a terse statement that “Urban Outfitters offends by commodifying Ganesh,” implying that there’s something wrong with commodifying religious images. Of course, Hindus sometimes commodify images of their deities themselves, including Ganesh, when they sell items showing the deities’ images. Is the Council for Secular Humanism against this commodification as well?
For that matter, when will the protests begin against Etsy, which sells Ganesh bedsheets that are manufactured by Lalit Rathi in Dehli, India? Is Mr. Rathi Hindu, or does he belong to one of India’s other religions? Is he, perhaps, an Indian atheist, a blasphemer defying the religious codes of conduct in his native country?
There are Ganesh bedsheets sold in many places, including Amazon, Cafepress, and Vision Bedding. When will the protests against these retailers begin? Will the protests continue until it becomes impossible to buy any bedsheet with an image of Ganesh?
Urban Outfitters has responded to the Hindu protests by removing the Ganesh bedsheets from its collection of products. That decision makes good business sense. Urban Outfitters doesn’t gain anything through the notoriety of having religiously controversial products. It’s not really a nonconformist brand.
But what about for the rest of us? How is the Hindu campaign against Ganesh bedsheets different from the campaigns by American Christians to censor depictions of Jesus that they don’t approve of?
Why should people who aren’t members of a religion be expected to follow that religion’s codes of conduct? Should we all be obliged to stop any behavior that anyone finds offensive to their religious sensibilities? Should blasphemy be banned?
Actually, there is some evidence that suggests that the practice of blasphemy may be socially beneficial. For example, a study recently published in the scholarly journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts found that, in a small Texas town, teenagers who read commonly banned books, many of which were considered religiously blasphemous, were more likely than their peers to volunteer their labor for local civic organizations.
September 30 is International Blasphemy Rights Day, an unholy day on which people celebrate the legal right to defy religious leaders’ attempts to restrict speech and artistic expression. I’m tempted to design a set of bedsheets carrying the images of Ganesh, Mohammed, and Jesus to mark the occasion.