In a recent social media post showing off her Savage X Fenty brand, the singer Rihanna posed topless while sporting a diamond-studded pendant of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. Hindus expressed their anger on Twitter, accusing her of cultural appropriation and of using their religion as an aesthetic.
Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and is called upon by Hindus during marriage ceremonies to bestow good fortune. Hindus consider him a divine figure and that fact should be respected and understood. The necklace, however, was treated as a mere accessory, lacking any significance or meaning.
Hindu deities possess a rich and varied iconography and mythology. Each deity has a special meaning and purpose for use in worship. When the imagery is used by non-Hindus, this significance is often lost and it may well be felt that the likeness of gods are used in disrespectful ways that involve thoughtless appropriation rather than cultural appreciation.
More than pretty
Cultural appropriation refers to the taking for one’s own the objects and practices of a minority (ethnic) or indigenous culture by a majority culture. This can lead to cultures and groups of people becoming further marginalised or exploited in different ways, often economically.
A Hindu symbol that has sparked debates about cultural appropriation is the bindi. A decorative mark traditionally worn by married women on the centre of the forehead, it is believed to balance energy and ward off evil. The bindi is considered to be ‘the third eye’, a point of mystical wisdom and a gateway to spiritual insight.
Western celebrities, such as Gwen Stefani and Selena Gomez, have worn bindis in music performances. This has aided the perception that a bindi is a fun and frivolous accessory, as meaningless as choosing to wear glittery eye shadow. As such, it has become a popular adornment of music-festival goers.
Identity politics (the politics of how groups define themselves) are at issue in appropriation. Immigrants have historically been discriminated against for wearing cultural and religious markers. It can be incredibly offensive when such markers become a meaningless fashionable item and become socially acceptable, even glamorous, when worn by those outside of the minority culture.
Unclean body parts
As well as appearing to appropriate a culture she doesn’t belong to, how Rihanna chose to wear the symbol of Ganesh has added to the outrage of Hindus.
Within Hindu ritual tradition, the body needs to be ritually cleansed and covered before it is deemed suitable to be before deities for worship and prayer. Although deities cannot be polluted, consumerist commodities have caused great offence when they don’t uphold the sacredness of the representation.
For example, in 2005, the designer Minelli brought out a shoe that was adorned with the image of Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, one of the three main deities of Hinduism. In Hinduism, feet are considered lowly and unclean because of what they come into contact with. For this reason, placing a representation of a deity on shoes is disrespectful. When the shoes were withdrawn from sale, many Hindus wanted to salvage the sacred image and unpicked the motif so they could dispose of it ritualistically by immersing it in the sacred waters of the Ganges.
A sexualised body is also deemed “unclean”, which is why Rihanna wearing a necklace of Ganesh while topless and showing off her satin underwear collection was disrespectful to Hindus. To be in the presence of a god, Hindus must be respectfully and modestly dressed.
Diversity should be celebrated and there are ways to appreciate a culture without appropriating it. Engaging with other cultures should be a thoughtful and informed practice, one which acknowledges and respects the provenance of its symbols, objects and practices.