IT HAPPENED TO ME: A Hindu Fundamentalist Group Started an Anti-Blasphemy Campaign Against Me Over Some Cat Paintings

After years of floating in my yoga-teacher ether, I realized you can't just cast off your own culture and put on a prettier one.

We have decided to run the art the author submitted with the story for the sake of context, because the art is still visible on the author's website, and because, while we respect religion, we also support freedom of expression. — Marci

After 15 years practicing yoga and three years teaching, I was well on my way to being one of those Anglo-Americans who decorates their house with Hindu statues, knows the names of and basic facts about major Hindu deities, and enjoys chanting about the greatness of Siva, Krishna, et al. Like many of my yoga peers, I rejected my Christian upbringing to embrace the beauty and mystique of colorful Hindu gods.

One day, in savasana (corpse pose), I had a vision of my cats in the guise of Hindu gods. I could see them sitting in meditation, or dancing like Nataraja. To me, my cats were godlike because they could teach me unconditional love in a way that humans didn't.

I felt inspired to paint my kitties — and some other cats and dogs and rabbits — in the guise of Hindu gods, complete with the accoutrements: glittery jewelry and headpieces, sarongs, Himalayan Mountains in the background, and wandering peacocks in the foreground.

I put the paintings on my website — known only to my family, a few friends, and the few internet surfers who wiped out in my obscure and minuscule corner of the web.

My paintings had been up for a couple of years when I suddenly started getting hate mail. After some initial confusion, I traced my newfound infamy to a fundamentalist Hindu group called Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. I have no idea how they found my little website.

HJS started an anti-blasphemy campaign against me on its website. And I was in good company. Their other campaigns included people who sold underwear featuring the face of a Hindu god or used the image of a deity to hawk any consumer products. Their M.O. was to harass a company or individual until they stopped using Hindu or Hinduism-inspired images, then crow about it on their website.

First, I got personal emails, which were especially alarming.

A few excerpts:

"Yours is such unforgivable sin ... Gods cannot help you."

"This is absolutely wrong to draw pictures of our deities in any form which is not acceptable to us. If you want to draw pictures of Hindu deities please draw as per spiritual science."

"Take this letter very seriously and treat it as a very strong protest letter and we urge you to destroy your paintings immediately or face further legal and moral actions."

"These obscene paintings hurt my sentiments deeply. I don't know which religion you belong to. Will you dare to paint Jesus, Mother Mary, H.H. Pope or Prophet Mohammed in the forms of cats? If you will do such a thing you will be hanged publicly or stoned or someone may kill you, or you shall be put to death."

"We Hindus generally do not become violent... Think twice my sister!"

"One artist M.F. Husain has drawn some blasphemous paintings of Hindu deities. Against this, some Hindu extremists have announced an award of huge amount for one who will kill M.F. Husain. Are you waiting for someone to bestow such award against you?"

Later, they arranged for people to click on a link on their site to send me a cease-and-desist letter while CC'ing the American Embassy in India and the Indian Embassy in the US.

Eventually, I received approximately 1600 emails.

At first, I was freaked out. I politely corresponded with some of the people who emailed me, trying to explain that I meant my work as an homage to Indian art, which I love. However, they were absolute about a few points. First, I had painted these gods incorrectly, because they were not supposed to have the heads of cats; second, they professed to be in favor of freedom of expression, but only when it didn't offend others; third, I was definitely not invited to be a Hindu or to in any way adopt their gods and traditions for my own use.

After years of floating in my quasi-Hindu yoga-teacher ether, I was bumped back down to the hard ground of my Americanism. As an artist, I didn't understand the argument that anything had to be painted a certain way. As an American, I realized how much I valued freedom of expression, regardless of offending anybody. As somebody who grew up Christian, a member of an extremely proselytizing religion, the idea that a faith didn't want converts was a totally foreign one. And as somebody living in a mostly agnostic world, the idea of blasphemy seemed ludicrously old-fashioned to me. I was shocked when I learned it was actually a crime in India, considered hate speech that can be prosecuted.

Over email, I butted heads with my new correspondents, who didn't understand me any more than I understood them. Once they'd explained that I'd hurt their sensibilities, they wanted to know why my art was still up. Why did I seek to hurt them? Why would I want to paint their gods inaccurately, and, in fact, why would I paint them at all? Did I think Hinduism had sent me some sort of invitation?

HJS's threats made me angry. After they figured out I was female, they took a condescending tone while suggesting various comeuppances for me. I contacted Homeland Security. Meanwhile, HJS filed a blasphemy complaint with my web provider, who took it seriously until I threatened to sue them.

This experience changed me quite a bit. I realized you can't just cast off your own culture and put on a prettier one. And if you try to do this, you may find that it looked better in the store than it does when you try it on.

I no longer teach in yoga studios. Instead, I teach in gyms, where people are less interested in the cultural aspect of yoga and mostly concerned with stretching their hamstrings and decreasing stress. I'll still participate in the prayers and rituals of other cultures when I'm with the appropriate people in the appropriate places, but I seldom seek out people with which to "play" at being Hindu.

I've started participating in my own culture again, going to Catholic church like my Irish grandmother. I even went to a baseball game last week and joined in singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is about as American as you can get. For most of my life, I thought it was cooler to disavow my own culture and appropriate one that I only slightly understood. But now I see that blanket rejection of my own culture was as stupid as wholesale acceptance would have been.

Just as I did when I first rejected my upbringing, I still think that people who unquestioningly believe in Western superiority are ignorant. But there are many ways to be ignorant. And finding out that Hinduism absolutely, unambiguously didn't want me, albeit through a fringe group that does not speak for all Hindus, increased my openness to my own culture.