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Obama Does a Nataraja on 'Newsweek' Cover

The Media should be sensitive in handling sacred symbols


President Obama as Lord Nataraja

President Obama as Nataraja

Newsweek Magazine
Updated November 23, 2010
The Newsweek magazine cover of November 22, 2010 captioned "God of All Things" depicts US President Barack Obama as the Hindu God Nataraja. The pose the President strikes apes the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva in his Nataraja avatar.

Nataraja, the dancing form of Lord Shiva, is a symbolic synthesis of the most important aspects of Hinduism, and contains the summary of the central tenets of the Vedas. The term 'Nataraja' means 'King of Dancers' (Sanskrit nata = dance; raja = king).

Explore more: Symbolism of Nataraja

In a marvelously unified and dynamic composition expressing the rhythm and harmony of life, the 9th century iconography of Nataraj shows the Hindu deity with four hands representing the four cardinal directions. But the Newsweek cover shows Obama with an extra pair of hands. Obama is seen holding objects representing the various challenges he is dealing with at the same time - from finance and defense to healthcare, housing and global peace. However, like Nataraja, he is seen dancing, with his left foot elegantly raised and the right foot on a ground.

From a visualizer's perspective, it is indeed an eye-catching way of depicting Obama in his present predicament on a magazine cover. And this is not new! I have seen several other depictions of Hindu deities, especially beautiful goddesses with multiple arms holding different products in various advertisements and periodicals.

Is it okay to creatively use such sacred symbols?

No. Such trends should not be condoned as creative license. Hindu imagery and divine symbolism is tuned to the way the followers of the faith look at God, perform their rituals and pray every day. Imagine a Nataraja devotee closing his eyes before the statue of the Lord in order to pray but can't forget the image he saw on this magazine cover, which keeps flashing back in his mind! By the same logic, it may mean 'Obama = Nataraja' for the uninitiated. Somewhere you need to draw the line since a lot of meanings and sentiments are attached to these age-old and sacred symbols, which we cannot afford to dilute and disrespect because of its religious value.

What do your think? Please post your comments here.

Some Hindu groups in the United States protested against this objectionable portrayal by Newsweek last weekend. Hindu statesman Rajan Zed questioned how a mortal could ever be depicted as "Shiva, the director of our destinies."

Zed, who is the President of Universal Society of Hinduism, said that inappropriate use of Hinduism concepts and symbols for pushing selfish agenda or mercantile greed was not okay. He argued that it was an unnecessary dragging of a Hindu deity in American political wrangles by Newsweek to prove their point of view. He urged Newsweek to publish a disclaimer about this on its website and the next issue with proper explanation of Nataraja, Shiva, and Hinduism.

However, Zed pointed out that while Hindus understood that the purpose of Newsweek in this case apparently was not to denigrate Hinduism, casual flirting like this sometimes result in pillaging serious spiritual doctrines and revered symbols and hurting the devotees. Humor is a part and parcel of any society, but there are certain convictions in every tradition, which are venerable and not meant to be taken lightly, he added.

The bottom line: The media should be more sensitive while handling faith-related subjects and sacred symbols. Yes, it's time to demonstrate some original creativity!

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