Media coverage of Hinduism in India still tends to reflect a Western perspective that views the religion as pagan, primitive and irrelevant to the modern world, according to Hinduism Today magazine (May/June).
The magazine monitored coverage of the recent Maha Kumbha Mela, an annual worldwide pilgrimage to such Hindu holy sites as the Ganga and Yamuna rivers and finds the focus on the sensational. Little is made of the fact that the Mela is the single greatest gathering of humanity, drawing over 70 million Hindus from around the world, while most reporters featured naked pilgrims and holy men bathing in the river and smoking ganja [marijuana, and sometimes hashish].
The magazine adds, “It was at times as if the Western press was reflecting the images of a colonial India: mysterious Pagan rites, naked sadhus, teeming masses praying to an alien God. Very few foreign newspapers cared to say that it is extraordinary that in the 21st century tens of millions of people endure endless travels, hunger, cold and discomfort to pray to That which is beyond us.”
The naked Nagas sadhus (holy men), whether smoking ganga or not, that are featured so prominently in the media are a small group of ascetics outside of mainstream Hinduism. Indian newspapers did not do any better; India Today, which has a large American readership even captioned one of the photos of a ganga smoker with “literal evidence of religion as opiate” — a slur going back to Karl Marx’s dismissal of religion as “the opiate of the people.”
Even when Westerners focused on the Hindu religion in their Mela coverage, they often got the facts wrong or continued to focus on the exotic. The usual knowledgeable reportage of the BBC devoted much of its coverage to an interview with a “stoned British pilgrim.”
(Hinduism Today, 107 Kaholaele Rd., Kapaa, HI 96746-9304)