Retail giant Urban Outfitters has done it yet again. The major store, which tends to attract teenagers and young adults, is known for their tendencies to create and market items that commodify and appropriate other cultures. The Hindu community has not been immune to their practices.
Last year Urban Outfitters released a pair of Lord Ganesha socks for $8. Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, in response said,
Lord Ganesha was highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshiped in temples and home shrines and not be wrapped around one’s feet.”
After being urged by Zed, Urban Outfitters issued an apology and removed the socks. However, it seems like they have not yet learned their lesson. They have released a duvet cover with the image of Lord Ganesha that costs between $129 and $169. This has rightfully incited the wrath of many Hindu communities.
For those unfamiliar, Lord Ganesha is an important Hindu deity who symbolizes the overcoming of obstacles and destruction of evil. “A Study of Hinduism” said,
All Hindus worship Ganesha regardless of their sectarian belief. He is both the beginning of the religion and the meeting ground for all Hindus.”
The importance of Ganesha has led Zed to issue another statement where he explains (again) that the deity is,
… highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshiped in temples or home shrines and not be slept upon.” Zed continues, “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.”
Zed has demanded that Urban Outfitters remove the duvet from the market and apologize for their actions. Urban Outfitters has recently apologized and removed the duvet from its collection. However, the company continues to sell a Lord Ganesha tapestry, wall art, and t-shirts.
Urban Outfitters’ faults are two-fold:
1) The duvet is clearly disrespectful on the aforementioned religious grounds. The feet of others touching the image of Lord Ganesha is offensive for the majority of devout practicing Hindus. Beyond these specific religious reasons, the duvet has a larger impact on the use of Indian culture and images by non-Indians and non-Indian companies.
2) The image of Lord Ganesha is part of a larger context of cultural appropriation in which Western corporations and consumers can, with ease, borrow certain symbols and images from another culture and make them their own and give them their own meanings.
For a Williamsburg, Brooklyn hipster this duvet is just a “cool image” representing their inner spirituality or worldliness. Gone from the image is the rich mythological story that Hindus have believed-in for centuries or the meanings that Ganesha holds for devotees. Urban Outfitters has yet again indulged in cultural appropriation to make a profit.. Of course, no one’s feet should be on an image of Lord Ganesha, but even further, this American retailer should not be selling other Lord Ganesha items, such as tank tops, pillows or wall tapestries. To do so is to commodify and steal something that is culturally sacred.
Urban Outfitters indulges in cultural appropriation to make a profit—it has taken a part of culture, distorted and decontextualized it, thereby deeming its consumers and itself as dominant and powerful to freely take something that is not theirs to take.
At this point some of you may be rolling your eyes and thinking:
‘Cultural appropriation’ is simply a phrase that gets tossed along so freely these days. Stop being oversensitive. Besides, Indians wear jeans and other Western clothing? Don’t they utilize Western symbols?
To deal with the sticky definition of cultural appropriation, I refer to one of my favorite articles on the topic, Jarune Uwujaren’s “What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation?” Uwujaren explains,
The fact is, Western culture invites and, at times, demands assimilation. ‘Ethnic’ clothes and hairstyles are still stigmatized as unprofessional…people of all cultures wear business suits and collared shirts to survive. But when one is of the dominant culture, adopting the clothing, food, or slang of other cultures has nothing to do with survival.”
As immigrants, and members of a globalized society, we often adopt Western practices out of a subconscious need that we don’t always recognize. So, no, when you’re wearing American-styled clothing you are not appropriating American culture. The article continues,
Using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.”
Urban Outfitters, although you may have apologized about the socks and duvet, you should still know that by employing this image of Lord Ganesha you are reinforcing a historical trend of the past four centuries, in which Western societies have the ability to stake a claim onto that which is not theirs and use it for their own profits and benefit. Next time, please think twice (or maybe even once) before you create and market just any product.
Saumya Bhutani is a recent graduate of Vassar College where she majored in History and minored in Biology. She wrote her thesis on the relationship between beauty ideals and the changing roles of women in India in the late 1970s. Saumya is an aspiring physician but also considers herself a history aficionado and pop culture junkie.