Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hindu Religion, Superman, and Mythology

Well, it appears that actor Henry Cavill's comment, comparing Superman to Hindu gods, using the word mythology, has caused a bit of a stir. Here are his words: India has a rich mythology and they're both [Superman and Hindu mythology] rooted in the same thing - hope and goodness,’ Cavill said during a promotional event, the Times of India reported.

We're not told much about the context of these words, other than that it was at a promotional event for Man of Steel.

One of the first things I was told when I studied mythology in graduate school is that the term mythology can be taken as an insult by members of certain religions. I understand this completely. To call something a mythology is, sometimes, to denigrate it, to imply that it's false, the product of an outdated worldview. It's saying that a religion isn't true. The end of the article linked to above gets into this, quoting a blogger who wrote about the Western, capitalistic appropriation of Hinduism:

“This is by far one of the most insulting descriptions to characterize the religion with,” she noted. “In reality, all religions are theoretically mythological because no one religion can prove its validity. Can Christians prove that the word of The Bible comes directly from God? Can they prove that the world was created in seven days? No, but even so Christianity’s core beliefs are rarely described as myths.”

This blogger, Foram Mehta, is later quoted in the article saying that she doesn't think Cavill meant any insult, just that he chose the wrong words.This latter quote comes, I think, from an interview with Mehta done for the IB Times, linked to above.

Anyway, the primary reason, aside from the use of the term 'mythology,' is that Cavill compared a fictional character created by two humans with gods, eternal and omnipotent creators.

Angry Hindu statesman Rajan Zed tells WENN, "Comparing gods with a human-created comic book fictional character is a trivialisation of all-powerful God, to whom we owe our existence. Superman, at most is a cultural icon, while God produced and sustained the world and was the source of being and life.

It's this trivialization, which arises from a superficial knowledge of the tradition behind the religion, that bothers both Rajan Zed and Foram Mehta.

Mehta writes of her experience of seeing Hindu religion compared to other ancient religions in school and being asked if she really believed in all those deities: Hey, wait a second, there’s not really more than one God. And why are Shiva, Vishnu, Saraswati, and Lakshmi being referred to as ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses?’ The Bhagavad-Gita is mythology? Like Greek mythology? This doesn’t sound right…

 She might be interested to learn that she's calling something mythology that is a thriving religious system in Greece today.

Mehta's blog entry is not at all about Superman, Henry Cavill, or his comments on Hinduism. She seems to have posted it in mid-February of this 2010. The perception of insult stems from terminology. Mehta's blog entry focuses a lot on word choice, noting that describing the story of Krishna and Rhada as 'erotic' is just as insulting as calling Hinduism a mythology, and that referring to the Hindu deities as 'gods' with a lower case g is as insulting as referring to the Christian god with a lower case g. She points out that Hinduism isn't polytheistic, it's polymorphic: The identities of Shiva, Ganesh, and the others are merely different manifestations or emanations of the one God.

These elements of language are important to her, and they should be. Language shapes our perceptions.

Now, it's time to write as a mythologist.

I don't view the term mythology as a derogatory one. In my mind, a mythology is a system of related stories, describing the creation of the cosmos and humanity, that is associated with ritual and serves as the foundation of a worldview. I'm also a folklorist by training, and part of that training included extensive fieldwork. During the process of learning how to interact with people in an academic manner, I was taught that you don't insult the people who have been kind enough, generous enough, to allow you into their lives in the service of scholarship and friendship. So I have always found it odd that people can title their books Hindu Mythology, Handbook of Hindu Mythology, and the like. You must honor those with whom you work, not insult them.

Still, without the word mythology in there, it's difficult to write about it in a comparative way. To be clear:  yes, I would write about Christian mythology, about Greek mythology. Mythology is the term that we can use to unite these things. In other words, for scholars, it's useful. That doesn't mean we should abuse it. It's just a standard way to categorize certain stories that are associated with religion, not a judgment on those stories.

In that light, I also write about secular mythology, of which Superman is perhaps the prime example outside of science. I wrote a book called "Superman in Myth and Folklore" (hopefully it will see publication some day...) that explores this idea. My point in that book is that people do the same things with Superman that they do with religious figures: they utilize him as a way to think through the problems they encounter in the world, such as how to maintain their sense of morality in an increasingly difficult world, how to integrate themselves into a large community, and how to negotiate their identity in a multiplicity of situations. This thought process manifests itself in tattoos, festivals, rituals, folk speech, fashion, jokes, and a whole bunch of other things in pop culture and folklore. It's not religious, but it incorporates nearly every component of religion other than belief--therefore there's no worship involved.

The rhetoric surrounding Superman and other superheroes that compares them to gods and other mythological and religious figures is an attempt by certain components of Western (and especially American) culture to elevate Superman, not to insult the religions. It's a way to express the notion that America does have its mythological system, comparable to these other mythological systems. This is an impulse that's pretty old. The writer of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval English poem, felt the need to invent a mythical British ancestor, Brutus, comparable to Romulus so as to put England on the same footing when it came to a proto-nationalistic pride in the stories that formed the bedrock of the burgeoning nation. It's the same motivation that prompted J.R.R. Tolkien to invent his legendarium of Middle-Earth, and led to the writing of The Lord of the Rings.

In the end, I agree with Mehta: Cavill probably meant no harm, but he should have chosen his words more sensitively. That he didn't speaks more to his lack of knowledge about Hindus than anything else: he likely didn't know that the term mythology would be insulting or that the comparison would be.


  1. Hi Daniel; loved your thoughts on this from a different perspective, and I very much appreciate your [correct] analysis that it really is the WORD CHOICE that tends to shape perception and that perhaps we should be better about what words we use when teaching religion and mythology as well as how we refer to it in the media. I'm so happy that this article of mine has sparked so much discussion. Thank you!

  2. And thank you, Foram, for commenting here. It's a fascinating subject, isn't it? People's views on what's sacred are, for me, always interesting, in part because of their cultural context. We can learn about all these things from books, but it's so much more interesting to learn about them from other people.