Identity Politics and Hanuman: Boy Warrior

We’re going to hit pause on the totalitarian train-ride and pop over to video games for a minute. No, hang on, you’re not in the wrong place. Sundays are still for theology. Here’s the thing – we’ve been doing politics with Arendt the last few weeks, and I’m finding it hard going. Other things are happening, yada yada, and I’m not getting through Arendt at the pace I want. However, I’m also reading a great book on video games and religion, thus proving to myself that there is an intersection between the things I write about. There was one particular article in there that stuck with me – so I thought we’d talk about that today. It’s religion, politics, and tangentially also video games, which are almost just thrown in for good measure.

The book I’m reading is Playing with Religion in Digital Games, and the particular essay is Xenia Zeiler’s “The Global Mediatization of Hinduism through Digital Games”. Zeiler is talking about Hanuman: Boy Warrior, a 2009 game for the PS2. The game is interesting because it engages with characters from the Hindu faith, thus bringing the religion to a much broader audience. On paper, it sounds like a great idea. We have games like Kisima Ingitchuna (Never Alone) that’re based on indigenous Alaskan stories. I haven’t finished Kisima Ingitchuna, and I’m not even convinced it’s a great game, but I think it’s really important to see stories and cultures that aren’t Anglo/American. To that end, Hanuman is exciting insofar as it focuses on a different culture and religion.

However, despite this noble beginnings, Hanuman got hammered by just about everybody. On the one hand, apparently it was a lazily made game, with sub-par graphics etc. On the other hand, and this is the more remarkable fact, it also got hammered by Hindu groups for its representation of Hinduism. One particular group, the Universal Society of Hinduism (based in Nevada), accused the game of trivialising Hindu faith. The basic argument was that you shouldn’t control Hanuman when Hanuman controls your destiny. Making Hanuman into a controllable character doesn’t match up with how the faith works.

This is where Zeiler’s article gets really interesting. She points out that the Universal Society have a long history of protesting particular representations of Hinduism, and making outrageous threats like “All Hindus all over the world will boycott your product if you don’t tone the fuck down.” I suspect this group wouldn’t have the pull to organise a global boycott, but that’s the level that their protest exists on. This is the really interesting bit though: Zeiler points out that most of the hardcore protests only occured in Western areas. She suggests that there’s a connection between diaspora identity and these particular protests. To clarify, the diaspora are people from your culture who’re scattered abroad. Normally it’s used to refer to Jews – so we’ve got the Jewish diaspora, the Jewish people living outside of Israel. Zeiler suggests that diaspora identity is informing much of the Hindu protests: “Diaspora-based groups and communities, and religious groups or communities in particular, require and apply different identity markers and authority negotiation platforms than do similar groups in non-diaspora settings.” Now we’re talking politics.

So in part these protests were about asserting Hindu values and issues. It’s about saying “Hey, that’s not who we are – this is who we are.” It’s about asserting identity, but also giving that identity a public platform, raising general awareness. It seems a bit back-handed to make a political power-play off a game that’s already trying to give Hindu identity a public platform, but such is politics. At the same time, the protests were also about raising the status and authority of the Universal Society of Hinduism. Because the Society began the protest, they’re stepping into the limelight as the defenders of Hinduism in America – so the protest legitimises and reinforces their authority in a diaspora setting. It provides a yardstick by which ‘legitimate’ Hinduism in America can be measured – which is a huge amount of power for the Society. It’s the authority to oversee authentic Hindu identity. This is an interesting move, because in many ways the outcome of the debate is almost irrelevant. What’s really important, politically speaking, is that a particular group is bolstering their status within the diaspora and within American society.

To some extent I suppose I’ve tried the same sort of power-plays – perhaps not deliberately, but that’s by the by. As a Christian, there are certainly times when I’ve kicked up a ruckuss over how Christianity is portrayed, whether in media/literature or even in a social setting. It’s the sort of thing that, looking back, seems like both an assertion of authority over the discourse as well as a marker of identity. At the same time I’ve mocked certain Christians for pulling the same trick. Back in 2014 when the movie Noah came out, there were some Christians who were outraged that anybody would take artistic license with the Noah story. As far as they were concerned, the story of Noah was a matter of historical record, and anybody who represented Noah in any other way was mistelling history and assaulting the Christian faith. I thought, and still think, that it’s a fucking stupid attitude to have, and I was quite vocal against said Christians.

I’m not sure, but I think I disagree with the concept that every representation of a group must be certified and ratified by the group in question. That seems stupid, to me. At the same time, it’s possible to appreciate the efficacy of the gesture on a political level, especially in diaspora settings where a certain degree of socio-religious authority is up for grabs.

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