Rihanna Under Fire (Again) for Cultural Appropriation—and 'Interference' in Indian Politics [Updated]

Activists of United Hindu Front (UHF) hold a placard and pictures of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and Barbadian singer Rihanna during a demonstration in New Delhi on February 4, 2021, after they made comments on social media about ongoing mass farmers’ protests in India.
Activists of United Hindu Front (UHF) hold a placard and pictures of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and Barbadian singer Rihanna during a demonstration in New Delhi on February 4, 2021, after they made comments on social media about ongoing mass farmers’ protests in India.
Photo: Money Sharma/AFP (Getty Images)

Rihanna is a global superstar—but that doesn’t mean even her best intentions are globally well-received. The star of stage, screen, Sephora and Savage once again turned heads on Tuesday when she posted a picture of herself provocatively posed in a pair of satin trunks by her lingerie brand, Savage X Fenty—and little else. However, what proved more provocative was the diamond-studded pendant adorning her topless torso, depicting the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha.

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Rihanna made no mention of the iconography in her caption, which simply read: “when @popcaanmusic said ‘me nuh wan ya wear no lingerie tonight fa me girl’.” Nevertheless, several eagle-eyed Hindus took exception to the inclusion of their deity in the sexy shot, as recounted by CNN:

“You’re wearing a deity necklace and a Murthi (image of a deity) of my culture that’s already been culturally appropriated enough in the past few years,” read one reply to the post, liked over 5,000 times on Instagram. “How is this okay when a person has more than enough resources to at least find out the meaning and significance of the chains and pendant around their neck?”

“Can we stop sexualizing people’s religion for clout,” read another comment. “I just don’t understand the purpose of having a necklace with lord Ganesh as part of a lingerie campaign.” Another user, meanwhile, wrote: “Our culture is not your costume.”

To be fair, while Hinduism, widely recognized as the oldest religion in the world, originated from and is an integral part of Indian culture, its religiosity has also been disputed, as some view its beliefs more generally as a lifestyle or philosophy to which anyone can adhere. As pointed out by Britannica, this also makes Hinduism one of the most inclusive of the world’s theologies, (and yes, we see the irony in a colonialist source offering the following explanation; however, it was one of the most comprehensive we found):

More strikingly than any other major religious community, Hindus accept—and indeed celebrate—the organic, multileveled, and sometimes pluralistic nature of their traditions. This expansiveness is made possible by the widely shared Hindu view that truth or reality cannot be encapsulated in any creedal formulation, a perspective expressed in the Hindu prayer “May good thoughts come to us from all sides.” Thus, Hinduism maintains that truth must be sought in multiple sources, not dogmatically proclaimed.

The Ancient History Encyclopedia offers further perspective on what might attract non-Indians to Hinduism, writing:

The central focus of Hinduism, whatever form one believes it takes, is self-knowledge; in knowing one’s self, one comes to know God. Evil comes from ignorance of what is good; knowledge of what is good negates evil. One’s purpose in life is to recognize what is good and pursue it according to one’s particular duty (dharma), and the action involved in that proper pursuit is one’s karma. The more dutifully one performs one’s karma in accordance with one’s dharma, the closer to self-actualization one becomes and so the closer to realizing the Divine in one’s self.

The physical world is an illusion only in so far that it convinces one of duality and separation. One may turn one’s back on the world and pursue the life of a religious ascetic, but Hinduism encourages full participation in life through the purusharthas – life goals – which are:

Artha – one’s career, home life, material wealth

Kama – love, sexuality, sensuality, pleasure

Moksha – liberation, freedom, enlightenment, self-actualization

“I’m fine with you wearing this as long as you respect Hinduism,” one commenter graciously noted (h/t CNN). Looking at the purusharthas alone, one might recognize a few principles that could resonate with Rihanna; as CNN reports, “Ganesha traditionally represents wisdom and success, and is often called upon by Hindus embarking on new business ventures,” of which the bad gal has many. That said, maybe she just thought it looked cool, which is another issue altogether—CNN reported that Savage X Fenty did not immediately respond to a request for comment to clarify.

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What is clear, however, is that this isn’t the only Rihanna-related issue enraging some Indians. In fact, it added fuel to a fire sparked at the top of the month after she tweeted about a farmers’ protest against new agriculture laws in New Delhi which had devolved into a violent standoff with police. “[W]hy aren’t we talking about this?!” Rihanna wrote, citing a CNN story that reported internet access in the region had been cut amid the conflict.

As is customary with a public figure of Rihanna’s magnitude, her outcry quickly galvanized the support of several other major celebrities and public figures, including teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, who reportedly donated $10,000 in medical assistance to protesting farmers.

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However, India’s government was less inspired by Rihanna’s global awareness, as were several local celebrities who supported the government’s stance. Anurag Srivastava, a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, issued a statement that rebuked any rush to judgment or commentary on behalf of “a very small section of farmers in parts of India [who] have some reservations about these reforms.”

Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken,” the statement further read, throwing more than a little shade at Rihanna and others by adding: “The temptation of the sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”

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In this context, Rihanna’s choice to wear a Ganesha pendant could either be perceived as a strategic nod (highly possible, given that Rihanna has rarely shied from making a visual statement) or a questionable coincidence. Regardless, it was not missed by those who’d already taken issue with her comments on the matter.

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“It’s appalling to see how @Rihanna shamefully mocks our beloved Hindu God #Ganesha,” tweeted lawmaker Ram Kadam, a member of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), according to CNN. “This exposes how #Rihanna has no idea or respect for Indian culture, tradition and our issues here. Hopefully, at least now (opposition politician) @RahulGandhi and other Congress leaders will stop taking help from her...in maligning India’s image. Will they [criticize] her or the hunger for power is bigger than beloved Lord Ganpati?” he added.

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Adding to the controversy is the fact that as recently as October, Rihanna and her Savage X Fenty brand used a song containing sacred Islamic verses in the soundtrack to the brand’s annual fall fashion show, broadcast globally on Amazon Prime. Much like Hindus offended by the placement of Ganesha, several Muslims cried foul at sacred text being used in a secular—and arguably sexual—context.

At the time, the label apologized, issuing the following statement to CNN: “We truly apologize for the song that appeared in the Savage x Fenty show. We shouldn’t have used it. The song’s vocal tracks are being replaced and the show is being edited.”

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Rihanna herself also addressed the outrage in an Instagram story, writing, “I’d like to thank the Muslim community for pointing out a huge oversight that was unintentionally offensive in our Savage X Fenty show.” We’ll be keeping an eye out to see if she feels this controversy merits a similar response. As of the time of this post, the bad gal has only been sighted reclining atop the limited collector’s edition, “Queen Size” version of her famed coffee table book, of which only 500 exist. One can be yours for the low, low price of $1,495.

Updated: Thursday, February 18 at 8:05 p.m., ET: Nevada-based Hindu statesman and co-founder and President for the Universal Society of Hinduism Rajan Zed reached out to The Glow Up with a statement (previously printed elsewhere), calling Rihanna’s use of the symbol “highly inappropriate.” Requesting an apology from the entertainer as well as removal of the symbol from Rihanna’s social media, the statement read, in part:

Lord Ganesha was highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines and not to be used as a fashion statement to push a sexy lingerie line or become a tool for sexy fashion. Inappropriate usage of sacred Hindu deities or concepts or symbols or icons for commercial or other agenda was not okay as it hurt the devotees...celebrities and companies should not be in the business of religious appropriation, sacrilege, and ridiculing entire communities. It was deeply trivializing of immensely venerated Lord Ganesha to be displayed in such a manner for mercantile greed.

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Further noting that Hinduism is the oldest and third largest religion of the world, Zed added that its “rich philosophical thought...should not be taken frivolously. Symbols of any faith, larger or smaller, should not be mishandled.”

Many devotees did wear a Lord Ganesha pendant on short necklace on a regular basis to express their reverence/devotion in Lord Ganesha; but wearing it as a fashion accessory in a one-time photo-shoot in this disrespectful manner for commercial agenda was quite out of line,” the statement continued, noting that the date of Rihanna’s post, February 15, happened to be recognized as Ganesha’s birthday.

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Lastly, Zed suggested Rihanna undergo training in religious and cultural sensitivity “so that she had a better understanding of the feelings of communities and customers.” Rihanna has yet to issue any response on the matter—but did post another photo posing with her massive book.

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?

DISCUSSION

murrychang
Murry Chang

“To be fair, while Hinduism, widely recognized as the oldest religion in the world, originated from and is an integral part of Indian culture, its religiosity has also been disputed”

Ouch, that’s a real stretch right there.