Hindu Protests, Fan Pleas
In the Xena: Warrior Princess episode "The Way," Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle meet Hindu deities Krishna and Hanuman. It's not the first time they've met deities; Xena has battled Greek gods, and Gabrielle gave her pony to a couple who looked suspiciously like Mary and Joseph of Nazareth. But this time, followers of the gods have struck back.
Although both the World Vaishnava Organization and American Hindus Against Defamation expressed outrage about "The Way," the issue received little attention even on Xena web sites until the show's distributor, StudiosUSA, removed the episode from syndication following an initial airing in the United States. Suddenly, accusations of cultural insensitivity on one side and disregard for free speech on the other began to appear - not only among committed Xenites, but in the entertainment press.
Xena is not exactly known for historical or cultural accuracy. Greek heroes regularly wander through its ancient Roman setting, and the Warrior Princess herself has bailed out historical heroes from Ulysses to Boadicea. Last season, the series suggested that the revered Tao Te Ching was written not by Lao Tsu but by his wife Lao Ma, while companion series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys credited the Son of Zeus for saving the Vikings from destruction by one of their own gods.
Protesting "The Way"
Spoilers revealing that Xena would meet Lord Krishna on her trip to India weren't all that surprising to many viewers, but one group was immediately alarmed - the World Vaishnava Association, a California-based Hindu organization which lodged a protest with the producers and called for stations to boycott the episode in question. Tusta Krishnadas, press secretary of the World Vaishnava Association, said in his protest that the then-unaired episode "treats Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, speaker of the scripture Bhagavadgita, as fictional." Sharda Patel, President of the Wellington Indian Association - an organization from New Zealand, where Xena films - added that Hindu and Indian organizations wanted the producers to pull the episode from distribution. American Hindus Against Defamation also lodged a written protest against the episode.
Renaissance Pictures (Xena's production company) replied to the protestors and to the media that a Hindu expert on India had been consulted before filming "The Way." "Every effort was made to ensure that all references to the Hindu religion were treated with the greatest respect," said the studio in a statement released to CNN. The World Vaishnava Association was not placated: Krishnados said his group would contact individual television stations in the United States to ask them not to show "The Way." Nonetheless, the episode aired as scheduled in syndication throughout North America. Viewers saw Krishna and Hanuman assist Xena in her battle against a demon which traps her sidekick Gabrielle and the Indian spiritual teacher Eli.
But the real struggle of "The Way" was just beginning. Representatives of the World Vaishnava Association tried to take their complaints directly to Universal Studios and were turned away by guards at the gate. "They spit in the face of Hindus all over the world" by refusing to receive his delegation, said Krishnadas to The Hollywood Reporter. Later, however - when the protests were mentioned in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter - Universal apologized, and reportedly pressured executive producer Rob Tapert to withdraw the episode from worldwide circulation. Renaissance Pictures released a statement announcing its intention to do just that.
Renaissance Pictures also apologized for causing offense, stating that there was no intention of ignoring the Hindu concerns, nor of denigrating Krishna and Hanuman. The World Vaishnava Association and the American Hindus Against Defamation went further, however, announcing in a joint statement that the episode "treats Lord Krishna and Hanuman as fictional characters by putting words in their mouths that they never spoke...not only does this make the viewing audience think that Lord Krishna, other Hindu deities and the Vedic literature are fictional, it makes Hindus themselves look superstitious and foolish. After all, nobody but a superstitious fool would worship a 'fictional god.'"
Is A Fictional God False?
It seems fair to say that Xena did fictionalize Hindu beliefs; it also seems fair to say that the producers treated Indian history in much the same way they have treated the history of the rest of the world, including other living religions. In fact, Xena and Hercules have suggested the fictionality of virtually every religion in existence at the time in which the series is set. The Celtic goddess Morrigan for instance, worshipped by Wiccans, was reduced to Hercules' girlfriend and sidekick in recent episodes. Biblical stories such as David and Goliath have been parodied, or retold in a fictional manner like NBC's recent Noah's Ark miniseries. The infancy of Jesus has been shrouded in Hercules' mythology as well - in one episode, Hercules' friend Iolaus was drawn to the Nativity, and in another, Xena's friend Gabrielle gave her donkey to the Virgin Mary.
There are even parallels between "The Way"'s central character Eli and controversial scriptures depicting Jesus Christ's supposed education during a sojourn in India. Eli's travels, his philosophy of complete nonviolence, and his miraculous ability to heal the sick resemble characteristics attributed to Jesus - indeed, the character's name in early drafts was reportedly "Issa." Yet although fundamentalist Christian media organizations have occasionally berated Xena's alleged lesbianism, no large-scale protest has been launched against the series for scorning traditional Judeo-Christian scripture and beliefs.
Another Hindu Perspective
Not all Hindus, of course, are represented by the World Vaishnava Organization. Dr. Ravi Arvind Palat, the expert in Hindu religion and lore who served as consultant for "The Way," has noted that "the self-appointed guardians of the Hindu faith are subverting the very meaning of being Hindu" through their protests. Indeed, The Xenites Against Censorship web site charges that the World Vaishnava Organization is a splinter group of the Hare Krishna movement, and does not represent mainstream Hindu beliefs, a claim Mania Magazine is not in a position to confirm or dispute.
Several editorials from the Vaishnava News Network (vnn.org) suggest that there is room for argument about whether or not "The Way" is offensive. "That Krishna's holy name and Krishna personally have gotten nationwide airtime is a miracle," writes Jagannatha Tirtha Das. "I immediately saw it as Krishna's intervention. It was not offensive in any way, just a little inaccurate. If Krishna chooses to appear over the airwaves in this way, who can stop Him? The producers...should be complimented for transmitting Krishna's holy name to millions."
Hollywood and Homophobia
Krishnadas's initial statement, however, seems as concerned with the lesbian subtext of Xena: Warrior Princess as with any alleged disrespect to Krishna. "The episode features Lord Krishna engaging in fictional activities, helping Xena save her lesbian lover...[it] makes it appear that Lord Krishna and Vedic religion approves of and gives its blessing to homosexual relationships, which is completely false," said Krishnados in the first statement to the press reported on CNN.
Xena's storylines have neither confirmed nor denied a sexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, but "subtext" fans (who believe that Xena and Gabrielle are, in fact, lovers, and look for subtle clues to that effect) make up a significant proportion of Xena's audience, and the two main characters have been celebrated as lesbian icons in recent issues of everything from TV Guide to the gay magazine The Advocate.
But Xena's producers straddle a delicate line in their efforts to market to a large gay and gay-tolerant audience. If the characters are perceived as undeniably lesbian, the show could draw protests from the same groups which target overtly gay characters such as Ellen and Will and Grace; worse, Xena might be perceived as unmarketable to its current mixed audience of teenagers and action-adventure fans, and lose the prime syndicated time-slots which have made it successful. It is possible that Renaissance Pictures pulled "The Way" not out of fear of offending Hindus, but because the protests were drawing unwanted attention to the lesbian themes of the series. Bear in mind that these themes aren't figments of viewer imagination; Renaissance Pictures created the subtext in the first place.
However, it wouldn't be the first time a Xena episode was altered over fear of homophobic backlash. "Fins, Femmes, and Gems" was reportedly rewritten over the weekend before it was filmed to remove all reference to Gabrielle's obsession with Xena (see Whoosh! for details). The creators of the subtext also made what we must assume was a deliberate decision to leave it in the background, which the Hindu protest made more difficult. Renaissance may hope that now that "The Way" is off the syndication schedule, perhaps the furor will die down.
Return of "The Way"?
Ratings for "The Way" were not particularly impressive; it is possible that Universal will not wish to air it again during reruns. On the other hand, the episode concluded an arc about Xena's travels in India, and provided important information about the character of Eli which was relevant for the later episode "The Convert." Series continuity can probably survive its absence, though it will be necessary to explain the circumstances of Eli's return from India and Gabrielle's renewed committment to a life of complete nonviolence.
Neither Renaissance Pictures nor Universal Studios responded to questions about whether "The Way" might be re-released at a later date, sold on video, or otherwise made available to fans. One letter to Mania reported that Josh Becker, director of a number of Xena episodes, has said that the episode is being reworked and will air again, though we were unable to confirm this report.
In the meantime, fans have mobilized to demonstrate to the studio that they want the episode returned to syndication - some because they enjoyed it, others because they resent having any group dictate what is acceptable for television broadcast whether or not they approved of the episode personally. To date, two signed petitions requesting the episode's return have been delivered to StudiosUSA; each contained over 2000 signatures, and more are accruing every day. The petition may be found at http://starpoet.com/names.html.