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The East Indian Invasion

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Mad Men’s subtle yet dynamic exploration of race relations in its fifth season goes global when former Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce copywriter Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) reappears as a Hare Krishna devotee in its tenth episode, “Christmas Waltz”. By tackling common American perceptions of the East, particularly Indians, the writers not only honor the fact that the Hare Krishna movement did indeed arrive in America in 1966, but also cleverly divulge the affect of the mythic “American Dream” on characters Harry Crane and Paul Kinsey to spice up the storyline.

Between 1960 and 1970, New York City was comprised of 0.6-1.7 percent of “other races”, in other words, any group that did not classify as “white” or “negro”. With Indian Americans so few and far between, the average New Yorker’s knowledge of India and Indians was most likely meager at best. Advertisements from around this time period create an exoticized and highly spiritual India that is tinged with colonialist ideologies.

In a 1953 American Export Lines advertisement showcasing its “exotic” 1954 cruise spanning throughout the Mediterranean and Asia, a gorgeously bedecked Indian classical dancer stands flanked by two musicians. With averted eyes and outstretched arms, she surrenders her body to the viewer. Though she seems to move freely, the two musicians visually bound her body, their intense gazes objectifying her from either side. The delineated positions of the female and male bodies serve as a metaphor of colonialism, as colonialist discourse often renders the colonized as feminine and thus extremely vulnerable and weak while the colonizer is masculine and therefore rational. The text in this advertisement only emphasizes India’s association with the nebulous “Orient” so sensationalized in colonialist discourse: it implores the consumer to see the “majestic ruins” of the Middle East (an area closely associated to India at the time), indicating its status as a once rich civilization that is now in decay, while also imploring him or her to see the “modern and sophisticated civilizations of the Mediterranean”, implying the immense intellectual strides that the Western world has made and continues to make.

Moreover, since Governor-General Warren Hastings’ commissioned translations of Indian religious texts in the 18th century, it’s common to perceive Indians as immensely religious and superstitious. It’s no surprise, then, that American President Lines chose to depict a scene of Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges River to encapsulate India for its 1950 advertisement in order to lure consumers to set sail to the mysterious “Orient”. The score of dark, almost faceless pilgrims crowding near the sacred river not only propagates Indians’ irrational preoccupation with spirituality, but also the colonial ideology that cleansing and purifying could lead to civility. Interestingly enough, colonial soap advertisements often indicated that those belonging to the “Orient” could “become” white and thus more civilized through bathing, thereby decreeing that fidelity to consumerism could maintain racial hierarchy and white superiority.

For some Americans, connectivity with India was no longer only attainable through a lavish vacation after A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a devout follower of Krishna Consciousness in India, founded the Western sect of the Hare Krishna movement in New York City in 1966. The movement adopts bhakti yoga, or complete devotion to one God (in this case, Krishna, one of many Hindu gods) as its principle form of spirituality. This rather monotheistic tangent of Hinduism had widespread appeal to lower-caste followers in India, as the movement emphasized that anyone could attain spiritual enlightenment through Krishna Consciousness. Because of this, Hare Krishna is appealing to those who feel disenchanted with American society, paralleling countercultural movements such as hippiedom.

The core tenet of the Hare Krishna movement, in short, is that one must reject illusory elements and channel all energy in support of attaining complete spiritual freedom in the name of Krishna. Its members are banned from gambling, using drugs, drinking alcohol and caffeine, eating meat, and engaging in sex unless one is married and is trying to have children. It eschews American society’s alienating ways and, intriguingly, materialism that is promised through advertising as it indicates that happiness is only secured through acquiring more goods and pushes people to privilege technology and competitive habits. This, of course, makes Hare Krishna’s role on Mad Men particularly intriguing.

Hare Krishna’s introduction on Mad Men in episode 10, “Christmas Waltz” simultaneously reintroduces Paul Kinsey, who had been squeezed out of a position at SCDP in the show’s third season. Prior to his departure, Paul was no stranger to dabbling in what was perceived as countercultural lifestyles as a way to elevate others’ perceptions of him. In the past, we often saw Paul dabbling in recreational drug use and criticizing New York City life while unsuccessfully attempting to make his own mark onto American cultural history both through his sub-par work as a copywriter and as an aspiring playwright. In season two, Paul flaunts his relationship with Sheila, an African-American. This relationship is not predicated on love, but instead on Paul’s desperate attempt to, as Allison Perlman writes, “cultivate his Bohemian credentials”. In fact, he only accompanies Sheila on a Mississippi Civil Rights trip because he was no longer invited to a trip to Los Angeles for business, tritely boasting how much of an amazing time he had despite essentially doing nothing. It’s pathetic and wishy-washy behavior like that that places Paul low in the hierarchy of office politics and causes him to bounce around between advertising agencies with little hope of rising through the ranks, creating much instability in his life.

In “Christmas Waltz”, Harry Crane begrudgingly yields to one of Paul’s many requests to meet with him in the city. Instead of winding up at a restaurant for a typical cocktail-laden lunch, Harry finds himself at 26 Second Avenue, the location of the first Hare Krishna temple in the West. Sporting a shaved head and saffron dhoti, Paul speaks to a blatantly uncomfortable visitor who finds Paul’s comments incomprehensible and odd. Harry certainly shares these sentiments, even asking Paul if he is actually allowed to be in the temple in the first place. While Paul assures Harry that the Hare Krishnas have alleviated his anxieties, Harry soon observes that Paul has only joined the movement because he is in love with a devotee who goes by the name of Mother Lakshmi, after a Hindu goddess. Reluctantly entering the worship space, Harry uncomfortably joins the crowd in chanting the mahamantra, the prime mantra of the movement, whose sound is the most attractive factor of the Hare Krishna movement (Hare Krishna and Counterculture, page 153). This proves true for Harry, who is so enraptured in the chant that he does not even realize when it ends.

According to Tommy H. Poling and J. Frank Kenney, the Hare Krishna devotees are “highly sensate-oriented pleasure seekers”, with much of their devotional duties focused on the senses, such as through partaking in communal meals and intricately dressing the main statue of Krishna daily (The Hare Krishna Character Type, page 108). Harry’s intensity during the mahamantra is not a reflection of religious fervor, however, but instead is a redirection of sexual desire. Viewers have seen Harry evolve from a faithful husband to crude and promiscuous, continually grappling with staying loyal to his wife, Jennifer, in order to uphold the stable family life so crucial to the image of the “American Dream”. The Hare Krishna movement, a channel of the nebulous “Orient”, has provided Harry an outlet for his sexual needs, thereby allowing him to fetishize it. He conveys this when he tells Paul that Mother Lakshmi is “my kind of religion”, equating sex with devotion. Paul fetishizes Mother Lakshmi as well, as he intends to marry her as a way of securing his pathway to the “American Dream” that he has unsuccessfully attempted to do in the “traditional” way through the workplace.

Over dinner, both Harry and Paul articulate their desires to attain the “American Dream” through fetishizing Mother Lakshmi. To make it clear, though she is American, Mother Lakshmi is representative of the Hare Krishna movement and thus symbolizes the “Orient”, for she, a former drug addict and prostitute, signifies a typical Hare Krishna devotee (E. Burke Rochford, Jr. notes that only 13 percent of Hare Krishna devotees have not experimented with drugs prior to joining the movement in his Hare Krishna in America, page 67). Harry delineates his apprehension about staying married to Jennifer, remarking that he had a vision of his daughter—the binding element between him and Jennifer—while chanting the mahamantra.

Unfortunately for Harry, being married and staying married is the norm as established by the “American Dream”. His preoccupation with this dream shines through when he tells Paul that he will have to do “a little less recruiting and a little more working” in order to secure a stable life with Lakshmi; in so many words, he renders the Hare Krishna movement as an impractical means of living normally while elevating the importance of having a job. Paul, unsurprisingly, agrees, urging Harry to pass his Star Trek teleplay to his NBC connections in order to secure a hefty income and convince Mother Lakshmi to quit the movement and begin a life with him.

Despite his detachment from the spiritual ideals of the Hare Krishna movement, Paul is entrenched in its politics. He is livid that Harry has had a vision while chanting before he does, igniting the competitive spirit that the Hare Krishna movement tries to repress. He also admits that he tried to figure out who Prabhupad’s favorite devotee was upon joining the movement. Though the guru is the conduit to Krishna and one must channel full devotion to him according to the movement, gaining his affections should in no way be based on favoritism, but rather, overall devotion to the cause. “Sometimes I think Krishna doesn’t even like me… only Lakshmi,” Paul says. He hyperbolizes his desperation by indicating that Krishna, the Hindu god who loves those who love him back, only provides a superficial hope whereas a potential wife will enable him to enjoy an ideal life.

In an odd twist, Mother Lakshmi later visits Harry at his office and lures him into a sexual encounter, claiming it is her attempt to protect Paul. Harry is, of course, completely satisfied, having satiated his sexual appetite and effectively stifled his unhappiness with Jennifer. Though Mother Lakshmi scoffs that she has surrendered her body, much like the dancer in the American Export Lines ad, to a “karmi” and “sense-enjoyer” for the future of the movement, it seems that she needlessly engages in a sexual encounter for the sake of doing so, expressing her, and thus other devotees’, inability to suppress and overcome immoral desires. Lakshmi reveals that she wants to preserve Paul’s faith not so that they can eventually run away together, which is, of course, banned by the movement, but because he is the movement’s best recruiter. Her comment brashly indicates that the Hare Krishna movement is indeed materialist as it is fixated on amassing more followers and increasing its numbers. What is more, notions of sacrilege taint this materialism, rendering the actions of the Hare Krishna movement and cultures of the “Orient” more morally deprave than the materialism associated with the “American Dream”.

Believing that the Hare Krishna movement is usurping Paul of his time and energy, Harry decides to provide Paul with a little charity of his own. Since he deems Paul’s teleplay as ridiculous, Harry gives Paul $500 and a ticket to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams as a screenwriter. He specifically tells him, “I want you to leave the Krishnas and go out there and try… this is all you need… if you go back there, you will never be strong enough to go.” In short, Harry tells Paul that the Hare Krishna movement is a hindrance and mere escape route that sits on the peripheries of a Western reality in which money dominates. Paul tearfully replies, “all these people said they’d do something for me… you’re the first one who did.” It was not an “Oriental” form of belief that granted Paul the something that he needed in his life but Harry; Harry essentially civilizes Paul by allowing him to shed his crazed spiritualism in favor of materialism. Rather than folding his hands in prayer, Kinsey clutches the envelope full of money close to his chest, re-adopting his devotion to the “American Dream”.

The journeys of the African American, the Indian and the East, and the Jewish person are strongly played throughout Mad Men’s fifth season through the recurring anxieties of the main characters. Though tomorrow never knows, Mad Men shows us that, despite our ruthless need to find our individual selves in the world, our stories are more linked to one another than we assume them to be.

Karina Parikh loves to write...about film and television, art, books, food, and travel. With interests all over the place, it is no wonder that she studied Comparative Literature at Cornell University, from where she recently graduated (Go Big Red!). She is based in Chicago and New York City.

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