Here at ISKCON News, we take ourselves very seriously. Which is why we're extremely offended by Bhakta Eric Swanger's new online satire of devotee life, The Hing.
Based on The Onion, a secular site that pokes fun at world news, The Hing was officially launched on February 8, and bills itself as "ISKCON's Finest News Source." Personally, we think that lacks the humility essential in a devotee, and that this sort of puffed-up attitude will ultimately lead to the spiritual falldown of The Hing's editor, like that. Obviously we're ISKCON's finest news source.
Eric Swanger, which is the second best name in the world after Jaya Radha-Madhava Kunja-Bihari Gopi-Jana-Vallabha Girivaradhari Dasa, agrees that there are certainly grave moments to be had in Krishna consciousness. "But a devotee is supposed to be jolly," he says. He considers himself lucky to have joined ISKCON in Philadelphia, where the temple president Ravindra Svarupa Dasa was "a really funny guy."
"Mostly, though, we don't laugh at ourselves often enough," Bhakta Eric expains. "And when we do, it's not satire, it's just offensive character assassination."
We have to agree that anyone who commits character assassination is a total moron. But that still doesn't let Eric off the hook for laughing at devotees. Most of our ISKCON News team still think that he's in maya for that. Except Madhava Smullen, who uses his karmi second name anyway, so it doesn't matter what he thinks.
But we have to appreciate that with the Hing, Eric is trying to do something different. While the site often walks a fine line between humor and being offensive, it never crosses that line. All articles are fictional, not based solely on any particular devotees, and don't use real names or real situations – although they may mention real groups, such as ISKCON, Ritvik, and the GBC.
"The inspiration was that devotees are funny," Eric says. "We do a lot of funny things. We have our own culture, our own language, our own customs and yet we live very much in the world. This makes for limitless hilarity."
"Vaisnava news sites, like any news sites, too often take themselves too seriously," he adds, at which point we eye him dangerously and threaten to call our lawyers. Bravely, he continues, "In the non-devotee world, this gives way to satire, which is a perverted reflection of reality. So, in a way, The Hing is a perverted reflection of a perverted reflection."
While we're trying to figure out what that means, and where the banyan tree reflected into the water fits in with all of this, Eric tells us that we can expect a new article from The Hing every Friday. Mainstream satire sites such as The Onion have a wide field of topics to pick from and can publish several articles a day. But The Hing's smaller field limits it to publishing only one a week – at least for now.
"I guess I'm the editor," says, Eric, who started playing around with satirical ideas on his blog Little Black Star several months before launching The Hing. "But lately there have been several of us that kick around ideas. It's turning into a collaborative effort."
And the more popular the site gets, the more collaborative it can become. Article ideas are welcome, although The Hing is more selective about submissions, since its writing style is very particular.
Eric says that the site has received a largely positive response so far, although there has been some of the inevitable negative feedback. For instance, the article 'Ex-ISKCON Guru Now Ex-Ithaca Car Salesman' got The Hing's entire RSS feed kicked off of Namahatta.org. "The idea of a guru falling down is extremely serious," Eric responds. "But that's what is great about satire. It's 100% fictional. However, it's also 100% true."
Other fictional yet strangely familiar articles include: "Maverick Book Distributor Accidentally Reads Srila Prabhupada Book," "Family Desperately Tries to Plan Vacation Around Temple Locations, Free Prasadam," and "Area Grihasta Vows to Speak to No Woman Except Wife."
Eric wants to make it clear that The Hing's aim is to entertain devotees and make them laugh, not to offend them. "I'll leave that to the plethora of message boards, blogs and "news" sites," he says.
There's an uncomfortable silence. "What do you mean by putting quotes around "news" sites?" we ask, carefully hiding the proverbial shoe and broom behind our backs, just in case his nonsense mind needs a beating. "You better not be talking about us, because that's not funny."
Eric hopes that The Hing can break down some walls and get devotees talking about subjects, both important and light, that they wouldn't otherwise talk about. "Open dialog is something sorely lacking in our movement. And if we can nudge that along, well then great," he concludes.
It's then that he notices the tip of a concealed broom handle and adds hastily, "And remember, if we tease you, it's just because we love you."