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A deity made of chocolate spurs a religious debate

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NEW YORK » As religious questions go, it is a relatively small one. But, inevitably, it must be asked:

Is it OK to eat a chocolate statuette of your favorite holy figure?

The matter arose recently at Bond Street Chocolate, a bite-size East Village boutique that traffics in intricately detailed figurines of Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh.

Last week, an organization called Universal Society of Hinduism issued a demand:

"Upset Hindus urge withdrawal of Lord Ganesh-shaped edible chocolate," read the society’s Feb. 1 news release.

The owner of the store, Lynda Stern, was puzzled. For more than five years, she has been selling the gold-dusted Ganesh and his shelfmates, beside passion fruit bonbons and chocolate-coated wasabi peas, with barely a whiff of controversy.

In the release, the society’s president, Rajan Zed, wrote that Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, was "highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshiped in temples or home shrines and not to be eaten casually." The chocolate statues, he wrote, were an insult to Hindus.

Zed, a former Postal Service supervisor in Reno, Nevada, is a frequent critic of the nonreligious use of Hindu imagery.

He has taken on an Australian brewery whose ginger beer label shows Ganesh and the goddess Lakshmi; challenged the Brooklyn Museum over a mural depicting the deity Kali; and persuaded Urban Outfitters to stop selling a Ganesh duvet cover.

But Stern, whose 3-inch-tall Ganesh sells for $15, has no intention of desisting.

"All spiritual icons are treated equally in my shop," she said, "with honor and respect to the religion."

And it turns out that whether the statues offend the devout depends on whom you ask.

"We Hindus look at the universe as eternal and God almighty as one," said Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, in Queens, which calls itself the largest Hindu temple in the country. "So we would not say that the Lord resides only in that little piece of chocolate. It’s more like when they eat it, the Lord comes back to us – he is within us."

She added, "Our own Indian children would love to have some candies like this."

The store’s Divine Collection also includes a 4-inch-high Virgin of Guadalupe, which sells for $18. The Rev. Santiago Rubio, pastor of the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Chelsea, was not pleased to hear this.

"We consider statues and images as sacred objects that help connect with the divine or the supernatural," Rubio said. "So to transform them into merchandise, candy to eat, I don’t think it’s the best way to go. It’s just business for these people."

But a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwilling, recalled a Catholic organization’s dinner at which guests were given white chocolate Virgin Marys.

"I don’t think there’s anything inherently sacrilegious about it," Zwilling said of Stern’s Jesus treat, which is cast from a dashboard ornament. "It’s the intention of the person making it that matters."

Stern said that after an article about the chocolate statuettes appeared in 2009, she got a call from a representative of a Buddhist community in Chinatown who threatened a boycott of the store. She decided to ignore it – "That’s not my demographic," she said – and that was the end of it.

Since then, she said, her figurines had been purchased "non-ironically" by many religious customers. (In case anyone was wondering, Stern does not make figures of the Prophet Muhammad.)

Hun Lye, a Tibetan Buddhist lama who last year helped make a sand mandala at the Asia Society in Manhattan to demonstrate impermanence, said that for many Buddhists, eating the Buddha’s likeness "would be considered disrespectful and it would be believed that it would result in negative karma being created."

On the other hand, he said, "there is a famous ninth-century Buddhist text, ‘The Bodhisattva Way of Living,’ that says that those who get upset when the Buddha is being insulted should not call themselves disciples of the Buddha."

"It’s the Dalai Lama’s favorite text," he said. "But probably you wouldn’t see the Dalai Lama buying the statue and chomping on it."

Andy Newman, New York Times

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