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Hero worshipping non-heroes

October 13, 2008

Wonder why so many of us hero worship those who are not heroes. What these “heroes” have in common is that the followers refuse to accept that their “hero” has a flaw, and are intolerant of any criticism of him/her. I am not talking about movie stars or sports stars as such. I am referring to any successful and powerful person who manages to achieve a cult status.  He/she could be a film personality, a writer, or a political leader. Hero-worshipping is a level above the craze for celebrities. Celebrities generally have a niche fan following while a “hero’ has a much larger fan base – he/she becomes almost a national/regional obsession.

These people who are hero-worshipped aren’t really heroes. There are 3 definitions of the word “hero”:

1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
2. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life: soldiers and nurses who were heroes in an unpopular war.
3. A person noted for special achievement in a particular field. Example: the heroes of medicine.

In the first category there are heroes  like Ulysses, Hercules or  Krishna, Rama and Arjuna. In the other two categories there are prophets and philosophers like Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Vivekananda, heroes like Washington, Lincoln, and Gandhi, poets like Dante and Tagore and (examples from here).

Ordinary people can be heroes because of their sacrifices and brave deeds.

Hero-worshipping someone who is excellent at his/her job isn’t right. All their work cannot be good or the best. Paying customers in particular have the right to demand higher standards. Blindly accepting someone’s work smacks of hero worship and I find this kind of thing is quite common in India. A person cannot continue to live on the glory of his/her past. If I buy a crappy book from a favourite author I will say it’s crappy because I have paid for it. If a super achiever cannot take criticism of this kind, then perhaps he/she should consider retirement.

This is not to say that a professional cannot be a hero. Sure he can. If a film-maker makes a bold film about a controversial subject risking his life then surely he is a hero. In fact while producing any work of art if the artist is true to herself and honest, and the effort requires an element of sacrifice, it is heroic. In the case of a politician, if he/she resigns a plum post for principle, then he is a hero.

I came across a nice post by Nikhil Gurjar on the subject and there was another post which articulated my thoughts exactly:

I believe character is at the core of the true definition of the word hero. A hero understands the nature of responsibility, has a respect for the importance of others, helps others, does amazing things, and accepts life’s quest.
Is the star football player a hero? Maybe. Does he respect his team mates? What does he do off the field? Does he understand that he is a role model and has a responsibility?…Or does he demand more money from his team, more plays centered around him, more media exposure?

That reminds us of a lot of people doesn’t it.

Related Reading: The perils of celebrity culture

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2008 9:48 am

    This makes me think, how would one distinquish between hero worshipping and idealising?. I personally think there is nothing wrong to be impressed by a person to the extent of hero worshipping. I do not think hero worshipping in always blind, a sensible person may not take up everything a hero does, but I do agree that in most of the cases it might turn out to be a blind following.
    I did write something about similar topic some time back http://virtualrambling.wordpress.com/2007/01/07/idol-worship-is-not-always-about-god/

    who can be a hero, I think for me any person can be..they have been a huge list of people I admire, may be its because I get easily impressed.

  2. October 13, 2008 10:44 am

    Nita:

    I believe the label of ‘hero’/ ‘idol’ is put on a person by others, not sought by the person himself/ herself. In that case, it is unfair for others to impose their own expectations and standards on that person, as this definition towards the end of the post does.

    For some, Warren Buffett is a hero. He plays the making-money game rather very well. At the same time, it is only when one delves into his _personal life_ that one finds out that he is not interested in spending all that money; he is a man of ordinary tastes in life; but also his other foibles, such as, his selfishness and extreme dependence on first his wife, then his mistress become known. Are these pertinent to his character, to his money-making genius? Should people forget his financial genius because of what he does at home?

    Very tricky to answer all that.

    A person with a very public job does not willingly put his private life on display, but by ‘labelling’ him a hero, we sort of assume a right to know more about his personal life. That is not right in all cases.

    I understand that we hold our elected representatives to a higher standard than we live life by, ourselves. But to expect that of people in other spheres of life, who do not ask to become anybody’s hero, and are known for doing their chosen jobs very well, is very unfair to them.

    I also think that after a certain age, hero worship should really stop. A person should look to emulate, if he so wishes, but hero worship reeks of immaturity and wishful thinking rather than any capability of abstraction. :-/

  3. October 13, 2008 10:57 am

    You have talked of public / not-so public figures around whom a halo is sought to be created and a
    cult sough to be created.

    Let me look at this a little differently from a personal perspective.

    My first hero was my grandfather, a simple school teacher teaching in a government school in a small town in North Karnataka. He was a proficient in English, Sanskrit and Mathematics. He left a deep impact on me. By all conventional criteris he was a failure and a “non-hero”.

    I guess each one of us has a personal hero who has inspired us to do better, achieve more, be a better person. It is possible that this feeling wears off over a period of time and this is natural. The positive impact, however, stays with us permanently.

  4. Guqin permalink
    October 13, 2008 11:09 am

    I think a hero is like an empty vase. People put in there their own imagined flowers for admiration.

  5. October 13, 2008 1:47 pm

    I agree with Shefaly, the tag hero is put by others on the person and not by himself.

    For me a person A can be a hero, but for you he might not be.

  6. hoku permalink
    October 13, 2008 1:56 pm

    Shefaly@ you could be a bit more generous about Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett who worth about $44 billion (2006 figure, I am not sure about the current fig.) has pledged 85 percent of his fortune amassed from stock in the Berkshire Hathaway company to five foundations.
    Nita@ what difference does it make if I worship a non hero?
    I am a very ordinary person still I am a hero to my daughter and I don’t want to forgo the position. :-D

  7. October 13, 2008 2:08 pm

    Rambler, admiration is different, and hero-worshipping is different. I think people who cannot admire anybody are really sad!

    Shefaly, ofcourse, the label is put by others, no doubt. And as to what extent his personal life matters, well, as much as it is relevant to his work. No more. That is how I look at it. But as you say it’s very difficult to generalise, but whatever the situation (importance about personal life), it is important to acknowledge. For example Gandhi had some skeletons in his personal cupboard and if I think of him as a hero, it is important for me to acknowledge it, even if I do not think it matters when it comes to those things I admire.
    And I agree, hero worshipping reeks of immaturity.

    Mavin, all of us have personal heroes, which we gradually grow out of. But you have expressed it really well when you said that:

    It is possible that this feeling wears off over a period of time and this is natural. The positive impact, however, stays with us permanently.

    Gugin, true, we add things to the person which he/she doesn’t even have and the ideal is bound to shatter.

    Sharad, that’s true. But what about national/regional heroes? People who have a mass base? Then it becomes difficult to criticize such people as people simply won’t admit that these people are fallible!

    Hoku, This post isn’t about personal heroes, like mother, father etc. But if you say why shouldn’t you have any kind of hero, who says you shouldn’t? I am simply giving my own opinion and you are welcome to share yours as to why you think hero worship is important. :)

  8. October 13, 2008 2:18 pm

    How truely said!!

  9. October 13, 2008 4:16 pm

    I don’t believe in worshiping anyone :) admiring people for the rights is good :)

  10. October 13, 2008 4:17 pm

    I am not sure a hero is only a personification that is forced upon a person. We, all of us, through our lives, live with a motivation to achieve a level of success. This success is validated through the measured eyes of others, or a standard that has been cultivated into us since childhood. When we see others who reflect these qualities that we seek, we tend to assume they form the end goal we want to achieve, and tend to believe their path will lead us to that goal. Hence we tend to idealize them, and hold such fierce loyalty that we cannot withstand any criticism. This is in a way because, any criticism becomes personal, since it threatens our own ideals, and makes us believe that our basic choice of ideals itself is questioned. A hero is in our head, a destination. I wonder if we seek this goal merely for acceptance among our fellow people, or does it have a more animal instinct that calls out the alpha male in us.

  11. October 13, 2008 4:46 pm

    just in case u haven’t noticed, the “hero” in our movies is always a gem of a person and is ready to sacrifice anything, isn’t it? then he deserves to be called a hero – only by the characters of the movie. if this truth is realised, then there will be no “heroes” in the movies… there will just be star cast.

    prolly the same goes with politicians too… they’re heroes not because of their heroism. its just because they ape movie “heroes” and their fans get carried away by the act.

  12. Vinod permalink
    October 13, 2008 7:50 pm

    In the other two categories there are prophets and philosophers like Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Vivekananda

    A very minor and tangential point –

    I have always wondered when people mention prophets and give examples, they mention Moses and Jesus but Muhammad is left out. Is this because of lack of awareness? Muhammad in fact, starting from his time and leading upto modern times, has been immensely far more influential in civilzation-building than Jesus or Moses. Strange that he never gets a mention.

  13. wishtobeanon permalink
    October 13, 2008 8:01 pm

    Good post, Nita, and the articles are good too! Well there are too many non-heroes in our country who are literally worshipped – another sad state of affairs.

  14. October 13, 2008 8:42 pm

    Sakhi, wishtobeanon, thanks.

    Vishesh, I know which book you are reading! :)

    Thoughtroom, thanks for explaining the psychology of a person who idealized. As you said, the person is gets threatened if his hero is criticized as he takes it personally. I do think that we all need our heroes, specially so when we are younger. As adults I think we need to see people more objectively.

    Su, yeah, the “hero” is just a fiction isn’t it!

    Vinod, maybe it is because we do not know much about Mohammed? Many Indians have been in Christian convent schools and therefore they know more about Christianity. I do not know anyone who has studied in a Muslim school, although I know Muslims who have studied in convent schools, public schools etc.

  15. October 13, 2008 10:14 pm

    If a guy who has a large fan bas and becomes an obsession for ordinary men. .then i dont feel anything is wrong…
    but yea worshiping them like demi gods is silly ,, ..
    like there are temples built for actresses here in south.. ..
    but i really dont mind admiring ppl like sachin ,rajnikanth ,amithab …

  16. October 13, 2008 10:47 pm

    thats an intensely thought provoking view…..hero worshiping and being a hero…if you are talking about idealizing….then i am really sorry to say that at least for me none stands as an idol and why should?
    i believe that as an individual i am the best judge and i am a hero for myself! i learn from mistakes , respect my actions and surely i have the strength to face the consequences be it anyways….in that way isnt everybody a hero?
    what do you think about this perspective nita?

  17. October 13, 2008 11:13 pm

    Arvind, temples, whether for actresses or actors or sporsts stars seem way out of line to me!

    Arpit, I think your perspective is a very mature one and reveals your self confidence and belief in yourself. But everybody doesn’t have the strength to think like this.

  18. October 13, 2008 11:33 pm

    thanks nita …..yes the coin always has two faces …you showed one and i showed the other ..but its people who have to decide which one they support.

  19. October 13, 2008 11:45 pm

    True, a lot of people blindly worship their favourite heroes. We should rather try to take the good things out of them, appreciate it and take it as some lesson. A lot of this happens with movie stars in particular.

  20. Catwalq permalink
    October 13, 2008 11:45 pm

    Hello Nita,
    Long time no see. Just dropping in to say hello and see what is happening on the Indian front…ttyl(don’t those abbreviations make you mad?)

  21. October 14, 2008 3:02 am

    I have noticed a strange trend in hero-worship/celebrity-obsession in the sub-continent. A lot of times if someone becomes a successful singer/sports-person, his or her profile in wikipedia invariably puts a lot of stress on how he/she was also an excellent student, is very good-natured, very religious etc. Sort of ignoring what actually made the person special, but stressing on (perhaps true) qualities that make them similar to us. I dont know if this is something others have noticed as well.

    I think though, in general Indians tend to choose the wrong heroes, Arjuna over Yudisthira and Gandhi over Ambedkar are two examples I can readily think of.

  22. Vinod permalink
    October 14, 2008 7:09 am

    Gandhi over Ambedkar are two examples I can readily think of.

    Both are heroes in their own right. Both have contributed in distint ways. I don’t know how one can choose over the other.

  23. October 14, 2008 7:20 am

    Yes, it’s true, we can’t expect our human heroes to be gods. In the US people tend to idolize athletes, and when those athletes do unethical or immoral acts, the whole world is in an uproar.

    By the way, I’ve switched my blog to a new template. Here’s the URL –

    I only have one post up so far, but I should be filling it up soon.

    http://www.balancedontheedge.org/

  24. October 14, 2008 2:05 pm

    Nita, thanks for this interesting post!

    I believe a mature person has no “heroes” as it is, but just some people whom she/he admires or appeciates very much.

    Let me give another take from my country of origin. In Soviet Union, the vast part of ideology was built upon heroes – of Revolution, of the Second World War…

    Sure, that was very manipulative but also very elevating! AND – this is the gist – often the Hero was..the nation itself. The Soviet ideology strongly supported the heroic image of Soviet people, the COLLECTIVE HEROISM. That made people cultivate the best human qualities in themselves, and one can still see that ordinary people who grew up and lived in the Soviet times, their value system is very stable and very “human”.

    And that I find really great. I don’t know if there is any other country where it was practiced that way – may be China?(you may know better).

    Axinia, I do not know how it was in communist countries. Thanks for sharing. – Nita.

  25. October 14, 2008 2:44 pm

    hun??? “wishtobeanon” Did i miss something here?

    Sakhi, wishtobeanon is a very old reader and commentator of mine. She has been with this blog for more than a year. – Nita.

  26. chirax permalink
    October 14, 2008 4:08 pm

    Nita, Ayn Rand says:

    “I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.”

  27. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    October 14, 2008 5:51 pm

    @ Vinod:

    I haven’t been following this post too closely, so I don’t know who first brought up the “Gandhi over Ambedkar” thing. But it is a topic that has often engaged the attention of historian Ramachandra Guha. A recurrent anecdote in his writings and speeches touches on the topic. Its minor details vary from one narration to the next, but for a fairly representative version go to
    http://www.hinduonnet.com/mag/2002/12/08/stories/2002120800580300.htm

    The point is, many (?most?) people lead such a banal life that they need and desparately seek heroes to spice it up. And what particular qualities they look for in their heroes has a lot to do with their particular angst, their particular fantasies.

    Of course Guha’s story is far too nuanced to be accommodated within such a simplistic explanation. A perhaps more appropriate example, even though ridiculous, would be that of comic-strip heroes such as Superman. I believe they were invented during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when life for most ordinary Americans was pretty dismal.

    Since this comment will in any case go into moderation, I may as well add another link — to a poem by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), written long before the Depression, which perhaps aptly sums up the whole business of heroes vs role models:

    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-leaden-eyed/

  28. October 14, 2008 7:58 pm

    chirax, what Rand said, is that also borne out by *your* personal experience, or are you simply repeating her line? :)

  29. October 14, 2008 9:26 pm

    In other words, see something as “a heroic act” rather than turning someone into a hero. I’ll agree with that.

  30. October 14, 2008 11:12 pm

    A apt post at a time when people are doing yagya for AB’s health! I mean he is mortal for heaven’s sake!
    Similarly the craziness for Rajnikant, girls swooning on seeing Bollywood heroes, the follwors of Mr.Bal T….I don’t get these emotions. Maybe because I have never idolized anyone in my life. But I would disagree with you that many of these heroes (made by public) enjoy the status and the influence of being a “hero” of men.

    Reema, I am not sure what you disagree with. Can you clarify? – Nita.

  31. Vinod permalink
    October 15, 2008 9:08 pm

    Vivek, thank you for this links. They were educative.

  32. Bharat Sharma permalink
    October 26, 2008 11:37 pm

    Nita ji,

    Your post touches upon the fallibility of mortal heros.

    It was one of the reasons why Pujaniya Bhagwa Dhwaja was chosen as the Guru by RSS. Not any human being. Human beings are imperfect in some or other dimension. But the Dhwaja symbolizes virtues that are permanent.

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