The Right to Criticize Religions



On a day we recognize the importance of a written constitution and in a time where the word constitution is used in a sentence or an argument as a badge of honour and to add legitimacy, it is pertinent to ask – can we criticize any religion in India today?

Its rhetorical. We all know the answer and it need not be spelt.

To give a background, we, in India were presented with a law guaranteeing a great freedom of expression. One particular case turned it all away. A left leaning publisher (Romesh Thapar) was banned sale of his weekly (Cross Roads) in erstwhile Madras state. The courts favoured a greater interpretation of freedom of expression. But Sardar, then Home Minister of India said, the ruling “knocks the bottom out of most of our penal laws for the control and regulation of press” ( ref – Page 21). Thus arrived powers to the Government to restrict our freedom of expression by ‘reasonable’ means.

These restrictions affect us in many ways but affect us more in the realm of religion – the relationship between (wo)man and God and how one perceives God.

Sixty-five years later, anyone can feel insulted, any act or word or expression or sign can be construed as an act against a particular religion or any act can be certified to disturb the public order or provoke harmony for it to be banned. While religious leaders quarrel and show one-upmanship in all areas, they converge and agree on one of the most perverted and warped thing – to restrict our freedom to question religion or to put it more precisely, to question the self appointed representatives of religion.

While it is reasonable to empathise with the argument that we must respect all religions, because, respecting religion as practiced by others is respecting the others’ freedom of expression, it is also a reasonable argument that one must respect the others’ opinions and criticism of religion, because, it is also respecting the others’ freedom of expression.

Why should thoughts and expressions in praise of religion (or God) must be given more importance, legal protection and legitimacy over thoughts which criticize or even mildly question religion (or God)?

Let us look at historical context in India or more specifically Hinduism. What we come to accept as the foundational philosophies are nothing but one side of Hinduism, that is Vedanta. There are other radical philosophies and texts which oppose even existence of God. Even our Rig Veda, in one of the most translated and discussed portion (dubbed by some as Creation Hymn) states or should I say proclaims “Gods are later than creation and who knows the truth!”

Suppose there exist a group of people calling themselves as strict followers of ONLY Rig Veda. They swear by the text and take the Creation Hymn as one of their core belief. Consider me as a Vaishnavite who is subscribed to Vishnu Purana. The creation is detailed in many verses.   Am I hurting the sentiments of the hypothetical followers of Rig Veda by my opinion if I say my arguments are better? In practice, I am not. Because, both these group will fall under the umbrella of Hinduism.

Replace these followers name with Religion A and Religion B, we all know that we have a problem at hand in 21st Century India. This is an example of philosophy vs philosophy.

Let’s move forward a little. One oft repeated and one of the most celebrated moments from Adi Sankara’s life was his debate with Mandana. It circled around the philosophy and remained in philosophical realm. But the wife of Mandana, Ubhaya Bharathi, wanted to debate a celibate Sankara on the subject of love making or Kama Sastra. The point here is not about the philosophy. Its questioning the person, the individual who is supposed to represent a religion.

Imagine the plight of a comedian who just mimicked a religious leader and consider the plight of someone if he or worse she, dares for a similar debate with today’s so called swamijis.

Why go so back in History? Consider what B.R.Ambedkar, the architect of our constitution said in “Annihilation of Caste” about Hindu scriptures. Let me sugar coat it for I dare not attract the wrath of the nimble-minded – he was not kind in words towards Hinduism. This was questioning the religion in itself.

If what two opposite philosophies can say against each other few thousand years back, if what one lady dared to challenge a celibate (one of the most revered) in the art of love making, if what one person can say against a religion in the most direct and straight way some eight decades ago, what stops us to do the same? The law and its restrictions on us to criticize religion shoves a red hot knife to this legacy.

Let us consider Abrahamic religions.

It is widely accepted and believed that monotheism in Middle east (I consider Hinduism as monotheistic and thus the geographical limitation) came into limelight (or should I say existence or practice?) because of Abraham. There is a great story about Abraham denouncing idols. Did Abraham, by his views offend the idol worshippers? Apply today’s Indian law.

Studying in Catholic School exposed me to a whole new set of stories and legends. One such question was and still is – why don’t Jews accept Jesus as God? The answers if elaborated and debated would, under the present law may disturb the public order.

Similarly, how does Islam view Jesus? Did Jesus die on the cross?  Did he resurrect? If someone asks the same question today, in 21st century India, what according to the Islamic faith was asked and answered or rather opinionated 14 centuries ago, he or she will attract the full force of the Indian legal system.

There was something called as “index librorum prohibitorum,” or “Index of Forbidden Books” which was nothing but the so called heretical texts or ideas, the Catholic Church was against. If you look at the people whose works were considered heretical, it would surprise many. Some notable figures were Pascal, Descartes, Francis Bacon and Voltaire.

Should our law and constitution become one such ‘legal’ index librorum prohibitorum of thought? Should we allow our law to crush and put to death our opinions on God? Should people be prosecuted for a certain fundamental belief in God (against other view) or lack thereof?

The culture of call to ban what is being written today – whether it is Satanic Verses by Rushdie or Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown or Hindusim by Wendi Doniger – shows how insecure we are with our faith systems and beliefs.

If we have to ban or call to ban all that ‘hurts,’ ‘insults,’ ‘belittles,’ or ‘depicts in bad light’ one’s faith, should we not call to ban most of the past works which does the same? A case in point – we can order Mein Kampf in any online store or in any brick and mortar book shops. How do we reconcile this with our laws? I cannot comprehend. Maybe Jews are just handful in our country? So if Jews are more in number and have a voice, will we call to ban this as well? If this be the case, then this is not law. This is arbitrariness.

Why have we become such thin skinned? Why have we become so depraved of logic and reason? Why are we afraid of counter thoughts? Why are we scared of opposite point of views? Why are we afraid of thoughts which our forefathers considered as normal and necessary to the way of life and religion?

To me there are three dimensions to this problem.

  1. The right to question the philosophy
  2. The right to question the religious leaders
  3. The right to question religion in itself

The first one is the easiest low hanging fruit. Since we do not have Sankaras or Abrahams among us, we can and we must strive to fight for a law which will at least protect counter philosophies. The lack of wise men (women are always wise!) mean that we will never have any factual or interesting developments in religious philosophy which will stand the test of time. Then why not indulge us, the lesser mortals, the low lives, the half baked monkeys with this right to question other philosophies and pass time?

The second one is complicated as it affects a person. The question of defamation (criminal defamation, at that) also intersects with this. Also, to compound the problem, religious leaders, few of them, have become vote banks and nothing can be said against them. They have followers, they are influential and they are necessary for different snakes clamouring for power.

The last one is the most difficult and almost impossible in the near future. Because, we have forgotten God and are holding on to a mere name. Because, we are not confident on and of our faith. Because, we are not sure about what we believe in. Because, we do not subscribe to some of the basic human values. Because we are not large hearted like our forefathers. Because we feel entitled ‘only’ for our opinion and forget our past suffering. Because we are literate but not educated. Because we are cowards for not demanding this right but pose as hyper-machos. Because we are not asking the basic questions which our forefathers asked about us and our existence, let alone answer it.

What is the use of thought if it cannot be expressed, what is the use of word if it cannot be spoken, what is the use of God if he cannot be questioned, what is the use of law if it cannot protect!

Though the law prohibits certain things on some ‘un’reasonable grounds, nothing stops friends discussing in the confines of our private spaces. Let us change, if not the law!

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