Feb 14, 2013

Blasphemy and Multicultural Democracy

Lots of news on overt and covert religious politics and the national Constitution. Why only debate constitutional law? Its time we scrutinized different religious canons, too.

Paradoxically in modern times, national and international politics is being shaken by "rageboys" of all stripes ticked off by acts of sacred offence such as blasphemy. Free society has insidiously become hostage to political correctness that must not cross lines. Since the government's priority is to avoid a disruption of law and order, it automatically means that the group that threatens the most violent tantrum will have its way. This subverts the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution, as stated in the Preamble. So it may be useful to examine root causes here and perhaps work out a more mature society through understanding.

What are some of the canonical definitions of sacred offence in different religious traditions? In the popular religious mindset there is a distinct separation of the sacred and the profane, an abyss that can be bridged only by rituals that restore purity, or by devotions that transcend it and humble the self in respect to the flock. How tolerant a religious tradition is would depend on the relative emphasis given to either of these - ritual loyalty versus transcendental devotions and humble service to humanity - and at a communal level as well as the individual.

Yet, priestcraft and religious politics depends so much on the perception of this abyss in the popular mind for its own relevance, that it is often at pains to reinforce this concept of separation. Disgust, anger and fear are most usefully employed in this respect, as are expressions of attachment.

Sacred offences canonically include sedition, obscenity, facetious treatment of duties or devotions, etc. Blasphemy can be considered a special case of a sacred offence - it is an offence of expression against some sacred authority that is idolized by a community, which could be a person or a text. In contradistinction to democratic authority, religious authority is typically more concerned about offences of expression and criticism rather than freedom of expression and criticism. Both are important and each has its legitimate place in the Constitution. Therefore a semantic examination is necessary in order to dovetail.

The treatment of blasphemy and sacred offence by a religion can tell us a lot about the relationship of its context and contents. Jesus challenged the Jewish order: Was Man made for the Sabbath, or the Sabbath for Man? Is religion supposed to be a 'managed solution' that comes as a package of bundled contents that need to be implemented independent of context? Or is it an 'unmanaged solution' where the contents are to be continuously customized to the scope and context of its application? Maybe a bit of both?

In Indic religions, there are two ruling concepts - Brahman (something like a 'Supreme Being') and Dharman (something like 'pragmatic ethics'). The Vedanta Sutras (Uttara Mimamsa) begin with athAtO brahma-jijnAsa, whereas the logically anterior Mimamsa Sutras (Purva Mimamsa) begin with athAtO dharma-jijnAsa. Religions based on Dharma point to the fact that there is only One Way, and all viewpoints must connect or dovetail with that Way. They freely acknowledge the multiplicity of viewpoints and forms, while also denouncing certain 'viewpoints' as spurious. Whereas religions not based on Dharma will also say that there is only One Way - and that is to abandon other spiritual applications, and install and execute their own managed solution that comes bundled with an ideological affiliation, communal membership and notions of purity and duty.

Let's take a comparison of two sects, one Dharmic and the other non-Dharmic. Here is one such set of blasphemous "offences" that form part of the credo of a couple of Vaishnava sects. They are excerpted from the Padma Purana. As you can see, the doctrinal aspect is very subtle. (Also note that these sects have traditionally been missionary sects, so its a worthwhile comparison.)

सतां निन्दानाम्नः परमं अपराधं वितनुते
यतः ख्यातिं यातं कथं उ सहते तद्विगर्हाम् |

This relates to etiquette and blasphemy, but is focused on the 3rd person singular, as a general rule for the individual and any faith tradition, rather than at a communal level or at the actions of another person: "The greatest offence is to blaspheme the Good/Truthful Ones who had dedicated their lives to the propagation of the Holy Name. How can one bear to then degrade them?"

शिवस्य श्रीविष्णोर्य इह गुणनामादि सकलं
धिया भिन्नं पश्येत् स खलु हरिनामाहितकरः ||

Now this is about doctrine, and is very subtle! At an exoteric level, this doctrinal point speaks to the oneness and difference of competing "gods" of different religious communities. (In more esoteric terms it speaks to ontological categories beyond the scope of this article.) The sentence can mean two opposite things depending on whether the word nAmAhita is broken up as "nAma ahita" or "nAma Ahita": "One whose intellect sees the Attributes and Names of Shiva and Vishnu as separate from one another... he has indeed done a disservice to the Name of Hari -- OR -- ...he has indeed performed/offered the Name of Hari!"  Here the concept of simultaneous difference and non-difference is alluded to, and requires spiritual maturity and experience to see this. 

गुरोरवज्ञा श्रुतिशास्त्रनिन्दनं
ततार्थवादो हरिनाम्निकल्पनम् ||

This one is about discipleship, mental attitude and doctrinal understanding: "To disobey the orders of the spiritual master. To denigrate the Shruti literature and shastras written in pursuance of the Vedic version. To believe in rationalizations and mental interpretations of the Names/Mantras. To consider the glories of uttering the Name/Mantra to be a product of the faculty of 'imagination [...are all offences]'."

नाम्नो बलाद् यस्य हि पापबुद्धिर्
न विद्यते तस्य यमैर्हि शुद्धिः||

This one flatly condemns specious rationalization of unethical behavior on the basis of the 'greater good' of propagating or glorifying what is sacred: "To commit sinful activities on the strength of chanting the Holy Name of the Lord. Such a person's intellect [or mental map] is itself sinful. Even Yama (Lord of Death) cannot purify him!"

धर्मव्रतत्यागहुतादि सर्वशुभक्रियासंयम् ।
अपि प्रमादः |

This one asks the practitioner to rise above ritual and spiritual or material ambition and be in Present Time: "To consider chanting of the Names/Mantras as similar to vows, or duties, or ritualistic activities offered for religious fruitive purposes (like heaven, or wealth and success, or for one's ancestors, etc.) [is an offence]. (i.e., spiritual grace is not to be considered the product of some actions, behaviour or affiliation). Being inattentive or distracted while chanting also [is an offence]."

अश्रद्दधाने विमुखे 'पि अशृण्वति
यश्चोपदेशः शिवनामापराधः ||

This one is specifically about interactions with those who do not subscribe to one's faith tradition: "To instruct or preach to an unwilling, uninterested or faithless person about the significance of the Holy Name is an offence to the auspicious Name (or Shiva's Name)."

श्रुत्वापि नाममाहात्म्ये यः प्रीतिरहितो 'धमः |
अहं ममादि परमो नाम्नि सो 'प्यपराधकृत् ||

This one is a warning on the label, that if an egotistic attitude to religion persists, then it leads one to perdition, not heavenward: "In spite of having heard/read so much about the significance of the Holy Name if one is still lacking in affection for It, then one is a neophyte. In spite of hearing so much if one is still involved in "I" and "mine" and other material attachments, then one is only committing offences against the Holy Name when one chants."

Let's take a non-Dharmic Abrahamic tradition such as Islam, which tends to be in the news a lot. First, the legalistic fiqh position can be easily researched. Scurrilous remarks merit capital punishment. There is a command to spread the faith, by word and if necessary by annihilating inimical priesthoods. Refusal by the non-believer to accept Islam when it has been explained to him/her incurs the wrath of God. Apostasy by a believer or someone that was born into a Muslim family is punished by death - in fact an apostate is fair game and the killer gets spiritual merit (sawaab) for the kill. Non-adherence to the moral injunctions by believers gone astray is severely punishable, and God has exterminated entire tribes and races in history for precisely that through war and pestilence. All this and more can be easily researched and is often alluded to.

But this is only the outer shell, the legal framework of the culture, and any good Muslim scholar will tell you that there are vast gray areas that form the pulp and substance of the religion, that make these guidelines an extreme survival measure rather than the norm. It is also noteworthy that the RigVeda also contains plenty of war and injunctions to make war on opposing priesthoods and so forth, yet the Vedic tradition as a whole had an Upanishadic side that was entirely contemplative and gave a new semantic to the faith. Islamic culture has 'Sufism', of which there are two types - First those Sufis who work in tandem with the jihadis, and are founts of morale and lend significance to the act of jihad. When the European colonialists used a policy of 'Guns and Bibles', they were only emulating the 'Swords and Sufis' policy of Islamic empires. Another type of Sufis are the more contemplative type, the introspective. This is the soft side and usually when Indians think of 'Sufi', perhaps that's what they imagine. For comparison, let us take a look at some popular traditions from one of them on sacred offences:

As told by the great Afghan teacher Hazrat Ebrahim Adham:

مردم به او گفتند که -- ما هرچه خدا را میخوانیم که فرموده است ادعونی استجب لکم (بخوانید مرا تا اجابت کنم شما را) ما را جواب نمیگوید و حق تعالی راستگو است. فرمود -- زیرا دلهای شما نرده است. اول میدانید که خدا هست و بندگی او را نمی کنید!  و دوم اینکه قرآن را می خوانید ولی بکار نمی گیرید!  سوم آنکه  می گویید که رسول خدا را دوست دارید و متابعت او را نمی کنید!  و چهارم اینکه آرزوی بهشت دارید لیکن کاری برای آن نمی کنید!  و پنجم اینکه میگویید که از آتش جهنم می ترسید ولی تن خود را به آن گرو داده اید!  و ششم اینکه می گویید شیطان دشمن ماست اما با او همراهی می کنید!  و هفتم اینکه نعمت خدا را می خورید اما شکر او را بجای نمی آورید!  و هشتم اینکه به زبان می گویید که مرگ حق است و هیچ کاری برای آن انجام نمی دهید!  و نهم اینکه از خواب که بیدار می شوید به غیبت کردم مشغول می شوید و عیب برادران خود را می گویید بجای اینکه عیب خود را اصلاح کنید!  و دهم اینکه برادران و دوستان خود را دفن می کنید و اهمیتی برای خودتان ندارد! پس تا زمانی که این اخلاق زشت با شما باشد دعا شما اجابت نمی شود تا این که توبه کنید و از آن باز گردید

The people said to him: "No matter what we beseech the Lord as per His own saying in the Qur'an "ad'ooni ist'ejaab lakum" ('Call upon me and I shall reward you'), he doesn't answer us, yet His True Highness is truthful." He instructed: "For your hearts are the balustrade...
  1. You know that God exists but you will not submit to Him.
  2. You read the Holy Qur'an, but you do not live by it.
  3. You say that you like God's Messenger, but you do not follow his sunnat (Way of his life).
  4. You say you like paradise, but you do nothing to obtain it.
  5. You say you are afraid of the Fire, but you lend your bodies to it.
  6. You say that Satan is your enemy, but you agree with him.
  7. You consume God's blessings, but you do not give gratitude.
  8. You say with your tongue that death is certain, but you do nothing before it comes.
  9. After you awaken from sleep, you start gossiping and seeing other people's faults, but you ignore your own shortcomings and faults.
  10. You bury your brothers and friends, and you value them not, i.e., when you cry, you cry for yourself, not for them."
What I find interesting here is that it has a hammering quality that it borrows from its tradition, though it is urging the reader to think. Yet, it can be construed as one urging even greater re-dedication to one's vows and duties without any re-evaluation. Lastly, it offers no guideline on interaction with those who do not share one's faith tradition. It is focused on the individual, but not the communal.

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