By Dileep Padgaonkar
Jan 15, 2012
When I was a little boy, I often accompanied my grandmother to a temple of Lord Hanuman. She would go there every Saturday and spend half an hour or so in front of the idol and mutter something. I paid no attention to what she said. I assumed it was a prayer, a recitation perhaps of stanzas from the Marathi version of the Hanuman Chalisa. On one occasion, however, I noticed that she was berating the idol. Apparently, she had sought a favour from the Lord and despite many reminders He had failed to deliver.
Her conduct perplexed me. I was studying at a school run by Jesuits and during what were called ‘moral science’ classes, the good fathers had inculcated in me the belief that one should look up to the Almighty with unflinching respect and devotion. But my grandmother, who was deeply religious, did nothing of the sort. She quarrelled with the Lord using words that sounded blasphemous.
Begins As Blasphemy
When I could not take this outrage any longer I asked her: “Why do you go to the temple if this is how you want to demonstrate your devotion to the deity?” She thought for a moment and said to me: “I quarrel with Him because of my love for Him. I know He does not mind. He is compassionate. And, unlike us human beings, he is able to take everything in His stride — praise and blame alike.”
Years later I came across a sentence of an ancient Greek sage which echoed my grandmother’s remarks. ‘All great truths’, he wrote, ‘begin as blasphemies.’ Such a statement is clearly not acceptable to anyone who interprets religious texts in a literal way. This is especially true of texts which are regarded as divine utterances.
For the faithful, they are beyond criticism, dispute or dissent. To challenge them is to invite the charge of apostasy or worse. And the punishment for this grave misdemeanour ranges from social ostracism to death.
But here is the rub. What if this literal understanding of religious texts clashes with one of humankind’s greatest gift: freedom of speech and expression which provides space for irony and metaphor, humour and satire? To be sure, such freedom must not descend to the level of abuse or insult. But who is to define these terms? And on what basis? Should this be left to the doctors of a given faith? Or should the matter be settled in accordance with the laws of the land?
The dilemma is especially acute in plural, democratic societies where laws are rooted in secular values of tolerance and harmony. As a rule, the courts are not expected to deliberate on issues of faith. They go by what is on the statute books. That, however, does not quite tide over the dilemma.
Partially In Error, Too
This is where reference to the finest spiritual traditions of humankind may help. They seek to build bridges, not erect barriers, between races and cultures, nations and religions. Unlike the literalists, they do not subscribe to the view that there is only one truth, that there is only one path to discover this truth, that there is only one guide to take you to this destination.
Truth, as one Upanishad says, lies everywhere and partially even in error. The word ‘partially’ is sublime: it gives us a chance to use our freedom to explore the wondrous mystery of human existence without getting trapped in the debilitating binaries that bigots of every stripe seek to impose on us.
We are thus able to see that the distinction between Us and the Other — the Us meaning the faithful and the Other meaning the heretic, the outcast, the apostate, the mlechha or the infidel — that is sought to be made by the guardians of a religious faith, the proponents of a spiritual school of thought or by the dispensers of ideological rectitude is no more than a chimera.
Soar Above The Mundane
In the recent Salman Rushdie controversy, the noblest utterance has come from the outstanding Islamic scholar, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan: ‘The answer to a book is a book, not a ban.’ The response to real or imagined apostasy is to pit your case against the case of the apostate and leave it to the faithful — as well as to those who are beyond the confines of your faith — to decide for themselves.
The response is not to proscribe his book, seek to bar his entry into the land of his birth, let alone to issue an edict to get him murdered. Such acts can never undo ‘hurt sentiments.’ They merely serve to emasculate the human spirit of its splendid ability to soar above the mundane trifles that crowd our passage on earth.
I am reminded of what General de Gaulle once said: ‘Faced with a dilemma, I set my sights on the summit. There is no traffic jam there.’
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi