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A case of Supreme Court’s comments going against Indian values

Author: Parappanangadi Unnikrishnan Panikkar
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: July 27, 2022
URL:      https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/a-case-of-supreme-courts-comments-going-against-indian-values-8053407/

Parappanangadi Unnikrishnan Panikkar writes: These values -- debate rules, communal harmony, and free speech -- were not given to us by the West or Left intellectuals. They’re at the core of India and Hinduism

Nupur Sharma’s comments on a news show created much controversy recently. The Supreme Court came down heavily on her, and made some unfortunate remarks, holding her responsible for unrest across the country.

In doing so, the apex court failed to consider the rich legacy of debates in India and its long history of freedom of speech. Blasphemy and impiety were once punishable by death in certain Western nations, and are serious offences in some Eastern countries even today. In India, however, we have had the freedom to criticise and satirise religions, beliefs, and sacred texts for long.

That no Hindu system of philosophy was beyond criticism is obvious to anyone who has studied the subject. In fact, each system of philosophy has grown by challenging another. Debates between proponents of different beliefs used to be common once. Surendranath Dasgupta, who has studied the history of Indian philosophy and written on the topic, says these debates were decisive to the prestige and popularity of the schools of philosophy and their proponents. For instance, if a Buddhist monk defeats a famous naiyayika in a full house, he not only becomes celebrated among scholars, but amasses disciples and followers as a result. These debates defined the importance, popularity and future of philosophies and philosophers in India, not weapons or invasions.

This culture of debate was not limited to philosophical doctrines. Criticism of belief systems never triggered anyone. Literature has subjected belief systems and avatars to serious criticism too. In his epic poem Kumarasambhava, Kalidasa depicts Lord Shiva, disguised as a seer, talking to Parvati towards the end of her deep meditation. The seer’s witty words about Shiva are not only humorous, but heartfelt too. How can Shiva, who wears serpentine armlets, hold the bejewelled soft hands of Parvati, the seer asks. How can his blood-stained animal skin match her embellished accoutrements? The seer goes on to say Shiva is a mere palisade in a boneyard, and the pious will not bow to it as to a holy Vedic flagstaff.

In Bhavabhuti’s Uttararamacharita, a self-loathing Lord Rama is about to kill Shambuka, the Shudra seer, knowing well that it is wrong to do so. His inner voice stops him and Rama looks at his right hand, which refuses to swing the sword, and says: “Oh right hand, kill this Shudra seer and bring back the dead Brahmin boy. You are a limb of the Rama who had it in him to leave a pregnant Sita in the jungle. Why start with mercy now?”

Similarly, there are highly appreciated literary works in India that criticise the characters of the Mahabharata too. This method of criticism has pervaded all philosophies and theologies in our country’s history. The Vedas were confronted by Tantra. Both were put to the test by Buddhism, which in turn was challenged by Advaita. Each system of philosophy is thus strengthened by the force of the other.

That raises a pertinent question: Should the recent spike in the mockery of Hindu idols be criticised? Why are a rising number of Hindus reacting sharply to such ridicule? If criticism, mockery, and satire have their place in Hinduism and India, shouldn’t there be outright acceptance of the mockery? Why should, for example, Hindus react if M F Husain draws Saraswati in the nude? Shouldn’t Hinduism have the space for that too?

The answer is simple. Criticism these days differs from the culture of debate that existed in India in two ways — and that makes the reactions that we see today understandable.

Firstly, criticism in the past had respect, appreciation, sometimes admiration, for the critiqued. Criticism rose from a firm understanding of the critiqued, not hatred,unlike what we see today. Bhavabhuti goes on to claim that Rama’s story has the power to bestow divine grace. Elsewhere, Kalidasa bows down to Shiva and Parvati, who dwell together like a word and its meaning.

Secondly, in any debate, the opponent was granted equal rights to words and methods in her opportunity in defending herself and challenging the criticism. For instance, Sankaracharya calls Buddha “asambandhapralaapi” — a prattler. Critics of Sankara wonder if he was “unmatta” — insane. The yardsticks for denunciation were equal on both sides. The critics handed the same rights to defenders of the critiqued.

The standards are unfit for a debate, if one claims that one’s beliefs are sacrosanct, deities never to be portrayed, but then goes on to ridicule another’s belief and paint their deities in the nude.

The Muslim community has to a larger extent absorbed India’s debate culture, a reason why Sharma’s comments did not make much impact among them in the first few days. Only after there was controversy at the diplomatic levels did Muslims in India start to react.

Islam, like any religion, comes under strong criticism in Kerala’s social media too. Most Muslims in the state will likely find them objectionable. Even non-Muslims may find some of those stances disagreeable. It must be noted that the Muslim community in the state has handled criticism with admirable maturity. Some Muslims ignore it, while some level matching retorts. Muslim scholars can be seen quoting from scriptures to refute certain claims. The overall maturity displayed online by Kerala Muslims should be a model for other states.

Akshapada Gautama, in the Nyayasutras, classifies arguments into three: vada, jalpa and vitanda. Vada is the method where two parties engaged in a debate want to — as Narayana Guru put it — “know and let know”. In this style, a proposition, paksha, is put forward by one person and a pratipaksha is put forward by another. The debate between two persons develops using proofs and reasonings.

Jalpa’s sole aim is to establish one’s idea one way or the other. Evidence holds little value here and debaters resort to sophistry, unsound arguments, and futilities. Vitanda is another form of jalpa, which is constant attack of the opposition, and no effort in defending one’s stand. Vatsyayana, in his commentary on the Nyayasutras, says there is no paksha in vitanda for “unless an attempt is made by a person to establish a certain idea, the idea cannot be called a paksha”.

The Nyayasutras — which lay out these guidelines for debates — were written two thousand years ago. Spirited debates and criticism are in this country’s blood. The methods you employ against an opposition will be employed against you. Their capacity to assimilate criticism and ridicule makes all philosophies deep.

Most of what we hear in television debates are either jalpa or vitanda. Vada has almost become extinct from the public sphere. Clamour and ridicule of opposition have taken over debates. It could be argued that neither the debate, forum, or debaters have to adhere to the methods prescribed in the Nyayasutras. After all, these are not philosophical debates. But at least the news channels and anchors — who rely so much on debates for their sustenance — should know a thing or two about the Nyayasutras and the basics of conducting a debate.

It could be argued that the coexistence of religions is somewhat a novel concept in the West. The Crusades were not so far back in history. This is where India’s past is different. In the 16th century — when the Western world started to learn about us — Indian and Hindu beliefs were often derided. Hindus were considered savage and uncultured. This is evident from the records of western travellers and scholars of the time. But how did Indians see faith in the West?

Francois Bernier, the French physician and traveller who visited India in the 1600s, writes after conversing with some Indians: “They did not claim that their law was universal; that God had made it for them and it was for that reason that they could not receive a foreigner into their religion; that for the rest, they did not claim at all that our [religion] was false; and that it might well be that it was good for us and that God had created different paths to go to heaven, but that they did not wish to accept that our [religion] being valid for all of the earth, theirs was nothing more than a fable and pure invention.”

The West found the Hindu belief system savage. The Indian idea — “we have no disagreements with your religion; it might have been created by God for your benefit, and ours for our” — was akin to the message of the Bhagavad Gita, where Lord Krishna says, “Everyone, knowingly or unknowingly, follows my path”. The essence of the Gita makes the religious and social life of Hindus rich and open. It is a text that could foresee the materialist view of our times. It is a text that asks you to “do as you wish” after comprehending the message of the text. In this sense, it is a modern text that gives prime importance to the freedom of man.

Religious harmony, like the culture of debate, too has a rich history in India. Ashoka’s edicts are as old as the Nyayasutras. In one of his edicts, he says: “Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honours as much as he values this — that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. […] Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought ‘Let me glorify my own religion’, only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.”

Ashoka’s view was that praising one’s own religion with excessive pride and polemic condemnation of other religions are two sides of the same coin. The emperor also thought that one should learn other religious doctrines too, apart from one’s own. These were the words of a man who lived two thousand years ago.

These values — debate rules, communal harmony, and free speech — were not given to us by westerners or Left intellectuals. They are at the core of India and Hinduism. When these values were fluttering in the skies of our country in its full glory, the West and the Arab world were riddled with crusades, invasions, and proselytism. Then, the West evolved, and started talking about religious harmony.

The Supreme Court does not seem to have taken these factors into consideration before making its observations based on comments aired on a news channel. A few days ago some jurists and bureaucrats wrote to the court saying that the court’s “outrageous transgressions are without parallel in the annals of judiciary” and that it is “violative of fundamental rights” as guaranteed by the constitution of India. It is not just that. It is a violation of this nation’s values too. The values we held high as a nation for centuries should not be rewritten in the name of political correctness.


-The writer is an astrologer and scholar based in Kerala
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