The Freedom To Speak

The Buddha’s first talk 2,500 years ago questioning the tenets of Hindu Orthodoxy was in Varanasi, the global epicenter of Hindu Orthodoxy.

Varanasi the grande-dame, now grossly disfigured, ravaged beyond recognition, grimly tolerated this provocative heresy. But no guard or soldier felt the need to step forward.

The Buddha kept coming back for the next 40 years. His vocal new disciples kept escalating a diatribe in ever-sharper pitch.

But unlike in Jerusalem, Baghdad or even Athens, the Buddha was neither crucified, impaled nor made to drink poison. He was never exiled or jailed, not even arrested.

Throughout its long history Hinduism has been a tradition of open, high-decibel discourse. Adversarial argument was the norm for resolving philosophical conflict. The principal school of Logic [Nyāya] began as a codification of the rules of engagement in open debate.

The Mundaka Upanishad, as central and sacred a Hindu text as you will find, mourns:

The deluded fools [i.e. Observant Hindus] believing Vedic rites and Smritis to be the highest, do not understand the path to the other knowledge that leads to Brahman.. to Moksha..

Or the Buddhist Ratnaguna, the launching platform for the seminal Maha Prajñā Pāramitha Sūtra:

‘Those who teach the Dharma, and those who listen to it taught;
those who have won the fruit of an Arhat, a single Buddha, a world-saviour; and the Nirvana won by the wise and learned,
mere illusions, mere dreams-so has the Tat-agatha taught.

[The Vedas] are the ‘Incoherent rhapsody of knaves’ begins a Carvaka treatise. Building steam it scoffs: Charity is ordinanced by the indigent, Chastity by the impotent..’.

The above verses go back well over 2,000 years. In Semitic Cultures, the Writers would have been stoned to death. Atheism and Agnosticism, relatively mild protestations in comparison to Shūnyam, find copious space in the literature as early as 400 BCE.

Every child, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, the whole wider brood, left the house after slamming the door. And then moved down the street. You’ll have a hard time locating a local version of the sack of Magdeburg or the Wahhabi slaughter of Shiites at Karbala.

Pakistan, once part of the subcontinent, has the largest number of detainees in the world jailed under Islamic blasphemy laws. The penalty is death if you are convicted.

Quite different in India where Gandhi insisted on reading the Koran in Hindu temples but sagely sidestepped reading the Gita in mosques.

A new Dravidian party in the South, Language-Worshippers [in this case, Tamil], obscenely derides all things Hindu. Frequently in jail for loot of the public treasury, their candidates simply get re-elected after release by a largely observant Hindu electorate readied for more.

Mullahs troll the 72 Virgins waiting in Paradise. Missionaries harvest souls waylaid here on earth. While Hindu secularist public-intellectuals, the distant flotsam from the creative outpourings of the European Enlightenment, with the righteous rage of the new convert, gut the sanctum, trash the system.

Modern Indian Governments either stock-up on the Tear-Gas. Or stand at the ready for abject capitulation to any rampageous mob, every claim of religious affront and ‘hurt sentiment’, typically by an illiterate and bumptious horde.

Intentionally vague Laws, a clogged legal system and the thick stick of the ‘Unbailable Offense’ can have a dissenter behind bars sharing a leaking communal toilet while awaiting Trial for five years. 

The verses of the Upanishads and Sūtras, alternatively insightful, silly, banal, opaque and mocking were born in the protective milieu of established and enforced Dharmic tolerance, the indispensable midwife for all genuine inquiry.

Shūnyam could only birth in this soil. In this sense, Puṇyabhūmi.

Free-Speech is not a new idea.