The Freedom To Speak


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

The grande-dame of cities, 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 accepted norm for resolving philosophical conflict [an alien notion in today’s compromised and deracinated legal system]. In fact, 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 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..

Charity is ordinanced by the indigent, Chastity by the impotent..’ scoffs another influential opus. Atheism and Agnosticism, relatively mild protestations in comparison to Shūnyam, find copious space in the literature as early as 400 BCE. Asebeia was just a funny word.

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.

[Ironically Pakistan, once part of the subcontinent, has the largest number of detainees held under Islamic Blasphemy Laws. As in Saudi Arabia and Iran, if convicted it carries the death penalty.]

In telling contrast, modern Indian Governments stand at the ready, prepared for abject capitulation to any rampageous protest, every claim of ‘Hurt Sentiment’ typically by an illiterate and bumptious horde.

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.

Free-Speech is not a new idea.