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:

‘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.’

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.

A new Dravidian party in the South, Language-Worshippers [in this case, Tamil], obscenely derides all things Hindu, while genuflecting as only a pious Hindu can, to their newfound deity.

[Spending time in jail for loot of the public treasury is a tradition among their elected representatives. They simply get re-elected after release by a largely observant Hindu electorate readied for more.]

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 [1631] or the Wahhabi slaughter of Shiites at Karbala [1802].

Pakistan, once part of the subcontinent, has the largest number of detainees held 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].

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.

In telling contrast, modern Indian Governments stand at the ready, prepared for abject capitulation to any rampageous mob, every claim of religious affront and ‘hurt sentiment’, typically by an illiterate and bumptious horde.

The exception is when the presiding government itself reaches for these same Laws to silence or settle scores with critics. The thick stick of the ‘Unbailable Offense’.

It is a new regressed Age. Tolerance, once in strength, now a front for timidity, posturing and a feeble faith seeded in a hijacked Teaching.

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.


India ranks 142 out of 180 in the latest World Press Freedom Index, behind Kyrgyzstan, the Congo and the South-Sudan. Discounting the usual scoring biases of the judges and their typically modest understanding of cultural histories, that would still have made the old residents of Varanasi sit-up in disbelief.