Liberal by faith

My editor at The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle was quite surprised when I suggested the topic for my column this month: religious intolerance.
She reminded me that I wanted to avoid controversy. She’s right. I do. But this topic is important. And every discussion in this area does not have to be controversial. It’s a matter of how we convey our thoughts. So I’m going to try my two bits here.

The death of Maqbool Fida Husain led to a lot of soul-searching in liberal India, the section of the country that consists of “people like us”. This is the part of India which supports free speech as the bedrock of civilised life. This is also a part of India which, on an average, may not be emotional about religious topics. I read an obituary of the great painter in Time magazine, written by a famous Indian author. He contended that the way Husain was treated would be a matter of eternal shame for our country.
There is, of course, another India, comprised of “people like them”; citizens who, by and large, do feel emotional about matters of faith. These are Indians who do take offence when their Gods or scriptures are portrayed in a manner that does not agree with them. And they comprise people of all faiths. Liberal India tends to look down on such people. It tells them to grow up. It harangues them to modernise. It berates them for not respecting free speech.
Which group do I speak for? Well, I’m in a slightly unique position. I grew up in a very religious family where my Pandit grandfather preached stories on Hindu myths, where my devout parents did not begin their day without their morning pujas. But it was also a very liberal household. It was a home where my brothers and I followed the same rules that were laid down for my sister; where we were never taught that any one religion is better than another; where differences of opinion were celebrated. I was an atheist till some years back. However, in the process of writing my book, The Immortals of Meluha (which chronicles the journey of the man behind the God, Lord Shiva), I discovered faith. So I am an eclectic mix of religiosity and liberalism, of an atheist childhood preceding a God-loving adult. Therefore, in a sense, I can identify with both, the liberal group that justifies the right of the artist to cause offence and the religious group which dutifully takes offence.
My suggestions to the liberal group? I agree with the cause of free speech. I admit that there should be no constraints on it at all. Constraints on free speech are a beguiling slide into an authoritarian mess. But we liberals have to understand that free speech comes with a rider as well, i.e. free thought. If an artist has the freedom to speak and cause offence, a pious person has the right to think that s/he has been caused some offence. If we are true liberals, we cannot question that right.
What about the conservative and religious group? There are members from all religions here. Christians who felt offended by the Da Vinci Code, Muslims who felt hurt by the Danish cartoons and Hindus who felt terrible about the Australian fashion firm which put a Hindu Goddess on a bikini. Was I troubled by the last example? Honestly, yes.
My first reaction on reading that bit of news was a shake of the head and a whisper of “Guys, she’s our Goddess. A little respect, please”.
So when we religious people are faced with a situation like this, what should our reaction be? One point is very clear and obvious. Under no circumstances can violence be the answer. That is completely wrong and there is no justification for it. Since violence is out of the question, what other avenues exist for us believers? Peaceful protest? Writing emails? SMS campaigns?
I actually considered sending an email to the Australian firm which had caused me some distress, as I’m sure many Hindus across the world must have. But when I thought deeper, I changed my mind. Introspection revealed the sheer arrogance of what I was planning to do.
My attempt was to take it upon myself to protect my Goddesses’ honour. I was assuming that She is so weak that She needs me to do this for Her. I realised that every believer who takes offence at a dishonour to his God and takes it upon himself to set it right is making the same assumption. We then end up forgetting the fundamental relationship we have with our God: We don’t protect Him. He protects us. We don’t help Him. He helps us.
So what should we religious people do the next time we see someone insulting our God? We should shake our head, look up at the sky and remember why we have faith in Him. And leave the matter of the offence to God. Because that is the way to honour Him.
Maulana Rumi has blessed us with an immortal quote of God’s message to us: “I do not want gifts from you. I want you to be ready for the gifts I give”.
This can be paraphrased to say: “I do not want help from you. I want you to be ready for the help that I give”.

The author has written the bestselling novel
The Immortals of Meluha.


Beautifully argued, no doubt.

Beautifully argued, no doubt. But the sentiment is not always one of 'protecting one's god or goddess', as the author implies. More often it is the urge to seek a remedy for one's sense of hurt. Any suggestions by Amish sahab would be more than welcome. My prescription. Get someone to paint our great Hussain's kith and kin, also the near and dear ones of those who stand by him, in exactly the same way in which he has painted some of the Hindu deities. We won't have such problems any more after that.

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