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Sacrilege & Society: A Sociological Analysis of Blasphemy

Guest Article

Image Credits: Civilsdaily

Blasphemy and laws criminalising it have existed for centuries. But fundamental questions about what actually constitutes blasphemy and how it has continued to survive as societies become more modern remain unanswered. Analysis from a sociological perspective of the concept is required for a deeper understanding of what role blasphemy plays in society and its continued existence.

In 1997, Nike was suddenly forced to recall around 38,000 of its brand-new Nike Air shoes and later issued a public apology about them. The reason? The design of the word ‘Air’ on the shoe resembled the word ‘Allah’ in Arabic calligraphy and Islamic advocacy groups threatened to boycott Nike’s products.[1]

Tracing Blasphemy Through the Ages

The concept of Blasphemy finds its roots in the Greek term blasphemia, which when divided into constituent parts means blapto (to hurt) and pheme (speech, utterance and fame, reputation).[2] Therefore, Blasphemy clearly hints towards hurtful speech or conduct which damages reputation or defaces it. Blasphemy can mean, simply, saying bad words about, or contradicting, someone, taking a different view from the norm. The concept is very open and wide, with great opportunity for interpretation, something which is seen across blasphemy laws around the world, which use vague and ill-defined terminologies aplenty.[3]

Blasphemy’s etymological roots are important in understanding the context in which it developed and how it has regulated societies and behaviour in it. A Greek export, the term was prevalent in Roman and Greek societies and closely linked with treason.[4] The concept was moulded over a long period, involving individual incidents of misuse of the name of God and religious images, beginning from the conversion of the Roman imperial state to a Christian state. Such a transformation intensified the destruction of other “pagan” religions with a simultaneous strengthening of Christianity and its symbols.[5] The existence of these so-called “pagan” religions and their symbols was seen to be a focus of evil spirits which received power and strength through their worship. This was, however, not the only reason for such a destruction. Removing non-christian symbols and images from the commoner’s eyes helped Christianity flourish.

In the mediaeval times, however, blasphemy transcended symbols and began to be viewed as a public order problem, also aiming to cast aspersions upon other aspects of an individual’s lifestyle such as drinking, vagrancy, or gambling. This was because occasionally blasphemers were found to be drunk or took part in practices associated with their former religions (in the case of converts). Thus, the approach was to differentiate between deliberate utterances and isolated incidents of accidental blasphemous remarks, requiring disciplining with respect to other aspects of the individual’s life which could have caused such indiscipline.

With the Reformation and the re-emphasis on religion, Blasphemy became equated with having heretical beliefs thereby, bringing even independent thinkers under the ambit of Blasphemy. During the reformation, physical depictions of God were reprimanded for removing its spiritual, mysterious aspects which slowly morphed into possessing heretical beliefs, as pre-reformation practices were also looked down upon. This displayed a solidification of the concept of Blasphemy which was inherently linked with the security of the state, blurring the line between religion and polity, which culminated in the passage of Blasphemy legislations in most western countries by the end of the 17th century.[6] The English Blasphemy Act of 1697 for example bolstered the idea that religion and state were mutually supportive as it criminalised denial of Christianity or the authority of the Bible. Such acts were clearly thought of as reducing state power.

With the importance of twin agendas of individual rights and religious toleration heightening, many countries in the west in contemporary times have forgone harsh prosecutions and punishments in instances of alleged Blasphemy, moving from passive to active blasphemy, where the precise religious beliefs and feelings of individuals were considered under direct attack from the expression of others and not the state itself.[7] This transformation is visible in the fact that sexual revolutions and equal rights movements have led to new and tense public conflicts between religion and gender/sex.[8] These movements, by imbibing so-called ‘religious’ symbols have attracted the ire of conservative groups. A prime example may be James Kirkup’s poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name published in Gay News, which earned the paper’s editor a fine and punishment.[9] The poem was deemed blasphemous for depicting sexual intercourse between a roman soldier and the crucified body of Christ, even though the author claimed the main point of the poem was discussing the possibility of religious salvation for homosexuals.[10]

Blasphemy in the Indian Context

While in the current context, Blasphemy manifests itself as a couple of provisions under the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”)[11], thanks to Lord Thomas Macaulay, it can be observed in ancient Indian Hindu society as well.

The concept of dharma, an encompassing term referring to duty, religion, morality, social obligations, justice, righteousness, and law, has been central to Hindu thought. Conversely, so has Adharma (the opposite of Dharma) which included offensive speech by lower castes against higher castes, especially against the Brahmins, the highest religious caste. Proof of this may be found in the Manusmriti which charts out a list of horrific punishments for a ‘man of low birth’ who hurls ‘cruel words’ at a Brahmin, such as his tongue should be cut out.[12] If he mentions his name or caste maliciously, a red-hot iron nail ten-fingers long should be thrust into his mouth. If he is so proud as to instruct Brahmins about their duty, the king should have hot oil poured into his mouth and ears.

Therefore, as Wendy Doniger in her book, The Hindus: An Alternative History argues, even though Hinduism itself does not subscribe to the Christian conception of Blasphemy and orthodoxy, it does imbibe within itself social blasphemy.[13] Social Blasphemy manifests in the form of impurity and profanation of temples and sacred spaces and objects.[14] This was seen recently as Hindu College professor Ratan Lal was arrested and later granted bail for his sarcastic comments upon the finding of a religious object resembling a ‘shivling’ in the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi.[15] Another example includes filing of an FIR against 2 Netflix Executives for a kissing scene inside a temple in the Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy under section 295A.[16]

This social blasphemy, prevalent in almost all religions, today is perpetuated by colonial Blasphemy provisions in the IPC even though other countries have done away with such sections. In 1952, the US Supreme Court held blasphemy to be ‘unconstitutional’ and it was abolished in Australia and England in 1995 and 2008 respectively. Indian Blasphemy provisions have led to the formation of a “Marketplace of Outrage”, a new economy that thrives on emotion, one in which “if the feelings run (or are seen to run) high and deep enough, a good price will be fetched.”[17]

It is important to note that Sections 295 and 295A require the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens[18], however, it is usually used by pressure groups to stifle the voices of artists, writers, and filmmakers. Several examples of this include a complaint against former Indian cricket team captain, M.S Dhoni for posing in an advertisement for a business magazine as Lord Vishnu holding several things including a shoe in his hands.[19] Section 295 was invoked against him for denigrating the Hindu god and hurting the religious feelings of the Hindus.

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This provision is, however, egalitarian in nature, allowing all religions to harass individuals and usurp the rule of law, be it Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which offended the sentiments of Muslims in India and across the world, or the murder of a Dalit farmer who ‘attempted’ to steal the Nihang Sikhs