The intensification of faith in developing countries, particularly n South and Southeast Asia region, has given birth to the perceived notion of disrespect for the sacred among the Buddh and Hindu communities. This situation has led to a fear of violence at the hands of communities that promoted tolerance and nonviolence through their religious scriptures. Instead of going into the notion of sacred in the scriptures of these religions, the research focuses more on the current situation as the strict observance of respect for sacred and anti-blasphemy regulations brings them closer to the realm of the Abrahamic religions.
Blasphemy and Buddhism
One of the leading religions of the world, with nearly 500 million followers, Buddhism is widely seen as peaceful and tolerant (Jo Starr n.d.). However, over the years, the public image of the religion has transformed as its followers adopt a highly organized response to what they perceive as blasphemy to Buddhism and Buddha.
Charles Kimball, in his work on religion and violence, notes that five modes of thinking led to violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Kimball 2002). He identified them as; 1) absolute truth claims, 2) blind obedience, 3) establishing ideal times, 4) the ends justify the means, and 5) holy war (Kimball 2008). The doctrine of “Holy War” manifests in the histories and doctrines and sanctified in the Abrahamic traditions but has no such equivalent ideology in Buddhism, which has a “just-war” ideology, though war itself is not sanctified in Buddhism.
Micheal Jerryson notes that the Buddhist doctrine identifies the violation of Buddhist images as injuring the Buddha (Jerryson 2018). “Blasphemy can signal a decline in the Buddhist doctrine and the coming o the Buddhist End Times. For Buddhist like those of the Knowing Buddha Organization, there are correct ways to treat Buddha images. The failure to display some degree of respect amounts to blasphemy.”(Jerryson 2018)
There is no direct translation of “blasphemy” in Buddhist tradition, but the perspectives of the followers of Buddhism are no different from that of the religions (King 2016). The disrespect for what is sacred in the Buddhist belief harbours the same feelings of anger as in any other religion. Frøystad notes that there is little evidence to suggest that Buddhist law in South and Southeast Asia was particularly concerned with slander and blasphemy. “Rather in Burma (as in British India and British Ceylon), legal measures against ‘religious offence’ were introduced under the British colonial rule” (Rollier, Frøystad, and Ruud 2019).
In response to an article published by Time magazine in its July 2013 issue, titled “When Buddhists Go Bad,”(Beech n.d.) that exposed religious-based violence perpetrated by Buddhist groups, the governments of Sri Lanka and Myanmar responded by banning the magazine. (Mallawarachi 2013)
The notion of sacred and retribution for blasphemy has grown to such an extent that Buddhist community leaders also termed the destruction caused by the tsunami in 2005, a result of showing disrespect to the Buddha. Nimal Ranjit Perera, a Buddhist leader told The New York Times in January 2005, that tsunami happened due to a Christian who had made a cake in the shape of Lord Buddha and then cut it with a knife. Indonesia, he added, was struck because Indonesians had been manufacturing and wearing underwear with the image of Lord Buddha (Waldman 2005).
Several Buddhist organizations have come up to defend what they claim blasphemy against Buddha, protect Buddhism, ushering in a new era of intolerance for the religion (We protect Buddhism n.d.).
Blasphemy and Hinduism
Hinduism is considered one of the oldest belief systems of the world. A majority of its followers live in India. It is widely believed as a religion of peace. It lacks central authority, a single sacred book, or a uniform required beliefs and rituals, leading to a broad range of practices that differentiates it from the Abrahamic traditions (Beyer 2006, 208).
Beyer notes that the British colonizers played an instrumental role in the reconstruction of the Hindu belief system with the help of the Brahmin elite and restructured Hinduism in India, as we see today. During the same time, a process of codification of laws was initiated which also led to the development of the blasphemy laws in the Indian Penal Code. The introduction of laws that regulated religious beliefs resulted in the rise of inter-religious and intra-religious litigation(Beyer 2006, 192). The legal codes introduced in the British Raj served as the foundation for much stricter blasphemy-related legislature in the former British colonies.
In the ancient Hindu traditions, “Ahimsa” (nonviolence) and “himsa” (violence) has coexisted uneasily in Hinduism for centuries”(Rambachan 2017, 97). Though, Hindu militancy is not seen as scriptural and is considered a result of nationalism as a modern movement in colonial India.
In the recent times, militant organizations such as Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have transformed the image of Hinduism from a religion of nonviolence. In this regard, Hinduism has adopted the notion of sacred and blasphemy from the Abrahamic religions. These organizations subscribe to ancient Hindu traditions that sanction violence. These organizations have been accused of organized killing of minorities, including Muslims and Christian missionaries. The political success of the Bharatiya Janta Party (the political wing of RSS) has contributed to deteriorate the situation further.
The Hindu militant organizations continue to identify Mughal-era mosques across India claiming that they were constructed after demolishing Hindu shrines and treating this as a blasphemy and disrespect of the highest order towards Hindu sacred. At the same time, the BJP government imposed a ban on cow trade and slaughter since Hindu belief treats cows as sacred. This has led to mob violence primarily against Muslim and Christian cattle traders resulting in incidents of lynching in many parts of the country. One incident of mob violence has been reported every week during the past five years in India as a result of what Hindus believe as profane towards the holy cow. (Purohit 2019)
The notion of sacred and blasphemy has undergone many changes over time since its origins and across all the religious traditions. While it has been relegated as an offence of the past in most of the Christian world and among Jews, there are strong currents of resurgence of the religion and even stronger commitments to defend the sacred from profanity in developing countries. The situation in traditional Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist societies in Asia are of a particular concern. In countries such as Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, the enforcement of blasphemy seems to have devolved to the level of the general public who now share power with the state authorities having the mandate to enforce the law.
The increasing debate on the sanctity of cow in the Hindu tradition eventually led to the Indian government imposing a ban on cow slaughter, paving the way for what became known as “gau raksha” or cow protection movement. The religious sentiments associated with the sacred cow and the Muslim tradition of cattle slaughter on the occasion of the Hajj has promoted religious vigilantism across India as laymen go about lynching suspected cattle-traders. (Purohit 2019). The cow enjoys a similar sacred status in Sri Lanka and Myanmar but there is no mass campaign for cow-protection as in India.
In Muslim-majority countries that enforce anti-blasphemy laws, the situation has come down to a level where an allegation of blasphemy or disrespect towards the sacred or any of the sacred symbols is sufficient to send the person running for his life. The guilt of the accused is established even before a trial or an opportunity to prove otherwise. Amnesty International report in 2016, documented in detail the impact of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The title of the report, “As Good as Dead,” leaves little to imagination. (Amnesty International 2016). Ironically, the strict blasphemy legislation of Pakistan introduced in the 1980s was based on the religious offences law that the British colonizers introduced in the Indian Penal Code in the 1860s. Afghanistan is no different. In several incidents, the perceived disrespect to the sacred, including allegations of burning Quranic text, led an enraged mob to deliver ‘divine’ justice on the spot. In one case, a young woman was beaten to death by an angry mob on false charges of burning the Quran in the Aghan capital, Kabul(Kargar 2015).
The countries that have blasphemy related legislation have contributed to insecurity for minority faiths and promotion of religious violence. A study that analyzed 51 Muslim-majority states from 1991-2013 finds that the countries that enforce blasphemy laws are more likely to experience Islamist terrorist attacks as compared to countries where such laws do not exist. (Saiya 2017). Lest one forget, many aspects of blasphemy regulations enforced today, especially capital punishment, were not part of the religion in its early years.
Nash feels that what defines the sacred and blasphemy might entirely be a question of geography, and the answer would also depend upon the location and time when the question is raised. (Nash 2007). The debate on blasphemy also raises questions as to how far a state is ready to protect its religiosity from its opponents. Who would define that is culturally appropriative and not an offence to religious sensitivities? Since the opposition to arts that offends the religious sentiments may not always be political.
The societies with restrictions on cultural expression through various forms of arts on the pains of blasphemy often term them as part of their religious traditions and challenge efforts to reform them. Talking about traditions, Talal Asad quotes Ludwing Wittgenstein as, “Tradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he picks up when he feels like it; any more than a man can choose his own ancestors. Someone lacking a tradition who would like to have one is like a man unhappily in love”. (Asad 2015) The primary purpose of the blasphemy laws that this paper draws is further religious ends as one finds the religious orthodoxy keen on ingraining the notion of sacred and profane to maintain and exercise its social cohesion.
As Thomas Scott wrote in the Journal of International Studies, “…violence and the sacred are central to the foundations of culture, religion and solidarity – for without some concept of the sacred, without something being made sacred – a flag, the nation, the state, a race, an ethnic group, a class, a political party, an idea (socialism, capitalism, Marxism), an institution, a constitution, an individual or, indeed, the living God, without something people are willing to make sacred – to sacrifice for or be willing to sacrifice others for – a society cannot exist; it would tear itself to pieces” (Thomas 2014, 314).