Disrespect is an unfortunate human trait, especially when expressed towards the gods and beliefs of other human beings. The past few months have seen a tumultuous rise in this phenomenon. Nupur Sharma’s offensive response to Tasleem Rehmani’s hurtful words about Lord Shiva on an Indian TV news channel was directed at Islam’s most revered prophet. It was a competitive verbal rant: I’m hurt, so I’m going to suffer. This has led to protests, violence and recorded cases across the spectrum.
ancient Indian traditions of vada encourage mutual respect as an essential element of debate, while allowing for gentle and polite questioning: if we don’t question, how can we grow, resolve or reform? This spirit of respectful probing also extended to the religions and gods of all people in Indian cultures. This is proving difficult in the place of debates today. Why?
Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash’s game theory comes to mind. remember the movie a beautiful spirit, with Russell Crowe? It was based on the extraordinary life of Nash. Nash essentially explained how rational decisions are made in strategic interactions. The key idea: people calculate the accruals of their decisions, but not in isolation. They also keep in mind the cost-benefit returns for others who play with them.
India is currently facing this thorny problem of competitive insults towards religions. Or gods. Or prophets. Game theory will argue that if the gods/prophets/scriptures of one religion are treated with respect and those of another with harmful disrespect, it will create a state of imbalance. The balance – the Nash balance in game theory – will be restored either if the gods/prophets/scriptures of all religions are treated with the same respect or if they are treated with the same disrespect.
This is not the situation that prevails in India. In fact, that is not the case in much of the free world. In the West, one can see the utter disrespect of woke radical Marxists (who sometimes identify themselves as “left liberals”) for Christianity. It offends me, and I’m not a Christian. At the same time, these radical awakening Marxists treat with extreme respect the religions they favor or fear – “reveilleism” and Islam. In India, the situation is similar: enlightened radical Marxists regularly criticize Hinduism. Recently, lewd remarks have been made about the holy Shivling by journalists (left-wing and Twitter-based “fact-checking” websites) and politicians (mainly from West Bengal and Maharashtra). Such harmful comments have pained and offended countless Hindus. At the same time, these same people called the leader of Sharma for his harmful words about the Prophet of Islam.
The common theme is that the majority religion in the country – Christianity in the West and Hinduism in India – is under attack. It is easier to gain ground when attacking the ‘dominant’ majority group from an appropriate position of self-victimization. But this rule does not apply to nations/states with an Islamic majority (think Pakistan or Turkey) or nations/states with an awakened majority (think California).
In the future, this situation may evolve in two directions: either radical awakening Marxists and radical Islamists treat all religions with equal disrespect/respect, or believing Hindus in India and believing Christians in the West (and even developing countries like Nigeria) end up using the same tactics against those who insult their revered personalities, such as police cases in India under Section 153A. The world will then face a spiraling cancel culture, career destruction, police complaints, court cases and sometimes even violence. On all sides of the debate. Not just on one side. Shockingly, the tragic blasphemous killings of Kamlesh Tiwari in Lucknow (2019) and Kishan Bharwad in Ahmedabad (2022) are freely used as examples by radical Islamists to sow fear, even as their radical Indian Marxist allies have them. awake to the airbrush of mainstream media. You, dear reader, may not even know about these two murders. And now we have Kanhaiya Lal in Udaipur.
Nash equilibrium will be reached in one of these two directions. However, as a follower of the Dharma traditions, I am unhappy with these two balances. Respectful questioning of human activities, including religions, must be permitted and even encouraged. But in doing this, why insult the gods, the prophets or the rishis? Why not practice civility and politeness?
There are those among all religious groups, including Muslims and enlightened Marxists, who present an alternative model. They protest if their religious/revered personalities or their scriptures/doctrines are not respected. But their demand for respect is not one-sided. Even India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, TS Tirumurti, has argued for equal treatment of phobias against all religions.
This pattern can bring peace and is certainly preferable to senseless, diabolical violence (and even situations bordering on civil war). But even this alternative model is not ideal. Because peace can reign but modernity and scientific temperament would be difficult to build. The latter requires a rational and curious mind.
All religions can be treated with respect and also challenged and reformed with gentle nudges, as Richard Thaler proposes. Casteism in modern Hinduism can be questioned using the words of the Bhagavad Gita; misogyny in modern Islam can be questioned using the inspiring example of Lady Khadija, and child abuse in the Church can be questioned using the true message of Jesus Christ. It is not impossible to achieve. Let us push back with confidence against enlightened radical Marxism and radical Islam.
Let’s consciously take charge of the movement towards a healthy balance. Something our dharmic ancestors taught us.
Roy is a writer and recently co-wrote ‘Dharma’ with Amish