blasphemy

Two recent lynchings following alleged cases of sacrilege in Punjab in the last month have raised disquieting questions. The first incident was reported at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where a person accused of sacrilege was lynched to death on the spot. The second case was from Kapurthala, where one person was accused of sacrilege. He was also lynched. There have been other incidents also of instant justice being meted out to people accused of sacrilege.  When I was reading about thee lynchings, I was reminded of two stories that I have read about Guru Nanak. They are worth recounting in summary.

Guru Nanak was once in Haridwar where he saw many people throwing water towards the sun in the east standing waist deep in the river. The people who were throwing handfuls of water from the Ganges River towards the sun in the east believed that by this ritual they could offer water to their dead elders in the next world. This next world was in the east from where the sun rose.

Guru Nanak entered the river for purposes of bathing as other common pilgrims were doing. Instead of throwing water to the east, he, however, started throwing water in the opposite direction towards the west where  his farm was. Taking him as a naive visitor, the nearby bathers told him that he was not performing the rituals correctly. They advised him to throw water to the east. The Guru calmly replied that he was watering my withering crops in Punjab. All of my crops in the village are dying as there has been no rain” and continued to splash the water to the west. Hearing the reply the people started laughing. The curious spectators asked, “Are you crazy? How can your water reach hundreds of miles away to Punjab from here?” Guru Nanak replied that the water would reach his crops the very same way that the pilgrims offerings would reach their ancestors in the other world many millions of miles away and that in fact his farm was much closer.

Similarly while travelling in  Mecca, tired after his long journey, he fell asleep, unaware that his feet were facing the Ka’aba – a structure in the Grand Mosque considered the holiest Islamic site. In the middle of the night, an offended Muslim scholar woke him up and told him to turn away from the shrine. According to the legend, whichever direction Nanak put his feet, the shrine followed. Eventually, Nanak requested that his feet  be turned in the direction where God does not reside.

Guru Nanak , the first Guru and the founder of Sikhism was in today’s vocabulary an iconoclast. His words and actions in today’s climate would be definitely understood to be sacrilege or desecration or both. Given this background, it was worth researching how the act of desecration  became  entrenched in Sikhism. It would seem that the concept of desecration was possibly not a feature in the early days of Sikhism but a later evolution. In Sikhism there have been ten living gurus, the last being Guru Gobind Singh  who ordained that the sacred scripture, the holy Shri Granth Sahib would thereafter be the “eternal living Guru of all Sikhs,” “Guru Maneyo Granth“. Shri Guru Granth Saheb is the epicentre of Sikhism. What in other religions is normally referred to as “pages” of their holy books, in Sikhism, they are referred to as “Ang” (body parts) and revered as such. Not only Shri Guru Granth Saheb is holy and divine, but the place where it is installed, Gurdwaras, are also holy places. There exists a code of conduct for visits thereto. The holy “Nishan Sahib” is also revered and needs to be shown all respect, as also other holy scriptures of Sikhism.

As the Guru Granth Sahib and everything associated with it is sacred and the Guru is considered to be a living being, any harm or disrespect to it is a serious offence for the Sikhs. The Guru Granth Sahib is the sacha padshaah (the true king). He holds his darbaar like an emperor and all the etiquette of the court and its discipline have to be followed. In a gurdwara, you have to cover your head, be properly dressed, barefoot and follow the etiquette. Any act that infringes on the sanctity and supremacy of the Guru is beadbi.” Operation Blue Star, in which the Army entered the Golden Temple or Darbaar Sahib in Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh shrines, in 1984, to flush out Sikh militants, is considered the biggest incident of beadbi in modern Sikh history. Indira Gandhi (who ordered the Army to enter the Golden Temple) paid a price for it with her life. Today , anything that violates the Sikh Rahat Maryada, the manual which guides Sikh individual and corporate conduct around the world can be viewed as sacrilege.

In law, The offence of blasphemy( not the same as sacrilege) was formalised  by the British colonial government while enacting the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1860, and made applicable to all religions. The law in India distinguishes between injuring or defiling a place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of person (Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code), and simply outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs (Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code). The former requires only an intention to insult, while the latter requires deliberate and malicious intention to outrage. Although any rational person would hope  that  outrage  over blasphemy and the religious intolerance it symbolises  would fade away as would blasphemy itself, the indications are otherwise. The Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018 and The Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018, cleared the Assembly in 2018 and have also received the Governor’s assent and are awaiting the President’s assent. The laws provide for jail term up to life imprisonment for anyone causing damage or sacrilege to Guru Granth Sahib, Bhagavad Gita, Quran and the Bible with the intention to hurt religious feelings of the people. Things aren’t getting better ; they are getting worse and it is not the traditional Bhakts alone who are getting sucked in.

Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.


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