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A Diwali Meditation On Free Speech

March 18, 2015

by Anantanand Rambachan
Originally published on November 11, 2012 in The Huffington Post
Our celebration of Diwali 2012 occurs in a year when, sadly, the major events associated with religion are stories of violence, suffering, anger, rage and protest. In Milwaukee, Sikh worshippers were slaughtered because they were different — looked different, dressed different and practiced a different faith. A provocative film, made with the singular purpose of vilifying the character of Prophet Muhammad, ignited protests across the Muslim world and resulted in the loss of lives. In the subway stations of New York, Pamela Geller has been running controversial anti-Muslim ads, claiming constitutional freedom to speak words that others may find offensive.
Most of the official political responses to the film on the Prophet Muhammad had a two-fold focus. Condemnation of the film was followed usually by an affirmation of the freedom of speech. I understood the importance of reiterating the right of free speech, and the need to explain the limits of government intervention, but I always thought that more needed to be said. Political responses went as far as may be expected, but something was missing. What remained unspoken? What could I, as a Hindu, coming from a place of religious commitment, add to what was being said by leaders across our world?
I knew that my religion had much to say about speech and so I turned to the wisdom of the Bhagavadgita for guidance on what the Hindu tradition could contribute to our understanding of speech in the public sphere. The Bhagavadgita commends the “discipline of speech” and describes it as satisfying four criteria. It is speech (1) that does not cause pain to another, (2) that is true, (3) respectful and (4) beneficial. Speech is disciplined only when all four criteria are met.
Because the right of free speech was not always protected, and there are still many places in the world where it is not guaranteed, the emphasis in our discourse about speech is properly on freedom. Our value for freedom of speech is conveyed best in words attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” As precious as this freedom is for us, it does not alone constitute the “discipline of speech” as commended in the Bhagavadgita. Speech is not as free as it may claim to be when words or other symbols are employed with the sole intention of inflicting pain, when truth is disregarded, when the other is disrespected and when the outcome is suffering. Religions cannot stop with affirming the right of free speech without speaking passionately about intention, truth, mutual respect and consequences. These are the locations from where we can lift our voices of concern about a film like the “Innocence of Muslims” or the subway ads of Pamela Geller. In both cases, the intention is to inflict pain and to demean, without any thoughtful consideration for truth or consequences. Every criterion of the “discipline of speech”, as described in the Bhagavadgita, was violated.
What about the criterion truth one may ask? Do we not have an obligation to speak the truth regardless of consequences or any other criteria? Leaving aside the challenges and complexities of determining what is truth, especially when it involves a religious tradition other than our own, it is important to note that in the order of criteria in the Bhagavadgita, the obligation not to inflict pain precedes truth. Ahimsa, that is non-hurting, guides and informs our obligation to truth and always precedes it in the listings of virtues in Hindu sacred texts. In good human relationships, and it is these that are of concern to us, we do not privilege truth speaking above all else. We value love and its expressions in generosity, care and delight in the happiness of others. Truth is never championed inhumanely and with heedless disregard for human well-being. Truth is one of many obligations in a complex set of values that defines and sustains mutually enriching relationships and there is no good reason why relationships with our neighbors of other faiths should be excluded from such considerations.
Does the “discipline of speech,” enunciated in the Bhagavadgita, mean that in interreligious communities one does not enjoy the liberty to be critical of another’s beliefs and practices? One of the most famous students of the Bhagavadgita, Mahatma Gandhi, pondered this question. Gandhi does not rule out public criticism of other religions but, most importantly, believed that the right to criticize another religion had to be earned. It is earned, according to Gandhi, by a careful and sympathetic study of the scriptures of other religions and a willingness to appreciate all that is good in these traditions. Such a study should be undertaken through the writings of the finest exponents and practitioners of the tradition. It is earned also by the cultivation of friendship and trust with people of other traditions. In the absence of trust, criticism is heard a demonization. Neither the maker of “Innocence of Muslims” nor Pamela Geller sought to earn the right that Gandhi speaks about.
Gandhi exemplified some of the highest possibilities of interreligious relationships in his friendship with the Christian priest, Charles Andrews. They remained faithful to their respective traditions, learned deeply from each other and disagreed publicly. Gandhi’s words, written after a disagreement with Andrews, convey the profound trust and mutual respect that permeated their relationship. “It is so like him,” wrote Gandhi. “Whenever he feels hurt over anything I have done — and this is by no means the first of such occasions — he deluges me with letters without waiting for an answer. For it is love speaking to love, not arguing.” We are a very long way from cultivating interreligious relationships in which criticism is received as “love speaking to love.” This alone, however, will save our relationships from suspicion and superficiality.
During Diwali, we pray with the famous words of the Bṛhadaraṇyaka Upaniṣhad:
Lead us from untruth to truth
Lead us from darkness to light
Lead us from death to immortality
May the words that we speak be always free, but free also in the most profound religious sense: free from the intention to hurt, free from falsehood, free from disrespect, and free from violence. May our words be peaceful, truthful, respectful and helpful.
A happy Diwali to all.
Published with the author’s permission.