Blasphemy in Sacred Books

The Review of Religions (English), March/April 1908 Issue (Vol. 7, Nos. 3 and 4, pp. 117–127)

The judgment pronounced by an English judge and jury in the recent blasphemy case in London has given rise to feelings of various kinds. Harry Boulter, an Atheist, was indicted before Mr. Justice Phillimore on a charge of blasphemous libel, and the trial ended in a conviction of the accused. The English law of blasphemy undertakes to defend Christianity, and sometimes even the particular form of it which is established by the state. As recently as 1867, every

“denial of the truth of Christianity in general or of the existence of God, whether the terms of such publication are decent or otherwise,”

was looked upon as a criminal offence in law, but in 1883 Lord Coleridge laid it down in the trial of Mr. Foote, the well-known Atheist leader, that

“if the decencies of controversy are observed even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without the writer being guilty of blasphemous libel.”

This dictum was based on the consideration that the manner, not the matter, was blasphemous. As Lord Coleridge wrote, quoting a learned writer, it was not mere criticism of the principles of a religion that could be visited with punishment, but a malicious abuse of what was held sacred. He wrote:

“The law visits not the honest errors, but the malice, of mankind. A wilful intention to pervert, insult and mislead others by means of licentious and contumelious abuse applied to sacred subjects, or by wilful misrepresentation or wilful sophistry calculated to mislead the ignorant and unwary, is the criterion and test of guilt. A malicious and mischievous intention, or what is equivalent to such an intention, in law as well as morals — a state of apathy and indifference to the interests of society — is the broad boundary between right and wrong.”

Thus, according to the most recent interpretation of the blasphemy law in England an abusive or contumelious reference to objects held sacred in the Christian religion is a punishable offence. This view of the law has, however, been condemned by the press which generally looks upon the blasphemy law as obsolete, and demands greater freedom in matters of religious opinion, and there is no doubt that the triumph which Atheism has attained in the West calls for a repeal of the blasphemy laws.

But our object in referring to the English law on blasphemy is to contrast it with the state of things existing in India. It is strange to find that the very expressions for which Atheists are being punished with imprisonment in England are freely used in India in religious books which are held sacred by large classes of the community.

The Satyarth Prakash, the sacred book of the Arya Samaj, affords a good illustration of what I have said above. It is the chief work of Swami Dayananda, the founder of the Arya Samaj, and as such affords guiding rules of life in religious and social matters to thousands of the advanced Hindu party. Yet we find it abounding with expressions which in their virulence and abusiveness surpass any used by Harry Boulter. We give below some examples of Dayananda’s criticism of the Old and the New Testament and the Holy Quran.

Commenting on the verses of Genesis speaking of the tree of knowledge and life, the founder of the Arya Samaj writes:

“If a man behaves like this, he is called a cheat and a hypocrite. Why should not such a God be called the same since he alone who cheats others and practises hypocrisy deserves to be called a cheat and a hypocrite” (p. 676).

Again, commenting on the permission contained in Genesis 9:3 to use the flesh of animals as food, the author of the Satyarth Prakash remarks that

“the Christian God is more like a butcher” (p. 681).

And, again, speaking of the confounding of speeches, he remarks:

“He (God) did a most criminal thing. Is it not worse than anything that Satan has ever done? Did not He even beat Satan in this?” (p. 681)

And, again:

“This shows that this God was either a man or a bird that went up and down. He seems to be more like a juggler” (p. 683);

and further on, on the same page:

“It appears that there was a party of savages whose leader is styled God in the Bible.”

A malicious and mischievous intention to pervert and mislead is seen in the following comment on Genesis 20:16, 17, which run thus:

“Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbour. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

Now, mark the comment upon it:

“Bravo! No wonder that the Christians covet the wealth and possessions of the foreigners so avidiously as a thirsty man thirst for water or a hungry man hungers after food. The Christian God would be as selfish and partial as is the author of this (so-called) commandment” (p. 694).

The author of the Satyarth Prakash does not hesitate to speak of the Christian God in such contumelious terms as “a savage trickster,” or “a flesh-eating trickster,” and applies to His sacred person the most abusive epithets. In one place he says:

“It is only because the Christian God is a regular wrestler that He gave blessed Sarah and Rachael sons! Can such a Being ever be God?” (p. 690)

And, again:

“We were under the impression that the trickery of the priests of the temple of the goddess Bhairava — Indian Baccus — and other temples were mighty wonderful indeed, but we find that the trickery of the Christian God and His priests is a thousand-fold greater.”

A man who could thus vilify God could not spare the prophets, and we find Dayananda indulging in the most vulgar abuse against the holy prophets whose names are held in the greatest respect and the deepest reverence by more than half the population of the world and by nations which during the last thirteen hundred years or so have been the pioneers of civilization. On page 679 the authors of the Bible are called “savages.” On page 682 we have:

“This Abraham who is looked upon as a great prophet, both by the Christians and the Muhammadans alike, tells lies and does other such wicked deeds. How can such people find the way to true happiness and knowledge whose prophets were men of such a low character?” (p. 682)

On page 691, Moses and the other prophets are reviled in even more scathing terms:

“Now, mark, reader. This Moses — the chief prophet of the Bible, the founder of its religion — was a slave to such passions as anger, was a homicide who wanted to escape his punishment like an ordinary thief. As he concealed his crime, he must have been in the habit of telling lies. Even such a man (as Moses) met God, became a great prophet and founded the Jewish religion — a religion that reflected the character of its founder. Hence all the chief prophets of the Christians from Moses downwards were all uncivilised … and devoid of culture.”

The remarks on the New Testament and Christ are made in the same malicious spirit. The commentary on Matthew 13 relating to the Devil’s tempting Judas Iscariot to betray his master runs thus:

“Now, this cannot be true, since if the Christians were asked, you hold that the devil tempts all men, who tempts the devil? If you say that the devil tempts himself, men can also be tempted by themselves; what has the devil to do with this business then? But if God be the tempter of the devil, the Christian God then is the greatest devil and He stands guilty of having tempted all men through him. Can God even do such things? Truth to tell, we should not wonder if those who wrote this book (the Bible) and called Christ the Son of God were devils” (p. 721).

Christ is also spoken of as an ignorant savage who did wicked deeds and who set up a fraud to become a religious leader. On page 708, we read:

“Christ came to set men against each other and cause them to fight, and he succeeded. The same strife is raging among men to this day. How wicked it is to sow discord among men as it inflicts great suffering on them, but it seems that the Christians regard it as the highest doctrine, since when Christ thought it good to turn men against each other, why should not they — his followers? Yes, it becomes Christ alone to turn the members of one’s own household into his foes; no good man will ever do such a thing.”

Commenting on the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26–28), Dayananda says:

“Can a cultured man ever do such a thing? Only an ignorant savage would do it” (p. 715).

Commenting on the words of Christ where he says,

“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away,”

he says:

“This also betrays the ignorance and foolishness of Christ” (p. 714).

Similar contemptuous expressions are met with again and again, but we content ourselves with the following few:

“When it entered his head that he could also pass for a prophet in that savage country, he began to preach. He uttered a few good thoughts but many bad ones” (p. 718).

“Now, the missionaries always tell us that Christ was very calm, kind-hearted and free from anger and other such passions, but these verses (relating to the cursing of the fig tree) show that he was hot-tempered and ignorant of the laws that govern the phenomena of seasons and that he altogether behaved like a savage” (p. 713).

“Had Christ possessed even a little knowledge, why would he have talked such nonsense like a savage? However, as it has been said, ‘In a country where no trees are seen to grow, even the castor oil plant is considered as the highest and the best tree,’ in like manner in a country where none but the most ignorant savages lived, Christ was rightly considered a great man, but Christ can be of no account among the learned and wise men of the present day” (p. 710).

“It is also clear that had not Christ himself been destitute of knowledge and understanding like children, he would not have taught others to become as children” (p. 711).

“Mark reader! How Christ in order to convince the savages pretended to be the Judge who will sit on the seat of Justice on the Day of Judgment. This was meant simply to tempt simple guileless men” (p. 705).

“It also shows that Jesus founded his religion in order to entrap others. He wanted to accomplish his object by ensnaring others into his net like a fisherman” (p. 703).

“Now, reader, mark the words of Christ! Are they a bit better than what the Popes say to their dupes? Had he not set up this fraud, who would have been caught into his net?” (p. 722)

The scandalous references to the birth of Jesus made in the Satyarth Prakash are more vulgar blasphemies than anything uttered by Boulter. Commenting on the verse,

“When his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost,”

Dayananda writes:

“If this story of the birth of Christ were held to be true, any unmarried girl that happens to conceive could say that she was with child of the Holy Ghost. She could also falsely say that the angel of the Lord told her in a dream that ‘that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost’! … It must have happened like this: that Mary cohabited with someone and thereby become enceinte. She or someone else gave out (such an impossible thing) that she had conceived of the Holy Ghost” (p. 702).

The revilings of the founder of the Arya Samaj are next directed at the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)]. In this case the maliciousness of the writer assumes the grossest form and he gives vent to the most vulgar abuse concerning God and the Holy Prophet and his companions. For the living as well as the dead Swami Dayananda has nothing but vile contempt, and in a single sentence he thus condemns everyone who has ever professed the religion of Islam:

“He would indeed be a perfect idiot who would believe the Quran to be revealed, Muhammad to be a prophet and the Muhammadan God to be an Omnipotent Lord” (p. 793).

He calls God “the greater devil” and “a veritable devil” (p. 762), “a greater devil than Satan” (pp. 767, 777), “a greater Satan” (p. 776), “no better than a thug,” “a robber,” “deceiver” (p. 770), “a juggler showing his tricks” (p. 757), “more devilish than devil” (p. 741), “the originator of idol-worship in its most objectionable form” (p. 784).

Upon the Holy Prophet Muhammad are heaped all the most opprobrious terms and he is represented as the vilest human being that ever existed. He is called a “deceitful, hypocritical, cunning, ignorant and wicked” person, “robber,” a “thug” (p. (770), “lascivious” (p. 793), “like unto a beast” (p. 794), a “debauchee not afraid or ashamed of his turpitude” (p. 806), and an “ignorant and selfish fellow” (p. 807).

Now, we do not advocate the prosecution of the writers of such blasphemies but we are surprised to find that the very expressions which are considered adornments of sacred books in an uneducated country like India are punished with imprisonment in free and advanced England. The passages on which Boulter has been convicted are by no means severer or more abusive than those which we have quoted from the Satyarth Prakash. He called the God of the Bible “an immoral old savage,” and Dayananda calls him “a savage trickster,” a “butcher,” a “juggler,” “more devilish than the devil,” and such other names. Boulter called the Bible a filthy production, and Dayananda calls the writers of the Old Testament “savages” and those of the New Testament “Devils.” The severest words of Boulter regarding the virgin birth are not severer than those uttered by Dayananda. According to the passage quoted in the indictment, he is reported to have said:

“No man would believe that a child was born of a virgin. What would you think if it happened in your own family? You go to Mr. Plowden for an affiliation order against the Holy Ghost.”

It is strange that in India where religious feelings hold a far more powerful sway over the public mind than they do in England, abuse of religion is sanctioned by law to a far greater extent than it is in the latter country. If blasphemous writings of the nature indicated above were actually harmful, they would be far more so in India than in England.

So long as freedom of religious opinion exists, the advocates of every religion have a right not only to eulogise their own religion, to dwell upon its excellences and beauties, and to persuade people to accept it in preference to all other religions, but also to exalt it above all other religions, to criticise the latter and to show their defects and the harms which follow from them. But how far the right to criticise entitles a man to depict another in the darkest colours and to use abusive and contumelious language is a different question, which I shall not try to answer in this article. It is, however, clear that the line must somewhere be drawn between liberty and license. In a free country like India, where the state does not favour one particular form of religion and allows equal liberty to all, it may not be necessary to defend a particular religion against blasphemous libels, but licentious and contumelious abuse of sacred persons and things must no doubt be stopped, if not for any other reason, at least for the promotion of good feeling between communities professing different religions. Of course we must be prepared to make due allowance for heated expressions in the course of controversies, but even after making such allowance there remains a good deal to be done.

We take for instance the criticism of Islam and Christianity as given in the Satyarth Prakash, the contumelious nature of which we have shown by a few quotations from it as given above. Now, this book is not a controversial writing, and the chapters dealing with Christianity and Islam are both prefaced with remarks in which it is asserted that the criticisms are calm judgments of the two religions. Read in this light, these criticisms reveal a malicious and mischievous intention to injure the feelings of the other communities, as such disparaging and contumelious remarks as those quoted above concerning persons and things held in the highest honour by large communities could not proceed from any other motive.

The author of the Satyarth Prakash denounces the Holy Prophet Muhammad and all his companions as a gang of dacoits and thugs. Now, I ask, can any sensible person arrive at this conclusion after studying the whole Islamic history? The slightest consideration would show this not to be a calm judgment but a malicious contumely. Can anybody point out any gang of dacoits and thugs that should have brought about such transformation in the world, that should have kindled such a bright torch of learning and civilisation, and that should have raised whole nations from the depths of degradation and barbarity to the highest pinnacles of civilisation? If the history of the world actually shows that thugs and dacoits have been doing such noble and great deeds and have been the leaders of the world in learning and sciences, then indeed the remarks, whether right or wrong, could have come within the purview of criticism, but as they stand they constitute a wilful misrepresentation of facts and show a malicious and mischievous intention to injure the feelings of a community.

Take another instance. The Holy Prophet Muhammad is called a lascivious person and a debauchee only because he had a plurality of wives. But the very person who is so ready to abuse the sacred leader of hundreds of millions of his fellow-beings enjoins upon his followers in the same book to have niyoga (a kind of adulterous connection) with eleven women other than one’s own legal wife if a person has no male issue. Now, this niyoga with eleven women is looked upon in the cult of Dayananda as a meritorious deed. Similarly a married woman must undergo niyoga with eleven men if she has no male issue. One who taught such impure doctrines could not reasonably find fault with a person who, having no male issue, married more women than one and had them as his legal wives, and therefore when we find Dayananda heaping the most opprobrious terms upon the Holy Prophet on account of the plurality of wives, we at once see that the abusive remarks are not due to any real and genuine objection to the established custom of a plurality of wives as then prevailing in Arabia but are really the outcome of malice.

My object in pointing out the blasphemies and contumelious abuse in the Arya Samaj scriptures is not, however, to bring any discredit upon the Samaj or its sacred books. I have taken up the subject in right earnest to draw the attention of my advanced Hindu countrymen to the fact that so long as they follow the methods of the founder of the Arya Samaj in dealing with other religions, the breach between the Hindus and the Muhammadans which is so injurious to the cause of truth and the spread of good ideas must continue to grow wider and wider. If they do not desire this, and we hope that they do not, they will do well to change the tone of their religious writings and show respect for the sacred leaders of humanity instead of giving vent to abuse and contumely. Even the interest of their own religion lies in this, for calmer words are sure to have a far greater effect than hot abuse, if there is any force or truth in them. They should not forget that if the Muhammadans or the Christians handled their religion in the same malicious spirit as they are handling theirs, they could also find sufficient material for making their writings offensive to them. But such a course would not lead to any beneficial results. It does no harm to be courteous and tolerant, and this is our advice to our friends of the Arya Samaj.