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Freedom of expression cannot breach

Hinduism is a tolerant religion (some say it is a way of life) and hence Hindus generally take snide remarks and even ‘insults’ in their stride. However, there are occasions when their patience is tested beyond endurance, compelling leaders to step out and clarify matters. One such was a Media Forum organised in Wellington by the Hindu Council of New Zealand (HCNZ) in the wake of a cartoon that appeared in New Zealand Herald. Council officials Dr Rajiv Chaturvedi and Sevaraj Ramasami, who organised the Forum, said that the Cartoon showed Goddess Kali holding drugs and alcohol, wounding the sentiments of an estimated 90,000 Hindus in the country. Following is an extract of the deliberations at the Forum sent by Dr Chaturvedi.

Initial response

The caricature issue was discussed on August 26, 2013 at the Media and Religion Session of the Diversity Forum in Wellington. The Panel comprised Dr Jaysankar Lal Shaw, Dr Rick Weiss (Victoria University), Pundit Ramachandra Athreiya (Sydney), Vijeshni Rattan and Dr Rajiv Chaturvedi (HCNZ), with Mr Ramasami as the Moderator.

The Herald columnist justified publication of the cartoon, saying that New Zealand is a secular society where freedom of expression is a legal right. Victoria University Professor Paul Morris highlighted the institutional realities of contemporary journalism – limited knowledge about religion and ethnicity and the enormous influence of the commercial media in shaping public opinion. The approach treated Hindu Dharma as a religion in Western sense; indeed, ‘Dharma’ has often been mistranslated as religion.

Hindu response:

Hindus strongly support freedom of expression but have widely perceived this justification by the newspaper as a selective use of the freedom to target them. There were instances mentioned by the columnist herself, where discretion had been used in exercising their freedom of expression in respect of some ethnicities and religions.

Conflict between reason and faith exists in ‘Western Religions,’ while Hindu literature talks about ‘Dharma,’ not religion.

The concept of Dharma

Dharma cannot be translated as religion or ethics in the Western sense, because its practice will lead to ‘Moksha’ (Nirvana), the state of the mind free from suffering, characterised by peace, bliss or harmony.

Since violence causes suffering, it is considered as ‘Adharma (unrighteous activity). The Yoga system has mentioned 81 types of violence, three of which are cardinal or non-derivative. These include physical and mental torture, ordering torture, and approving torture. Remaining silent or not opposing violence is another type of approval.

Hence, the cause leading to any type of torture or distress or upsetting experience is considered as violence, which is an unrighteous activity.

Hindu Dharma is universal and emphasises certain eternal values, such as Knowledge, Love, Devotion, Justice, Equality, Non-Violence, and Liberation (Freedom). It has no dogma or blind faith, as all the principles of Dharma are justified on rational grounds.

The Deities

Deity worship and rituals differ between various streams of Hindu Dharma, within the same stream and sometimes within the same family. Every person is free to worship any Deity of his or her choice. Hindu Dharma recognises the freedom of the individual and does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, colour or country of origin.

It considers the entire world as family or ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.’

There are as many Goddesses as Gods. The same Goddess, such as Kali, has different forms. Images of Deities are highly symbolic as they represent certain values for the well-being of the world. Worship is a commitment and devotion to these values. The images represent the power to eliminate ‘Adharma’ from the society and protect the Law or Righteousness.

Perpetrating violence

Any caricature of these images would misrepresent the ideals symbolised by them. Moreover, it would be considered as an act of violence, as it upsets the followers of Dharma, Hindus and Non-Hindu alike. Hence, freedom should not be used to aggravate our sufferings, mental or physical. This priceless treasure (freedom) should be used to alleviate the sufferings of all, irrespective of their station in the world.

Pandit Athreiya said that when the Supreme Consciousness is in a motionless and inactive state (Lord Siva in the yogic posture as Nirsanjala, represented in sleeping posture under Kali’s feet), Kali Ma (Mother Kali) had to take upon herself to slay the two demons of extremism- too little and too excessive.

Manifestations of Kali

He said that the ‘Rupa Dhyana Sloka’ in the Hindu scriptures characterises Deities in certain situations and that it is the artist who creates the visible forms. The spiritual significance of the armory of Ma Kali is (a) The Wheel or ‘Chakra denoting Time (b) The Club (Karma) signifying Action (c) The Conch meaning Proclamation of Dharma (d) The Trident symbolizing Concentration (e) The Bow, showing Determination and (f) The Severed Head, denoting the destruction of Ego.

Expounding the Freedom of Expression, Dr Weiss said that it is the historical change which determines the level of freedom. About 100 years ago, the State promoted discriminative policies against the African American in his country (US) but it is no longer a freedom to do so.

With the fast changing demography in New Zealand, we should hope for similar changes to the level of freedom to be exercised responsibly. He mentioned that the amount of political freedom in India is lesser to no other country.

Ahimsa succeeds

Dr Weiss explained that Ahimsa (non-violence) does not equate to non- conflict. Mahatma Gandhi dealt with many conflicts but chose the path of Ahimsa. Martin Luther King was also inspired by the approach of non-violent, non-cooperation in US. In both the situations Ahimsa successfully brought about changes in the society for the better.

Dr Chaturvedi said that Maori leader Te Whiti was practicing non-violent, non-cooperation 50 years before Mahatma Gandhi, emphasizing the fact that the principles of Dharma go beyond religion or faith; ‘Non-Western cultures have often intuitively recognised this unifying fact.

The objection to trivialising cultural symbols is not the first in New Zealand. Maori have faced and successfully opposed such assaults on their symbols.

Victoria University student Priya Sharma pointed out in a private communication that in 2001, ‘Lego,’ the toy company had to beat a retreat after its initial bravado in an incident when they used Maori names and symbols in a derogatory manner.

Insulting Mother

Mrs Rattan stated that though the Herald caricature could have been published in ignorance, Kali is considered the universal Mother, and it is still an insult to our Mother.

“Our culture considers alcohol and drugs as signs of decadence, and putting them in the hands of a woman is extremely derogatory,” she said.

In response to a comment to forgive and forget, she said that while it was desirable to forgive ignorance, it is important to bring the issue to people.

The primary objective of the discussion was to raise awareness as otherwise, many will not know about Hindu Gods and Goddesses, she said.

The New Zealand Hindu community has chosen to exercise its Freedom of Expression to create awareness about Dharma and to engage in a constructive discussion to resolve conflicts.

The Hindu Media Forum’s response to ‘Kali Cartoon’ was supported by the Human Rights Commission and the Office of Ethnic Affairs.

“Ahimsa Paramo Dharma; Dharma Himsa tathaiva cha.”

Ahimsa is supreme Dharma. In order to protect the Supreme Dharma, Himsa is also Dharma.

Kali Pooja

The event, held as a part of Deepavali celebrations, included Bhajans and Kali Puja performed by Pandit Kamlesh Vyas. Among those who attended the event was Sister Catherine Jones, Chair of the Catholic Bishop Committee for Interfaith Relations.

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