A bizarre case was filed in the court of the chief judicial magistrate (CJM) in Sitamarhi, north Bihar, India on 1 February against Lord Ram, the god from Hindu mythology in Hinduism, for cruelty shown towards his wife, Sita. According to the Indian Express, the report quoted the complainant as saying:
“The Devi was exiled (given ‘vanvasa’) for no fault of hers. It was a hypocritical order from king Rama. How can a man become so cruel to his wife that he sends her off to live in a forest? Lord Rama did not think for a single moment how a woman could live alone amid wild animals, including reptiles and mammals, in the forest.”
What was equally bizarre was that the 'unhappy' lawyer Chandan Kumar Singh who had filed the case, found himself slapped with three complaint cases in another court for his alleged "defamatory" act against the Hindu God. Not to mention that his complaint against the revered God was dismissed because the issue was "beyond logic and facts" since the defendant couldn't possibly attend the hearings.
However bizarre or one of a kind this case may seem, we seem to have a penchant for giving importance to dead men, their deeds, their words, their ideologies; especially if they fall into the realm of faith. I see debates crop up over whether Mother Teresa was a saint, whether Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose could be classified as a 'real' patriotic freedom fighter, whether Jesus existed or not and so on and so forth. I am utterly perplexed why people tend to go farther and farther into history to prove their faith or opinions or facts, considering the world is moving at a breakneck speed.
How about listening to people who are alive and able to face questions regarding their dissenting views and thoughts? We never tend to listen to them even when they leave posthumous accounts of their findings and we can analyze their contributions and take the discourse further. One such was Ali Dashti, an Iranian rationalist, senator and author of 23 Years. Dashti was born in 1896 and died after the revolution in 1982. He was arrested and incarcerated and beaten up by Khomeini's men and died soon after in the infamous Evin Prison in Iran. This book 23 Years was published anonymously around 1974 in Beirut. He was a religious scholar who became a free thinker and he writes with a clarity that is rare even today. To have published this book even in the 1970s was to have taken a huge risk for his personal safety.
In the book, 23 Years, Dashti chooses reason over blind faith:
"Belief can blunt human reason and common sense, even in learned scholars. What is needed is more impartial study."
Dashti praises Prophet Mohammad in many ways. He admires aspects of his religious calling in the Meccan period of his life, as he tried to preach Islam. He admires what he achieved as a man as an empire builder. But he’s also honest about the Medinan period.
C. J. Hardman in his review of Ali Dashti's book on Amazon says:
"Dashti is cautious and considerate in his handling of issues touchy within the sphere of Shi'ia Islam. He is clear in communicating whether something is from a specific source, opinion, or theory. With this volume, Dashti took the courageous step of looking at Mohammed as a human... This perhaps was what kindled so great a rage in the men who imprisoned him and tried to obliterate his words. I wouldn't call Dashti anti-Islamic, for I found nothing suggesting he was trying to destroy Islam, not a speck of evidence that he was trying to promote Atheism in the stead of religion. However, I am not surprised that unreasonable forces who disagreed with his point of view felt so threatened by his words. It can be a dangerous task, sorting out the facts – especially if those facts disagree with the popular opinion or the version supported by people who are more powerful and can make your life tough. Or take your life away".
Although throughout the book it comes across that Ali Dashti was tempering many of his scholarly conclusions to suit the easily outraged, his text still comes across as blisteringly blasphemous. It is not surprising that Ali Dashti "disappeared" in his home country of Iran when considering the unorthodox approach he takes in interpreting much of the Qur'an. While Dashti doesn't explicitly renounce Islam, he attacks precepts which he sees as hideous trespasses of the time. While other biographers, especially those writing to proselytize, might be expected to gloss over certain things, Dashti puts even the controversial bits to light. But at the same time, he doesn't neglect to mention the most positive aspects of the Prophet's personality while attempting to cut through the underbrush of the deification.
Let’s go back to the bizarre case I opened the blog with. However strange the act was, one cannot help empathizing with the intentions of the lawyer, however, misplaced they may seem. In his own words, "..the exiling of Sita is a perfect case of “domestic violence” and this indeed deserves legal attention. Had Sita been delivered justice, the cases of domestic violence would have drastically come down in the country as nobody would have dared to maltreat his wife,” said the lawyer, to Firstpost, adding, “Justice to Sita would have meant justice to the entire women class, and not only this particular epic character.”
I see these two people from different backgrounds, cultures, countries and their intentions in at least generating a debate over their religion’s past. One was tortured to death and the other is hoping to have a look at the rejection order as his next course of action, quite satisfied at having generated a 'full-throated national debate'. Though there is no comparison between the Bihar lawyer and Ali Dashti, the rationalist, I can't help thinking about the reactions of communities to these two men's daring is also a cause for observation. The former lost his life, the latter was at the most laughed at, trolled by the Twitterati, has cases slapped on him, yet lives on for another day. I muse over Ali Dashti's last days in prison, his pain, his loneliness, what his thoughts would have been, whether he regretted or died as defiant as life itself.
Why not let dead men lie? Why not accept that a lot of time has passed between what happened centuries ago and what is happening now? Why not turn to the most 'sacred' book of all created by modernity and humanism - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Why not let bygones be bygones and focus on life here and now?