One subject that has come up in the last week is the notion of ‘blasphemy.’ Its an old word which we hardly use any more in English, except when we’re referring to how religions other than Christianity get offended by cartoons. It wasn’t always like that. We used to take it very seriously.
I’m an occasional visitor to the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, and just a short walk from there is the spot where Thomas Cranmer, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was publicly burned at the stake on the 21st March 1556. He died an excruciatingly painful death because his religious ideas did not sit well with the leaders of the day.
The members of the Krishna consciousness movement are fortunate indeed that blasphemy is no longer a capital crime in Britain. If it were, we would all have been burned a long time ago.
That doesn’t mean it has been easy. In bringing religious ideas from one part of the world to another, particularly if you dress differently and attract attention to yourself by singing in the streets, you soon get to realise the level of tolerance in your own culture.
I remember the first time I was invited to lead a kirtan. I was seventeen and had not long shaved my head and donned the saffron robes of a brahmacari. It was Portobello Road on a Saturday afternoon, and I was happy to have been asked to play the drum and sing, leading the procession along the street lined with market stalls and packed with shoppers and tourists (see picture).
Not everyone shared my enthusiasm, though. It wasn’t long before a freshly chopped chicken’s head, complete with swinging entrails, came sailing through the air, hitting me full in the face. The butcher who threw it laughed loudly, and was congratulated by his friends for his good aim. I carried on singing, after a momentary pause to wipe off the blood.
It was a good introduction to the level of treatment I’d receive from then on. In the years to come I was to experience a wide range of insults and missiles: gobs of spit, Brussells sprouts and other lobbed vegetables, beer cans (sometimes generously half full), empty bottles, clumps of earth with tufts of grass, cups of urine, large stones – and even fireworks!
Not everyone likes religion, you see, and even when they do they like the one they know, not a foreign brand. And something as alien-looking as Hare Krishna with its strange-smelling incense, flowers, ‘tambourines’ and blue-coloured gods is as foreign as they come. Consequently, there are many who just want to express their considered theological opinion by throwing something – and its not always rose petals.
Many policemen, too, chose to express their philosophical preferences by arresting us for singing, usually on the pretext of the Highways Obstruction Act of 1863. Their treatment wasn’t always soft and gentle back in the 1970s. As far as selling books about God, I have lost count of the number of times I was arrested and locked up in a cell with one grey blanket (used).
But a devotee of Krishna has to be tolerant. As followers of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, we have our role model in the example of Nityananda Prabhu, who tolerated even a wine pot thrown by a ruffian, that drew blood from his forehead. Tolerance, forgiveness and determination are qualities that serve messengers of God well.
What happens when the abuse is levelled not at the messenger but at God himself? In the ancient world, a world where they actually believed in a life after this one, and the distinct possibility of heaven or hell, the abuse of God was known as blasphemy. Of course, the idea of blasphemy largely depended on whether you were insulting the locally prevailing concept of God. If no-one around you believed in your God then they would not consider their insults to be blasphemy – it would be your idea of God that was blasphemy. Thus you had to be careful levelling charges of blasphemy against anyone, lest they turn the tables on you. It all got rather complex.
But here’s a question: can someone draw a picture, perhaps a cartoon, of Lord Krishna that would be considered blasphemy? Would the devotees of Krishna ever get so offended they’d go looking for some kind of retribution? I’m not saying never, but its highly doubtful, because the very concept of Krishna involves the understanding that he is quite capable of dealing with any animosity by himself. He forgave Shishupala one hundred times before he dealt with him – and even then it was an inside joke. Krishna may be Almighty God but he’s also the Supremely Compassionate and Ultimate Forgiver. Devotees remembering that will not become over-excited on his behalf.
Except on one occasion, that is. Not so long ago. It was when the American rock band Aerosmith released their 12th album Nine Lives. Their artist took a Bhaktivedanta Book Trust picture of Krishna dancing on the many-headed snake Kaliya and superimposed the head of a cat over the Lord’s beautiful face. The devotees were a little irate at this image theft and wanton manipulation and, it being the USA, they took the legal route and were given a generous settlement. That’s how to deal with blasphemy (and copyright infringement) painlessly.
Since the 1960s, when the devotees of Krishna first appeared in the public consciousness, the movement has undergone a radical shift in perception, at least in Europe. We have been accused of being everything from a witch’s coven (Weekend magazine) to a mind-control cult (The Sun). Like I said, it has not been easy. Its taken perseverance, tolerance and a lot of explaining to get us accepted, and even liked, as part of Britain’s multi-faceted spiritual landscape.
My message to anyone who wants to introduce a way of life and a belief system that is culturally alien to Britain: Have patience – you will need enormous amounts of it. Don’t expect everyone to like you – they won’t, just be happy if even a small number like your message. Don’t get offended if they don’t understand you or even if they insult you or your God. Just remember that you can always let God deal with it, and He doesn’t actually need you to get angry on his behalf. Attract people to your God by showing how happy your God makes you. If you’re not happy, it might be that you’re doing something wrong. Finally remember there’s only one Creator and Ultimate Source, the Origin of All. There’s no point arguing over his name – he has so many.