There’s a case for burning all the holy books

(This column was published in DNA edition dated September 15, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

There’s an unintended irony about the (eventually aborted) campaign last week by Terry Jones, the pastor of a fringe church in Florida, to make a bonfire of copies of the Koran on the grounds that it was an “evil book”.

Jones isn’t of course the first man of Christian faith who was broadcasting to the world his loathing of the Koran and, more broadly, of Islam. Since the 8th century, when Islam spread across Europe, that religion and its Holy Book have served as objects of hatred – and, on occasion, fear – for Christians. Christian clergymen and scholars branded the Koran the “work of the devil” that was dangerous to Christian souls, and this revulsion was immortalised in popular Christian literature and hymns down the ages.

The “clash of civilizations” continued right up even until the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire, expanding through conquest, was at its apex. In the 16th century, however, German theologian Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestant Reformation, advanced an effort to publish and make available Latin translations of the Koran – in the belief that free dissemination of Koranic ideas among Christians would refute “the abomination of Mohammed” and do “grievous harm” to the Turks. Fighting efforts to censor and prevent the translation and dissemination of the Koran, Luther wrote: “To honour Christ, to do good for Christians, to harm the Turks, to vex the devil, set (the Koran) free…”

In other words, the Florida pastor Jones’ campaign against the Koran only marks the continuation of a medieval-era Crusade mindset, except that the denunciation of the Koran today finds expression in vastly different ways. Where once Christian clergymen campaigned to have the Koran translated and distributed in the belief that dissemination of its ideas would damn it, today’s ‘man of the cloth’ would rather organise a bonfire of the Scriptures!

There are countless precedents in history for calls to burn the Scriptures or Holy Books – even in India, where it happened as part of a process of ‘religious reformation’ from within. For instance, when Dalits’ historic campaign in Vaikom in the early 20th century for the right to enter temples met with opposition from orthodox Brahmins who cited the Hindu scriptures in their defence of caste-based exclusion, Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar said that if, indeed, the scriptures defended the practice of untouchability, they ought to be burned. At a later satyagraha camapaign led by Ambedkar for Dalits’ access to public water, the Manusmriti, which codified a caste-based social order, were publicly burnt.

The Zen philosophical tradition exhorts practitioners to “burn the Scriptures” and “kill the Buddha”. But this isn’t a call to religious war; it is, rather, an inspiration to reject tradition and the “fundamentalism” of “doctrines” and, indeed, all external sources of divinity – and instead make the inner journey into one’s one consciousness, which lies at the core of the Buddhist spiritual order.

An overly faithful abidance by the hardcore fundamentals of established religious orders lies at the root of most religious conflicts today. Not only is it building walls and hardening attitudes all around, it also interferes with the process of interactions based on humanistic principles. To the extent that moving away from “ordained” and “revealed” principles of religious orders can perhaps enable people to interact, even if only occasionally, in the secular space of humanism, there may well be a case for symbolically ‘burning’ all the Scriptures by breaking the constricting bonds of religious fundamentalism.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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