Hindu blasphemy: cricketer M. S. Dhoni in trouble for posing as Vishnu

January 8, 2016 • 8:45 am

We usually think of “blasphemy” as a crime committed against Islam, but it’s also a crime to mock religion in many places. Those include India, where people have been prosecuted for “insulting” Catholicism and Hinduism. And remember the three people jailed in Myanmar for advertising an event at a bar with a poster of Buddha wearing headphones? That violated that country’s laws against “denigrating religion.”

In fact, blasphemy laws are widespread. The Wikipedia article on “blasphemy law” gives this map of countries having such laws, and the possible punishments. Note that the death penalty is applied only in Muslim-majority countries, but even in Canada “blaphemous libel,” which mocks Christianity in a manner deemed not in good faith, is illegal, as it is in New Zealand, where you can be jailed for it. (In both places the laws are rarely enforced, but having them on the books is an offense to free speech.)

And while we’re on the subject of Canada, they still enforce “hate speech” laws that may incite “extreme feelings of opprobrium and enmity against a racial or religious group.” Finally, blasphemy, defined as “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” against religion, is still illegal in Ireland.

Blasphemy_laws_worldwide.svg Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 7.32.51 AM

We don’t hear much about blasphemy in India, which is far away, but such cases will become increasingly visible since the right-wing and pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party came into power.  Famously, my Chicago colleague Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, An Alternative History, was banned, with all copies on sale in India ordered pulped, on the grounds that she denigrated Hinduism. (Needless to say, she didn’t.)

The present case involves a famous cricket player. I hardly know anything about cricket, but I have heard of M. S. (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni, the ex-captain of India’s cricket team and one of the best wicket-keepers and batsmen of our time. Dhoni appeared on this magazine cover:

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According to today’s Hindustan Times, Dhoni’s in trouble for this again (he was previously let off by the Supreme Court for the same image):

A local court in Andhra Pradesh on Friday issued non-bailable arrest warrant against cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni in a case accusing him of hurting religious sentiments by appearing as Lord Vishnu in a magazine cover holding a shoe in his hands.

Dhoni, who is in Australia for a limited over series, was not available for comments but his lawyer and manager said the one-day captain was never issued summons in the case.

The case against Dhoni, 34, was filed by a VHP leader in Anantapur town for allegedly hurting religious sentiments of Hindus while posing as the deity in the cover of Business Today magazine in April, 2013. The magazine’s report titled ‘God of Big Deals’ was on the brand value of the former Test captain.

The court of the additional judicial first class magistrate has asked police to produce Dhoni on February 25.

Of course Dhoni’s holding products other than a shoe (this article is about his lucrative endorsements), but showing the bottom of your shoe to someone in India is considered rude and uncouth. When you sit on the floor, you always tuck your feet under, never pointing your soles at someone.  Once I was chased into an Udaipur post office by a cycle-rickshaw driver who tried to exort a big fare from me (he got lost and tried to charge me a whopping fee for the time it took to find the post office), with the driver taking off his shoe and waving the sole in my face. That, I suppose, is why the article singles out the shoe rather than the soft drink.

There’s not a chance in hell that Dhoni will see jail for this, for the Indian justice system is tilted in favor of the entitled, and how could a judge put away the star member of India’s cricket team?

But others haven’t fared as well.  Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku was forced to flee the country after exposing a supposed “miracle” of water flowing from a Jesus statue. The “miracle” involved seepage from a nearby toilet into the statue (people had drunk the water, too!), but the exposure of fraud wasn’t good enough: Edamaruku was still accused of violating blasphemy laws, and, facing death threats and a prison sentence, fled to Europe, where he is now.

49 thoughts on “Hindu blasphemy: cricketer M. S. Dhoni in trouble for posing as Vishnu

  1. Did they go after the magazine too? Its kind of strange to go after the subject of the article rather than the people who wrote and produced it (including the cover). AIUI, the subjects of pieces like this rarely have much control over editing or how the pictures taken of them will be used.

    Also maybe this is a quibble, but the image doesn’t show the bottom of the shoe, it shows the top. So that particular complaint seems to be a stretch. Frankly celebrity-posed-as-god makes a lot more sense as a blasphemy complaint than complaining about the angle of the shoe.

    1. My first thought as well. How much control did Dhoni have over the use of his image and how it might be manipulated? Not much.

      Even if he did there are several other people involved in the publication of these images that are at least as responsible for them than he. Though it is likely that those others are much more responsible than Dhoni.

    2. It occurred to me too that the cover was probably composed by an illustrator days after the relevant interview or article was made, and probably with no input at all from the subject.

      So that particular complaint seems to be a stretch.

      The purpose of the complaint is not to have the subject hung, drawn and excoriated ; it’s all about getting column inches for the complainer.

  2. I think it would be very hard not to commit blasphemy in India as there are I believe in excess of 300+ Gods in the Hindu Pantheon.

  3. Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary Gives this definition:

    Impiety n. Your irreverence to my deity.

    The same applies to blasphemy.

  4. That is a hilarious picture.
    One immediately thinks of similar advertising slogans that are not really that different from how we use dead presidents to make a buck:

    ‘Jesus won’t forgive you if you do not come in to Al’s car lot, where every car is a miracle.’

    Moses: ‘Zipporah, what’s that smell’?
    Zipporhah: Oh, dear! the elephant’s crapped all over the place again! But that’s not a problem! Not for Glade Air Freshener, with Lemon Sparkle Cystals!’
    [She sprays the poo with the product. A tinkley sound of a harp is heard]
    Moses (sniffs the air): ‘Wow! That stuff must be heaven scent!’

  5. This is pretty absurd. It’s obviously a photoshopped head on a cartoon body so he didn’t even pose or dress up for this cover.

  6. The entire concept of ‘blasphemy’ is embedded into honor culture mentality, with its hierarchy of place and position — and concordant deference and respect paid to these roles. Insults are therefore just like physical attacks because the strength of the whole pyramid rests on the mutual agreement –the mandate — to follow the pecking order. Eastern cultures which emphasize the harmony of the group over the rights of the individual are going to be especially prone to this, I think. Religion itself is a manifestation of the idea of a moral order grounding the world, and a need to revere the Sacred.

    When aspects of an ancient honor culture mentality come into direct conflict with modern Enlightenment assumptions, the results look damned weird to us — even funny. The “offended” religionists are behaving just like spoiled toddlers whose precious little fee-fees have been hurt. They need to grow the f up and learn to deal with dissent and criticism. It’s just a damned picture, for crying out loud.

    But religion isn’t trying to adapt to a mature worldly mentality. Or rather, it is and it isn’t — as Jerry always points out. They want both. They want to be considered reasonable and sophisticated … AND they want their ancient honor culture structure of spirituality and “respect.” No can do.

    1. Yeah, what you said.

      I always wonder if they realize that they sound like whiny children when they complain about hurt feelings in such situations. And since they believe in such things, and it’s supposedly the god that is being insulted, I think they should leave the punishment to the god concerned. Dhoni’s career certainly hasn’t suffered since the first use of the Vishnu image – I think the authorities should take that as evidence he’s a cricket fan and is flattered by the comparison.

    2. Remember, too, that India is a very ancient and formal civilization. It will naturally hold rules of behavior more seriously. Based on where modern India comes from, it is not surprising to see blasphemy taken seriously.

  7. The concept of being punished for hate speech is similar to a criminal receiving a heavier sentence for committing a hate crime. The FBI website say this: “Congress has defined a hate crime as a ‘criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.’” Wikipedia says “hate crime laws are distinct from laws against hate speech in that hate crime laws enhance the penalties associated with conduct that is already criminal under other laws, while hate speech laws criminalize a category of speech.”

    If somebody mugs me because he hates my race as opposed to wanting my wallet, why should the latter receive a lighter sentence? In both cases, I am equally hurt. Is the heavier penalty for a hate crime supposed to be a deterrent against such motivated crimes? I would like to see evidence for this. The whole concept of a hate crime adds more complexity to the legal system that makes little sense to me.

    1. Little sense to some but not to others. The burning of black churches in the south, the history of the KKK. I believe that demands some extra punishment. When that white ignorant confederate child went into the church and murdered, what was it, 9 people. I don’t think we would call it love.

      Hate speech is just another excuse that religion pulls out because reason is blasphemy to the faithful.

    2. I can’t quite picture someone stealing your wallet “because he hates my race”, but let’s take as a somewhat more common example of a hate crime, someone throwing a brick through your window. If she did it because she doesn’t like you, then you are the only victim. But if she did it because she doesn’t like everybody of your race, religion, or sex, and she did it with the intent of intimidating the lot of you, then arguably there are a lot more victims. That’s why the penalties are enhanced for “hate crime”.

      1. sry, typo. I meant,

        who harbors NO* hatred but instead the (relatively) more understandable motivation of material gain.

    3. It’s an interesting question. I used to share your belief that hate crimes make no sense, but I’ve actually since changed my mind. Perhaps the reasoning which changed mine will also change yours:

      “why should the latter receive a lighter sentence? In both cases, I am equally hurt.”
      Because intentions matter in judging worthy punishment. Consider 1st degree murder (ie, I map out your route home for a month, then one night stalk you and murder you) vs 2nd degree (I came home from work, saw you in bed with my wife, went berserk and accidentally lost track of the minutes while choking you) vs manslaughter (I accidentally crash my car into you cuz I was texting while driving).
      In all 3 cases, you’re just as dead, but in each, we’re talking about a very different type of person who would do such a thing, and this matters in terms of judging how “evil” the person is and therefore how likely he is to repeat such acts in the future.

      It may be that choosing to kill someone for the color of his skin (if indeed we can prove that was his motivation) requires a very different, more evil type of personality than a person who harbors more hatred but instead the (relatively) more understandable motivation of material gain.

      Some motivations are more evil, less understandable, less preventable/curable, etc than others. In essence, some motivations reveal different forecasts of the perpetrator’s likelihood to repeat that crime or some similar crime in the future.

      In light of 1) our country’s history of racism, 2) our knowledge that some racists exist, and 3) our knowledge that some races are more numerous/powerful than others, I think hate crimes do make sense to have. If you killed a person and it was because of his race, that matters. That is morally relevant information in terms of what that person deserves as well as what we should do to deter similarly motivated people.

      1. Thank you for your analysis. I understand that motivation can, and in some instances should, be a significant factor in determining an offender’s sentence. But, please consider below.

        In the scenario I presented both criminals acted with forethought. That is, they both picked out an intended victim and took action. These were not spur-of-the-moment crimes. Let us say that in both cases the victims are seriously hurt and require a long, painful convalescence resulting in the victims being crippled. Now, let us say that the person who committed the crime for a non-hate reason gets five years. The person who did it for hate reasons gets ten years. The person who was attacked for non-hate reasons may feel that the five year sentence is too light since the attacker ruined his life. He may very well think, “Damn it! If I only were attacked for hate reasons the criminal would get the sentence he deserves.” Something isn’t right here.

        1. Your reasoning makes sense if everything is equal. But we know that’s not the case and we also know why hate crime was given it’s special status.

          If a person gets beaten to death while walking down the street and the person or persons who did it are captured, the law will determine the penalty based on many things. If a gay person gets beaten to death and the persons are caught and it is discovered they did it because they hate gays, they create a special or more severe penalty for this “hate crime”. I guess the idea is…we think these guys deserve special consideration. The reasons why people do things does make a difference.

  8. As a Hindu/India, I find it so ridiculous that religious sentiments can be hurt at a drop of a hat.

    There is no clear definition of blasphemy in Hinduism, IMO, and Gods do anthropomorphise – so what’s wrong with “God” donning a modern day “avtaar”?

    Some people’s religious sentiments were also hurt when rationalists started talking and acting against age-old beliefs and rituals.

    Plainly ridiculous and attention grabbing endeavour.

      1. I tend to share that feeling. In fact I thought Bollywood happily depicted numerous Hindu deities.

        I suspect this may be just one tinpot local court (a bit like the occasional hick-town DA in the US) making a grab for headlines.

        I recall, when same-sex marriage was legalised in NZ, about half the churches said they would refuse to carry it out (as was their legal right). The NZ Herald surveyed a lot of denominations and I was quite impressed by the Hindu response:
        ‘Hindus, who were slightly more numerous than Baptists in the 2006 census, have left the issue to individual priests.
        “There is no central divinely determined authority to dictate to temples or priests or indeed any individual what is right and what is wrong,” said Hindu Council spokesman Dr Rajiv Chaturvedi.
        “In accordance with this thinking, we support the view that marriage should be under the purview of civil law rather than any kind of real or imaginary static and un-evolving ‘divine law’.” ‘

        I thought that quite enlightened.

        cr

        1. I’ve always had a soft(ish) spot for Hinduism too, certainly over Christianity and Islam, but I was a bit taken aback the other day when reading the comments on a YouTube trailer(for the new X Men: Apocalypse movie) to find it clogged up with seething posts by offended Hindus.
          Normally I’d put this down to the generic poisonousness of internet comments sections but every single one of those posts that I read justified their calls for the censorship/banning of the film on the grounds that ‘Muslims stand up for their faith’, or ‘Muslims don’t put up with insult’. I checked a couple of the other big X Men: Apocalypse trailer uploads and they all had similar levels of Hindu outrage in the comments.
          A bit depressing, particularly the emulation of the Islamic model of heightened-offense-taking(the actual trailer is, of course, entirely harmless).

          1. I wouldn’t be surprised. And obviously Islam is a very bad example.

            I have a theory, which is mine, that the monotheistic religions tend to be much more organised and authoritarian. This probably follows from the fact they only have one God and therefore there must be only One True Interpretation of God’s message.

            That doesn’t mean that a lot of individual Hindus can’t be just as offense-conscious as Muslims or Xtians, or snowflake ethnic students, or indeed white folks as lampooned in Wiley Miller’s current comic. It is of course always the outraged ones who make the comments. (I wonder in passing how many of those are white Hare Krishna converts).
            I am hoping that the majority of Hindus would reason that, since there is no One True Message, it is hard to commit blasphemy. Maybe that’s wishful thinking.

            cr

            1. I’m sure having one god rather than hundreds has something to do with it, yes. It concentrates one’s religious emotions rather more than if said emotions were devoted to, and thus dispersed between, a panoply of deities. And it’s just less confusing – one of the most attractive features of religion is that it simplifies the world for the believer, and one god is better than two, etc.(although they never quite manage to follow that logic to its conclusion).

              The main impression I get however, is that the non-Abrahamic scriptures and holy books are just generally less obsessed with sacrifice, vengeance, social strictures and genocidally jealous deities. In my opinion this makes for a more personable, cheery calibre of fundamentalist. You look at your average jihadi and they’re just so intense and bad-tempered you don’t want to be around them.

  9. Hi Jerry,

    As your gaze rests on the Indian subcontinent, I want to mention a recent New Yorker report on the Bangladesh atheist murders:

    “The Islamist War on Secular Bloggers”

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/12/21/the-hit-list

    You may find the reporting interesting. I find it depressing that expat bloggers like Avijit returned to familiar homes and neighborhoods feeling secure about being where they grew up. These same places turned into deathtraps. It also provides a glimpse into the political undercurrents influencing the government’s response.

  10. The very idea that religion gets or deserves a pass from critical review like any other subject is the main reason for the beginning of the new atheist. I guess that means to the old atheists that they were properly moderate toward any negative comments and always maintained a politically correct tact concerning religion. It is a difference with no meaning because you can either treat religion and the discussion of it honestly or you can’t. It should receive no special privilege.

  11. How depressing that most of the world still prosecutes anyone who criticizes superstition. The Age of Reason still has a ways to go.

  12. The UK has hate speech laws, although a recent attempt to use them against a pastor who called Islam “satanic” failed. Scotland also has anti-sectarianism laws, related to the link between religion, tribe, and football

  13. I just had the awareness that much of the craziness in the world happens between about 18 and 38 degrees North latitude. I have seen other maps showing countries where “bad stuff” is going on, and most of it seems to occur within that belt. I wonder why.

  14. I’m not sure what you mean by “bad stuff” but are you aware of what’s north of the 38 parallel in Korea?

  15. If this cricketer is popular and rich, don’t forget that compensation ($, or whatever the symbol is India) is also possible as a motive.

    As for Canada, where I am, fellow Canadians can support CFI’s work this way …

  16. Yet another example how religion and religious people excel at wasting people’s time and resources.

    Disregarding the waste of resources, I wonder what the world’s annual accumulation of wasted time is for individual prayer and worship, enforcing religious laws/doling out punishment and the creation (Kim Davis) of manufactured outrage: unimaginable squander.

  17. If a/any god is allegedly omnipotent how can he/she/it be affected in any way by any utterance/action – even those regarded as blasphemous by the followers?

    I wonder if some people are missing a logic component in their brains?

  18. According to Wiki, the only prosecution under the NZ blasphemy law was in 1922 and resulted in an acquittal. In 1998 and 2006 the attorney-general refused to prosecute after complaints were made under this law. So, not a serious threat, but obviously a law overdue for retirement.

  19. That map is a bit, how shall I say it, ‘unbalanced’? NZ has no enforcement of blasphemy laws for nearly a century, and I do not remember any case in Germany either.
    The ‘red’ status for those countries appears slightly exaggerated. I would feel safer ‘blaspheming’ there that in ‘grey countries such as say, Uganda or Burma (not to mention the USA).

    1. I’ve complained before about the misleading impression created by taking one single feature (which may or may not be of any significance in the country concerned) and exaggerating its significance as that map does.

      It’s akin to quoting out of context.

      (And I agree with your example).

      cr

  20. Note too that in India cricket-stars are about as close as one could get to a god.
    Can one God be accused of blaspheming against another God :)?

  21. “as it is in New Zealand, where you can be jailed for it. (In both places the laws are rarely enforced,”

    Please, *never* enforced.

    There was only ever one prosecution, in 1922, which resulted in a verdict of ‘not guilty’.

    There are far, far more serious things for anyone in NZ (atheist or not) to worry about than a moribund blasphemy law.

    cr

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