Blasphemy, Free Speech, and Rationalism: An Interview with Sanal Edamaruku

Sanal Edamaruku is a world-renowned author and rationalist currently facing a maximum sentence of three years in prison plus fines for criticizing the Catholic Church. As president of the Indian Rationalist Association, he is a fixture on Indian television where he provides a skeptical view about alleged miracles and paranormal claims. In 2012 Edamaruku investigated what was being called a miracle: a crucifix dripping water at Our Lady of Velankanni Church in Mumbai. He quickly discovered the dripping was actually caused by water seeping through the wall onto the crucifix. Edamaruku reported his results on TV-9 and criticized the Catholic Church for “creating” the so-called miracle and being “anti-science.” In response, the church demanded an apology and its supporters filed official complaints against Edamaruku. He was charged with violating 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code, also known as the “blasphemy law,” which prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” His lawyers are arguing that the law infringes on free speech and are requesting the courts declare the law unconstitutional. Meanwhile, he was refused bail and fled to Europe. In this interview he speaks about his work, his family, the criminal charges, and the dangers of the “blasphemy law.”
The Humanist: Tell us a little about your background.
Sanal Edamaruku: I was born in Kerala, India, and lived there until I came to Delhi in the late 1970s to study at Jawaharlal Nehru University. My parents were rationalists who came from different religious backgrounds; my father, Joseph Edamaruku, came from a Syrian Christian family. One of his uncles was a bishop. My mother, Soley Edamaruku, came from a Hindu family. Both my parents are from Edamaruku village and adopted the village name as their surname. Because they both came from religious families, the young couple faced a lot of problems and dangers when they decided to marry. The events around my birth were something like an acid test for their commitment to each other and to rationalism. When my mother was nine months pregnant, they were invited to my father’s parents’ house for the birth. They stayed there peacefully for some time. But the day my mother went into labor and my father happened to be out of the house, the family suddenly tried to force her to convert to Christianity. That night my parents made the hard decision to leave. They wandered—my mother travailing—through a rainy night not knowing where to go. I was born in the early morning hours under the open sky and rain before they could reach my maternal grandparents’ house.
The Humanist: What a vivid (and oddly familiar) beginning! What was your childhood like from there?
Edamaruku: My childhood was very colorful. At an early age, I became involved in traditional Kerala music, dance theater, and the world of mythology. Over many years, I studied and performed Kathakali (the highly stylized classical Indian dance-drama) with great enthusiasm—and success. I was also a passionate reader, making my way through my father’s diverse library, and was lucky to get acquainted with great thinkers, writers, and social reformers of that time, as our house was a meeting point and a place for intense discussions.
Though I grew up without gods or religious indoctrination, I wasn’t pressed into rationalism either. My parents wanted me to have every option and make my own decision, which I did at the age of fifteen. It was triggered by a dramatic event. There was a young woman in our neighborhood named Susan who was a nationally acclaimed athlete and who later developed blood cancer. Her deeply religious family did not allow any medical treatment but tried to “cure” her with prayers while we helplessly watched her die. Her death shook me deeply—and finally made me an active rationalist. Soon after, I founded a rationalist student organization and launched anti-superstition campaigns.
The Humanist: What were your academic interests growing up? Who are some of your intellectual influences?
Edamaruku: I was always interested in understanding and explaining how things worked and how they were connected. I was always confident that science would explain everything—if not today, then tomorrow. I was very interested in history and studied political science at the University of Kerala and international politics at the School for International Relations at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Among the important intellectual influences in my young years were Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, and Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, as well as Robert G. Ingersoll, Joseph McCabe, Lewis Henry Morgan, William Winwood Reade, H.G. Wells, Charles Bradlaugh, and Bertrand Russell.
The Humanist: Your father was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for writing the book, Jesus Christ a Man. Why?
Edamaruku: Once my father allowed himself to think critically about the Bible, he began step by step to confute Christian teachings and wrote the book. When he distributed the first handmade copies of Jesus Christ a Man, he stirred up a hornet’s nest. His uncle was a bishop, after all, and my father was seen as a stain on the family’s orthodox reputation. Members of his family demanded that he apologize, but he refused. Then they tried to get him assassinated, forcing him to flee. A Hindu scholar gave him asylum and allowed him to live in his huge library, where my father came upon the Complete Works of Robert Green Ingersoll.
The Humanist: Your father was arrested on several occasions. Why did he become a target?
Edamaruku: In 1970 my father had managed to buy a small printing press, and was arrested in the midst of preparations for republishing his controversial book. Some meaningless charges were used as a pretext for the arrest: he knew a person who was accused of being a “radical.” The police held my father for several days and tortured him brutally, threatening to break his fingers so that he wouldn’t be able to write again. Then they burnt the manuscript of his book and took away the printing press.
In 1975 my father was arrested for the second time. It was during the Emergency rule in India, and at first it seemed his arrest was connected with his work as the editor of a newspaper. But he was the only journalist in Kerala who was arrested during that time. It actually had to do with his first arrest, after which my father wrote a book exposing the officers who had tortured him. He was released only after the chief minister of Kerala intervened. Some of the police officers were later punished.. Read more:

Popular posts from this blog

Third degree torture used on Maruti workers: Rights body

Haruki Murakami: On seeing the 100% perfect girl one beautiful April morning

The Almond Trees by Albert Camus (1940)

Albert Camus's lecture 'The Human Crisis', New York, March 1946. 'No cause justifies the murder of innocents'

Goodbye Sadiq al-Azm, lone Syrian Marxist against the Assad regime

Rudyard Kipling: critical essay by George Orwell (1942)

Satyagraha - An answer to modern nihilism