Freedom of Expression and Social Responsibility

by Deepak Shimkhada, Ph.D.

The recent incident reported in e-Kantipur about the arrest of Sangita Thapa, owner of Siddhartha Art Gallery, and Manish Harijan, the artist who exhibited his works at the gallery that offended a certain segment of Nepali society is quite disturbing to say the least. The incident that resulted in the arrest of two individuals is sketchy at best. While I await more details to come out about the incident, I take the liberty to comment about it. First, I condemn such arrests and death threats to the artist categorically. This should not have happened in a civil and democratic society. There should be freedom of expression. The civil struggle that resulted in de-throneing the monarchy not long ago has little meaning if the current government applies strict censorship to enforce moral standards on the works of artists and writers.

Artists and writers should be given freedom to express themselves so that their ideas may soar in the sky—limitless, boundless. Creativity knows no bounds. However, their ideas should come with social responsibility. Moral and ethical values are the reins should guide the creativity. As human beings living in a complex society, we should know our responsibilities—how far to go and where to stop. If a person produces something just for the sake of freedom of expression without regard for its consequences, it may result in riots getting hundreds and thousands of people killed in the process. Such a kind of expression is not conducive to society. Wanton freedom of expression without any cause is not productive.

In recent days we have witnessed sporadic violence in parts of the world sparked by religious intolerance and/or misunderstanding. All of these incidents have led to the deaths of a large number of innocent people. As an artist and writer, I seek freedom of expression for myself and others in spite of the recent violence that is threatening world peace and harmony. I was one of the first individuals to speak out publicly when the exhibition of Srilamanthula Chandramohan, a young graduate student at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, was vandalized in 2007 by a group of people who were disturbed by his images.

Religion is an emotionally-charged subject, and hence artists should be sensitive to the feelings of the people who practice it. Srilamanthula Chandramohan was at the center of a controversy when some of his works were deemed obscene because he portrayed Jesus Christ with a penis coming out of the Cross and his palms and feet hanging from the two sides and the bottom of the Cross. The district superintendent of the Methodist Church in Baroda, Reverend Emmanuel Kant, said, “Our religion is all about forgiving but there is a limit.” He further characterized Chandramohan as being “a vulgar and insensitive person who dared to portray Lord Jesus in an extremely objectionable manner.” Chandramohan also used subjects from Hindu mythology. His portrayal of the Goddess Durga was found equally offensive by the Hindus who actually took part in bringing down the show. It is fine to use ideas inspired by the themes, symbols and philosophies of a religion. But do the artists have the license to insult and re-interpret religion in a way that upsets the followers of the religion? Is this what we want in the name of freedom of expression?

I find Manish Harijan’s images troubling because the artist has distorted the traditional iconographies associated with these deities. Because the pictures printed on e-Kantipur are very small, I can’t see their details. Hence, my remarks are based on what I am able to piece together from the tiny prints I was able to see from the e-Kantipur story ( The figure of goddess (representing Kali because she is seen in a black leotard), wears Superman’s suit and displays her middle finger. This in the West is considered an obscene gesture. In traditional Hindu iconography, the Goddess Kali does not make such a gesture although occasionally she is shown to be copulating with Shiva, her male counterpart, or standing on the supine body of Shiva. In another painting, the great Mahakala is being wrestled down by a hooded man, supposedly Batman. To top it all off, the artist goes on to depict Hanuman flying though the clouds carrying a bottle of alcohol (I can’t see the label; it could be a bottle of Vodka or Whisky for that matter). I really don’t know what the artist’s intentions are here. He is being quoted as saying “This is just a portrayal of Western influence in [on] Eastern culture. There is nothing to be offended about it.” He did not elaborate what kind of Western influence in particular he is alluding to. Influence can come in many ways—in a positive way or a negative way. Is the Western influence that Nepal is receiving from the West, especially that of America, all negative?

Most incidents such as this have political agenda. Politicians take advantage to exploit religious sentiments of people because they know that they can be easily manipulated. In an email communication from Maureen Drdak, an American- born artist/scholar, to me, she wrote, “[…] all over the planet religious sensitivities genuinely alarmed and offended, but also clearly and cynically exploited by reactionary opportunists. Artists must exercise great maturity in facing and answering these challenges.” As a professor of religious studies at an American university, I couldn’t agree more. Throughout history many wars have been fought in the name of religion. In my own time, I have witnessed many religious skirmishes and violence. Religion when it is purely viewed and understood as a way of life is good because it teaches its adherents how to live a moral and ethical life here and in the hereafter. But all religions have their weak points. They have emotional baggage, and the followers become one-sided, unable and unwilling to relate to the rest of the others. The remedy to this problem is to be more tolerant and sensitive to and understanding of others. The mantra that what is good for the nation is good for its citizen may be challenged, but I see some sense in it. I am reminded of a Hindu adage:

-“For the good of a village, a man ought to give up his family;

-For the good of a community, he ought to give up his village;

-For the good of the humanity, he may give up his country;

-For the good of the world, everything.”

(Quoted by Swami Vivekananda at a lecture delivered in Pasadena, California, USA, in 1900)

Do I need to say more?

(Author is Professor of Religious Studies  Claremont Lincoln University, California, USA )

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