Veera Skanda
Thoughts on Right to Propagating Religion – I
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

“Propagation of religion” is an area where Indian law is both unclear and unfair to non-proselytizing groups:

  1. The word religion cannot describe our society and hence propagation methods of religions are not acceptable in India
  2. The terms and ethics of propagation are not spelt out, which have been accepted norms in this nation for ages and helped a peaceful and non-traumatic spreading of traditions and mutual enrichment with interaction
  3. Practice is a right, but propagation is a privilege to be earned. Calling out propagation a basic right unwittingly encourages infringement of others’ freedom of their faith to not be interfered with.
  4. Like in many other areas like corruption and bad leadership, the primary assumption of constitution has been a use of law, not misuse.

We seek to explore here in brief, the conceptual background that helps formulating proper laws in this matter.

What is religion comprised of?

Religion by definition is a truth claim and not a truth-seeking system. Indian traditions share a knowledge system with its formal hypothesizing, deductive and validating structures. India’s knowledge traditions have the culture of debating based on formal epistemology among the proponents of traditions, to earn the moral right to propagate their respective traditions.

Who can propagate?

In oriental societies, subscription and practice of any tradition is a matter of personal choice almost entirely. Propagation and preaching is a privilege, not a basic right as our constitution proclaims. It is similar to saying that to learn is a basic right but to teach is a privilege to be earned, and that to be treated of a problem is a basic right but to treat others is a privilege to be earned with knowledge and ability.

Among traditions/sampradayas, there is a formal debating structure. Propagation is a privilege earned by one who, having mastered one’s own tradition’s worldview and formal learning structures, ably defends one’s own siddhAnta in a formal debate, without taking recourse to deceptive arguments.  There are ethics of argumentation or vAda, and arguments are qualified as ethical and deceptive.

What if deceptive arguments are used for propagation?

In formal argumentation, a deceptive argument is the last resort one uses to save a humiliating defeat. It cannot be used to defeat an opponent. Debates are officially moderated by scholars, who would object to such arguments. Argument proceeds as long as one does not withdraw or concede defeat, but it has to stick to either pUrva paksha (refutation of counter theory) or uttara paksha (affirmation of one’s own tenets).

Who cannot propagate?

One who is defeated in a debate, has to either convert to his victor’s position, or retire from propagation. It is immoral and fraudulent to continue propagating, once having lost a debate. Before doing that one must reverse the loss by inviting to debate proponents of erstwhile victorious tradition and defeat them.

What is ‘loss’

A tradition is not expected to be defeated in a defeat. It is the proponent who is defeated. This is because –

  1. The depth of tradition and the strength of argument of scholars are not different things. A tradition could be great or low, but the scholars may or may not be able to defend it for various reasons.
  2. Traditions evolve with time, and their practice cannot be questioned as long as practitioners retain belief in the core tenets of the traditions. This is unrelated to any scholarly debates.
  3. A scholar being defeated at a point of time could happen for various reasons:
    1. One not being equipped with sufficient knowledge of other traditions to win a debate
    2. One not being the best proponent of one’s own tradition compared to his rivals in debate
    3. The arguments extended from one tradition being refuted by others, which means the losing side would reformulate their arguments over time and conduct victorious debates and be back in propagation. This happens over several generations, not even in the life time of one proponent
    4. At a given point there could be places where proponents of one tradition are strong in scholarship and widen their practice and other regions where weak scholarship of regional proponents weakens the tradition and shrinks practice

When is a tradition prohibited?

When a tradition becomes anti-social and disrupts the civilized social order it can be prohibited by the state, as was done in the case of nIlapaTa-s. Its practitioners would be warned (and punished in extreme cases) and propagators punished.

Market Argument

Often, a free market kind of argument is extended to justify right to propagate, that anyone is free to propagate and anyone who does not want to convert to another religion is free to reject it. This is ridden with several flaws, a few to mention:

  1. Even in a free market, right to buy and right to sell are distinct and the latter requires norms and licensing for productizing, marketing and selling. If an equivalent be applied, right to propagate is to be earned by clearing certain norms common to traditions.
  2. This puts the onus of knowing ins and outs of religions squarely on the common man, who is not equipped with the knowhow to understand the deception of specialized propagators.
  3. The qualification required to propagate requires one to respect the right of practitioners to not be interfered with. To say “I will bombard you with my speeches and keep coming to your places to insult your traditions but you are free to reject my version” is simply immoral and worthy of punishment.