Mistaken sense of 'sacred and profane'

When a mob kills a man for allegedly killing a cow, it is devoid of any logic and can only be seen as dictated by crude passion


Shishir Tripathi | October 7, 2015

"The Elementary Forms of Religious Life" is an important text by French sociologist Émile Durkheim -- at least for those who live in today's India, when rationality is so much cowed (pun intended) down by the bigots of different hues.

Durkheim in his phenomenal work attributed the development of religion to the quest for emotional security which people acquired through communal living. It was indeed a unifying force, if taken in that context. While Durkheim formulated some very important tools of sociological reading in his book, presently his idea of 'sacred and profane' is most important. The concept of 'sacred and profane' is central to Durkheim's theory of religion. 'Sacred' assumes a meaningful existence when juxtaposed with what is 'profane'. For Durkheim 'sacred' is an ideal which transcends everyday existence. "It is extra-ordinary, potentially dangerous ,awe-inspiring and fear inducing."

Durkheim also engages at length on the subject of creation of sacred -- the reason and its process. The first step towards marking an object sacred is by setting it apart. It can include religious beliefs, rites, duties or anything socially defined and requiring special religious treatment.

This makes sacred an infinite idea as it can include anything-a piece of rock or a strand of hair. A tree, any celestial object, a river, a thread and a fabric of a particular color, anything can be sacred.

On the other hand, profane is what confirms to daily routine. Durkheim stresses on the fact that the content of sacred objects cannot be determined as it is an ongoing process. New things are added to it from time to time and so is the case with profane. The significance of the sacred lies in its distinction from the profane.

When a mob kills a man for allegedly killing a cow - a 'sacred' entity - it is totally devoid of any logic and can only be seen as dictated by crude passion and misplaced understanding of 'sacred'. What is sacred for one religion can be profane - not in the common sense way - for another. Cow can be a sacred object for a Hindu but killing it for food might be a mundane affair for another religion.

We can restrict any act which we thing is wrong only by invoking the limitations that our constitution provides on fundamental rights. Freedom to religion and religious practices as documented in Articles 25 & 26 of the constitution are not absolute rights. They are sobered by some limitations. The limitation states that no person can do such religious things which affect the public order, morality and health. For example no one has right to conduct human sacrifice. No one can perform worship on busy highway or other public places which disturb the community.

Parsis in India followed the practice exposing corpses to scavenging birds. However, it led to environmental and health hazards. There were valid concern against it, notwithstanding the fact that it constituted essential religious practice of Parsis and trying to restrict it was in some way justified.

Reason as codified in law can be the only instrument of restrict the freedom of speech and expression. When the constitution directed the state in Article 48 to "take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle" it can be accepted. However, when reason for acting or restricting an act is because of some mistaken sense of sacred, it should be countered as forcefully as bigots try to enforce their sense of morality.



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