Jesus only fasted for 40 days and nights, and that must have been tough in the Judaean desert, especially with Satan lurking around. Was that religious extremism? In India, a young girl by the name of Aradhana Samadaria has tragically died following a 68-day fast as part of a Jain ritual during the holy period of Chaumasa (or Chaturmas) the holiest months in the Hindi calendar. She actually died some weeks ago, but no-one really bothered much until the Daily Mail got on its high horse following a demand from India’s National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights. “We are appealing to all communities to ensure that they do not adopt customs and rituals like fasting or self flagellation that will harm their children,” said Stuti Kacker, chair of the Commission. “There is an urgent need to change mindsets.”
And so we read: “The commission has drawn up a plan to raise awareness about religious rituals that it says children shouldn’t be involved in for their own safety. These range from self-flagellation and festivals in which tongues, cheeks and skin are pierced to walking on embers and child marriage.”
There are no hard and fast rules about how Chaumasa should be observed: Jainism, like Hinduism (and Sikhism), is not a religion of law but devotion, so adherents are free to make whatever vows of penance, fasting, silence or other abstention they wish during this period. The important things is to make a vow of some kind to abstain or fulfil something, such as reading the Mahabharata or Ramayana. Therein lies the path to holiness.
It’s easy to blame the parents for Aradhana’s death, as the Mail does, but they are insisting that it was her will and hers alone: there was no coercion or compulsion at all. Should they have prohibited her from fasting for 68 days? Or 40? Or 20? Or a week? Who should set the threshold of tolerance? Who determines when religious devotion becomes child abuse?
Is this child abuse?
What about this?
You see the difficulty.
Some may draw the line at ‘life threatening’, which a 68-day fast most certainly would be, especially for a 13-year-old. But seven days would be too much for some children, and even three or four if the fast includes water. But why stop at ‘life threatening’? What about ‘life diminishing’? What about inflicting any pain at all? Isn’t it all just child cruelty in the name of God?
This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant (Gen 17:10-14).
Is this inter-generational brainwashing or obedience to divine precepts? The debate brings to mind a development in Germany in 2012, when a Cologne court ruled that circumcision contravened the rights of the child. Both Jews and Muslims were more than a little concerned that the removal of the foreskins of babies and young boys amounts to bodily injury, and was therefore a violation of German law.
Sweeping aside millennia of religious custom and ritual, the court determined that state law in this regard is above God’s law, and that the child’s fundamental constitutional ‘right to physical integrity’ was challenged by the parents’ fundamental right to freedom of religion.
By inflicting circumcision upon the boy, they reasoned, he is denied the freedom to choose his religion later in life, because the outward change to his body is permanent. This is not, of course, the case with Christian baptism, which is also usually inflicted on babies: the sprinkling of water on the forehead is not deemed to have enduring adverse effects, and any salvific benefits may now be renounced though ‘unbaptism‘. This German court was of the view that boys should have the freedom to choose whether or not to be circumcised when they reach the age of majority and there may be informed consent. Jewish and Muslim boys are born with the right to ‘physical integrity’ which nobody should be permitted to take away (other than for acute medical reasons).
That verdict had a specific context, but the precedent has far-reaching implications. The case involved a four-year-old Muslim boy who suffered serious bleeding after undergoing a botched circumcision. His mother took him to the emergency unit at Cologne University Hospital, and state prosecutors subsequently charged the doctor who had performed the operation.
A lower court found that the doctor had carried out the operation properly and ruled that the child’s circumcision was in his interests as it signified his membership of the Muslim community. However, the prosecution appealed to a higher Cologne court which overruled the lower court’s verdict and concluded that circumcision caused bodily harm and was therefore not justified.
Dieter Graumann, President of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, denounced the ruling as “outrageous and insensitive”. He viewed it as an “unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination”, and demanded that Parliament intervene to “protect religious freedom”. Aiman Mazyek of the Central Council of Muslims said the ruling was both “inadmissible” and “outrageous”.
Mindful of past German antipathy toward his people, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said: “There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell the Jewish people would ever look to a German court, especially when it comes to how we should define our values or fulfil our traditions.”
There are those who insist that circumcision is not merely gratuitous Abrahamic law: it has been proven to be hygienically preferable and helps to prevent cancer or inhibit the transmission of HIV-AIDS. The debate about banning the practice is even more interesting in the context of Kantian notions of human rights and his categorical imperatives on human dignity and liberty. The UK has banned female circumcision (or ‘genital mutilation’) as it is considered barbaric. Yet if man and woman are equal, the law may not discriminate against boys. Ergo, they must be spared the barbarism of circumcision dogma also.
If you of the view that it beggars belief that ancient religious practices which are symbolic of the sacred Covenant can be overturned by notions of inviolable human rights which have existed for all of five minutes, why will you not also defend cheek-piercing, fire-walking or fasting?
Today is International Religious Freedom Day. As His Grace Archbishop Angaelos writes: “..the opportunity to have and practice one’s religion unencumbered, and without imposition on others, is a right that must be protected for all those who believe and practice peacefully and faithfully.”
No Christian would seek to impose their faith on others; to force them to convert or worship under compulsion. But parents may do it to their children, even through the state education system with its mandatory daily act of collective worship. It is to teach them right from wrong; to distinguish between good and evil; to make them mindful of their Creator; to make them better people. On this day of all days, let us not add to the sum total of global oppression and religious persecution with demands to ban all that some ‘Child Rights’ commission deems harmful. There may indeed be an urgent need to change mindsets, but there is a far greater urgency to spread the fundamental human right of freedom of religion and belief.