Reflections on Mehta's xTalk on Academic Freedom in India & the West

September 29
Zoya Fan

On Sept 27, the award-winning Prof Shailendra Raj Mehta from MICA, gave an xTalk on the roots of traditions of academic freedom. He presented a contrast in freedom of speech and academic freedom between India and the West from a historical and philosophical perspective.

Professor Mehta began with Socrates and Christ, both figures pivotal to the development of Western thought, who were sentenced to death for religious blasphemy because they spoke their minds. Here lies the intrinsic conflict between free speech and Western philosophy.

And then a provocative claim was presented: that the future of free speech depends on India.

As an engaged student on a college campus and as a maturing global citizen, I have no doubts that the freedom of speech is an essential foundation to any society or nation that strives for progress. However, before the talk, I had never rigorously considered the relation between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The talk spanned 45 dynasties and over 2000 years of Indian history, with eye-opening, solid evidence of each monarchy’s incredible support of multiple religions. India, the birthplace of four out of eight of the world’s most historically popular religions, has long nourished a tradition of vaade vaade jaayate tattvabodha (Sanskrit): meaning that constructive scholarly debate is essential to establish truth.

In a similar vein, Prof Mehta quoted the Indian “Magna Carta of Religion”, which establishes a multiplicity of points of view: “The truth is one, the wise express it in numerous ways.” He described the idea as a wheel and hub – taking the best from each religion, with the potential for any deity to occupy the center.

The main idea of the talk lies in this principle of axiality, which connects Indian religious traditions to Indian principles of free speech. Historically, the Indian state has actively fostered a wide-spectrum of religions, considering religion to be the highest expression of culture. This principle of moderation translates to the preservation of free speech: the mark of an educated person is one who is aware of all points of view, and can stand for her own, without negating another.

I was fascinated by the beautiful historic threads which have created a modern tradition of coexistence and respect. Following the talk, one begins to glimpse how the future of free speech lies in India. Details aside, the rest of the world may do well to pay attention.


Zoya Fan Zoya Fan, MIT '19, is majoring in Biology and Global Studies


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