SWEARING BY GOD: An Atheist’s Experiences In Indian Courts

Written by October 10, 2010 7:20 am 62 comments

In the place where I was born, and probably elsewhere in our country, religious sensitivities run very high. If a Hindu were to be asked to swear by the Quran, or a Christian by the Gita, there would be riots. But no one is bothered about the feelings of us non-believers! In order to spare people from taking oaths on a variety of books, in the courts of Karnataka a placard is hung in the witness box that reads – ‘I swear on the name of god that what I say is the truth and nothing but the truth.’ This is supposed to be a secular form of oath. In a place called Shimoga about 200 kms from Mangalore an atheist refused to take oath in the name of god and was hauled up for contempt of court. He appealed to the High Court which set aside that and came down heavily on the judge for trying to impose his religious beliefs on a witness.

My first brush with this form of oath was in 1980 when my wife and I got married under The Special Marriages Act, 1954. This act enables those of us without any religious beliefs to get married without any religious rituals. The registrar wrote this on the application – registration of a Hindu marriage under the special marriage act. I told him, ‘Sorry, strike that off!’ He asked, ‘What is the problem? You are both Hindus.’ I replied, ‘No, I am not.’ Later, during the marriage ‘ceremony’ he told me to hold up my right hand and swear, ‘I take (my wife’s name) as my wife in the name of god.’ When I categorically refused to take an oath of marriage in the name of a non-existent god, the registrar looked at me like a master chef espying a fly in the soup and disdainfully said, ‘OK, omit the god.’ So, my wife and I were married without swearing by god. court-gavel_0

My next brush with oaths was a few years later. As a consumer activist I had filed a complaint with the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission for India against a well-known magazine that was running a sort of cheat lottery to promote subscriptions. This was located in Delhi. In those days, Mangalore to Delhi was a three day trip! At the hearing I was sworn in as a witness. As is my usual practice, I refused to take oath in the name of god. There was no expression of surprise at all from the judge, and he said that I could ‘solemnly affirm’ and I did just that. The judge asked the lawyer for the magazine if he wanted to question me. The lawyer said no. I wondered out aloud, ‘just for this I had to come all the way to Delhi spending a week of my time?’ The judge looked sternly at me and asked. ‘Young man, are you employed?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ Then, he asked, ‘has your employer given you leave on duty?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ The judge said, ‘I am giving you first class train fare, take that and go. If you utter one more word I will haul you up for contempt of court. As a citizen you are duty bound to attend as a witness when summoned. If you don’t the court will make you attend by a warrant!’ I said ‘Yes sir, sorry sir’ and scooted out of the place!

The third time I had to take oath was when I had to testify at my case against the management of the medical college in Mangalore where I used to work. I was put in the witness box and the bench clerk pointed out a piece of cardboard hanging inside that and told me to read from that. The text was, ‘I swear in the name of god that I shall speak the truth and nothing but the truth.’ It was in both English and Kannada. I said, ‘no’. He said, ‘What?’ I told him, ‘no, I will not swear in the name of god.’ Infuriated he asked, ‘What is your problem? It is not any Hindu, Muslim or Christian god, it is the universal god.’ I said, ‘I am an atheist and I cannot swear by the name of any god.’ The commotion attracted the attention of the judge who asked about the matter. I replied that I am an atheist and shall not swear by the name of any god. He said you can solemnly affirm. I remarked that I was going to do precisely that but the bench clerk was objecting to that. The judge gave a glacial look to the clerk and ordered him to let me ‘solemnly affirm’. Later on, the bench clerk told me that in his three decades of service it was for the first time that he was seeing someone refusing to take oath in the name of god!

The next occasion for me to bear witness was at the trial of a supervisor of an orphanage who was sexually exploiting girls under his care. I was sworn in as a witness, the prosecution lawyer finished his examination and the defence lawyer started his cross examination. It went something like this:

D (defence lawyer): You did not take oath in the name of god.
I: So what?
I: Are you implying that I am not under oath or something?
Judge: The form of oath is irrelevant, the witness is under oath, that is all.
Judge: Not allowed.
Judge: Objection overruled. It shall not go on record. Proceed. If you have any more objections, file an appeal under section….(i dont remember that section)
I: How many times should I tell you that?! I solemnly affirmed, because I am an atheist!
Judge (to D): You can stop asking questions about his religious convictions and go on with your cross examination
D: That has a bearing on his testimony.
Judge: No it does not, go on.

The next few times when I had to bear witness were some long pending cases where nothing much happened. Then, once more, there was a case in which I was summoned as witness. That was also when I was assaulted. I was demonstrating to people outside my laboratory that the Ganesh idols ‘drinking milk’ was just a phenomenon of physics. Some local thugs had come with a mob to take revenge for past grudges. The oath-taking went on without any problems as the bench clerks had got used to my form of taking oath. The examination by the prosecution went on smoothly. Then came the turn of the defence:

D (defence lawyer): You are an atheist?
I: Yes.
D: Do you know there is a Vithoba temple on the road where your business is?
I: Yes.
D: Do you know there is a Venkataramana temple situated about 200 meters from your business?
I: Yes.
D: Do you know there is a Kathyayani temple on the road parallel to the street where your business is?
I: I don’t know.
D: Why don’t you know?
I: Because I don’t know.
Judge (to D): Are you conducting a quiz or something about the location of temples? Go on with your next question.

Many times there have been occasions when people are asked to stand up for prayers, and all have stood up except for a few of us. We have refused to light lamps and so on. The very same people who talk about hurting religious sentiments do not understand that our sentiments too get hurt when we are asked to pray to the secular, universal ‘god’.

Freedom of religion must include freedom from religion as well.

Prof.  Narendra Nayak is President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associatons.

This post was written by:

- who has written 109 posts on Nirmukta.


  • Sir, My salutations to you. I too am a rationalist, no temple, no god. But I see the lighting of the lamp as symbolic of dispelling the darkness of ignorance with the light of knowledge. Your thoughts on this?

    • I am sure Narendra Nayak’s view is more valuable than mine, but I can take a stab at it. I think lighting a lamp in the context you specified is absolutely fine. It is no doubt ritualistic behavior, but we easily forget that there are many secular rituals we partake in without thought. So long as you know that nothing supernatural is happening when you light a lamp, it’s okay. Also take care not to include lamp lighting as part of larger Hindu rituals lest you become what is called a “Hindu atheist.”

  • I think it is a waste of cooking oil to light lamps that is all. Even if it is dispelling darkness, in these days of electric lamps do you need these oil lamps? Again tehy ask you to remove foot wear, make all stand play a bhajan on the PA system and all that rubbish. Many times we ridicule the lighting lamp business by lighting a lamp with water, a so called ‘miracle’ of Sudhamani aka Mata Amritananda Mai. You could check on my write up- miracles of Sudhamani.

    • Captain Mandrake

      On top of it fumes from oil lamp can not be good for your lungs.

      • Lol I think we’re trying too hard. I doubt the fumes from from one lamp are that dangerous. We could make an argument against permanent markers and fresh paint, or gasoline too for that matter. One lamp isn’t gonna kill you.

        I personally like lamps and candles. It’s fun to watch fire. I’m not terribly moved by OPs “dispelling darkness” ritual, but if you wanna light a lamp, go for it.

      • And yeah it’s a waste of cooking oil, but so is the water in water guns. Recreation tends to be wasteful.

  • If there were more people like you in India, it would be a much better place. I am actually impressed by the Judges defending your non belief.

  • Siddharth Mallya

    I honestly think its a waste of time trying to explain our stance to believers – all it honestly achieves is that it results in the creation of doubt about the “honesty” of our other nonreligious views or stances, which I think is a greater failure than failing to stand by our non-belief. Educating our populace about non-belief, is uphill battle on a slippery slope.

    • Captain Mandrake

      ** all it honestly achieves is that it results in the creation of doubt about the “honesty” of our other nonreligious views or stances, which I think is a greater failure than failing to stand by our non-belief.**

      Can you please rephrase this?

    • That may be your stand. I have always believed in saying what I want to say about my convictions and standing by them wherever I can.

      • Siddharth Mallya

        @Mandrake, See the problem with belief in God and religion is that many people explicitly derive their morality and principles to follow in life directly from them. When an atheist such as myself or the author makes it known about our non-belief, people almost instinctively disregard our views about other stuff – like in the example of the lawyer who kept saying that the witness is a non-believer of God, only to somehow show that his testimony therefore does not carry as much “weight” as that of a believer.

        While declaring our lack of faith is a constitutional right, the majority of the world’s (not just India’s) population are judgmental, religious folk who will disregard our non-theistic views for only making that declaration – which I think is more harmful than a random person thinking that I do believe in a deity.

        @Narendra, I congratulate you on that then.

        • Captain Mandrake

          Thanks for the clarification. I honestly failed to understand your first post. But now it is clear.

        • If it were that that majority of people derive their so called morality in life there would have no need for the IPC or the Cr.p.c. or any of the laws of the land. We would have been the most honest and morally the best place in the world. So, it is obvious that the religious beliefs have failed in that.
          So, I do not think that expressing atheism openly in any way undermines the weight of our testimony. Any way, when in a court of law, one’s evidence has to be weighed by its genuineness and not by any extraneous factors. When some one utters lies under oath(which many do prompted by their counsel)does not the opposing side know that? How does that support your contention that the majority of people have morality that goes in the name of religion or theism?

          • Your entire argument rests on an incorrect assumption – that religious morals are always “good”.

            Socially acceptable norms were codified by people into religious morals – and they differed according to period of time and location. There are neither obsolete, nor correct for people from a different time or location.

            So, yes. Religious folk derive their morals from modern cave-men, and continue doing so – much to the displeasure of the rationalist free thinkers.

            And I stand by my argument that by declaring one’s non-belief, one risks not being taken seriously. That is the same reason why even intelligent works like those of Charvaka have not managed to survive the test of time.

  • Swapneel Mohite


    I have read a lot about you.
    I have read about your work and also about the hardships you had to face.
    I also admire you for taking on karate and carrying nunchucks for your own safety and security.

    I wanted to ask you if “IRRELIGION” is contitutional in India. Can a citizen abandon his religion and live a life officially as an ATHEIST?

    • An Indian citizen can abandon his religion and go on with an atheistic world view. There is nothing unconstitutional about it. You don’t have to fill the “religion” column, even while applying for school admission. The only hazard of leaving the religion/ cast column blank is that, you won’t be entitled to any reservations.
      AND, there is no official recognition for atheists in India yet. Atheists are marginalized in India, just like gays, trans genders etc… Most people think atheists are immoral, godless people without humanitarian concepts.
      However, atheism is recognized by our wise ancestors like Jawaharlal Nehru (he was an atheist). After all, India is a sovereign, socialist, democratic, SECULAR republic. Better than many of our neighboring countries at least in ideology. There is a better scope than ever for a constitutional remedy.
      Though there is a slight difference in interpretation of the word Secularism in India from western countries, irreligious life is not a punishable/ awful act here.
      The main problem faced by Indian atheists is that, they cannot criticize religion like American atheists do in their country. Though freedom of speech and expression is our fundamental right, it has been amended by the government in 1950 to prevent hate speech. Now, we cannot speak in such way that it will hurt religious sentiments. And.. you know the fact, :) everything hurts religious sentiments.

      • Captain Mandrake

        **Atheists are marginalized in India, just like gays, trans genders etc…**

        Seems like a ridiculous claim.

      • We come across slavery of nearly 1000years, surely it will take another 100year and more to recover from the cushion of slavery, Free thought and free mind is something unaccepted version of input for majority 90%of population. …And.. Are you with10% or 90%..?

      • Is there a law which allows people to criticize atheists? Can textbooks have stuff which criticizes atheists?

        • There is no law which prevents them from criticizing us. Perhaps one of us could take up such a criticism as a test case and file a complaint under section 295A. I would not do that as I am opposed to the section itself.

  • Sir, I don’t have any faith in religions and I want to be an atheist and discard my religion officially. But I don’t know how to do it since my family and the whole society is against it and asking the officials is a waste of time!

  • I have not changed my religion ‘officially’ but have noted in all census documents and such that I have no religion, no caste.
    If you are born in a Hindu family you can be an atheist and there is nothing which prevents a Hindu from being an atheist, which is an advantage as there is no central dogma for you to accept or reject to be one!

  • Nice story and burning oil in lamp is nothing more than waste oil

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