Legal Pad Pseudoscience & Religion

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

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.

About the author

Narendra Nayak


  • Dear Sir,
    I too experienced the same in the High Court of Karnataka in 1979, when I was filing my case. When I said I can not swear in the name of God the officer asked me to say that every thing in my application is true. I thanked him.
    Recently, I find in almost all University functions which begin with a symbolic lighting of a lamp every body in the hall stand up as if they are attending a religious ceremony. Some even remove their shoes.It is irrarional to express one’s religious leanings publicly and single-out those who do not fall in line.

    • Well said Dr.Panditaradhya, incidentally he invited me to speak to the students and faculty of Mysore University on the 5th inst. The whole function went on without any sort of religious sounding/looking ritual and no lighting of lamp etc. An admirable job as it was being organised by the teachers association of which he is the President and it must be full of members with all types of reactionary elements!

      • Hvor er hun bare vidunderlig, og sikke en god idé. Du er simpelthen sÃ¥ dygtig.PS: Anna Julie og Ella Marie sover med hver deres lille skovpige i sengen hver nat – behørigt puttet i soveposen sevl¸Ãflgelig 😉

    • Generally lawyers use such tactics to smear the person unfairly and make him/her lose credibility in the eyes of the jury (if there is one). But I guess that’s obvious…

      • It was not a trial by jury. The gang which attacked me was of some Hindutwa fanatics and he was their ‘official’ lawyer. Probably he was trying to given an impression of a good enough bang for the buck. They try to wear out witnesses by dragging on the cross examination and employ such dilatory tactics. The trial ended with the conviction of three of the accused.

  • It is a point to ponder that while the Chief Justice of India and all judges of the High Courts have the option of replacing ‘swear in the name of God’ in their oath of office with ‘solemnly affirm’, this option is not offered to all other Indian citizens appearing in a court. Here’s a reference to the texts of the oaths:
    When it is constitutionally permissible for the President, Vice President, Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers to officiate in these positions without an oath referring to God, why can’t any other Indian citizen officiate as a witness with a similar oath?

    • The citizen has a right to solemnly affirm. But, the lower down minions do not know that and hence make a fuss when one refuses to take oath in the name of god or a supposedly holy book. As I already said they have never come across any one who has refused to take such ‘godly’ oaths and are not in a position to know how to deal with such a situation. The words of clerk explains it all- in my three decades of service I have never seen any one refusing to take oath in the name of god! Probably the news went around and I did not have any trouble next time I went as a witness.

      • It is a pity that a right which ought to be available to a citizen as part of the due process, is having to be sought as some sort of waiver with explanations demanded!
        The saving grace in the otherwise sorry state of affairs of the judicial machinery in both of the episodes in this post, was the conduct of the honourable Judges who made timely interventions to remedy both clerical ignorance and the dilatory tactics of the lawyers.
        A more recent news item gives a less reassuring picture of the gavel-wielders. One of the honourable Judges delivering the Ayodhya verdict wrote in his judgment: ‘Place of birth is a juristic person and a deity’.
        I can’t help asking this tongue-in-cheek question: “Is the ‘universal God’ in whose name Prof. Nayak was asked to swear, also a ‘juristic person’? If yes, can this juristic person be dragged to court?”
        Any lawyers in the house to take that one?

  • Prof Nayak,

    I completely agree with not swearing by god in the courts. But being an atheist, I am currently grappling with the concept of militant atheism or atheistic proselytization. Don’t you think that by showing tolerance when it comes to trivial things (I consider) like lighting lamps or standing up when others do, we are setting a good example in this religious-hate filled times? Don’t you think this would help us stay close to the core mission and not fight over small phrases in the laws, thereby giving others avenues to district us from the main goals.

    I dont’t want to fall into the trap of mirroring religious fundamentalists/evangelists by assuming a moral high ground and a holier-than-thou stand. How and where do I create this balance?

    Having said this, I would also like to add that, having recently graduated out of a NIT (2008), I can say that most of the students don’t show any interest or belief in religion, which is a good sign for the future. And these federal institutions do not take any major religious stand (apart from the student celebrated religious ceremonies). Whereas, in my present University (Texas A&M, USA), I find a suffocating amount of religious domination in every sphere of activity, even though it is a public University.

    P.S. I am new to this forum and am happy to find some major rationalist and atheistic discussions happening in the Indian context, since I have always had to depend on the western intellegentia for atheistic discussions on a large scale. Hence, the seemingly non-sequitur thoughts.

    Thank you

    • I do agree with you that we should not act like fundamentalists. But, where to draw the line? For example when some dies they ask us to perform all sorts of stupid rites to ‘send’ the soul of the departed to heaven. Should we perform them just to humor some one? Why should we fall prey to a religious exploiter just to humor some one?
      I will write about it some time and share my experiences with you.

      • I agree that we should not succumb to such pressure from the society and perform it. But I was thinking more on the lines of, if someone is performing the rites, how do I talk and explain to them to not do it, in a way where I dont assume that I am far superior to him because I think what he is doing is wrong. I am trying to think how the live and let live policy can be explained for your mental thoughts. I don’t want to come across as an arrogant person or bigot.

        • I think the best way would be to set an example by not succumbing to such exploitation. Particularly at times of death or illness the promoters of superstition exploit the weakness of mind cause by the happenings and try to conduct rituals. One has to be strong willed to combat that. Only by showing others that we can do it, we can convince them. I have faced such situations when my mother died, father died, sometimes when I was very ill and all that. Will make a writs up on that soon as many seem to want to know how to handle such situations.

          • Dear Narendra Nayak,
            I wanted to know what were the religious belief of your parents?? Were they also atheists?? If they were, then I think you did the right thing to not succumb to social pressure by performing religious rituals. But if they were not, then probably you imposed your belief on them just because they were silent forever. This is a sign of fundamentalistic atheism. I hope thats not true…

  • Certainly there is no shortage of stupidity in the world. But I see it as a positive sign that in each mentioned case the judge sided with Narenda.

  • Dear Sir,
    I too experienced the same in the High Court of Karnataka in 1979, when I was filing my case. When I said I can not swear in the name of God the officer asked me to say that every thing in my application is true. I thanked him.
    Recently, I find in almost all University functions which begin with a symbolic lighting of a lamp every body in the hall stand up as if they are attending a religious ceremony. Some even remove their shoes.It is irrarional to express one’s religious leanings publicly and single-out those who do not fall in line.

    • This is just a symbolic tradition in India, similar to ribbon cutting. While the origin of that practice have to do with religion, I don’t think that the practice has any religious significance anymore. People stand up just the same way everyone is expected to stand up for the national anthem or when an important person comes on stage. It’s more out of solemn respect for the occasion.

  • Wow, that’s really brave and funny (especially reading the Defense lawyer parts). It is the second funniest scene i ever read after the clevinger trail in catch 22.

  • A very well written article Mr.Narendra

    Sometimes i do feel that the situation in this country is hopeless.
    It was nice to know that atleast that judge was a sane person. (glimpses of hope!)

    I am a person who woke up and came out of religion recently and it is good to get some desi support with websites like these.

    After becoming an atheist, i realized that my biggest challenge is going to be how i should put up with the deeply religious society in our country.

    Currently i am confused how i should go about my marriage or the death of a family member etc. I wish to thread a middle ground in that kind of affairs.
    I mean there will definitely be no place for astrology in deciding my marriage.
    But when it comes to the death of a relative, if the person died was deeply religious, shouldn’t we put their wish above our’s?

    • However these problems are in no way unique to our society.
      Hence i love reading articles like these from all over the world to get some perspective and wisdom.

      Found this interesting>

      American atheists have to put up with ‘In God We Trust’ on their $ bills.

      There is currently a call to de-god the money.
      you can read about here

  • As someone not from India, I found two things really interesting about this post. First, you seem to go to court often, something most folks here try to avoid. Second, your judges appear capable. Our one-size-fits-all approach has made it even more imperative to avoid courts. Thanks for some insights to atheism in India.

  • My respect and reverence for you have risen multifold on reading this article. Keep your good work going Sir. Noble and liberating work indeed. I am a member of Chennai Freethinkers (just for info).

  • This man seems to be running to much into courts! Anyway, think the Western notion of atheism is too limited in Indian scope and shows a lack of understanding of dharma. Here, you can be a nastik and still be a Hindu! Also, Buddhism and Jainism are entirely ‘atheistic religions’ in conventional terms. That is the beauty of Indian dharmic traditions.

    Ofcourse, one should be allowed to swear in name of whatever he believes in or solemnly affirm. Not that anything has ever stopped the determined from lying 🙂

  • I guess even this Oath business is also irrational. What will happen if someone lies after taking oath? Will his head burst? In fact millions of people lie taking oath.

  • I faced something similar when I was in Mumbai, and a surveyor had come to my place. When he asked my religion, I said “don’t have one”. He looked at my name, and it was a hindu name, and wrote down “hindu”. He said nastik was not valid.

    I figure something similar might happen in hospitals, where they have religion on forms. I was wondering if there was a way to change your religion status to show the lack of one. Is atheism a legally recognized “religion” in India?

  • Amusing as well as nice.
    Can anyone guide me on how do I officially change my religion to atheism?

  • i would like to salute mr. narendra nayak for his social work.its high time that provisions be made in official rules allowing for atheist’s sensibilities. when i was a small kid at school ,i would’nt recite morning prayers and the teachers would complain about my irrational behaviour,i would tell them that i am an atheist and they would respond by some kind of punishment such as sending me out of the class(which i liked though).

  • Of course our sentiments get hurt when we are asked to pray to something we don’t believe in. There will be riots if a Muslim is asked to pray a Hindu god. And for us atheists, we get stalked everyday by parents, friends. Why can’t you accept? Why can’t you leave us alone? India needs laws. Hope there is something we can do about it.

    • Under the constitution of India one has the freedom of religious belief that includes non belief too. So, no one can force us to pray to any supernatural entity if we do not believe in that. As I have already mentioned above the High court of Karnataka had come down heavily upon a judge who had hauled up a witness who was refusing to take oath in the name of god for contempt of court.

      • I was actually quite surprised to hear the about conduct of the Shimoga Judge. I remember my high-school civics well, and everywhere there is an oath (office, witness, anywhere) it can be replaced by the “solemnly affirm” phrase. The Constitution is very clear on this, and the Judge should have known that, as the Hon. Judge in New Delhi did. Our Constitution is not very good, I admit, but it is very forward-looking indeed, in some aspects.

        Another progressive element is The Sp. Marriage Act 1954, as in Clause 4 it simply permits “…marriage between any two persons…”, neatly sidestepping any sexism/homophobia. I wonder if this was intentional, as the Act later talks about ‘spouse’, rather than husband/wife. In light of further text, this seems a unintended effect, if a happy one!

    • yes it should That may be possible when we become a strong enough lobby. There are a number of political parties who have atheists in large numbers.In fact I was told that there is a political party of Ram Vilas Paswan to join which one has to submit a declaration that he/she is an atheist. This party has only one MP.

  • 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.

      • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • ** 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?

      • @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.

        • 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.

  • Sir,

    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.

      • **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!

  • I wouldn’t mind standing a few minutes in prayer if I am going to get a ladoo!
    Also instead of taking all the pain- stating I am an atheist and explaining the reason I won’t take oath in the name of god, I would just take the oath and save the pain.
    I feel that, telling others to respect our beliefs (or in our case what we don’t believe!) Is like framing atheist beliefs a religion. It is against the fundamentals of atheism, against what we stand.
    We simply shouldn’t care.
    Also if the prasad is unhygienic I would simply not attend the pooja. No harm done.

    • A me la mia per telefono mi diceva "Stagli dietro" (rignrosameote in dialetto "stagghe drio!"), come se normalmente mandassi i bambini ad attraversare la nazionale da soli, bendati e a piedi scalzi…Le solite nonne italiche!Un abbraccio (il mega transatlantico di Hello Kitty è partito o è rimasto in territorio italico?)

  • I would just take the oath and save the pain -I wouldnt. Last month the Karnataka govt.took a socio-economic census. The enumerators had first put down as ‘religion not declared’I said that was not correct as I had declared that I had no religion. The closest option to our stand was atheist and I asked them to put down as that. Again when it came to caste- I said no caste. Then they asked for subcaste- I replied that when I had no caste how could I have a subcaste? That was the end of it.

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  • I stumbled upon this post when I got curious about oath-taking in Indian courts when the person in question is an atheist. I’m currently 20 so I do not yet have to personally deal with any legal matters but I became an atheist 3 and a half years ago and I wanted to know more about the law’s attitude towards atheists. Your experience sums up pretty much everything. This is quite a loophole in India’s law system and an amendment is necessary.
    “Freedom of religion must include freedom from religion as well.”

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