Just before assuming office, our public representatives and officials take oath by saying, "I – A or Z – do solemnly swear that I will faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter according to law; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to Bangladesh; that I will not allow my personal interest to influence the discharge of my duties."
Globally, the objective and meaning of oaths are the same for every individual at the time of taking office. Traditionally, an oath is a promise, or a statement, is considered sacred. In western culture, oaths are always taken seriously. In highly civilized countries like Britain, Germany, France or Canada when an oath is ignored by the office bearer, people react strongly and the office bearer feels the heat.
Taking an oath is not however mandatory in the constitutions of the USA and UK. In the UK, everyone has the right to make an affirmation instead of an oath. The USA permits affirmation too. But normally, a newly elected or selected person prefers oath-taking by holding a holy book. Franklin Pierce, however, was the only president of the United States who chose affirmation instead of swearing at his inauguration.
Former US president Barack Obama, during his swearing in to the office for the first term of his presidency in 2009, used the same Bible which Abraham Lincoln had used for taking oath in 1861. Later, in his second term, Obama used two Bibles – one that belonged to Martin Luther King Junior and the other used by Lincoln. President Donald Trump also used Lincoln's Bible.
But people do not always use the Bible while taking an oath. The sixth President of the United States John Quincy Adams, a lawyer, placed his hand - instead of the Bible - on a book of the law. Henry Kissinger took his oath as the Secretary of State by placing his hand on a Hebrew Bible.
What do western people think of the promises their leaders make while taking oaths? Famous American singer Frank Zappa once said, "In a democracy, government exists because individual citizens give it a temporary license to exist in exchange for a promise that it will behave itself."
The concept of oath derives from religious customs, though it has become an accepted practice in non-religious states as well. The Holy Bible says, "If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin."
In Judaism, two kinds of oaths are strictly forbidden; 1) a vain oath, in which one attempts to do something that is impossible to execute, and 2) in which one uses the name of God to swear falsely.
There are many instructions in the Upanishads and the Vedas – Hindu scripts; many sagas in Mahabharata and Ramayana that teach the importance of oaths or promises.
In Islam, perjury is strictly prohibited. The Holy Quran says, "God does not hold you responsible for the mere utterance of oaths; he holds you responsible for your actual intentions. If you violate an oath, you shall atone by feeding ten poor people from the same food you offer to your own family, or clothing them, or by freeing a slave. If you cannot afford this, then you shall fast for three days. This is the atonement for violating the oaths that you swore to keep. You shall fulfil your oaths. God thus explains His revelations to you, that you may be appreciative." (Surah Al-Ma'ida verse 89)
But in our society, unfortunately, perjury is not a sin. Culturally, we see it as a formal duty to perform an oath-taking ceremony. Not everyone, but many politicians and officials, easily breach the vows they have made. It is also unfortunate that people do not take notice of these breaches.
There are training institutions and academies for new recruits joining the government services. These institutions officially arrange an oath-taking ceremony right after the training is finished for a batch. The trainees are supposed to take vows by placing their hands on their holy books.
Rumour has it that most of the trainees offer money to trainers asking them not to force them to touch holy books while taking vows. Apparently, they perform their customary duties by keeping their hands inches away from the book.
Interestingly, they believe in the holy book and respect it wholeheartedly. But they do not believe they would be able to keep their faith intact while carrying out the duties bestowed upon them.
Similarly, right after taking their oaths, our public representatives (not everyone, but most of them) engage in all kinds of irregularities, including embezzlement, nepotism, corruption and extortion.
So what is the point of oaths that we take at different levels of service? Literally nothing. Rather, our society is being taught hypocrisy and immorality. It is better to either teach the nation what morality is or omit the oaths for joining public services altogether.