The spiritual light, according to Maharshi Dayanand, was truth: the reason why he titled his classic work “The Light of Truth” or the Radiance of Truth. Religions get overtaken by obscurantism, perversion and inhumanity when reason is compromised in their understanding and practice. This makes religion, which should be a beacon of light, a blanket of darkness. The greatest contribution of Swamiji is in refining and reforming the idea of religion itself. Arguably, this is the most critical agenda and crying need today.
That is so because, the restoration of “true religion” is basic to the fulfillment of the destiny of India. Even as we strain every nerve to bring about prosperity via material development, the truth stares us in the face that unless the ship of development is guided by the compass of a spiritual vision our national adventure could end up shipwrecked.
Alone among the religious luminaries of his times, Maharshi Dayanand stood out, in his total outlook, as a true liberal democrat! “Doubt, debate and, if necessary, dissent”! Without a doubt, there was no religious luminary then or since then who held out “doubting” as a spiritual duty. Even today, the custodians of religious establishments stigmatize doubting as heretical. They recommend and promote ‘blind faith’. Matters of faith, we are told repeatedly, cannot be subjected to factual verification or rational scrutiny. Such an allergy to “doubting” is a pre-requisite for preserving and promoting irrationalities and obscurantism in the name of religion. Religious oligarchs and merchants have degraded, in all ages and places, religion, which is a catalyst for human growth and social transformation, into a pro-status quo-ist and regressive agenda. Doubt is to true religion what blind faith is to obscurantism.
Debate, we should have no difficulty in admitting, is of the essence of democracy. But there can be no debate if doubt is proscribed. This makes religions enemies of debate. In the name of religion, people pontificate. The less sense they make, the more assertive they become in their pontification. To debate is to agree on a shared framework of rationality and mutual respect. This should be deemed the bottom-line of our humanity. Instead, all religions have become enclaves and ghettos in which small men pontificate to smaller men and women, keeping them as captive herds robbed of the right to think. Surely, this cannot be godly arrangement! Irrespective of our religious affiliations, all right-minded citizens owe a huge debt of gratitude to Maharshi Dayanand for creating a niche for debate in the sphere of religion.
Doubting and debating become fruitless if the right to dissent or disagree is denied. In the history of all religions, dissent has been dealt with brutally as heresy. The literal meaning of this word of Latin origin - ‘heresy’ - is “I choose”. We live in a world of ever-multiplying choices. But this applies mostly to the terrestrial aspects of our life that are of fleeting importance. Ironically, in respect of the most crucial aspect of our destiny -our eternity- we have no right to choose. The more we progress materially, the more our freedom to choose in matters of faith seems to shrink. In such a context, Maharshi Dayanand deserves to be celebrated as a clarion call to human liberation.
To this great spiritual visionary, indeed revolutionary, liberation was not an abstract ideal. He was rooted in the lived realities of the world. So he militated against the oppressive caste system. He denounced discrimination based on gender. He advocated widow re-marriage and equal right of the girl child to be educated. I dare say that the women of this country never had a better advocate of their rights and dignity than Maharshi Dayanand! Rather than spend a lifetime grumbling ineffectually against the “Patriarchal” nature of religions, they should embrace Maharshi Dayanand as their liberator and affirmer.
Sadly, many of the successors of Dayanand’s spiritual vision did not prove its faithful vision. A great tradition of spiritual renaissance was frittered away. Hence it is that several giants you come across claim to be “ex-Arya Samjists”. They were nurtured in the legacy of Dayanand, but have ceased to be its practitioners. This needs to be seen as a national loss.
The essence of Dayanand’s spiritual revolution was the insistence on the equal worth of all human beings. He alone, among the spiritual leaders of his times, opened the gate to nobility (Arya = the noble) to shudras. It was this that shook the foundations of obscurantist religious establishment and made his assassination an orthodox imperative. The person of Dayanand could be killed, but not his vision. The stage is now set for a pan-Indian return of the spirit of Dayanand. Our dreams of garnering respect on the global stage cannot be fulfilled if we do not create a noble society. A caste-ridden society of screaming social injustice mocks the ambitious goal of India becoming a legitimate global player. A country will be respected not so much for its growth in GDP terms as it will be for the stature and nobility of her people. In this context, the Arya Samaj cannot afford any longer to remain a peripheral reform movement. It has to become a celebration of the soul of India -her nobility and greatness. The formula for unleashing that power is, “doubt, debate and, if need be, dissent”!
(The writer is a social activist. The views expressed are personal.)