Interview of Swami Agnivesh

Edward Luce South Asia Correspondent ; Financial Times (London).

Tempered in the fire of his mind

Hindu religious leader Swami Agnivesh has renounced both Hindu nationalism and many aspects of religion he has not prayed to a deity since 1968 and doesn't believe in evil.

Financial Times (London, England) (1620 words)


It is a sweltering summer's day in New Delhi and Swami Agnivesh is taking about Hindu philosophy. The Swamiji- an honorific given to all respected Hindu religious figures-is explaining the importance of detachment, the goal of freeing oneself both from the consequences of one's actions and from ties of the material world.

It is only through the deepest sleep, he tells me, that we ordinary types get a taste of the blissful detachment that we should strive for in waking consciousness. Of course we cannot escape all material attachments, says the Swamiji, his expression lightening. Let us eat some lunch.

It would be easy to slot Swami Agnivesh into a long line of real or imaginary Hindu renunciates, from Swami Vivekananda, the great spiritual reformer of late Victorian India, to E.M. Forster's Godbole, whose mystical pronouncements still caricature our sense of Hinduism.

But Swami Agnivesh, the 65-year-old public face of the Arya Samaj (Gathering of the Noble) movement, which has 10m followers, is unusual in one critical respect- he is a social activist from a tradition that often dismisses the social as illusory. The swami may have renounced meat, alcohol and sex- but he also denounces injustice.

It is hard to abandon society if you have a passion for justice. To fight injustice whether it is against women, lower castes, or members of the Muslim and Christian minorities is to come closer to God, he says, always speaking softly. If God is truth and compassion, how can you not fight injustice?

We meet at the Swami's ramshackle quarters in central New Delhi at the back of a colonial bungalow once occupied by India's ruling Congress Party. Vegetarian lunch starting with fresh fruits Iychees, mangoes and papaya- followed by yellow dal (lentils), spiced okra, mint chutney and roti (bread) is served. We eat with our hands, There is also chilled water.

Every now and then the meal is interrupted by the buzz of the Swami's mobile phone. One is a call from Iranian television asking him to comment on the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomenei's death. Another is form an Indian TV station requesting an interview about India's new government. The Swami is everywhere in demand.

Unlike most swamis, and more than any other Hindu religious figure, Swami Agnivesh is associated with the struggle against Hindu nationalism. India's Hindu nationalist BJP, which was unexpectedly turned out of office in elections is May, feels the gentle lash of Swami Agnivesh's tongue much more keenly than criticism from any secular or minority opponent.

So the bespectacled Swami, always garbed in his trademark saffron robes and turban, has good reason to feel satisfied with the recent twist in India's political story. But he does not betray it. They will continue to poison the minds of the young with their hate and with their sectarianism, he says of the platoons of social groups affiliated to the defeated BJP. We must be alert to the dangers lurking around the corner. If the BJP comes back, it will come back with a vengeance. I fear it will.

I wonder whether all followers of the Arya Samaj agree with the Swami's militant opposition to Hindu nationalism. The sect, founded in 1875 by Dayananda Saraswati, a Hindu reformer, has also been associated with the politics of Hindu revivalism. Most notably in 1921 it differed sharply with Mahatma Gandhi's decision to launch a movement to restore the Ottoman Caliphate (which had been toppled by the British).

To the disgust of many in the Arya Samaj, Gandhi's move was aimed at winning over the conservative elements of Indian Islam to the freedom struggle against the British. The Swami looks slightly perturbed at my question. There are some elements in the Arya Samaj that have created difficulties over my stand against Hindu nationalism, he says. But most fully agree that the Hindu nationalists are desecrating India's spiritual traditions.

But the Swami's very public battle against the BJP and its sister groups is a fairly recent cause in a vocation that stretches back almost four decades. In 1968, the young Vapa Shyam Rao gave up his job as a lecturer in business administration in Calcutta to campaign against liquor among India's poor. Renaming himself Agnivesh-fire of the mind- the fledgling ascetic began to question everything he had learned from his orthodox Brahmin upbringing.

This culminated in a rejection of superstitions and polytheism and idol-worship of popular Hinduism, he explains. The Arya Samaj, which in some ways resembles the protestant tradition in Christianity, dismisses all the priestly accretions of Hinduism as it is practised. Dayanand Saraswati was the first person to translate the Vedas Hinduism's most sacred texts- into Hindi, the most widely- spoken language in India, more than 2,000 years after they were written. The original language, Sanskrit, is only understood by Brahmins, the priestly caste. The parallels with Latin and Roman Catholicism are stark. Dayananda was murdered in 1883. The Arya Samaj allege it was Brahmin Pandits or priests, who poisoned him.

I have not rung a bell or lit a candle or prayed to a deity since 1968, says Swami Agnivesh. Is God so weak that he will break his divine laws to intervene in your life and change it? Is God susceptible to flattery and to pleading and to begging?

Such questions could easily plunge an untutored mind into a tailspin on a sultry afternoon when the barometer is nudging 44 deg C. Air conditioning is not something with which the Swami is encumbered.

By now we are picking at a steaming Jalebi- a treacly Indian sweet- that had just been dropped off by a group of lawyers with whom the Swami had worked on child labour cases. The Swami is also a familiar face at the UN when he has headed committees o bonded slavery, child labour and religious tolerance.

I ask why so many foreigners are drawn to Indian gurus. He answers the question with tact. I think many westerners are drawn to India's deep traditions of spirituality and meditation, he says. But people, especially young people, should be careful not to get caught up in the magical or the superstitious or the superficial. There are many gurus out there, some of them also living in the west, who peddle nonsense to young minds. If you want to find God then, as Gandhi said, you must start with the lowest person on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

Recently, the Swami spoke on the plight of many Indian women to a group of Christian students in Kerala. I told them that so many women in India are beaten by their drunken husbands, so many young daughters are married off before puberty, so many female fetuses are terminated in the womb-could they feel happy knowing what is happening to their sisters? I was very pleased they concluded that action was the answer, not prayer.

The more one talks to Swmai Agnivesh the more one senses he disdains religion in general. Apart from his saffron garments, the Swami's quarters betray no sign of the trappings of worship, ritual or attachment. Like many in the Hindu tradition, Swami Agnivesh professes equal respect for all religions. Perhaps what he means is equal disrespect, although always conveyed with the greatest courtesy. I feel a twinge of sympathy.

But I am curious to find out if their is anything metaphysical or supernatural behind his philosophy. We traipse outside to wash our glutinous hands in a basin. I feel far better nourished than I would after eating in one of Delhi's glistening hotel.

One by one, Swami Agnivesh disposes of the standard tenets of most religions. He dismisses the idea of evil- beyond what humans voluntarily do to other humans. He does not believe in miracles, with the greatest respect to Jesus, Mohammed and so on. He even disapproves of funerals: I think it is superstitious to pay respects to a piece of dead meat which the soul has already departed.

Of course, the soul. The Swami takes this as a cue to explain a theology that seems to me as abstruse as any. The Vedic texts, according to the Arya Samaj, are devoid both of history or geography and could therefore only have come from God. They are neither Hindu nor Indian but universal and superior to all other texts.

The Vedas (estimated to be between 2,500 and 3,500 years old and to have come from India) also contain the laws of transmigration which explain the journeys of the soul. As in other Hindu accounts, the soul's destination is partly determined by the actions of previous lives. And moksha- ending the cycle of rebirth- is the goal.

But unlike many interpretations , the Swami's account leaves little room for the caste system or the still widespread view that one's position on the ladder is a consequence of deeds in earlier incarnations. Somehow, his theology seems reassuringly abstract- even detached- from what really motivates him. There is no trace of fatalism.

Having consumed another round of sweets since our ablutions, the meal no longer feels quite so virtuous. The temperature, if anything, has risen.

The Swami's theological exposition was interesting. But when I nudge the conversation back to the mundane, his body language becomes alert again.

We have a lot of long-running social battles to fight in India, he says with feeling. But on top of these, Hindu nationalism is a headache we really don't need. I hope, for the time being, it will go back into its box.

Strange, I thought, after I had taken my leave. But if the Swami had been out to convert me, he wouldn't have missed by much.