Finding Reason in Religion: A Conversation with Swami Agnivesh

How can religion make space for criticality and dissent? Arya Samaj member Swami Agnivesh tells our Executive Editor Shivani Karmarkar

Mul Shankar was born into a religious Hindu family. When he was eight years old, his formal education in the Hindu religion was initiated following the sacred thread ceremony, Yajnopavita Sanskara. Being the son of a devout Shiva-bhakt, he was tutored in the ways and means to please the Deity, by performing sacred rituals and fasts. One Shiv ratri – a night of appeasing the Lord through offerings and prayers – as Mul Shankar was sitting next to the shivling, the rock representing Shiv, he noticed mice emerging from the cracks in his house to feed on the sweets and foods left for the God. He was shocked by this sight, and asked how the almighty Lord was not able to protect himself and his food from these puny mice. The only response he received was to mind his duties, have faith and not ask too many questions. The seed of critical thought, however, was already planted in Mul Shankar’s mind by then. Not many years later, with his thirst for truth and rationality unquenched, he left his home and eventually met Virajanand Dandeesha, a religious teacher who believed that Hinduism had strayed from its roots, and could only be reclaimed through the revival of teachings from the Vedas. It was under the mentorship/training of Dandeesha that Mul Shankar became Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Hindu reform movement also knows as the Arya Samaj.

This is the story I am told as I begin my conversation with Swami Agnivesh, a prominent member of the Arya Samaj, on a winter evening in his office in Delhi. Back from his treatment for jaundice at a nearby hospital, his body is frail, eyes have a distinct tint of yellow, but mind is sharp as he recollects his own journey of finding reason in religion. “The biggest violence is not allowing people to think and to question,” he tells me, as he talks about his own childhood, and how he too was struck by the inconsistencies of many rituals and superstitions that were considered to be the norm amongst his social milieu. In the name of religious faith, children are not allowed to question or think at a very young age, which develop into a habit as they grow older, he says. “All children must be allowed to study different religions, and make an informed decision when they turn 18 about whether they want to be religious, and the religion they want to follow,” he states.

Agnivesh himself was introduced to the Arya Samaj during his college days in Kolkata. This was the first time he had encountered a practice of Hinduism that allowed one to question and find reason within their faith. “The Arya Samaj opened the Vedas up to everybody – women, people of different caste and class… After all Veda is gyaan (knowledge) and gyaan should be open to all,” he said. Any gyaan you gain, however, must always be absorbed critically, and should always facilitate space for dialogue, he says: “There are 3 Ds that I always propagate – doubt, debate and dissent.” This was the same philosophy he has followed in the Arya Samaj, which has likely caused some strain in his relations within the organisation, he speculates, as he recalls one such instance of “heretic imperative.”

After joining the Arya Samaj, one of the regular practices he was asked to participate in was a yajna or hawan, a ritual involving participants siting around fire and chanting prayers. “If idol worship is one of the practices criticised by the Arya Samaj, then why should we conduct another version of it here?” he asked his fellows. For the fire does vayu shuddhi (cleanses the air), was the response he received. “Then why do we need four or five people to sit around the fire, follow these baseless rules and conduct the hawan? Why don’t we do it on our own, in our kitchens when we anyway light the fire to cook?” he countered. But his questions were brushed off with a chuckle for being unnecessary.

This is the problem with the Arya Samaj today, he says, and with the society in general. “The problem is that religion and reason have become separate.” This is also what allows political figures to manipulate religious ideas and use them to garner vote banks. “People believe that political leaders and parties have all the power and hold over knowledge, while political parties are afraid to make statements that may sound heretical for fear of losing votes. Everybody is living in fear,” he says. What is needed instead is liberation from these falsehoods and fears, and to seek truth. That is the only path that will lead one to courage, he says.

It is this path that led him to resign from his Ministerial post and found the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, also popularly known as the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM). BMM is the organisation that had filed a Public Interest Litigation, which resulted in the historic 1983 judgement proclaiming any labourer paid less than the common minimum wage to be a bonded labourer. Subsequent petitions and interventions have ensured many labourers access to healthcare, housing and non-formal education in different parts of the country.

Being involved with many movements and organisations, how does he accommodate all the different identities and mandates set by them? “Identities aren’t important,” he says, “spirituality is.” He posits the human condition as one of ethics, morality and spirituality. Through this framework, one does not see boundaries of one’s identity or mandate, but looks at the larger injustices and concerns of people, irrespective of their caste, class, creed or culture. Spirituality, in this case, helps one move beyond the perceived ethics and morality to truly connect with these issues and take the steps needed to improve the human condition. It is this belief that has helped him reach out to a diverse set of allies and connect them through humanitarian causes. “The media has really helped make our movements successful,” he says. “These movements have gained popularity because of the media. The movement may start with a small group, but what is important is that at least a few of these members are able to reach out to other collectives and spread the word.” When you are on the side of truth, malpractices and corrupt systems can only cause minor hurdles, not halting roadblocks, he says, reflecting on his own experience.

The same is happening in the political discourse, he adds. Manipulation of religious texts and the subsequent production of untruths can only take the political discourse so far. Eventually the truth always comes out, “which it already is”, he adds, “it is only a matter of time.”

However, that does not mean we can rest. “There is still so much to be done,” he says, as we conclude our conversation. “People are still taking a dip in the Ganga to wash off their sins, as if it were a reset button allowing you to commit more crime once you are bathed… Superstition is still keeping women out of temples. How can we do this? Are they (women) not human beings?”

Our conversation is interrupted for his next appointment – a video recording inside his office itself. As I pack up to leave, he tells me to think deeply about these ideas, not just “as a journalist”, but also as a member of civil society. There may be many flaws in different religious ideas and doctrines, but it is always important to question them and improve upon them, instead of writing them off and leaving them to be manipulated by power-hungry individuals. With this thought, I exit from his office and conclude my day, leaving him to carry on with his.

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