The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 21, 2001

A swami who is also a social activist
Review by J.S. Yadav

Religion, Spirituality and Social Action: New Agenda for Humanity
by Swami Agnivesh. Hope India Publications, Gurgaon. Pages 204. Rs 400.

Religion, Spirituality and Social Action: New Agenda for Humanity"THE two hundred odd pages of pen power reveals the planetary patriotism of a great human wonder," Swami Agnivash, an ascetic, reformer, social activist, global firebrand "for whom humanism is the burning creed, compassion the consuming passion and injustice a raging allergy, a red rag anathema and a perennial bete noire," says Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in the foreward to this book.

The swami's broad vision and universal approach have been amply brought out by another human rights crusader from Pakistan, Asma Jegangir, "Swami and I belong to different religions and genders, to enemy countries, which have their own political agenda. But we share a strong bond, because we have a similar mission, ideology and commitment. And this transcends all boundaries."

The book under review has 19 essays and six appendices (which are equally informative and illuminating. Done by a sanyasin, essentially a man of religion, the write-ups understandably carry a big load of religion. But let me hasten to add a small note so that no confusion creeps in: the religion that Swami Agnivesh tackles is not the traditional religion. It is, to quote his own words, "religion for social justice", which is aimed at creating an active forum for uniting the various religious traditions that flourish in this country; the scattered existence, insulated both from the burning issues of the times and from each other, is the root cause of their ineffectiveness in creating a society on the foundation of justice and peace.


Given the needs and challenges of today, the dialogue between religions cannot be limited to words and concepts. Religions must discover a shared agenda to promote the good of all people and to safeguard the health of society. This will effect a paradigm shift from conflict to cooperation, from communalism to spiritual humanism through which religions will become a constructive, rather than destructive, influence on societies and nations. To this glorious goal he commits himself.

The author pleads for "a dynamic social order". He demands doing away with social underdevelopment. He wants us to heal the wounds of our society and makes a case for launching a new liberation movement for, he thinks, and rightly so, that for vast segments in our country, the attainment of political freedom has not meant much, and millions want to be liberated from bonded labour, child labour, illiteracy, poverty, ill health, exploitation and conspiratorial neglect at the hands of the state. Millions more need to be liberated from superstition, religious obscurantism and fundamentalism. Still a large number of our people need to be liberated from the prison house of communal hatred and hostilities and the resultant dissipation of energy and resources.

How to bring about this revolution? By reforming the very concept of religion, says the author. It was against Christianity without a commitment to social justice that Karl Marx issued his informed indictment. Human history, including the church, has been the richer for that. It is time that a similar spiritual ferment took place in our context too.

The author wants to change our social order in all its aspects. He wants to do away with social exploitation in all its forms. That is true social justice, he says. He wants economic prosperity. No man, woman or child should suffer from poverty as they are doing today. He wants consumerist materialism to go for that, according to him, fosters a culture of self-indulgence which can turn every human being into a passive and isolated consumer of pleasure, unmindful of the suffering and oppression around him.

The author makes a strong case for a protest movement against this culture. He exhorts the people, the poor people in the first place, to wage a relentless spiritual struggle to put an end to the multiple maladies of our time - poverty, hunger, deprivation, oppression, exploitation, disease and so forth.

Will economic liberalisation that we have taken to in a big way solve the problem? Precisely not, asserts Swami Agnivesh. He is in favour of a reduction in government control and thus supports policies that seek to remove unnecessary regulations which end up as impediments to development and as a means for self-aggrandizement. But we must also understand that economic growth by itself cannot solve a country's problems. In fact, it may give rise to a newer and more virulent problems. If inequality keeps increasing as it is in India, the poor and forgotten will have to struggle to make the powers that be to heed their pleas. He advocates a Gandhian struggle for this purpose.

Human rights find an equally, if not more, important space in the author's discourse. He is an untiring and uncompromising champion of these. For, he thinks these are the instruments for human development to the level that the men of religion wish every human being to reach. He sees human rights as decrees of God, as inviolate spiritual dictates of religion as the essence of human existence. Those who trample over the human rights of others are Satans, they are enemies of the human race. They should be fought heroically, says Swami Agnivesh, till they are vanquished.

In one of his essays, the Swami goes a step further. He holds that as human beings have their rights so have animals and plants theirs too. For the well-being of all let us care for the rights of animals and plants as much as we care for the human rights.

This disciple of Dayanand has a lofty agenda for humanity. Earth is our mother, he says. The whole world, he says, is a kutambha (family). All religions should emphasise the welfare and well-being of human beings. Development of social spirituality should be their main concern. There should be no place for superstition, obscurantism and fundamentalism in this age. There should be no place of social segregation, economic inequality, intellectual exploitation and spiritual deprivation. All should strive to achieve social justice, to achieve human excellence, to achieve peace in our lives.

The author ends his discourse on an angry note: he regrets that those who are responsible for the well-being of millions of people rake up non-issues at a time when we are beset with many burning issues. Perhaps the best way to sideline real issues is to fabricate spurious ones, he declares. He identifies the issues that hurt the body of this nation as poverty, illiteracy, preventable diseases, deteriorating quality of life and the rise of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism which perpetuate mental and material backwardness.

Indeed, this is a powerful work. Swami Agnivesh speaks from the very depth of his heart. His words carry the power of his conviction in the causes he espouses. His exhortations carry refreshing energy and vigour. What he says, I agree, is so impressive that "one is bound to sit up and ask after going through the book: "how should I make use of the agenda for the humanity that Swamiji has presented here"?

The printing and set-up of the book are excellent. I have all praise for the publishers.