November 19, 1995
column is devoted to a one-man demolition squad named Swami
Agnivesh - the saffron-clad Indian who looks like a guru, speaks
like a politician and gives governments and bureaucrats sleepless
rights. In India, he is most famous for many efforts aimed
at giving the country's bonded and child labour a decent livelihood.
Abroad, particularly in human rights fora in Europe, he is
"that strange-looking Indian" who embodies his name - Agnivesh
- and takes on governments including his own and mighty multinationals
for making a virtue out of greed.
hell broke loose at a recent meeting of religious and political
heads in Florence, Italy, where this Indian was invited to the
podium along with several religious heads and politicians like
Cory Aquino of Philippines and Lech Walesa of Poland. Agnivesh
did what he does best - he planned on calling a spade by no
other name. Organised by the Archdiocese of Florence, the gathering
had for its aim and emblem, 'Earth and Heaven at Peace'.
all the way from New Delhi, Agnivesh was banned from speaking.
He wanted to ask if a God named Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus or
Krishna would have approved of what man was doing in the name
of religion. He wanted to ask what kind of peace could be
built of social inequality and greed. In other words, he paraphrased
Karl Marx to say, one man's happiness and trip to heaven cannot
be assured on another's misery.
kind of God condemns an unbaptised child to eternal hell fire?
What kind of a God wants women in 45 degrees Celsius and 80
per cent humidity in a burka and sentences a human to a lifelong
occupation as a latrine cleaner or bonded labour? What kind
of a God reserves Nirvana only for men and asks women to be
quiet in church? What kind of religion do we tesch to make millions
of mothers cry at the birth of a female child? How can we accept
as religious leaders the inequality of children already at birth?"
said Agnivesh's undelivered speech.
was more. The Swami said he comes from a country that "brags
about her spiritual achievements, her dharms, her rishis,
sages and yogis, but failed to tell half of its citizens - an
estimated 450 million people-where to look for their next meal."
" What good do all these talks about simplicity, love,
meekness, sharing and cooperation mean if they cannot be applied
in daily life because of an economic ideology which puts profit
before human contentment and happiness?" Agnivesh had written
all this in the speech that made his hosts turn ballistic. They
told him to shut up and beat a hasty retreat. Freedom of speech
him, hate him, but the itinerant Swami who has spent the last
two decades fighting bonded labour in India and who makes no
bones about being as influenced by Karl Marx and Mohandas Karamchand
Gandhi as he is by the Vedas, has a point. And he
makes it forcefully. Agnivesh told his hosts before he left
that if they reflected on what Jesus, Muhammad and Rama said
without referring to The Bible, Koran and The Ramayan,
they would come close to a universal dharma.
of God, having lived here and there for some years, I detect
a pattern to prejudice, reflected, most of all in the Western
media. For example, congregating Hindus are referred to as "hordes"
while congregating Christians are called pilgrims. A weeping
Madonna in Italy (as happens every year) is a manifestation
of faith whereas a milk-drinking Ganesh (as happened you know
where) is a sign of ignorance in a poor dogma-ridden country
where humans sleep next to their own waste.
a man is church-going, he can be trusted. The most recent example
of this is the description of Ruud Lubbers, the Dutchman who
could have become chief of NATO. He was "good" because of his
Jesuit background and went to church regularly. There is
no good Hindu because it means believing in Gods with six arms
and 12 heads and formidable moustaches. The Muslims are
the worst off. In the Western media there is no good Muslim.
They are all fanatics. Whenever they say someone is a moderate
Muslim, it means they are Washington friendly or have a lot
of oil. Samjhe na?
don't know where you stand on all this, but as far as I am concerned,
I think all of us in this world have a straight line to God
if only we take the time to look around and ask the obvious
questions. We don't need middlemen to tell us what God is
all about. And I can only agree with Swami Agnivesh's undelivered-in-Florence
speech where he says, "what use is religion and theology
if they make monsters out of human beings?"