Swami Dayananda Saraswati is a crusading champion of Hindu spiritual revival through Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha. He tours extensively all over the world spreading the message of Hindutva. Swamiji runs a number of service centres, and his clarion call has evoked positive response in confronting forced conversions by Christian Missionaries. He is a highly respected spiritual leader. Here is an interview with Swamiji on various challenges encountering Hindu society.
You have been speaking on various occasions of the doctrinal intolerance of certain religions in contrast to the doctrinal tolerance of Hinduism. Does every religion not claim to be the only true path?
The claim of Catholic theologians is that only their religion is salvific. Why God has chosen the Catholic Church exclusively for salvation is a mystery, according to them. This is their belief. And the salvation itself is a belief, a non-verifiable belief. One attracts the original sin for being maculately born, that one needs to remove this sin in order to gain salvation. Salvation is in the form of going to heaven after death where god is. This is the essence of their theology. For the removal of the original sin, the Catholic Church says it is solely empowered. Through Papal hierarchy, the priest in the parish has the power to baptise and remove the sin. They also believe that Jesus will come again when the entire humanity is Christian. Therefore, it is important for a Christian to go out and convert everyone. This and other similar aggressive religions have destroyed many indigenous religious traditions. We do not have any more people belonging to the culture that built pyramids in Egypt and South America.
It is one thing to believe in something, it is quite another to impose that belief on others, that too aggressively with an organised evangelical programme. This belief is there in every denomination of Christianity, even though there are differences in their doctrines. The Catholic Church does not accept that other denominations of Christianity are salvific. They are considered deficient even though they accept Jesus. But each one of them claims it is salvific including later religions.
The freedom to have a belief is one thing, but that this freedom does not extend to destroying another religion is my plea. You are free to pursue your religion and in India we have total freedom to pursuer one'sown religion. But that freedom does not mean the right to destroy others.
In the United States there is a body that looks at the religious freedom around the world and they point out the countries where there is freedom and where there is no freedom. On what basis do they decide? The basis is that Christian Church should be able to convert people. I say the religious freedom is the right to practise one'sreligion without any suppression from the State or the society.
What about the freedom to change one'sreligion and to propagate one'sreligion without the use of force or allurement or aggressively attacking other religions?
That right is always going to remain sacred. Suppose somebody wants to change his or her religion, it should be all right for the person to do so. The question is how one is going to change one'sreligion without one'sreligion being belittled, ridiculed. Their method of propaganda is to create fear, self-loath and then offer their solution. Any form of worship is devil worship and they say it in so many words. ?Follow me, go to heaven or you go to hell.? These are all non-verifiable beliefs and one is not going to be proved right and another wrong. So my point is that everyone has the right to practise one'sreligion without being looked down upon by anybody. That is human right.
But not to propagate?
They have the right to propagate their religion among themselves. People in general do not know much about their own religion, and religious leaders should tell their own people or others who walk in. They should not go to remote places and tell the innocent people there that what they are doing is wrong. They take children to the homes they run and they all become Christians. Do they have any choice? More often than not they become nuns and priests. They are even sent to Europe and the United States where people make a conscious decision to become nuns while here nuns are manufactured from childhood. The children are often lost because they have to disown their parents, religion and customs. If you want to do something good to the children, you need to validate their culture, their way of life.
Is it not the unique selling point of every religion that it is superior to other religions, that it is the only true path?
That is what a belief is. If they have to prove it, there should be a discussion. And there are two ways of discussion; one is called jalpa, the other vada. In jalpa, each one of the two persons in dialogue claims his/her religion alone can save people, there is no end, no winner or loser. Then there is vada in which both are interested in the truth; they can have a meaningful discussion. They can discuss even about beliefs, whether they are against reason, for beliefs can be above but not against reason. If irrational concepts are there, they can be pointed out. I say whether rational or irrational, they can have their beliefs, but they cannot tread on our toes.
Does Hinduism also not lay exclusive claim to be the only right faith? For instance, in the Gita Sri Krishna calls upon people to abandon all other dharmas and surrender to Him.
We do have discussion within Hinduism; different acharyas look at the same sentence of the scripture and come up with different conclusions. We can examine these conclusions, we need not accept them just because someone said so, whoever it might be. That is why though we have small differences among sampradayas, there is freedom to differ. All accept the Vedas; all accept the concept of karma; all accept that you are responsible for your actions, nobody else; and you can gain enough punya here by doing certain karma. Only when talking of what is the ultimate, one differs from the other. One will say you are the ultimate, you need to know. Another will point to the knowledge of God of whom you are an attribute and say that you have to know that and surrender. Some will say your act of devotion will get you punya and after death you go to a place where you are in the presence of God. All these contentions can be examined. I say finally God-world-you are one reality. This is taught as surely as one plus one is two.
There is the question of unchangeability of religious texts. In every other field, particularly in science, a better understanding and the growth of knowledge has disproved the old texts but in the area of spiritualism alone the ancient text holds the field unchanged. Is there a case for re-interpreting ancient religious texts to suit modern conditions or current knowledge?
There are two types of sacred literature in Hinduism?one is cruti, the other is smriti. The cruti is given, it is not subject to change. We can interpret but there is a rule that any interpretation should not have any self-contradiction, that is, the interpretation should not be contradicted within the cruti itself. Then, there should be no external contradiction, the other types of knowledge of different disciplines that we have including science should never be contradicted. The subject matter of the cruti is not accessible to our means of knowledge such as perception, inference, presumption and so on. Therefore it cannot be improved upon. Basic truths unfolded by the cruti are not subject to change.
Then we have smriti literature which is written by human beings in keeping with the cruti. Sometimes it is interpretative, sometimes it is just related to a particular time and place. It relates to conduct, it talks about how to do rituals and so on, and that is changeable. The cruti itself allows space for interpretation on such topics. The smriti literature and the gahyasutras for day to day living should be changing. Whether they change or not, people are changing and they have to keep up with the change. The religious leaders are supposed to provide leadership here. If they get stuck in orthodoxy, the people will move away on their own without leadership. And the traditional leadership is without following! The leaders are then forced to compromise with their customs and manners. When what can be variable is not understood in its spirit, the orthodoxy is always left behind.
There is a debate, more outside India but within India as well on the relationship between religious leaders and some of their fundamentalist followers. There is the view that religious leaders do not rein in some of their extremist followers who take to violence against other religions either out of sympathy or out of fear that they may be misunderstood as not supporting their religion. What role can religious leaders play in promoting harmony?
Basically, when one is fundamentalist Hindu, one will allow other people to pursue their religion. India is the only country where the Jews were never persecuted because of the tenets of Hinduism. Hindus do not mind one more god or one more path. We do not disturb anyone be they Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew.
Religious leaders should never get into political issues. If some leaders politicise their religious congregation for creating vote banks, the basis for political negotiations, they are in politics. When people see the politicalisation of religions around them, they say enough is enough. Only in India we have the notion of religious minorities, elsewhere there are only racial minorities. Some of the people who are politically aware fear that this is the only country where Hindu dharma exists and already it is divided. This is also the only country where the majority feels persecuted. A politician can be a religious person and can seek advice from whoever he chooses including religious leaders.
For instance, a problem arose in Tirupati when some people wanted to have a church on the hills. The Lord is considered Saptagiriswara, the Lord of the seven hills. Why should there be any pressure to build a church there? Then they said two of the hills belong to Venkateswara and the other five to the Panchayat, according to a Government Order issued during the British rule. It was all too manipulative. The Pejawar Mutt Swamiji Vishveswara Tirtha, myself and some other protested this stand. We issued a statement of protest and appealed for a new G.O. declaring the seven hills as sacred. We did get finally a G.O. When a religion is attacked, religious leaders must provide enlightened leadership in time.
What should be the attitude of a religious organisation to service to wider society in such areas as education and health? What is the right mix of social service and conventional religious activity in a religious organisation?
Giving is a means of spiritual growth. In fact we have only two ways to earn punya, one is prayer, the other giving as purta-karma.
annapradanam aramau purtam
Water harvesting, public well, pond for cattle, providing opportunities for people to earn their livelihood, choultry (homes for school-going children, for the handicapped and the aged)?all these are said to be purtam.
When giving is already there in our culture, we need to emphasise more now in a competitive culture which is foisted upon a non-competitive culture like ours. Everyone contributes in a non-competitive culture. In the other, every one tends to grab. If someone is not able to compete because he is physically disabled or mentally challenged, he should be provided a place to live. Families have become nuclear and for persons who cannot compete you need to have homes where they are looked after.
The AIM for Seva is under the auspices of Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha. Now all the Acharyas are engaged in altruistic activities in their own areas. In Karnataka, for example, the Lingayat Mutts are doing good work in the field of education, setting up a number of colleges including engineering and medical colleges. So too, Adichunchunagiri Mutt. For us, giving is not meant for some other purpose; there are no strings attached. When the Tatas run a cancer institute, they do not expect anything in return. There are many organisations that run their charitable services professionally, first pumping in money and then trying to make the institutions self-sustaining.
However, you cannot start a school or college which is a means for conversion or for creating an atmosphere for conversion elsewhere. All the alumni are always sympathetic to the missionaries getting things done for them. If you want to do service, it should be only service, that is noble charity. Even an ulterior motive of name and fame is not that bad. If charity is considered an investment for achieving something else, that is considered an action of adharm.
If the attitude is proper, giving makes one grow spiritually. Further, the act of giving is religious because it gives the result of punya besides satisfaction. One has to see one'sown threshold in terms of time, resources in doing seva.
Some religions are regarded as favourably disposed towards economic activity by encouraging hard work and saving, for instance. What is the attitude of Hinduism to business in general?
Hinduism is not averse to artha or material well being which is one of the four purusharthas, human ends. But the pursuit of wealth should never be against dharma, every sampradaya would put dharma first among the purusharthas. Dharma is the universal values and also the duties that go with every role one plays like son/daughter, husband/wife, father/mother, citizen and so on. Hinduism accepts business, vaeijya and accepts it with a stern warning it ought to be governed by dharma. In other words, you can earn any amount of money but there should not be any transgression of dharma.
(Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Annakatti Post, Coimbatore-641 106, Tamil Nadu)