Kathryn Ryan speaks to Indian holy man, Swami Agnivesh, who gave up his name, caste, family, career and material belongings to become a crusader for social justice for millions in his homeland.
Born into Brahmin or upper caste family, he was a professor of law and management in the southern city of Calcutta.
Aged, 28, he gave up it all up for a life of activisim, and has campaigned for five decades against bonded labour, child labour, the plight of child widows, and the crime of female foeticide, spending several stints in prison along the way.
Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:
Can you tell us about your early life?
I was to born to this orthodox Hindu Brahmin family, but when I lost my father at the age of 4, we all migrated to our maternal grandfather’s house, who was a deputy prime minister in a small princely state. And there he was very orthodox and steeped in all those rituals, dogmas, superstitions that goes in the name of religion. I practised those things. I did not understand. I had lots of questions, but I was never allowed to ask questions, because it was considered sacrilegious.
I grew up like that at the age of 17 and I did my matriculation then I left that place for Calcutta, for my college and higher education. And there – it was not chance, because there is no such thing as coincidence, it was something divine about it - I met with this powerful movement, a cultural, socialist movement, called Arya Samaj and that transformed my whole world view to a great extent.
I still continue to feel challenged by this new thinking where I am encouraged to question everything. Question authority, question scripture, questions religions, question their rituals, their dogmas etc. that is how I have been evolving since the age of 17. I am now going to be 78. But I really enjoy this inner revolution and co-evolution with many of my counterparts across the world.
You mentioned as a young person it was sacrilegious to ask questions. Inside of you did you have questions, for example, were you aware that depending on the caste one is born into, life is very much a roll of the dice. Were you constantly aware and questioning that as a young person?
Yes. I had lots of questions about this caste system because the poor labourers, workers, who cultivated my grandfather’s land and also tended the cattle, they would every evening after dusk, come to our house and stand outside of the house in the courtyard in a corner. They were mostly ill-clad and their bodies emaciated due to hard work and dark skin because they would be working in the sun all day and they would be standing with folded hands to report about the day’s work and if there was anything leftover in my family, like food or clothes, then I would be asked to give it to those poor people. When I would be approaching them, I would be told, don’t touch them, just throw it at them. And I would like to know, why not touch them and what would happen if I touched them. I would be told, ‘We are Brahmins and they are Untouchables and if you happen to touch them you will have to take a shower and change my clothes.’ So, that sense of purity. I would like to ask, how come that they grew food for us, they grow milk and everything for us and we eat that and they are considered to be untouchables? But I was never allowed to ask questions, to satisfy myself, what is this untouchability about, human beings? So this is how I used to go and throw it at them and come back, rushing.
Children have an innate sense of a lack of barriers that becomes imposed over time. Over time we get used to what the rules are. It’s very interesting that you went on to gain degrees in law and commerce, many people who might ask questions about what they see as injustice, nonetheless just roll with it. They don’t do what you did and completely and radically change the way they live. Can you explain what happened to you and why you did make that change?
As I said earlier, this encounter with this Arya Samaj people, those who talk about universal values and universal presence of God inside each one of us and we are all equal human beings and the best way to worship God is not by going to the temples or worshipping the deities or idols, but to treat all human beings as God-created idols and respect them all equally. So breaking those barriers of caste and even religion and even national boundaries and gender inequality differences etc., it gave me a complete new world view. They encouraged me to ask more questions.
The way I evolved was by asking more questions about why people get prejudiced by birth. Discrimination and all of these institutionalised injustices, I would call them. They were brainwashed into the minds of children, but children are so innocent, they are so unsuspecting that the elders impose their religion. Ritualistic, dogmatic and whatever they believe in. They don’t allow children to ask questions and to know the truth for themselves. They say that religion is something to be accepted and unquestioned and to have faith here is tantamount to blind faith. This is how we have been creating generations of our people into this unquestioned religious dogma. Hindus, Muslims, Christians – all of them.
I find it something unacceptable. Why should people not be allowed freedom of religion? The freedom presupposes something like informed choice. But that informed choice is never allowed in matters of religion. Informed choice you can exercise only when you are an adult – 18, 20 or 21, but children as young as five days or ten days old are told that this is religion and it is thrust upon them.