This interview was originally published in The Caravan, with the support of CRCC’s global project on engaged spirituality. It has been edited and condensed.
On 11 September, Agnivesh, a swami in the Arya Samaj, died at the age of 80. Agnivesh donned many hats in his lifetime—he was a lecturer, a social activist and a sannyasi. In 1981, he founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha, an NGO that worked against bonded labour and influenced policy-level changes. For ten years, Agnivesh served as the president of the World Council of Arya Samaj, a Hindu reformist organisation. The monk also played crucial roles in Indian politics, including that of an education minister in Haryana and a mediator for many high-profile political disputes. He regularly participated in protests in Delhi, and was often the only one dressed in saffron robes.
– Swami Agnivesh
In November last year, the journalist Soumya Shankar met Agnivesh for the University of Southern California’s Spiritual Exemplars project. At the time, the monk had convened a gathering at Agniyog, an ashram in rural Gurgaon, in Haryana, where he spent several days to escape Delhi’s polluted air. The attendees included around twenty activists who worked for a range of causes, a fellow monk, some of Agnivesh’s Arya Samaj followers, women activists of the Beti Bachao Andolan whom he had trained, and locals from nearby areas. The retinue had come together at the behest and guidance of Agnivesh to discuss how to achieve world peace by establishing a world government.
Agnivesh and Shankar spoke at length on this occasion, and their conversation appears to be his final in-depth interview. They spoke in his dwelling at the ashram, which was empty apart from a few basic items—a desk, a chair, a lamp, some clothes and papers strewn around, a few books and a charger—and infused with the fragrance of fruits. There was no heating for the powerful winter winds that blew through open fields in Haryana, nor any cooling for the sweltering hot months. Agnivesh described his multi-faceted life, and elaborated on his thoughts on spirituality, god, politics and death.
Soumya Shankar: Many spiritual leaders across the world—especially those coming from very conservative milieus—risk their lives for pursuing humanitarian work in order to transform society. What was your early life like and what inspired you to go on this path?
Agnivesh: We all get born into a religion which is ritualistic, dogmatic, superstition mongering, miracle mongering. I was born into a Brahmin family of Andhra Pradesh and I used to follow my mother and father, who had set up a room for [idols of] gods and goddesses in the house when I was little. So as a child, I would worship all gods and goddesses, believe in all rituals and stories, which were full of superstitions. When I went to Calcutta for college education, I came to know of this powerful movement called Arya Samaj, which opened my eyes to the Vedas and Upanishads [scriptures in Hinduism]. These spiritual treasures—very universal, very transformative and yet, shut out from us.
That started the process of my inner evolution way back in 1956–1957. I was 17 years old. I completed my college and university education in 1963—master of commerce and bachelor of law. Very surprisingly, I received an appointment letter to teach in the prestigious St Xavier’s college the very day I had written my final examination paper. That was the start of my new thinking and a new way of life. Before that, I was very critical of Christian missionaries, I would accuse them of trying to convert our poor tribes and others, and maybe instigate an “Isaaistan” [a Christian state] on the lines of Pakistan, which is an Islamic state.
I used to campaign with an Arya Samaj activist against Christian missionaries, and yet I was working with a prestigious Jesuit missionary college. I taught there for five years and during the same time, I also practiced law in Calcutta High Court under Sabyasachi Mukharji, a senior lawyer who subsequently became the chief justice of India. I was also doing some research for the World Bank and the Planning Commission of India under a professor from Harvard University. He was very impressed with my work and wanted me to accompany him back to the United States and said he would get me the job of a research assistant or assistant professor there. I, too, was very keen to go to the US.
Around that time, I had the occasion to peep into the rooms of those Christian missionary Jesuit professors who were living in the same college building, in one corner on the fifth floor. We were not supposed to visit that area, but I just managed to sneak into those rooms and see their simple lifestyles.
I asked myself a question. “They have left the comforts of their country—many of them were from Netherlands, Belgium et cetera—and working here in India, in the dust and pollution, whereas I am thinking if I should leave this country and lead a good comfortable life abroad.”
I felt challenged. “Why are they doing it? Leaving their comfort and living here? Because they have a mission.” I asked myself, “What’s your mission?” My name at that time was Professor VSK Rao. I said even though I may not be a missionary, I must have a mission! I decided to stay back in India.
SS: Did you then take sanyasa, the renunciation of material life to pursue spiritual goals?
A: Not that time. I was busy teaching and having a good life there in St Xavier’s college. Later on, I was asked to teach in my alma mater, Law College, Calcutta University. In early 1967, a movement started in a small village north of Calcutta called Naxalbari and the young people there took up arms. They would kill whoever they thought to be their “class enemy” and distribute the land among the landless. They became popular and their stories would be published in newspapers.
SS: So, you were attracted to communism?
A: Not communism or Maoism, but I thought a real revolution is coming, where the poorest of the poor, the landless, were going to be given land rights. This is the most urgent reform that should have happened immediately after Independence.
I had read about Charu Mazumdar, Jungle Santhal, Kanu Sanyal—all of these great legendary Naxal leaders. I was filled with those ideas, but the slogans they wrote on the walls of Calcutta would invariably say things like, “Revolution grows from the barrel of a gun” and “Chairman Mao is our Chairman.” Bright students from Presidency College, which has now become a university, Scottish Church College and also St Xavier’s joined them. Some professors left their jobs and joined the Naxal movement. During that time, Siddhartha Shankar Ray was the chief minister of West Bengal. He would catch hold of these boys and girls and shoot them point blank, declaring they’ve been shot in a police encounter. Thousands were done to death, brutally, and yet, more and more people were coming out and fighting this unjust economic order.
SS: Did you join them?
A: No. I asked myself, “Can I wield a gun? Can I kill anybody in the name of ‘class enemy?’ I can’t.” It was beyond me, unthinkable! “What should I do? Just keep quiet? I don’t know!”
I felt challenged. “These young boys can sacrifice their lives to bring about change in society. If I don’t believe in wielding a gun, I should be doing something else which is equally dedicated.” I decided I must leave my comfortable job, go to the poorest of the poor and work among them. It was around that time I met a young man from Gurukul Jhajjar in Haryana [a residential Arya Samaj school] named Indradev Medharthi. Subsequently, we both took sanyas—he became Swami Indravesh and I became Agnivesh.
SS: And you both took sanyasa under a guru?
A: Yes, Ved Muni Parivrajak—he was a great scholar of the Vedas who had translated the Viman Shastra—an ancient treatise about aerodynamics et cetera. I spent the first two years as a neshtik bhramachrya—between 1968 and 1970, I was a celibate and that part of my life was far more austere and rigorous.
SS: More austere than now?
A: Yes, far more. I was sleeping on the floor, not consuming salt or chilli, walking barefoot all the time, with just having two pairs of clothes—one to wash and spread, to lie down and another to wear. I was wearing nothing stitched—just two robes. I had a long braid like Dakshin Brahmins [South Indian Brahmins] a mekhla [a type of shawl] and a janeu [a sacred thread worn by upper-caste Hindu men].
When I moved forward I realised that organised religion and institutionalised religion are the biggest hindrances because they make slaves of men and leave little room for independent thinking. If they allowed independent thinking, no one would like to be bound, they would like to be free.
SS: Are you talking about being bound in society or being trapped in the body? What is your idea of god or the universal truth?
A: For those who live in society and practice organised religion, they will be communal, dogmatic and conservatism. This is because religion stands on these pillars—all religions include worship of stones, idols or people. You’ll never have the freedom to reflect on principles; there’s no space to evolve or transform. However, in all these religions, the core values are very universal, which we call spiritual core values. If we go into the Vedas, there is nothing ritualistic, nothing dogmatic.
The way I understand god is like a cosmic energy of love, trust, compassion and justice—that is what I understand to be the most liberating force of humanity and if we follow this, it will be beneficial for us. This is essentially a spiritual concept and has nothing to do with institutionalised religion—neither Hinduism nor Islam. Spirituality by definition is very subversive because it is the driving force against the status quo. All the prophets were spiritual—all their teachings were converted into rituals by their followers.
SS: Can you expand a bit on that?
A: The real seekers were the prophets, not priests. The priest is a follower and the prophet is a rebel and revolutionary. That’s what attracted me to this path—the prophet and the revolutionary character. Even if they disown god, they won’t disown truth or justice and when we take this forward we are inspired to do this kind of work, because to relate to god you have to be truthful, just and compassionate.
SS: Did you see yourself as truthful and just or were you desirous of developing these qualities in you?
A: It is a proactive concept. Not just proactive truthfulness and justice, you have to take on all those dark forces of untruth, bondage, tyranny and injustice simultaneously as you grow more and more fire within you—the divine fire of burning truth. You have to see if untruth is rising around you, and understand that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. You should feel challenged. If you are not feeling challenged there is something very artificial about you and your spirituality.
SS: Your spiritual image is always tempered by your participation in Indian political life. In many ways, you have gone against the norms of the commune, the Arya Samaj, to do what you think is correct. Do you consider the individual’s potential to be greater than the organisation’s potential?
A: There is a dialectical relationship between the individual and the organisation. The more you are inclined towards organisation, the less you have energy for truth and radical views. The more you are individual, the less you are effective in terms of delivering [laughs]. You stay on your own, and you can daydream all you want, but your impact will not be much as an individual. For me, I will only tell the truth, I don’t care about anything else.
SS: So, how do you handle this? Have you found a way to balance or escape this dialectic?
A: The quest is still on. But I participate in politics—I am not part of party politics, still my views are very clear. I speak openly about economic and political issues. Somewhere it pinches those who are in power today, so they organise attacks on me. I don’t have any personal differences with anybody, but they can’t tolerate my views. When I criticise their policies, they attack me personally to silence me.
SS: As a monk, do you follow any spiritual practices, meditation or rituals?
A: There is nothing rigid I do daily. Even in meditation, I’m not very rigid. I mix some different techniques. I like vipassana [meditation involving concentration on the body] because it is scientific, but I combine that with the concept of god emanating from the Vedas. This, I picked up in Arya Samaj. Whenever I pick up a good practice, wherever it may be from—Islam, Christianity—I incorporate it into my own practice.
But just as much as I am influenced by all this, I am influenced by Karl Marx too: Get to the root—why are the poor, so? You can’t solve this with charity. Change the structure and production relationships.
There should be no poverty—this is a very good thought—and religions don’t have these thoughts. Religions have a charity-based approach—giving donations, alms et cetera. On this, I often quote a Latin American Bishop, Hélder Câmara, who famously said, “When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor do not have bread they call me a communist.” A communist is one who wants structural change.
SS: So you identify with communism?
A: In that sense, of course, yes.
SS: How does your social work affect your spiritual pursuit?
A: It reinforces it—spirituality and meditation are good, but it must have an expression in the world. Spirituality is as much inwardly as worldly. Religions are other-worldly—this will happen after you die, that will happen. Don’t bother about what happens once you die, you have to do in this world what you must. If you consider yourself spiritually evolved and are committed to justice, to the poorest of the poor, you’re on the right path. If your spirituality doesn’t imbibe this and you’re just sitting and meditating then I call those people new-age types. They are worthless people.
SS: You follow eclectic practices, a mix of different spiritual practices and you are even influenced by Marx. Why do you then wear saffron, a popular colour of Hindu seers, or affix the title Swami to your name?
A: My Vedic philosophy, or whatever you may call it, is that the most liberated person is a sannyasi. He need not do any havan, rituals or meditation or wear any of these clothes. If I have ever needed to change my clothes, I have done so without a second thought.
SS: Have you ever changed out of these clothes?
A: Yes, I had gone to the Philippines to meet with insurgents fighting Ferdinand Marcos [who served as president from 1965 to 1986]. When I reached Mindanao island, our friends had come to pick us up in an open jeep. After we drove for a while, a person told me I was too conspicuous because of how I dressed. I told them, “No problem, give me ten minutes and a pair of jeans and T-shirt and I will change into that.” I spent the next five–seven days like that.
SS: Were the negotiations with the insurgents successful?
A: No, we just wanted to meet those people and see what was their inspiration, why they had taken up arms to fight. When I was returning, they gave me a floral greeting card which said, “Happy are those who dream dreams and are prepared to pay the price to make them come true.” That was a prized possession for me. It’s on my table in Delhi.
SS: Will you always wear the saffron clothes of a Hindu seer? Why do you think this is important?
A: The vastra [clothes] signify the colour of the flame. That’s how I took this name Agnivesh [which means an embodiment of fire]. Fire is a symbol that inspires me—it’s purifying. I feel a person should become a sannyasi if he can, without attachment. Speaking truth to power should be his or her most important vocation—without worrying about which country you are in.
I go to Pakistan in these clothes—I roam alone in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad. Muslim brothers see me with affection, take me home and feed me vegetarian food. If I eat or drink juice at a shop, they don’t take money from me—I find this very surprising.
SS: Your detractors have accused you of wearing these robes for political reasons.
A: No, no, no, no—on the contrary, it becomes a liability sometimes, I can’t join the Congress Party. They won’t take me in because of this.
SS: You also do a lot of political and social activism, which is dangerous.
A: I don’t put my life at risk on purpose. There is a threat to my life in the process of doing my work.
SS: But your life has been in danger many times. You have said you were attacked by right-wing Hindu mobs in Jharkhand. With reference to the Jharkhand attack, you were accused of not being a true Hindu, of spreading Naxalism and Maoism in the robes of a Hindu monk.
A: I’ve been attacked many times. I can’t tell if it will happen again. It’s not something I wish for and it may happen again. I’m not seeking any martyrdom. I’m very much against Mahatma Gandhi’s pursuit of martyrdom. Gandhiji wanted to be a martyr, and other big revolutionaries wanted to embrace martyrdom. I want to live as long as possible, healthy and in working condition—that’s my wish, for a hundred years or even more. At the same time, my primary duty is to speak and act on truth and challenge the forces of untruth. That, on its own, is subversive and a little dangerous. And the danger is it can bring unprovoked attacks on you.
SS: Do you feel fearful of the mobs in India now?
A: No, not at all. I feel good about the fact that they are at least recognising me—that I am a voice to reckon with. Otherwise, why would they need to react? I am a threat because I am showing them a mirror. I am telling them, “The religion or gods of Hinduism that you are talking about is not this; you are perverting and corrupting it. You are bringing shame on Hinduism.”
For them, Hinduism and Hindutva are the same thing. We try to separate the two. But the crux of the matter is extremism exists in all religions—Islam, Hinduism and even Marxism. That extremism takes you away from the truth and spoils it, making it violence-prone, hate-prone and this should not happen. If you disagree with me or someone else, there is a way to deal with it, and that is through dialogue. Loving and friendly dialogue should be the only way to resolve all differences in the world—all, political or any other. And in today’s age when it is so easy with most countries having parliamentary democracies, debates, dialogues, television, internet and social media, why should we use force?
SS: Your insistence on dialogue over force has also been used against you by your detractors. For instance, during the India Against Corruption movement, you have been known as a peace negotiator between two parties; same with the often violent Naxal movement. People said you were doing injustice to the social movements by negotiating with political parties.
A: Yes, the role of a negotiator can always be wrongly presented. That threat is inherent and I was a victim of that. The first time when I was negotiating with Maoists, the chief negotiator from their side, Rajkumar Azad, was gunned down brutally [in 2010]. The government claimed it was an encounter, but I could prove it was a fake encounter. And yet, the government had its own way—that was a great shock for me. Secondly, during the India Against Corruption movement, at every stage, I sought permission from Anna [Hazare], Arvind Kejriwal and everybody, and I went to talk to the Congress ministers—Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid and others.
SS: Why did you think it was necessary to talk to them? The movement leaders were against it, right?
A: No, the movement was not against the government, it was against corruption—it was “India Against Corruption,” not “India Against Congress.” It later started taking the shape of India against Congress. I saw it up close—Kejriwal’s own wish was to bring down the Congress government. I said to him, “You work is to bring the Jan Lokpal Bill, because you want to eliminate corruption. We should join hands with Congress and in case Congress is also ready to meet us midway, we should welcome it. If we call out one or two positives, that’s alright.” He said “It’s all wrong.” He was outrightly against it. Even when I tried to negotiate with the Congress, every morning IAC people would come up with a new issue and they would nudge me to take up with the party and it would be accepted.
I told Congress members something they wanted to hear: “The credit will go to the Congress Government, and ultimately the bill will be brought in by you.” They said, “We will bring it in, but we will not involve civil society members in it.” I asked why and they said, “It has never happened that civil society has engaged with the drafting process.” I told them, “Sonia Gandhi has a National Advisory Council with representatives from civil society—Aruna Roy, Jean Drèze, Harsh Mander. You already have a body that is [involved in] drafting bills like Right to Information, Right to Education, then where is the problem?” Finally, they agreed.
SS: Then, how did you fall out with the IAC movement?
A: Devious elements in these groups got overwhelmed by one who was trying to negotiate truthfully—with one who was trying to talk about your good qualities and the other party’s good qualities to bring both closer. But these devious elements have other motives—the [Congress] thought Delhi was going to turn into Tahrir Square and the government will collapse. I said that was a dictator for 39 years and it was time for his downfall, so the people revolted and the government collapsed.
No government can collapse in India because of a social movement—irrespective of however good or bad it may be. This I told them very clearly.
SS: How did this impact your politics?
A: I’ve been away from electoral politics for quite some time. I don’t want to be a part of electoral politics now, because I feel no party or leader will understand my truthful words. Janata Party was the first party I had to leave, even though I was like Chandra Shekharji’s right hand. But he also asked me to leave because I would only tell the truth and nothing else.
I stood against him for the position of party president, in the party convention in Pune, at Parandwadi, in 1986. He had announced, “I have been president for ten years now I won’t stand for election”—I won’t go into too much detail. Then, he announced that he would stand for election yet again, so I stood against him and got a few votes but it damaged his image. Then he orchestrated an attack on me, had my office vandalised.
SS: So, like you hinted, you entered politics with a lot of idealism. When did your idealism start to fade?
A: I still believe idealism is very important. Without idealism, there is no point to life or living.
SS: But it is also a very radical thought when you talk about peace negotiations with the enemy—it requires a lot of flexibility, which is not too idealistic or stoic.
A: It’s not rigid, there is flexibility. I would like work to be pursued with an idealistic fervour, that’s when you progress and evolve—step by step. Or you get sucked into the corrupt system. You may reach a high position, but your credibility will always be questioned. So, a lot of people leave it from the start, and Gandhiji [got disillusioned] and left after the freedom struggle—I don’t feel that is correct, he should have gone into electoral politics. Assert yourself, if you are pushed out later—that’s different.
SS: Why did you leave electoral politics?
A: I joined politics and left several times.
SS: Electoral politics isn’t completely out of the picture for you?
SS: You can join electoral politics again?
A: Yes, anytime, but no one is willing to call me—I have tried many times. Right now, Congress is in such a bad shape; I sent many feelers through several responsible people that that I’m interested in joining politics. No one is ready.
SS: Do you feel you have burnt all your bridges?
A: No, I haven’t burnt any bridges. They feel I am too subversive so they consider me a threat. I said I can accommodate to some extent but I will always remain honest. I will call a spade a spade. I will do a new beginning. They don’t like that.
SS: Because politics gives greater importance to institutions over individualists?
A: That the truth, that’s why political parties are failing, and so are religions. All organised institutions in the world are going against their constitutional values.
SS: You have often trumped the organisations that you have been associated with—particularly the Arya Samaj. And yet, no living leader of the Arya Samaj is as well known …
A: I have been telling these people that you need to bring everyone close to the real values of these organisations and liberate yourself from dogmatism.
SS: So, dogmatism still exists in the Arya Samaj?
A: Yes, it exists. It used to be considered a forum for free thinkers. But there’s so much dogmatism now. One of the golden principles of the Arya Samaj’s ten principles is the fourth one—always be ready to accept the truth and forsake untruth. Yet, that spirit is completely gone from the institution, because they have to look after property, curry favours with the government.
SS: Did you ever think of starting your own organisation?
A: If I form my own organisation, I will balance it like this ashram here. I’m not a trustee in this ashram, I am nobody here, but I often come and go and people respect me. The flat I’m living in is not my own.
SS: You don’t own anything?
A: No, nothing. Not a single inch of property. I have very little money in the bank—my pension and the money I receive for articles I write. Every few months, I transfer it to the Bonded Labor Liberation Fund.
SS: Why not start a trust in your name?
A: This practice of starting things in your name is wrong. That’s just personality or hero worship. That’s the biggest problem with this country—that we keep people on such a high pedestal—it’s like worshiping god. Then, they fail to become role models.
SS: The people who came to see you today, don’t they consider you to be a role model?
A: If they consider me a role model, that’s fine. But they shouldn’t put me on a pedestal or make me a guru. I don’t let people to touch my feet or give me flowers and there are more such things that I don’t like to encourage gurudom [the realm of gurus]. I will sit with everyone else, eat with everyone else. It shouldn’t look like I am different from others because I wear saffron.
SS: Do you find the path you have chosen to be difficult? Do you miss, for instance, having a family?
A: No, I have never felt lonely, I meet people frequently.
SS: So, what are the downsides of living this life?
A: Sometimes, I feel, who will take my work forward with as much force? I am not completely sure about that. Sometimes I search for people who can take this forward, yes. But I keep on living, if I have to find someone to take it forward, I will.
SS: Do you feel if you have a lineage your work would be taken forward?
A: No, I have seen that no prophet’s own children have truly taken their work forward. No one has. I gave deeksha. [religious consecration] to two people and then dropped it. I’m not their guru. I don’t believe in any kind of parampara [tradition].
SS: What is your ultimate goal socially in this lifetime?
A: I believe that without setting a goal and with my daily evolution, I should keep living my authentic self. Whatever I consider to be the truth, I should live those values. Universal ideals like Vasudev Kutumbakam [the world is a family]—a world parliament and constitution and a world government is a big goal. Until then, these 193 sovereign nations will keep destroying the world. And the United Nations won’t be able to meet its goals. The UN Charter for Human Rights won’t be translated into reality. I wish that there be one parliament, one government and everyone gets equal rights. Planet earth should be home for all people equally. I am not sure we can accomplish that goal in this lifetime, but we will take a few steps in that direction.
SS: What would you consider your greatest achievement? Are you satisfied with all that you have accomplished?
A: This is a very difficult question. My belief is: I should live a humble and spontaneous life. Not to be too calculated and result driven, but I have thought a lot about what I will leave for posterity.
If I consider myself as someone great that everyone remembers, discusses or praises, and I won’t be around, what do I stand to gain? [Laughs.] I will be passing by wherever I will be praised, and I will listen to what people have to say as a stranger, or maybe as a cat or dog or a bird on a tree.
SS: So you believe in reincarnation?
A: Yes, I do. I don’t know where or what I will be. I have incarnated in the past and will be reincarnated again.
Read the article on caravanmagazine.in.
Soumya Shankar is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.