On fire for the poor

swami_agniveshHis name literally means "embodiment of fire". Through his fiery, eloquent and well-argued speeches, SWAMI AGNIVESH acts as a voice for the voiceless and is embarassed about being a politician.
But unlike the politicians who mouth the talk of religion, Agnivesh's politics are not aimed at dividing Hindu and Muslim, or any other religion. Instead, in a way parallel to the liberation theologists of Latin America, the swami has been consistently attempting battles on behalf of the poor, the weak and the defenceless of India.
But he does not believe in merely preaching. He practices too. And more than that, he leads and inspires.
Swami Agnivesh's involvement with movements of social concern go back many years. He entered the Haryana Assembly in the Janata wave of 1977.

Unusual man

Fifty-five year old Agnivesh is a part of the Arya Samaj.  Last year, he became the chairperson of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.  He is better known across India for his campaigns against bonded labour, and is former head of the Bandhu Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front).

Recently, he became the general secretary of the Arya Sabha, a new political party.
An unusual man, he has M. Com. and LL.B. degrees, taught at Calcutta's St. Xavier's College in the 1960s and was even an MLA and minister in Haryana.
So far, his campaigns have led him to fight against alcoholism, female foeticide, bonded labour, child labour, and for the emancipation of women.
His current "mission" includes fighting consumer culture and the Western model of development in India, opposing Western cultural imperialism, and battling casteism, obscurantism and communalism.
His views on religion are so unconventional that some even question his bonafides.  One journalist in Goa asked him: "Why do you wear the saffron robe at all?  Who will do the religious work (if swamis take to social action or political issues)?"  Agnivesh stress his belief in spiritualism, though he says this ought to be "social spiritualism".  In other words, it ought not to be of a an individualistic or escapist variety.
"It (spiritualism) should be made into a weapon for social transformation.  Obscurantist, ritual-ridden, superstition-mongering religion should be given a back-seat," says he.
"The kind of education I had in the Arya Samaj inculcated in me that religion or spiritual pursuits of an individual are inextricably linked with his social life.  Like two sides of a coin, they complement each other.  Religion should never degenerate into becoming escapism."
"Spiritual pursuit has for centuries remained personal.  It now has to be put to attain social needs," says Agnivesh.  He blasts the "bankruptcy of the policy leadership" of India.  "Our real issues are poverty and the glaring socio-economic inequality.  These are the biggest issues, the biggest challenges," he says, in sharp contrast to other so called men of religion who thrive in getting different communities to fight each other over communal issues.


"Our spiritual bankruptcy has also grown," says he. Agnivesh points out that the values common to all religions have been vanquished, while the vacuum has been filled by communal politics.

But should men of God actually enter the marketplace of politics? What about leaving to Caesar what is rightfully his?
"I have never been able to compartmentalise between religion and politics and social action," says Agnivesh. Positive elements from all religions should be integrated into mainstream politics.
Further, he takes care to note, he is not promoting one particular religion; much less pit one religion against another. He repeatedly calls for identifying the good and the common factors which exist within all religions.
"Without such principles we cannot go ahead. If we have to fight cultural imperialism or MTV, we have to launch a fight based on such a (religion-based) heritage," says he.
He looks at the ironies of religion itself. India has among the largest number of temples and such shrines in the world.
Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, is worshipped with pujas (rituals and offerings)to the greatest extent in India, a country beset with unvanquished poverty.
Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is worshipped the most in India, again a country plagued with illiteracy.   
Most of the people of the world believe in some god, whether called Allah, Ishwar or God. "Make a rallying point…Stress on the minimum commonality of diverse religions (to bring united action among different people)," Agnivesh suggests.
"Yes, I am a fake swami. Because the moment one starts thinking of oneself as a swami, all godhood disappears. And I claim no miracles — in fact I am fighting miracles all the time," he once told an interviewer. — Third World Network Features