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.
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.”