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November 26, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/Sri Jayendra Saraswathi

'Religion must never be a part of politics'

The first thought that strikes anyone seeking to meet Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the Shankaracharya of the Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, Kanchipuram, is that Hinduism is alive and thriving. A serpentine queue of devotees wait patiently to get a darshan of the Shankaracharya at a south Indian temple in South Delhi. His Holiness is busy blessing the hundreds who genuflect before him, their little children, sanctifying the offerings of fruits, even lending an ear to individual petitioners and consoling them. To seek an interview at this time felt almost sacrilegious. The Shankaracharya's assistant N Ganesan (himself a former journalist) has assured me at least some time with His Holiness. Only, it will have to be late in the evening at the Vinayak temple in East Delhi, where His Holiness has a programme.

I arrive at the Vinayak temple and witness an encore. Scores of people are once more waiting patiently for the Shankaracharya's personal blessing. It is evident that the majority of those waiting are Tamil Brahmins, though a sprinkling of others too are present. Feeling extremely guilty for impinging upon the devotees' precious time, I conduct the brief interview in Hindi, even as the devout mill around while the ushers struggle to manage the crowd. Excerpts from the interview by Amberish K Diwanji:

The Pope has called for the evangelisation of Asia. What do you have to say about it?

In America, the United Kingdom and other places Hindus are buying churches and doing good work. Therefore, to transfer his anger, the Pope comes and talks about evangelisation. Some people may, out of greed, convert but even they will return to the Hindu fold after some time.

Many of those who convert are tribals and dalits who feel they have no place in Hindu society.

There is a place for them in Hinduism. They are a part of Hinduism, that is also why we are keen to keep them in the Hindu faith and to reconvert those who were once part of our religion. It is because we think of them as Hindus that others seek to convert them.

But the fact remains that casteism exists in the Hindu faith and it is a reason for many to convert.

I agree that casteism exists but we are all one, all Hindus. Every religion has some sort of distinction among its various followers. They have sects or differences. The Christians have the Protestants and Catholics and five or six other sects. Even Hindus have such differences, but it has nothing to do with our religion. We are all Hindus and we all have to work together. Everyone can enter the temples, can do any work. Only in the task of preaching, we may have some limitations.

Do you think the Pope's message will have any effect in India?

Not one bit. His message will have no effect. Actually, it will be to the contrary. Just today, a report appeared in the newspapers about how some Catholics in Goa are threatening to return to Hinduism saying that nothing has been done for them over the years. Similarly, even others who have left the Hindu faith will return and those who leave the faith will find nothing in the other religions and return to Hinduism. [The Shankaracharya was referring to a report in The Indian Express, 24 November 1999, which said that some "upper caste" Christians had threatened to return to Hinduism if the Church insisted on having parishioners from the lower caste].

The newspaper report says some upper caste people want to leave Christianity since their caste status as parishioners is threatened. Does that not imply that they expect their caste to be protected as Hindus?

They will be welcomed back as former Hindus who had left the faith. Hinduism belongs to all the castes. There is no question of caste here.

Hasn't religion become very commercialised these days? For instance, the Ganeshotsav (Ganesh festival) in Maharashtra.

It is not commercial. The Ganeshotsav was started for inspiring nationalism, for bringing about unity among the people. Yes, some people have to collect some money for the pujas . There is nothing commercial in such an effort.

But does not all this affect true spirituality among the Hindus?

On the contrary, I find faith and spirituality among Hindus growing. Just look at the crowds who have gathered here. They are all religious people who have come here for spiritual sustenance, nothing else.

Do you think the attacks on the minorities by the likes of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad tarnish Hinduism's tolerant image?

The VHP is doing good work. It is because they have done good work that they have got a good name today.

The VHP is also linked to the demolition of the Babri Masjid!

Oh! But all that is over now. Besides, it has done some good work. The VHP has done some good work among the adivasis. It was for some reason that they did whatever they did [the Babri Masjid demolition]. But they are a good institution.

Do you think the mixing of politics and religion has harmed India?

Religion must never be a part of politics. Religion is religion and politics is politics. Abhi rajniti mein raja bhi aur niti bhi khatam ho gaya, sirf dharam baki hai (Today's politics is devoid of principles or leaders; religion alone survives).

Anything else you would like to say?

Aashirvad! Blessings to all!

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