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Religious institutions should expose injustice

May 29, 2008 15:38 IST

Fraudulent and unethical practices committed by swamis or religious authorities should be condemned unequivocally. When a religious/spiritual leader commits a crime, he not only harms people, but also brings disgrace to the spiritual tradition. If proven guilty, stringent action should be taken against them. In fact, the severity of the punishment should be many times more than what would be given to normal people.

While Islam is blamed for terrorism, and the Church was rocked by child abuse scandals in some parts of the world, it is now Hinduism which has gotten a jolt in Kerala due to malpractices by some swamis. During these moments of crisis, one would think that Hinduism needs an authority that could check these malpractices.

Since there is a lack of hierarchy, and no authority to install a swami or guru, or dethrone them, the Sanathana Dharma is more vulnerable to being misused. On the other hand, Sanathana Dharma has always believed that religion and spirituality is an individual's choice; it has allowed people to find their path and lead others as well. That is why in India, no prophet was ever crucified, and the freedom of thought, expression and propagation of faith is inbuilt in to the system.

While a few miscreants have misused the system, religion per se should not be blamed or ridiculed. There are possibilities of innocent people being caught in the trap and blamed for nothing. I would advise them to take this as an opportunity to go inwards, especially on the spiritual path. History has shown that many innocent people were accused and had to bear the brunt of society for quite some time, but finally the truth prevailed. We must remember that society has not even spared people like Kabir, Adi Shankaracharya, Jesus Christ, and many of his apostles. Adi Shankaracharya was excommunicated. Gnanadev, Buddha, and many spiritual and religious leaders were considered as heretics and traitors in their time. Today, close to one third of the humanity are followers of Jesus Christ, but during his time, his teachings were considered blasphemous. It was the same with the Sufi Saint, Mansoor, who was eventually hanged.

Not so long ago, a swami from a prominent mutt in Karnataka was accused of child abuse and was imprisoned for 20 years; he was later proven innocent by the Supreme Court and all charges against him were dropped. Another such victim of conspiracy was Swami Omkarananda, who did not even know how to lift a gun; but he was accused of illegal possession of arms. He was put in a jail in Switzerland for 27 years, and later proven innocent.

Religious and spiritual people are there to propagate dharma, knowledge, self-confidence and emotional and spiritual upliftment of the people. Any deviation from their goal is bound to boomerang on them. A religious seat should be considered a seat of service and higher knowledge, and it is unfortunate that these institutions are sometimes used as seats of power. Prevalent hypocrisy in religion, spirituality, politics and business is the most harmful thing for a society.

The media has a responsibility to expose those who are fraudulent. However, the media should restrain from sensationalising such incidents; even if one innocent image is tarnished, it causes a lot of pain and suffering. Before the charges are proven, public humiliation and 'bashing' of the accused should be avoided as it can cause irreparable psychological damage. We have seen this in Iraq where, in the name of extracting the truth from the culprits, thousands of Iraqis have suffered enormous mental anguish.

In case of charges being proven false, the irreversible psychological and emotional damage caused is unpardonable. The media should be aware that in the name of catching the culprits, they should not cause humiliation and psychological harm.

Unwarranted negative portrayal of spirituality and prejudice will only lead to more suicides and desperation in society.

We must not create prejudice against any section of society, or any religion as this can be dangerous. For example, after the 9/11 attacks in the US, Sikhs and Muslims were tortured as terrorists. American troops have killed thousands in Afghanistan and later apologised for mistaken identity. In the Middle Ages, many women and scientists were dragged into the streets of Europe and burnt alive.

The police cannot play the role of the magistrate. In the past, wise people would take pride in admitting their mistakes. People should have that level of consciousness to admit their mistakes and walk towards the truth. Admitting one's mistakes will enhance one's character. A safe and secure space should be created for people to come forward and admit their mistakes. This cannot happen in an atmosphere of fear and blame-culture. When too much shame is associated with making a mistake, then people will shy away from admitting them. Mistakes happen, knowingly or unknowingly. In the past, when spiritual masters realised their mistakes, they would do their own prayaschitta (personal attempt for atonement for wrongs committed), sometimes even harder than the stipulated punishment. 

Religious and spiritual institutions should expose the injustice within their own religion if any, rather than shield it. If this is done from the outside and by those who do not believe in religion, it is likely to be perceived as prejudiced. In the case of the Communists, while they are absolutely right in denouncing age-old dogmas, they should not forget that both Stalin and Mao Tse Tung eliminated close to 10 million people -- scientists, socialists, journalists, men of literature -- to stay in power.

In today's complex world, to escape from mounting stress, people look for easy ways and go to anybody who offers magical solutions. Instead, they should turn towards pranayama and meditation which is the heart of Indian spirituality. Millions worldwide have taken recourse to it.

Sanathana Dharma has laid out some of the best principles for humanity to achieve equality, social justice, a violence-free society, and a prejudice-free mind. Let every Indian strive for educating oneself and the society in these golden principles.

Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is the founder of the Art of Living Foundation

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar