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Applause and abuse as Athavale is awarded the Templeton prize

Amberish K Diwanji in London

Pandurang Shastri Athavale "The award is only a small measure towards recognising Dadaji," said Suresh Chauhan, after Pandurang Shastri Athavale received the Templeton award on May 6. "It will, however, give him the recognition that he deserves," he added.

Swadhyayees are pleased that the award went to Athavale, whom they all refer to as Dadaji. The Swadhyaya `family' is widespread in the United Kingdom, primarily among the Gujaratis and Maharashtrians, but also includes others of Indian-origin.

For most Indians abroad, Swadhyaya was a basis to find their roots and cultural attachment to Hinduism and India. "Swadhyaya helped me find my identity and understand myself, besides bringing me in contact with people of my community," said Shirish Joshi, 41, who has been associated with the group since his early twenties.

Joshi was born in Mombassa, east Africa, and has only been to India on visits. His family shifted to the United Kingdom before he turned five. "When I was young, my exposure to India and Indian culture was extremely limited. As a teen, I rebelled against the ritualism of Hinduism. But after coming into contact with the Swadhyaya, I began to understand my religion better and saw the reasons behind the rituals," he says.

Swadhyaya began in Britain in 1978. Its adherents meet every Sunday, where prayers are sung and a videotape of Athavale is played. For Mita Patel, these prayer meetings give her a homely community feeling. Mita, who is 28 years old, began attending the Swadhyaya session after coming to Britain 10 years ago. "Swadhyaya applies religious philosophy and helps you become a better individual," she said. She said she did not miss India as she was closely associated with the Indian community in the United Kingdom.

Unlike Mita Patel, her sister-in-law, Archana Patel, 23, has little linkage to India. She was born in East Africa and has been in the UK for most of her life. "Dadaji showed how religious rituals play a role in devotion. Through Swadhyaya, one's character progresses, and it also gave me an insight into the golden age of Hindu culture."

Not all are happy. Outside Westminster Abbey, where Dadaji received the award, a small group of men staged a protest, accusing Athavale of being backward and brahmanical in his thinking. Their leaflets claimed Athavale had said in his book Sanskritic Chintan (Cultural Thoughts) that he supported the caste system, did not consider slavery as evil, and felt that girls should be married within three years of reaching puberty.

"How can the Templeton Foundation give an award to such a person?" asked Krishna Ghamre who is leading the demonstration under the auspices of the Ambedkar Centre for Justice. Ghamre pointed out that Athavale's teachings have never condemned the caste system and its inherent evils. "In fact, Athavale has said that everyone should follow their own profession or else it creates trouble," he added.

Unfortunately for the demonstrators, Athavale used another entrance; the guests, which included Indian High Commissioner Dr L M Singhvi, Srichand Hinduja and scores of the Swadhyayees, used the imposing main entrance. The demonstrators dispersed after some time. London was experiencing unseasonal wintry conditions and there were few who could withstand the bitter cold wind.

Medha Shah, on a holiday in London, hails from Bombay where she is an avid Swadhyaya follower. Asked about the demonstration, she said, "There will always be some people who will object. Many of Dadaji's followers are the so-called lower caste people like the fisherfolk."

Another Swadhyayee, Paresh Goel, said they did not believe in untouchability. "A central tenet of Dadaji's teaching is that there is God in every person, so how can we believe in high and low?"

The teachings of Swadhyaya fulfill a cultural and religious need of the Hindus cast asunder in the Christian West. "For many older people who went to the West to make money, Swadhyaya helped give their children a semblance of Hindu traditions, and helped bring the community together," said Dr R K Srivastav, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, who has been studying the Swadhyaya movement since 1986.

Srivastav said the Swadhyaya movement has been most active in Gujarat among many of the so-called lower castes. He put the number of Swadhyayees worldwide at about 2 million.

Asked to explain what being a Swadhyayee meant, Shirish Joshi replied, "It is about the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God."

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