Remembering the Swami

Jitendra Ramprakash*

At the time of posting this article, it is barely 40 hours that Swami Agnivesh passed away. And in these 40 hours, there is a surge of outpourings by people from all walks of life and all shades of political rainbow. Swami Agnivesh always firmly stood against the bigotry and communalism. This article by Jitendra Ramprakash is a personal tribute by this author who grew up seeing Swamiji and his father bonding together for the causes dear to them and later developing differences also but never losing mutual respect for each other. Though it’s a personal tribute yet it tells so much about Swamiji that we are proud to publish it in this web-magazine. Please read on:

‘Gaye Swami ji!’ my father said. I, of course, said nothing in return. He too fell silent for a long while after that – a silence that my words can  neither fathom, nor console. Theirs was a bitter-sweet bond, perhaps like no other in either man’s life.  

This house, tonight, is flooded with his memories.  

A house where he was welcomed like family, sometimes even criticised, yet always spoken of respectfully. A house, he had not visited in years, though he did remain in touch over the phone.  

Mother came to my room, and with her hands folded, recounted his countless visits and the many meals she  had served him. He had a right to his share of the bread in this house; a right he knew of, I realized. I noticed  that I had rarely, if ever, seen her face softened such with sorrow and warmth. I also noticed for the first time  that she, unlike dad, sometimes calls him just, Agnivesh.  

It is a house that sorely misses a sannyaasi tonight.  …… 

Swami Agnivesh with Dr Ram Prakash, author’s father

It may sound odd to call a sannyaasi that – but he was like a ‘chacha’ to me in my childhood. The houses of  my uncle and father were always full of visiting ascetics, religious scholars and preachers. One of my own  grand-uncles had taken sannyaas, and to us children, it seemed nothing out of the ordinary. As I have said  elsewhere, I saw so much saffron those days that I thought it was the normal way of dressing. None of them  made for a forbidding presence. Swami Bhishma, Arya Bhikshu, Swami Indravesh and many others that I do  not even remember the names of – always affectionate, they were like uncles and elders, with some of whom  I even played games that a child that age normally would. For some reason though, I never took that liberty  with him. His presence inspired a certain awe even then – he stood out from the rest – radiant, magnetic,  charismatic.  

My father and he go back more than fifty years, when he, a certain Vepa Shyam Rao was yet to take  sannyaas. Both were young Vedic scholars, somewhat radical thinkers, committed religious activists and  fiery orators that crowds thronged to hear in large numbers. I was too young then to understand any of their  speeches and passed my time, counting the number of times that the applause rang out, and the number of  people moved to tears, hoping secretly that dad would have outscored the Swami on both counts. Sadly, of  words spoken and written, the former, though more powerful also fade faster. Those who haven’t heard them  in their prime can not imagine the sublime oratory that I have rarely if ever, heard matched. It is the stuff of  legends that some may have heard of from others.

Just play a piece of the Swami’s speeches in his seventies,  listen to that voice and try if you can, to imagine what they must have sounded like in their thirties. Volcanic  and luminous, their voices swayed audiences at will. Brothers bonded by faith, Swami Samarpananand had  famously dubbed the fiery duo as ‘Ram aur Shyam’.  

It was a matter of faith again, about four decades later, because of which the two fell apart. Dad was  unequivocal in his stand against the Swami on ideological issues. I have with me, the copy of a letter he  wrote then, which I won’t share here, for it belongs between the two men. It must be among the politest harsh letters a man can write to his comrade. Words, that speak of life-long bonds, hurt, principles and a  respectful yet sharp parting of ways. Unlike some of his other critics though, I never heard from dad, a word, disrespectful. He was always referred to, even in criticism, as Swami ji. It was not for me to intervene,  though I occasionally missed having the Swami at home, for as dad knew and Swami ji didn’t, I had my own philosophical disagreements with both.  

Time, has a way, of not only causing separations, but also of sometimes remedying them. It was faith again  that brought the two together. Another decade later, I found myself helping dad edit a book that comprised  articles by over fifty scholars. It was for him, a mission of the soul, and he had decided to bring together the  finest scholars of the subject, some of whom did not get along well with each other. “So, who is to write on  Vedic monotheism?” I had routinely asked, lost in the heaps of typed papers that lay before me. “Swami Ji!”  “What! Who?” I could barely mutter in disbelief. “Swami Ji!” he smiled, “I have spoken with him and he has gladly consented.” I just smiled back at him and said nothing.

Swami ji, I guess, always found other social  activities more engaging than writing, and that piece had to find another author, but he did contribute three  articles by other scholars to the volume from his archives. It was with a sense of personal satisfaction that I  edited a footnote and typed his name as a contributor. 

…… There is a picture of his that I had clicked and have probably lost forever.  

Words, unfortunately, will have to do for it instead. 

“Swami ji wants to speak with you. Here is the number. Call him now,” my father demanded, knowing how I procrastinate in such matters. I was told that he had read something I had written and had apparently had a  long chat with dad about it. I gave in to dad’s insistence, and was somewhat surprised that Swami Ji had  indeed read the piece rather carefully, as he quoted and dwelt upon passages at some length. He declared  with a sense of right that I was to help him edit a volume that he was planning, and quickly extracted a  promise that I would meet him at the earliest.  

There he was! That presence, that smile, that voice!  He was still the dreamer that I had once known him to be. I was at once surprised, reassured and even a little  worried.  

As I helped him finalise the session-plan for the Vishwa Ved Sammelan he had already scheduled, I kept  gently cautioning him about the scale of the event and the ones he had planned for the future. I even told him that no one was going to give him sufficient funds. Beyond a point, one should not argue with old men who  can still dream. So, I got busy editing some articles that I had promised him, and he made a phone call to a  person in the government with the same professed ideals as him. His voice betrayed the expected. As he put  down the phone, I looked up from the laptop, “Kya keh rahe hain vo?” I had expected the outcome, but not  the candid confession that followed. Trustingly, he said, sounding neither surprised nor too disappointed, “Vo keh rahe hain ki vo madad nahi kar sakte, kyonki unke senior… mujhe communist mante hain!” 

I said nothing to him, smiled, and went back to the edit. He asked me if I wanted to eat something and then  went out to make a few more phone calls.  

Tired of the editing, I stepped out for some fresh air and there I saw him again, outside his office. A few feet  away, was a life-size flex that I hadn’t noticed on my way in. In big, bold letters, it had the famous words by  Pash, “Sabse khatarnaak hota hai….” 

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, “Kya galat keh rahe hain vo!” and with my own sense of right over him,  told him, “Yahaan aakar khade hoiye, is kavita ke paas. Mujhe photo leni hai apki!” 

He obliged, and I clicked the picture that I cannot find now, but remains my last memory of him! …… 

So, how do I judge him? 

I don’t! Increasingly, we are reluctant to empathise, unable to analyse and quick to judge. We make much  noise, listen very little, read even less and understand next to nothing.  

Let me just share a few lines from his book** that he had gifted me that evening… 

“Why should religions meet? …Religions must meet first of all for their self-liberation. Second, there must  be an emphasis on their revitalization as agents of social liberation and transformation… Third, religions  must meet and help each other in fulfilling their historical destiny as instruments for peace and human  welfare. 

…obvious truth of modern history affords a basic insight. The conflictual model of inter-religious  relationships is a product of religious degeneration. The foremost symptom of this degeneration is that the  religious goal gets hijacked from social justice and social transformation into religious expansionism and  politico-economic domination. The love of power (the hidden political motive) is incompatible with the  power of love, which is the true religious outlook. 

…Barring glorious exceptions in history, religion has played mostly a pro-status quoist role, rather than a  transforming role. That is because of the idea of religion itself, which now needs to be radically reviewed. 

…The quintessential business of religion is to reinforce a sense of universal kinship. Instead, religion has  been misused and abused as an apology for erecting walls of division and separation.  

…All scriptures are mixed-up affairs. There is much in them of undying and eternal value. But there is also a  great deal that needs to be subjected to rational and historical scrutiny. Scripture needs to be tested on the  touchstone of life. The primacy of life demands that whatever is anti-life and socially iniquitous, even if it  may claim scriptural warrant, needs to be given up. 

…Today religion is politicized and politics communalized. In this process the people in need are lost sight of.  The ascendancy of vested interests threatens to splinter our society and cripple our country. Avoidable  suffering and deprivation mount. The foremost need of the hour is a spiritual regeneration so as to imbue  progress with social justice and moral passion.  

… …Dialogue must be a pilgrimage to the depth. It must be a mutual engagement which liberates and  transforms the participants. …dialogue cannot any longer remain an esoteric exercise which some privileged people indulge in. It must become an integral part of our way of life. …Dialogue must not be a fringe  activity, but a shared culture. …Overarching all these, is the need to shift from the dialogue of words to the  dialogue of deeds. 

… … But we live in a world of disrupted dialogues. For that reason, there is a need to facilitate dialogue: to set  up the matrix, mechanisms, means and mindset of dialogue. That is the most important task.  

The challenge is to sustain the sacrament of dialogue in an age of lovelessness.  

…We must dialogue not only because the global community is sitting over a likely holocaust, which it is. We  must converse, even more importantly, because we are human beings and dialogue is the “milk of our  humankind-ness”. Of course. we have reached a stage in which the alternative to dialogue is the winter of  our humanity. Our very survival as a sane species hangs on it.”  

…… 

All fine men have their flaws.  

All persons of ideas, have some that are questionable.  

All, who lead a life of action, take steps, sometimes inconsistent with their path.  

There is no denying the fact however, that this was a fine man of faith! 

A man who believed in debate, dialogue and dissent.  

A Vedic sannyasi who strove for true dharma, inter-religious dialogue, social justice, and what he called  Vedic Socialism.  

“Satyam Vad, Dharmam Char!” the man often quoted. 

A man who was needed for much longer!  

“He was a very good human-being. Ideological differences don’t really matter,” my mother said, as she left  my room last evening. I said nothing to her too, but noticed that her hands were still folded in prayer and  remembrance. 

…. 

**All quotes from – Applied Spirituality / Swami Agnivesh** 

*Dr. Jitendra Ramprakash

Jitendra Ramprakash is a theorist whose work focuses on the inter-disciplinary Philosophy of creativity. His other interests include aesthetics and the Indian Philosophies, and has co-edited the book, ‘Arya Samaj and the Vedic Worldview’. A former television-presenter and professor, he also set up Asia’s first ‘Poetry Film Festival’, introduced sign-language poetry-films to India and has produced albums of poetry recordings by some senior Indian poets. These days, he manages a rural school and earns his living through part-time voicing.

Photo credits:

1. Swami Agnivesh – from the archives of Mrs. Vijay Kumari

2. Dr. Ram Prakash and Swami Agnivesh in the 1970s – from the archives of Mrs. Vijay Kumari

3. Jitendra Ramprakash / photo  Gulfam Ali

3 COMMENTS

  1. Essentially, a personal reminiscences and tribute of Dr. Ramprakash.
    Dr. Ramprakash has rightly observed that all fine men have some flaws, questionable traits and ideas, inconistencies .Couldn’t agree more. Swamiji too had some such inconsistencies. But, no body can question his intentions. His entire life time efforts were dedicated to the service of the oppressed. Indeed, a FINE MAN, but , unfortunately, maligned by some . To an extent, Swamiji himself was responsible for this predicament. In this wicked world, one should also know how to blow one’s own trumpet. Swamiji lacked this skill: I do not know whether it was a vice or virtue.
    On the whole, liked the tribute penned by Dr. Ramprakash.

  2. As public memory is short, made worse by reduced attention spans, tributes to departed prominent personalities tend to veer towards hagiography. I am glad to see in a sea of such articles about Swami Agnivesh, at least one focusing on the ascetic as a human being.

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