- Swamiji was the living embodiment of the progressive Hinduism that I embrace. His life and being validated my path.
I first met Swami Agnivesh three years ago at his office in Delhi. I bent to touch his feet out of respect, but he stopped me, saying we were equals. I told him about my work to build a progressive Hindu platform which would mobilize Hindus to stand by the inclusive and peaceful teachings of our scriptures and reject Hindu nationalism.
He listened attentively and asked me why I wanted to do this as a Hindu and said these labels were limiting and I should work as a compassionate human being for all of humanity. I explained that I had been working as a secular person all my life, but that I was very worried about the lack of response from faithful Hindus to Hindutva. Hindus had to take back our faith as well as our democracy from those who were driven by hate. Swamiji was a renunciant of everything including the label “Hindu,” but he blessed my chosen path, and we stayed in touch, often speaking on WhatsApp about political matters in both India and the United States.
I next met Swamiji in Toronto, Canada, in November 2018. Swamiji was invited by the Parliament of World Religions to be a plenary speaker and we also asked him to speak on Sadhana’s panel on progressive Hinduism at the same conference. Swamiji came with another wonderful young Swami from South Africa, Swami Vedananda, whom he was grooming and mentoring to carry on his work.
As soon as I and my Sadhana colleagues Gautham Reddy and Nikhil Mandalaparthy arrived in Toronto, board members of the Parliament told us that they had received masses of hate mails regarding Swamiji speaking, all from Hindus who considered him an anti-Hindu. Some of these messages were violent and threatening. Gautham, Nikhil and I were among those who stayed close to Swamiji at all times, but we were amazed by the way Swamiji just went about his business without any fear or worry.
He was just speaking his truth and didn’t care at all about these threats. The Parliament had to hire extra security at every event where Swamiji spoke, and when he spoke at the plenary, they had placed police at every exit and behind the stage. Swamiji didn’t seem to even notice all this. His only concern was to spread the message of love and justice to all who were gathered.
I was especially struck by the love that the Sikh community had for Swamiji. Once it was known that Swamiji was in danger, the Sikh community members at the Parliament organized themselves so that there were always a large group of Sikhs going around with Swamiji, ensuring his safety. This was because during the pogroms against the Sikhs in 1984, Swamiji was vocal in his outrage and walked through the dangerous areas himself and gave protection to many Sikh families, and saved many lives. This will never be forgotten by the Sikhs in India. And when the Sikhs at the Parliament organized a prayer vigil for those who perished in 1984, Swamiji was their guest of honor.
I had helped Swamiji write his plenary speech, typing as he dictated. I had printed the speech myself, in large font, and made sure the papers were in his hands as he went to the stage. I was sitting in the front row feeling very nervous because some of the hate mail had said they would storm the stage if he was allowed to speak. As Swamiji began his speech, he looked straight at me with a twinkle in his eye, and uttered words that I knew were not in the typed speech, “As a very proud and progressive Hindu, I go by what the Vedas proclaim…,” and he went on to deliver the fiery speech I had helped him with. This was a gesture of pure love, and I will never forget it.
I was fortunate enough to take Swami Agnivesh and Swami Vedanada to see the Niagara Falls; to travel with them to Washington, D.C., to meet government officials and advocates to discuss the state of democracy and human rights in India; and to host them in my home in New York. On the two trips I made to India since then, I stayed with Swamiji in Delhi. And on both trips Swamiji organized gatherings so that I could speak with concerned Indian activists about the need to mobilize Hindus of conscience to reject Hindu nationalism. My colleague in Hindus for Human Rights, Giri, stayed with Swamiji for many months, and helped launch his “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” movement. If only Swamiji had lived long enough to build his mass movement of love and compassion.
The need of our dark hour is for people of faith to take back their religions from the clutches of extremists. We need progressive Jews to stand up for the rights and self-determination of the Palestinian people; Buddhists to denounce the atrocities against Rohingya in Myanmar; and Muslims to denounce extremist groups like the Taliban. Similarly, we need Hindus to stand up against the Islamophobic and fascistic ideology of Hindutva – and Swamiji was one of the only Hindu religious leaders who took a clear and brave stand. It is one of the blessings of my life that I knew and was close to a revolutionary religious leader like Swami Agnivesh.
I spoke to Swami Vedananda on the morning of September 11th, in the moments after I heard the news of Swamiji’s demise. Swami Vedananda told me that the last words Swamiji had spoken to him were, “You must carry on my work.” And I hope to work closely with Swami Vedananda and any Hindu who is willing to live by the principles of love and justice for all, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, and build the world that Swamiji worked for all his life.
Swamiji was the living embodiment of the progressive Hinduism that I embrace. His life and being validated my path. He lived by the Vedas and stood for complete equality and equal rights regardless of sex, gender, age, race, religion, caste and sexual orientation. He devoted his entire life to the struggle for human rights of the most disadvantaged in India: Dalits and other minorities, and those who are suffering in the bonded labor system.
Swamiji may have been 80 years old, but he had the youthful mind and energy of a young man. This even though his work was so controversial and provocative that he was arrested and beaten up many times over the course of his career. In the last two years, Hindutva mobs beat him up twice and very badly. He spent a lot of time in hospital and when I was with him last winter, he told me that his last illness was at least partly caused by the injuries he suffered from these beatings.
While I can look back in history and find many social reformers and revolutionaries who were motivated by their Hindu faith, in these dark times as a progressive Hindu who is horrified by the clampdown on human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religion in India, the all-too frequent lynchings, rapes, unfair arrests and murders taking place, I only see one prominent Hindu standing up loud and clear, and putting their life on the line for justice, and that is Swami Agnivesh. I am shattered that Swamiji is no longer with us.
Sunita Viswanath is the cofounder of Hindus for Human Rights, one of the 5 organizations behind the upcoming ReclaimingIndia@73 virtual conference on Oct 3rd and 4th, 2020. Headliners include Prof. Rajmohan Gandhi, Dr. Ramchandra Guha, Rev. Dr. William Barber, former Vice President of India Hamid Ansari, journalist Arfa Khanum Sherwani and prominent Indian lawyers Prashant Bhushan and Indira Jaising, and many more. For details, visit: www.reclaimingindia.com