Arya Samaj: direct vision
by Sandhya Jain on 23 Jul 2008 0 Comment

As Delhi courts grapple with a petition seeking ban on the publication and distribution of Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s magnum opus, Satyarth Prakash, it may be pertinent to recall Sri Aurobindo’s tribute: “In the matter of Vedic interpretation I am convinced that whatever may be the final complete interpretation, Dayananda will be honoured as the first discoverer of the right clues. Amidst the chaos and obscurity of old ignorance and age long misunderstanding, his was the eye of direct vision that pierced to the truth and fastened on that which was essential. He had found the keys of the doors that time had closed and rent asunder the seals of the imprisoned fountains.”


While acknowledging that there is much that even Hindus and Jains, not to mention Muslims and Christians, could legitimately dispute in Satyarth Prakash, Aurobindo’s homage hits the eye of the fish. The lasting legacy of Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1825-1883), for which he deserves the undying gratitude of succeeding generations, is that he told an enslaved and demoralized Hindu society to seek inspiration and rejuvenation in its Vedic civilisational roots. Whatever the merits of his own rather literal style of interpreting religious texts, the call to return to the Vedic gangotri was sheer genius.


It is a timely warning for our age, when westward-looking sanyasis are conniving to erode the Vedic roots of Hindu civilization by forcing a peculiar monotheism upon society, with the Bhagwad Gita serving as a sort of ‘Hindu Bible.’ This undermines the primacy of the Vedas and destroys the pre-eminence of Sri Ram.


Gujarat-born Dayanand Saraswati had crystal clarity in this regard: “I hold that the four Vedas – the repository of Knowledge and Religious Truths – are the Word of God. They comprise what is known as the Samhita-Mantra portion only. They are absolutely free from error, and are an authority unto themselves… they do not stand in need of any other book to uphold their authority. Just as the sun (or a lamp) by its light, reveals its own nature as well as that of other objects of the universe, such as the earth – even so are the Vedas. The commentaries on the four Vedas, viz., the Brahmanas, the six Angas, the six Upangas, the four Up-Vedas, and the eleven hundred and twenty-seven Shakhas, which are expositions of the Vedic texts by Brahma and other great Rishis – I look upon as works of a dependent character… they are held to be authoritative in so far as they conform to the teachings of the Vedas. Whatever passages in these works are opposed to the Vedic injunctions I reject them entirely.”


This is a precise summation of the Hindu quest in the colonial period for the true meaning of its tradition, depressed under centuries of Muslim rule. President S. Radhakrishnan said Swami Dayanand would occupy pride of place among makers of modern India: “At a time when there was spiritual confusion in our country, when many of our social practices were in the melting pot, when we were overcome by superstition and obscurantism, this great soul came forward with staunch devotion to truth and a passion for social equality and enthusiasm, and worked for the emancipation of our country, religious, political, social and cultural... Swami Dayananda Saraswati was one who was guided by the supremacy of reason and he made out that the Vedic scriptures never asked us to take anything on trust but to examine everything, and then come to any kind of conclusion... So he was a social reformer who had a crusading zeal, a powerful intellect and a fire in his heart when he looked at the social injustices. He tried to sweep them away with a drastic hand. This is also what the country requires today... In that way he emphasized the rule of reason and pointed out that there is one Supreme God. He also gave freedom of conscience.”


Currently, Mr. Usman Ghani and Mr. Mohammad Khalil Khan of Sadar Bazar, Delhi, are seeking a perpetual injunction against Satyarth Prakash on grounds that it hurts their religious feelings. Their specific objections pertain to paragraph 143 and 159 (English edition). To expound upon the merits of their pleas would be to unilaterally engage in comparative religion, which may polarize communities without resolving the issue scripturally or academically. This is not the first attempt to ban this 135-year-old text; hitherto courts have given short shrift to attempts to communalize established texts.


Instead of misusing contemporary constitutional provisions to ban a text that has played a major role in India’s historical and political awakening, inspiring freedom fighters like Lala Lajpat Rai to lay down their lives for the country; it may be rewarding to understand the context in which Satyarth Prakash was written. Religious scholars generally agree that Swami Dayanand did not have a complete understanding of the religious traditions he critiqued, though there was some merit in the faults he found therein, including Hindu dharma. Arya Samajis have not sought a ban on religious texts containing passages abhorred by Swami Dayanand (and many lay citizens); nor have other Hindu groups sought a ban on Satyarth Prakash for finding flaws in their religious practices.


One may specifically mention Swami Dayanand’s critique of image-worship, once zealously embraced by a generation of Hindus in north India, as renunciation of image worship negated the colonial-missionary attack on ‘idolators’ and revived collective self-esteem during the freedom struggle. However, as the need for such dissimulation is now over, Arya Samaji women coyly admit that moorti-pooja is no longer frowned upon so vigorously, and practices like nazar (warding off the evil eye on children) are making a quiet comeback. I mention this because many Hindu spiritual leaders with foreign disciples are defensive about ‘idolatory’ in the Hindu tradition and even today seek to interpret dharma in terms consistent with monotheistic traditions.


The petition against Satyarth Prakash is not a technical issue of freedom of speech (Article 19) of either side. Indeed, there are no sides here, because the intention of the author was to critique with a view to energize a half-dead people to national consciousness, and not to wound religious sentiments. It is in this context that the petitioners should understand the book and withdraw their petition.

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