Indian utopian sect under scrutiny as religious tolerance debate rages
The arrest of a member of India’s Sanatan Sanstha sect following the murder of a well-known atheist has prompted renewed calls from some politicians to ban the Hindu group, as concerns grow the country’s tradition of religious tolerance is being eroded.
Opening the doors of its Goa headquarters to foreign journalists for the first time this month, Sanatan Sanstha said it had nothing to do with the February murder of Govind Pansare, and its mission was opposed to violence in all forms.
Instead, its members are preparing for the advent of a divine Hindu kingdom in India within eight years.
“The aim is to prepare people for a divine kingdom, or Ram Rajya, by 2023,” said Durgesh Shankar Samant, a founding member of the group that believes India’s secular democracy has failed. “Right now an awakening is going on.”
The movement, which claims thousands of followers and produces newspapers, books and websites, is one of a number of Hindu groups that are growing in prominence.
Emboldened by the return to power of the mainstream Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the groups have taken up causes with renewed vigour, including the protection from slaughter of cows they consider to be sacred.
In recent weeks, three Muslims were killed for allegedly killing cows; one of the murders sparked violent protests in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.
And in attacks reminiscent of a spate of killings of secular bloggers in neighbouring Bangladesh, Pansare was one of three prominent Indian atheists to have been slain, two this year.
Pansare was known for attacking discrimination, superstition, caste politics and religious fundamentalism.
President Pranab Mukherjee, an apolitical figurehead, has publicly voiced concerns that multi-faith India, dominated by Hindus but with sizeable minorities including around 180 million Muslims, is becoming less tolerant.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken against the lynching by a Hindu mob of a man near Delhi, and more generally called for peace between Hindus and Muslims.
But critics said the BJP leader’s response was too slow at a time when religious polarisation could favor his party as it fights an important state election.
At the Sanstha’s retreat, a three-storey white building that overlooks a lush valley, volunteers known as seekers work at flat screens on a suite of publications.
The content produced by volunteers in Goa, mostly young women, covers everything from the length of hair and style of clothes to best capture cosmic vibrations, to black energy emitted by Western birthday cakes.
It also strays into the political.
After the 2013 murder of Narendra Dabholkar, an atheist who founded a group of self-styled rationalists, its daily newspaper published an article calling his death a “blessing from God.”
“Life and death are a matter of fate. Every person gets the result of his actions,” the paper wrote.
Neither Sanatan Sanstha nor any of its members have been implicated in the murder.
The sect was founded in 1990 by hypnotist Jayant Balaji Athavale, who followers say is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Seekers have spirituality measured in percentage terms, and once they reach 70%, they can call themselves saints.
Sanatan Sanstha hopes to open a university to teach people this technique, and uses electronic instruments to photograph “auras” that Samant said were able to strengthen around people and objects in line with the group’s version of Hindu practices.
Athavale, reportedly in his 70s, is rarely seen in public, although the group does print his pronouncements.
Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a political organisation drawn mainly from Sanatan Sanstha ranks, last year published Athavale’s thoughts on slaughtering cows.
“Hindus, who are indifferent towards cow-slaughter and attacks on ‘Gou-rakshaks’ (saviours of cows), are not fit to live,” Athavale is quoted as saying.
Group under scrutiny
Public scrutiny of Sanatan Sanstha increased after police arrested one of its workers in September as a suspect in the February shooting of Pansare.
The worker, Sameer Gaikwad, has not been charged and Sanatan Sanstha says he is innocent.
India’s counter terrorism National Investigation Agency (NIA) has named another follower of the group, fugitive Rudra Patil, as chief suspect.
Patil was already on the NIA’s “most wanted” list in connection with bomb blasts near a religious procession in 2009.
Hindu Janajagruti Samiti spokesman Ramesh Shinde said Patil should turn himself in.
Sanatan Sanstha says the group has not been named by courts, it opposes violence and its members have been unfairly accused.
But brushes with the law and sometimes outspoken publications have triggered calls for successive governments to ban it, including fresh demands from politicians from the southern state of Goa and neighbouring Maharashtra.
Junior home minister Kiren Rijiju said the last government chose not to ban the group, and that Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka had not presented him with new evidence to act on.
“Any organisation that is perpetrating any kind of violence … you’ve got to be concerned about, but to ban an organisation, you have to have a basis,” he said.