There are few more inspiring Christian houses of worship than the great cathedral at Canterbury in the UK. It is of course associated with the killing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Thomas Becket, and his rivalry with his former friend King Henry. Those who would like to know more about that episode in English history could do no better than to see the classic film, Becket. It is one of my favorite films and it has two of the most outstanding British stage actors who went on to star in Hollywood films, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.
In Canterbury there I was, having to negotiate the steep narrow staircase in the belly of the cathedral up to the roof accompanying Swami Agnivesh wearing his saffron-purple turban and robes. As we reached the top and viewed the rolling English landscape we talked of religion, of identity, and of history. We discussed our efforts to build bridges. It was a strange but inspiring moment when a Hindu Swami and a Muslim scholar climbed to the top of a Christian Cathedral and formed a bond of friendship.
It was appropriate because we had been invited to participate in an extraordinary interfaith gathering hosted by Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his friend Jim Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank in October 2002. It was a brilliant idea to combine spirituality with issues of economic development. Here were two visionaries wanting to change the world for the better. Neither of them knew how critically important their simple idea would become after 9/11when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States.
This meeting was a gathering of the high and the mighty. There were chief rabbis, cardinals, lords, secretaries of state, and of course his Holiness Swami Agnivesh from India. In addition to these luminaires there was Bono, Mr. Paul Hewson, the lead singer of the band U2. Bono was then riding high as the knight in shining armor charging all over the world helping to alleviate poverty, debt, and AIDS. Time magazine on the cover of its March 2002 issue asked, “Can Bono Save the World?” Nafees, my daughter then at high school in Bethesda, Maryland, was not particularly impressed by any of the grand religious leaders I mentioned, but when I told her Bono was there too her face lit up.
There was an urgency in the gathering which Dr. Carey summed up in these terse words: “The world is in a terrible mess.” There was controversy at the time about attacks in the media on the Prophet of Islam and I discussed this with the Archbishop at the meeting. He said he wished to go on record calling these remarks “outrageous.” He said the Prophet of Islam was a great teacher and he admired the Abrahamic spirituality of Islam. Such attacks on Islam appalled him as they degraded Christianity itself. Christianity by definition, he explained, is about compassion and hope. Archbishop Carey, now Lord Carey, has continued to play a major international role in promoting interfaith understanding and friendship.
The Swami had already written about the tensions in his homeland and condemned the actions of his co-religionists who were attacking minorities, especially the Muslims, which he described in his book Harvest of Hate: Gujarat Under Siege. His approach to peacebuilding and minorities can be seen in his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, and the Swami often quotes the popular Indian slogan, “O Gandhi! We are ashamed your assassins are alive and well.”
The Swami was also an activist in promoting dialogue between India and Pakistan. He prayed for peace between the two neighbors.
I was impressed enough by Swami Agnivesh even in that company to mention my meeting with him in my book Islam Under Siege published by Polity Press, Cambridge, the next year in 2003. That meeting at Canterbury began a friendship with the Swami that has lasted for two decades and been kept in place by letters, occasional meetings, and even by the Swami’s visits to my class and his lectures to my students at American University. When he last came to my university in 2018 dressed in saffron robes wearing a saffron turban and accompanied by younger swamis dressed in a similar style, he made an impression on my students. He preached peace and compassion and spoke intelligently about the problems of the world.
One of my bright students, Will Shriver, described the visit of the Swami to the class: “As a student studying South Asia and trying to understand the complexities of the pluralistic region, it was an excellent opportunity to hear from the Swami on his interfaith work and the violent opposition he faces by some Hindu nationalists in India. Professor Ahmed and the Swami discussed the internal resistance the Swami was facing by Hindu nationalists in India. He discussed the attacks by the RSS and the BJP on his life because of what he stood for. They also talked about his interfaith efforts in India with different communities. The conversations the Swami had with Professor Ahmed inside our classroom were invaluable to understanding Islamic-Hindu relations and South Asia.”
But speaking of religious tolerance and compassion in my class or in the peaceful pastures of England is one thing and quite another in the overheated and passionate environment of the Swami’s homeland. While his supporters admired him, his critics waited to punish him. It happened in the summer of 2018: the Swami, at the age of 80, was set upon by a gang of thugs who were waiting to ambush him outside his hotel in Jharkhand. When he appeared, they pounced on him. They beat him violently, tearing his clothes off and injuring him so badly he had to be hospitalized. It was touch and go and the Swami was aware that he had escaped with his life. “I’m alive today by God’s grace,” he reflected.
A shadowy group aligned to the ruling party accused him of instigating Christians who in turn were accused of misleading tribal peoples into opposing the government. The next year in the same region Tabrez Ansari, a young Muslim man, was tied to a tree by a Hindu lynch mob and beaten until he eventually died. It was the season of lynching and mob murders. The Swami was lucky to have gotten away with his life.
This July as the pandemic raged in the US, I received the following personal email from the Swami which I could not ignore given the fact that he was in hospital and it was written from his sick bed. Besides, he was 82 years old and not in good health. The Swami wanted me to contribute a chapter to a volume dedicated to him. I set everything aside and sat down to write it. There are prominent world figures who have contributed to the volume on the Swami. The Swami’s inclusive attitude to humanity can be seen by his insistence from his hospital bed that I, with my Pakistani background, be invited to join his circle of friends and admirers which include, among others, the Dalai Lama and Justice Krishna Iyer. “My dearest ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Since I know your contribution will be one of the most valuable I would urge you to extend the time up to 15 August and see if you can find time to do a good write up. If you have any other suggestion please let me know. I am going to have liver transplant very soon and continuously in the hospital. Thank you once again for your very kind response, Yours Swami Agnivesh.”
Reflecting on his life, the two points that strike me in the Swami’s life are first, his consistency in his interfaith work in promoting understanding and peace and second, his bold and unambiguous interpretation of what true interfaith means. From support of tribals to minorities in India facing persecution and oppression to larger causes for humanity, the Swami is there making his voice heard. He represents a continuous and unbroken tradition within Hinduism which has fostered the key concepts of shanti or peace and ahimsa or non-violence. His renouncing the material world too, he was at one stage a government minister, is part of his religious tradition.
It is his love of humanity that creates his exasperation with the political situation in India which engenders communal violence: “But this one thing I know: the Modi show is based on violence and malevolence—linguistic, sentimental, ideological and communal. His idea of patriotism is no more than hostility towards Pakistan. But time will prove that reducing the outcome of the world’s largest democratic franchise to settling scores with a neighbouring country, in utter indifference to pan-Indian lived realities, is at once idiotic and irresponsible” ( “A lot to say, but little to offer,” The Hindu, April 16, 2019).
For my current academic project inspired by the mystic Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, which takes its title from the great work of the prince, The Mingling of the Oceans, I asked the Swami to define God in the Hindu tradition and share with me the essence of the faith in January 2019. He replied promptly from Delhi, in spite of illness: “One God of the whole universe,” he wrote. “Creator, sustainer and destroyer and there is integrity of creation and interdependence of all living creatures. God is formless, all pervasive, all powerful and energy of all truth, all compassion, all love and all justice. God is supreme existence, supreme consciousness and supreme source of all bliss. God worship is therefore the most central theme of all human beings to attain bliss and liberation.”
Was Hinduism a universal religion? The Swami’s answer was unequivocal: “All of humanity is one single family negating all discriminations in the name of caste, colour, creed, nationality, gender bias and the rich and poor divide.”
Based on a lifetime of practical experience and spiritual seeking, the Swami had ideas for the way forward: “The most important aspect is to create a World Parliament and the World Government based on the Constitution of the Federation of Earth in order to realise the above Goal. The whole of humanity is equal partner in all the resources of the world and therefore we need to create an Egalitarian Society. Only that which is Universal and is applicable for the whole of humanity on the basis of equal human dignity is my Dharma, my Faith.
It is out of profound love and compassion for all of humanity as my own family I share my thoughts through my actions and my writings. This is what I call pro active social spirituality on the basis of which I strive for Justice, social economic and political Justice for those who are least among the last, the victims of modern day slavery. There can be no place for any use of force, let alone any type of violence. Nonviolence is therefore my culture, my dharma and is not confined to human beings but also to my extended family of birds, animals and bees.”
Mahatma Gandhi who lived and died promoting interfaith harmony recited the following verses as his favorite: “ishwar allah tero naam, sab ko sanmati de bhagavān” (“All names of God refer to the same Supreme Being, including Ishwar and Allah. O Bhagwan, please give peace and brotherhood to everyone”).
Swami Agnivesh cited these verses in my class in Washington, DC in November, 2018: “Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti” meaning, “There is one God or truth, [but] people call it by different names.” As the Maha Upanishad tells us, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakum—the whole world is a family.”
The Hindu philosophy of universal compassion, sacrifice and service preached by the Mahatma and the Swami is captured in a popular song from Baazi, a 1951 Guru Dutt film starring Dev Anand: “Kiya khak wo jeena hey jo apney hi ley ho—khud mit key kisi aur ko mitney say bacha ley—apney par bharosa hey to yeh dawo laga ley” (“What is the point of living if it is for yourself alone; save someone from being destroyed even if you destroy yourself; if you have confidence in yourself step forward and take the plunge”).
When I shared my writeup of his comments with him in January 2019, he responded: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, for beautifully placing what I had sent you as answers to your simple three questions. I had not realized the importance you have given to my simple thoughts. Indeed you are a man of pure heart. Warm personal regards, Swami Agnivesh.”
Four months later, in April 2019, the Swami reacted to an article my daughter, the scholar Dr. Amineh Hoti, had written about the Kalasha people of northwest Pakistan: “Congratulations Dr. Hoti for the beautiful article about beautiful Kalasha people. I hope I will be able to visit these people one day and share their unique culture. They seem to be like a tribal culture which has more of gender equality and close to nature, of simplicity not given to consumerism. Thank you so.”
The profoundly moving words of the Dalai Lama and Justice Krishna Iyer about the Swami are worth repeating as they sum up the man. Here is the Dalai Lama:
“Swami Agnivesh, who it has been my privilege to know and meet on many occasions, is a contemporary exemplar of these ancient values. He is someone who doesn’t simply hold fast to his principles, but whose practical turn of mind moves him to take whatever opportunity he can to put them into effect. He has been unflinching in his work to improve the lot of the underprivileged and downtrodden, especially bonded labourers and child labourers, and has been vocal in his support for equal rights for women, such as their right to education and to read scripture. His work to foster inter-religious harmony is reflected in the respect in which he is held by the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Buddhist, Bahai, and Jewish communities in this country. He has also stood firm in his resolve to create peace and defeat terrorism by engaging in dialogue and cementing the bonds of friendship.”
Justice Krishna Iyer, himself a towering literary figure and former Justice of the Supreme Court of India, has written: “My poetic mood, viewing India and the world and the hidden agendas of those who control society, is unhappy. At the sunset of life, my brief hour sees the darkling hues in the sky. But when I meet Agnivesh I remember Shakespeare: What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! in form in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!”
Following these great names and the others who have contributed to the volume I am truly humbled. My assessment, indeed tribute, to the Swami is based entirely upon empirical evidence. This is how it should be as I have been trained as an anthropologist. For me facts based on what I see and observe are the basis of my judgement.
As long as Indian society can produce a Swami Agnivesh there will be hope for those who value humanity and compassion and intelligence and wisdom. May I add my humble voice to those who have already paid him the highest compliments. I offer him my salute and also my dua. The salute is for his unflinching humanity. The world needs the Swami; my dua is to his fellow countrymen to value him and keep him safe away from the hatred with its knives and pistols.
My plea to those thugs who almost killed the Swami and are perhaps waiting to finish the job: leave him alone. Value him as a guru and guide. You have not spared swamis, Muslims, nor even nuns. This is neither spirituality nor religion, as the Swami teaches us.
That is why I was saddened to hear the news that Swami Agnivesh had just passed away. My prayers go for his noble soul and his grief-stricken family. Great clouds of hatred and violence hang low over the South Asian region and will only be dispersed by love and universal compassion. The world has lost a champion of humanity.
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC and former High Commissioner from Pakistan to the UK and Ireland.