Athavale’s amazing grassroots movement stresses God with and within man

By Rajiv Malik, New Delhi

I have not come here to talk to you or deliver a speech. I have come here just to meet and be with you. You are all rishis who have gone from village to village and city to city in North India, spending money from your own pockets, to meet your brothers and sisters in these villages and cities, without any selfish interest. I am here to have your darshan,” proclaimed Shri Panduranga Shastri Athavale to the giant rally at Jyo-ti-sar on March 20th. The assemblage near the epic Kurukshetra battlefield in North India brought together 130,000 well-wishers and 70,000 members of Athavale’s Swadhyaya Parivar, his “truth-seeking family” begun fifty years ago by the now 76-year-old Mumbai brahmin.

For the previous four days the Parivar’s swadhyayes (“truth-seekers”), as they are known, stormed 6,700 villages and about 100 towns in Hara-yana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Punjab to meet fellow human beings in a spirit of divine brotherhood. “We went from hut to hut and heart to heart of the people,” said Mumbai businessman Praduman P. Thak-kar, 38. Their objective? To “make each man aware of his divine heritage, that the Lord is with and within him,” instructed Athavale. Once this base of devotional awakening has formed, the swa-dhya-yes proceed to assist in solving the social and economic problems of the people.

They came in hundreds of buses which jammed the 160-kilometer G.T. Karnal Road linking Delhi and Kurukshetra. Each bus was colorfully decorated with huge banners announcing the towns the swadhyayes hailed from—in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Andhra Pra-desh, etc. The kilometers-wide camp was managed entirely by volunteers; indeed police sent to help found themselves expendable. The main point was to hear Atha-vale and gather inspiration for their mission of religious preaching and social development.

It was this unique combination of aims that inspired the popular feature film “Antarnaad” (“Inner Voice”), which powerfully reveals how the swadhyayes have to work facing harm and humiliation at the hands of dacoits, smugglers and anti-social elements while trying to positively transform the lives of millions living in the 80,000 villages where swadhyaya holds sway. The film depicts touching real life situations in which swadhyayes were able to vigorously convey to the rural people that God lives in them. This discovery of the indwelling God empowered villagers to transform their lives. They call these initial encounters bhav pheri (“devotional trips”), to be followed by kriti bhakti (“devotional action”) which enlists citizens in collective social ventures.

All this is done by an organization that accepts neither donations nor government grants, charges no membership fee, has no registered trust, no paid staff and no public relations office. The swadhyayes, who belong mostly to India’s educated middle class, bear all their own expenses and do the work in their free time for two weeks a year. They don’t even impose upon the hospitality of the villagers, but arrange their own lodgings and cook their own food. The social and economic programs they facilitate—such as community farms, schools, cottage industries, tree plantations, roads, dams and wells—invoke the initiative and resources of the villagers themselves. In the course of the work, many law-and-order problems are solved, for, as Athavale teaches, “A spiritually awakened man aware of God with and within us cannot do injustice to others.”

As Hinduism Today met swadhyayes at the March 20th rally, the diverse facets of this unique organization became more clear. Navin Shah, 68, an advocate from Baroda, explained the movement, “Our ancient tools of civilization—yagna, padayatra, ekadashi, brahmin and temple—were concepts so nice-ly conceived by our rishis. We are following the rishis’ route to a cultural renaissance.”

It is neither easy nor without peril. Uday Motipara, 37, an industrialist from Mumbai, who led the motorscooter rally, related how they nervously entered the city of Meerut, known for its tension between Hindus and Muslims. They were told that at the slightest disturbance the shops would close and rioting begin. “We were scared,” he confessed, “but when we did our street play at one place, the Muslims of the neighboring localities invited us to perform for them. That was not to be expected in a town like Mee-rut.” The street plays, with audiences of a few hundred to a thousand, are a common introductory technique of the Swa-d-hyaya Par-i-war. The skits raise contemporary social, political and economic problems and show how solutions can be discovered through awareness of God and the brotherhood of man.

Among the few hundred non-resident Indians present at the rally was Dr. Narendra Yamadagni, a scientist working at Stockholm University in Sweden. He explained Atha-vale’s unique approach to village medicine. Doctors are not simply allowed to go and treat people. They must first establish a relationship with the populace. Yamadagni recounted, “Doctor friends of mine went to a village. They decided to fly kites with the young people and have a meal with them. Now, these are highly qualified professionals from the city. You could say it is a waste of their talent. But it is equally essential to build the relationship, for that is the spirit of swadhyaya. If you cannot understand it, you cannot understand swadhya-ya.”

According to Gandhian scholar Rajiv Votra, the Mahatma observed that the modern scientific, rational, secular civilization was only built up after God was dethroned. “The challenge of the times,” says Votra, “is to get rid of this modern satanic civilization. To do it you have to enthrone God. And Athavale has shown such a fantastic way. I think this is the most unique and epochal movement, which has given thoughts, instruments and programs that cut across class, caste, nationality and religions. After Mahatma Gandhi’s, I feel this is the only movement which has given instruments of total recovery for India.”

Sri Athavale won the 1996 Ramon Magsaysay Award—the “Asian Nobel Prize”—for “tapping the ancient wellspring of Hindu civilization to inspire spiritual renewal and social trans-
formation” and leading followers “to
acts of devotion and gratitude to God.”