The sudden visibility of the Sanatan Sanstha in north Goa produces a whole range of stereotypes about Hindu spirituality and terrorism. Yet a historian of science watching both rationalist societies and Sanatan Sanstha sometimes senses startling similarities between the two. Both rational groups and the sanstha are involved in reform. Both seek to create a logic of activity for both individual and collective life, which is intriguing to watch.
Consider the sanstha itself. It was established by Balaji Athavale, a hypnotherapist who for years tried to study the causes of disease to realise that clinical hypnosis did not work on most of his patients. As an atheist, Athavale was stunned to realise that a mere pilgrimage as a mode of searching or visiting the sacred was more effective than any clinical cure. Athavale sensed the power of spirituality which he saw as superior to scientific medicine and sought to spread it. He established the sanstha to spread spirituality among Hindus creating as it were a web of practices, techniques to spread spirituality. It was an attempt to create an awareness of righteousness, and sought to unite Hindus everywhere. In fact the sanstha was a deep enthusiast of sustaining Nepal as a Hindu kingdom.
At an everyday level, the sanstha produced an array of do-it-yourself techniques combining home science, hygiene and spirituality, where the symbolic, the psychic and the technical merged. One can take as evidence its essays on clothes and the maintenance of hair. Clothing, the document, says has to be sensible because perverse dressing leads to temptation, while correct clothing helps imbibe positive energies. Satvik clothes as per Hindu dharma include plain, clean, washed, light-in-colour clothes with a minimum of designs. Similarly, the recipe for normal hair advises men not to wear ponytails as it creates negativity. The world is full of vibrations which one needs to channelise. At this level of homeliness and hygiene, the sanstha is almost innocuous. It almost mimics rationalism in its emphasis on prescription, taboos, such that rationalism and spirituality often mimic each other. The techniques of spirituality and rationalist methods mimic each other in their ritual emphasis.
The litmus test is however not the civics of how you live religion but how you treat your rival. Rationalism can often become snobbery but spiritualism can become a form of intolerance seeking to suppress forces on the other side.
The spirituality of the sanstha created an aggressive Hinduism seeking to terrorise rationalists. What began as a form of table manners of spirituality became terroristic. In 2009, sanstha associates conducted a bomb blast at the screening of Jodha Akbar. In 2009, sanstha activists were arrested in connection with a blast at a Margao Church. One must confess that these terrorists were amateurish and in fact detonated a bomb accidentally killing two of the sanstha's members. By 2001, the Maharashtra government had compiled a 100-page dossier which slumbered in some politician's office.
It is the sanstha's reported association with the murder of three rationalist activists that raises deeper questions. The murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar were executed in cold blood. Whether Sanatan Sanstha is an umbrella for fellow travellers or a Hindu activist outfit committed to violence is still to be investigated fully. Yet what is clear is that the Hindu imaginaries it creates does lead its followers to intolerance, terror and violence.
One must add that there is nothing spiritual about the three acts. Police investigations reveal that journalists like Nikhil Wagle have been threatened by Samir Gaikwad, who was arrested in connection with the murder of Govind Pansare. It is clearly an act of guilt by association and the demands for banning the sanstha have begun. Yet bans do not create closure. They drive organisations underground. Let us not forget the RSS once banned by Sardar Patel runs the current regime.
What one needs to do is understand why Hinduism is turning aggressive both in its nationalism and in its intolerance. This intrigues one because Hinduism is a syncretic religion. One admits Hindu terrorism is not as routine and ruthless as its Islamic or Buddhist variants. Yet the temptations to violence appearing from ashrams, sansthas, many of which are later discovered to be armed fortresses, needs examination. Is this a residual aspect of Hinduism or is violence becoming a trademark of many Hindu groups who sense the climate in India seems right for a few epidemics of intolerance? What is tragic is that these groups see such revivalism and violence as a part of the new Hindu masculinity.
What is sadder still is the support this receives from the Hindu orthodoxy and politicians jealous to preserve votebanks or too cowardly to challenge such trends. But two things are clear - both science, in its reductionist form as scienticism, and spirituality, which begins as a search for meaning to culminate in violence, need to be rethought in democratic India. The crucial thought experiment is to create conversations between rationalism and spirituality, science and religion as the Dalai Lama and Jiddu Krishnamurthi have attempted to do.
Stereotyping oppositions only leads to a totalitarian impasse full of meaningless violence.