September 19, 2015

India: Why the Sanatan Sanstha doesn't like rationalists (Ipsita Chakravarty)


Very superstitious: Why the Sanatan Sanstha doesn't like rationalists
The group seems to thrive on a potent cocktail of nationalist Hindutva, occult and doomsday panic

by Ipsita Chakravarty

Samir Gaikwad, the man from Sangli who was arrested on charges of being involved in the murder of rationalist Govind Pansare, has been a member of an organisation called Sanatan Sanstha since 1998. The name of Sanatan Sanstha also cropped up when another rationalist, Narendra Dabholkar, was killed in 2013. The police had then tried but failed to establish a link between the murder and the group.

After Dabholkar’s death, an editorial in Sanatan Prabhat, the organisation’s mouthpiece, had said, “We all get what we deserve”. Now, it has released a press note on the “police ploy to implicate innocent Samir Gaikwad”. It then outlines this conspiracy: the police went through “2 crore call data records” and chose to search only Gaikwad’s number, due to “pressure from anti-Sanatan elements”. Gaikwad had been arrested on Wednesday and produced in court almost immediately, the note says, proof that his judicial remand was pre-planned and motivated.

But why would anti-Sanatan elements want to draw the police’s attention to the group again? What is the sanstha all about?

The charitable sanstha

In 2008, members of the organisation were arrested for plans to plant a crude bomb in a theatre in Thane, where a controversial Marathi play was to be staged. The sanstha is also known for issuing death threats to supporters of the anti-superstition bill in Maharashtra. When Pansare spoke against them in 2009, they filed a Rs 10-crore defamation suit against him.

But in Goa, the sanstha is registered merely as a charitable organisation. Formed in 1990 by Jayant Balaji Athavale, it operates mainly in Goa and Maharashtra. Going by the organisation’s website, its charity consists of “providing education on Dharma in scientific terminology and for the education of Hindus”.

The website speaks of a group with eclectic interests. There is a catalogue of articles musing on long hair (men should wear it short and women long for maximum spiritual benefit), who can be called a Hindu (those who accept the Vedas and the Puranas and are born into a traditional Hindu family), registered marriage (yes or no?), washed versus unwashed clothes, and a conspiracy by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to defame the sanstha.

This seems to be a nuts and bolts version of Hindutva, not quite glamorous enough for a group with bomb blast charges under its belt.

Spiritual Science Research

A closer look at Athavale’s own pursuits begins to reveal why rationalists like Pansare and Dabholkar might have been unpalatable to the sanstha. A serene, smiling man, he is also the founder of the Spiritual Science Research Foundation, which aims to “educate society on the spiritual dimension and how it affects our lives”. The organisation’s website gives an account of Athavale’s personal journey.

Back in the 1970s, he was a “consultant clinical hypnotherapist” who had a “cure rate of 70%”. At this point of time, he was also an atheist. Until he discovered that some of the patients he couldn’t cure had been able to get the job done by visiting sacred places, consulting holy men and performing religious rituals. Athavale had a change of heart: “Slowly, He began to realise that the science of Spirituality was far superior to physical and psychological science.” He began to practise this science, with the blessings of his guru, Bhaktaraj Maharaj.

The SSRF lists the common spiritual problems the people have to deal with in their everyday lives. These problems can be sensed through a “highly activated sixth sense”, which is able to perceive an unseen world of angels and heaven. The sixth may also be used to detect restive ancestral spirits, ghosts, demons and other negative influences, as well as the ebb and flow of energy through the body.

In short, superstition. It is a worldview radically opposed to that of the rationalists, who think that what is empirically observable is all that can be known, who reject the idea of universal knowledge or even the possibility of having “definite knowledge” about the past and the future.

'The Sanatan Prabhat'

In this month’s issue of the Dainik Sanatan Prabhat, however, Athavale branches into theological speculation, compiled as a “Treasure of Thoughts on the Nation and Dharma”. In its paranoias about an avalanche of destruction that is just around the corner and its insistence on separating the pure believers from the impure, the tract is not unlike some of the Islamic State’s flights of fancy.

The gist of the treasure trove is this: Kaliyuga is here so pretty much everyone is going to be wiped out in some unnamed calamity, only genuine “Sattva-Hindus” will be saved, Hindus who have “no love lost for the Nation and Dharma” are in for it, don’t waste time building temples, just run for your life, but while you’re at it, make sure that Muslims don’t come back to rule Bharat. Finally, “why rationalists and those with faith in a ‘scientific’ attitude possess limited knowledge [sic]?” It’s because they have an ego.

A number of article in the Prabhat are listed under “Attacks on Dharma”. The perils are numerous and come from varied sources. The first of these are “mighty Hindu organisations” who stay silent while the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Goa bars Pramod Mutalik, president of the Sriram Sena, from entering the state. Then there is the ISIS, bent on turning India into Khurasan, Tehelka magazine, which calls Bal Thackeray a terrorist, the Kashmiri youth, the Delhi Police, the Congress, Goans taking Portuguese citizenship, bikinis.

The group seems to thrive on a potent cocktail of nationalist Hindutva, occult and doomsday panic. But whether this is enough to drive its members to kill rationalists like Pansare and Dabholkar is for the police to find out and the courts to decide.