The Acceptance Speech of
MR. PANDURANG SHASTRI ATHAVALE
Upon Receiving The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion
Westminster Abbey, Tuesday, May 6, 1997
Your Royal Highness, Sir John Templeton, Members of the Templeton Family
and Foundation. My divine brothers and sisters.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in Westminster Abbey. It is a matter
of great honour because the Abbey is hallowed in the history of this great land.
It is associated with greatest of all the translation of Holy Bible into English.
It helped spread the message of love and service far and wide. I too follow
the noble example of the Lord Jesus Christ. I bring with me all the love all
the noble thoughts and all the care for humankind, from the culture into which
I was born.
When l was growing up and began to think, I was pained at what I saw. I saw
man becoming egocentric and selfish, untrusting and untrustworthy, ungrateful,
uncaring and exploitative. I saw rapid erosion of human values and virtues.
In general, an atmosphere of isolation and fear was being created. Security
against wild beasts is understandable. But I wondered why man needed security
against man. I was struck by ethnic, economic and social barriers raised by
man against man. It was clear to me that by doing so humankind was demeaning
itself. As I studied and observed and thought through, I was convinced that
the merciful Creator could not have wished his children to become what they
were becoming. I was eager to know why was it so? I read history. I learned
that many systems had tried to bring order in the human life and uplift humankind
whenever it lost its humanity.
Religion was the first and the foremost institution that gave intellectual
introduction of God and revealed the relationship of self with Him and enabled
man to explore the meaning of life. For thousands of years, religion was successful
in ordering human conduct and stabilizing human life. Only during the last couple
of centuries, religion has lost its effectiveness. Its moral order is in decline.
The religious leaders have become increasingly sullen, withdrawn, pessimistic
and otherworldly. It is generally seen as a force against progress. Therefore,
particularly the youth are drifting away from it.
The religious moral order is becoming redundant. Key social institutions
like family, education and society are losing control. Religion is being reduced
to mechanical observance of a set of rituals. It is virtually being replaced
by power of the State, science, commerce and economics. Fear and selfishness
define all relationships. Even God is being approached either out of fear or
out of greed. The foundation of moral order is shaken. Indeed, religion has
become counter productive and dogmatic.
As religion has been on decline, science has been on rise. Humankind began
to look up to science as the new agency of deliverance, of making it happy.
To a great extent it has eased the life of the common person. Because of phenomenal
technological advancements, humankind began to labour under delusion. It thought
that it was capable of mastering nature. Despite several shocks, it is still
not out of the trance. The empirical logic on which science is based has questioned
even the existence of God. Surely, it has given humankind enormous material
power, but it has not and cannot teach it how to love, how to be grateful, how
to give warmth or how to relate with others. Humankind's false hopes from science
has been a pipedream. This never is the province of science.
Though scientific establishment continues its efforts to conquer nature,
its limitations have been exposed. Men of insight have drawn our attention to
these limitations. Man's disillusionment with science has increased because
it has been exposed to the horrors of weapons of mass destruction. Physical
distances have been reduced but emotional distances have widened and are widening.
Depletion of life giving resources has reached alarming levels. The psychic
costs of science and technology are now becoming unacceptable.
The State is another agency devised for the betterment for humankind to regulate
human affairs, to bring about harmony and accord between various sections of
society. It has tried to ensure welfare of all through rules and law. This shortcut
to human welfare has not been able to transform man or provide a moral basis
of government. Its amoral nature, its limited scope and its tendency to limit
human creativity has not and cannot serve the deeper spiritual needs of humanity.
The State has neither been able to eradicate inequalities nor establish a basis
of harmonious relationship within the state and among the states.
Rules are necessary to regulate life, but they are like fences or limits
within which humankind has to operate. Transgression is neither permitted nor
tolerated. It invites punishment. It is particularly harsh on the weak. It was
Plato who said in the Republic: 'Justice is in the interest of the stronger
and everyone knows it.' This is the universal nature of state laws, irrespective
of the color of the regime: red, white or green.
All these establishments and agencies - religion, science and state - have
brought order in conduct of human affairs. They have helped in reaching minimum
social accord. For centuries these institutions have taken care of humankind
and its well-being. At the same time these have also developed serious shortcomings.
They have belied hopes reposed in them. It has led to dangerous clashes and
dwindling resources. Life itself is threatened. Their ineffectiveness led thinking
people everywhere to find ways to overcome the dilemmas they faced. As a result
several schools of thought emerged.
I was drawn to the ideas of liberalism that had its birth in Great Britain.
It extolled the idea of human liberty. I love liberty. I think that the idea
of liberty is also dear to God, because he has given the power to us to do and
undo and face the consequences.
Liberalism focused on individual liberty. It emphasized rights and not duties.
It took the middle position between dogmatic conservatism and irresponsible
radicalism. However, it devalued social responsibility which led to its own
As self-defining subject, the individual derived his life purpose solely
from his self interest. Rest is taken as irrelevant. It raised the idea of 'live
and let live' to glorious heights. But this idea taken to its logical conclusion
would spell doom. It would lead to total indifference to the existence of others.
If all mothers were to practice it actually the Human race itself would be in
peril. This is not the language of mother.
Such instrumental thinking denies even the existence of the inner life of
the person. It is all calculation of costs and benefits in identifying and meeting
human desires. Such flawed philosophy needed correction. It did not meet the
test of logic, its love of freedom was seen as sentimental. Philosophers like
Voltaire had no patience with liberal thinking. They believed in analytical
and critical thinking. This line of thinking flourished in Germany and its influence
spread far and wide. Voltaire believed that reason and reason alone should be
the touchstone of whatever man does. His age has been described as the age of
reason or enlightenment. At first sight there seemed nothing wrong in the glorification
of human reason. I rejoiced in the idea, but then I started thinking that human
intellect is not free. It is influenced by motives. It is a slave of passions
and self-interest. It is moved by lust, ego and selfishness. Therefore, there
cannot be pure rationalism. Given the same facts, different people would rationalize
differently and reach different conclusions. Can we accept such thinking as
the basis for ordering human relations? Is it capable of uplifting man or bringing
him closer to other man? The answers were in negative.
The most powerful idea to emerge during the last two centuries is of equality.
It is also known as socialism. It postulates that economic justice is necessary
for just relations in other spheres. The first step to bring about such an order,
based on equality, required state mobilization of resources, production and
distribution. It was and is a grand idea. I was deeply moved by such thinking.
But, then I started looking around and found little evidence to support my
faith. I found that nature does not support equality. No two species are equal
nor two individuals are endowed equally. I was also exposed to the nature of
the State under socialist regimes. It frequently turned against individual freedoms.
Redistribution of wealth did not ensure equality. It perhaps ensured minimum
welfare, but it could not abolish the distinction between haves and have-nots.
The reasons were obvious. Economic resources are for exchange and investment.
Economic decisions are dependent on a number of factors, many of which are beyond
human control, say, virtues and vices. There can be an individual who spends
his income on liquor and another on books. Both make unproductive decisions
and to that extent become economically have-nots as compared to a man who invests
for accumulation purposes. Even equal opportunity does not ensure equalities,
for individual capabilities are different. Then what has to be done? Given the
problems associated with various schools of thought or 'isms', I was convinced
that they could find only partial answers.
The answer had to be found to the central problem of fitting the unfit to
survive. The answers that I found were eclectic. They were supported by my tradition,
though these were not exclusive to my tradition. My model was that of parent-child
relationship and love among children of one family. The child is vulnerable,
but the parents nurture it. I wondered how the resourceful and the powerful
in the society can be motivated to share with the needy and take care of the
needy? How the needy can be secured against the sense of inferiority and insignificance?
What will induce the haves and have-nots to come together in equal and loving
relationship? Can such relationship be established? I had to swim against mighty
After much reflection, I thought that it was possible. The need was to remind
humankind of the idea of divine nearness. Humankind had to learn that the unit
of relevance for us is not only of our biological family but also the family
of man. Most religions have these ideas in some form or the other. However,
they have remained dormant. Even in the religious tradition of my birth, where
these ideas are full blown and fully accepted, they have not been put into practice.
Instead, they have been twisted. It has resulted in great inequalities.
I was convinced that these ideas can be put into practice because these were
reason based and in agreement with the philosophy. These ideas also can overcome
the feeling of superiority and inferiority involved in giving and receiving.
This is not a structural perspective. It is a perspective of shared divinity
and a caring family.
For me God is central to life. Growth, progress and development have no meaning
if they do not stem from and contribute to God-consciousness. Progress is a
process, not an end. We talk of sustainable development without talking spirituality.
Spirituality alone is capable of sustaining self- respect and promoting self
reliance. Armed with such thinking I started going where comfortably located
people normally do not go. I also encouraged others to go. We went to the people
discarded by society. Now, millions of people have joined me in this journey.
In all this I was inspired by many philosophical texts, particularly my reading
of Bhagwad Geeta and its doctrine of indwelling presence of God. When I accept
the idea of diving presence, all aspects of life become clear and focused. I
accept God's presence in each and every person. I begin to respect myself and
others, irrespective of the post, position or possession of the other. I do
not permit any outside agency to exploit me.
The awareness of God's nearness is life enhancing. When humankind begins
to feel and absorb God's love, it stops feeling helpless. It helps to regulate
our way of life and thinking. We also begin to understand that behind our existence
and faculties is the power of God. This manifests in developing a divine brotherhood
under the fatherhood of God. That is the foundation of Swadhyaya family or pariwar
as we call it.
My own interactions with people convince me that we have neglected the common
man, if not disowned him. He has reason to be suspicious, as those who have
gone to him have done so to exploit him. This suspicion can go and must go.
The barriers have to be lowered. Trust can be restored only through selfless
love. We reach out to others with an understanding that we are the children
of same God. We are all related. I have called it bhatki pheri or devotional
visits. This builds a relationship based on devotion. It changes and renews
both - one who visits and the one visited.
The sense of self-worth is further enhanced by a novel form of charity. It
is different from what is known as charity that is normally offered by the rich
to the poor. I refuse to believe that only the rich are endowed with this faculty.
Poor and needy too want to offer charity, but they are barely able to sustain
themselves. The have-nots have nothing to offer except their sweat. I encouraged
them to offer to God their labor and their occupational efficiency, time and
talent, power and potential. They started offering their efficiency and skill
for a day every month. This offering is sacred and subjective because that is
offered is in the spirit of devotion to God. The notion of using efficiency
as devotional offering is continuously extended, generating "impersonal wealth".
Indeed, impersonal wealth belongs to none but God. It is available for and distributed
to have-nots to stand on their own feet. Words like equality, dignity, solidarity
acquire new meaning; they become real.
Thus, from the idea of divine relationship and gratefulness to God has grown
a series of constructive programs. This leads to community building and releasing
of untapped potential for self-reliant communities. This re-linking of individual
and society also results in many other beneficial effects. Domestic violence,
gambling, alcoholism, wife and child abuse, dowry, etc. gradually disappear
from the communities where Swadhyaya ideas have taken roots.
Our methodology is in sharp contrast to tradition of giving in secular -
socialist framework and humanist philanthropy. This could work because I tried
to rework traditional ideas. I wanted to minimize cultural shock of existential
living and enable people to accept new ideas in an old framework. I did this
through the idea of bhakti or devotion. Bhakti is an understanding. It is an
attitude of mind. It is a loving expression of gratefulness to God. It is an
intellectual perception with emotional undercurrent.
The conventional view of bhakti is that it is a solitary, introverted activity.
It tried to show that inner and outer experiences are not two opposites facing
each other. They are the same. Bhakti is possible and desirable in everyday
living. It could be expressed through service to God.
I see bhakti as an understanding of God's profound love for us. We respond
to that in form of active concern for His creation. We show our concern by translating
it into community action; that is, expanding the circle of love for meeting
the common goal. In so doing, we are not engaged in any social service nor are
we obliging others. It is our gratitude to the Supreme Creator that issues into
a dynamic activity, actional or devotion krutibhakti as we call it. Understood
in this larger sense, bhakti has the potential to solve the socio-economic problems.
It becomes an antidote to expressive individualism and oppressive state control.
Participation in community reconstruction also becomes a journey of self-discovery.
For us, to align with the divine means to align with others.
Bhakti is our entry point through which we develop bonds of brotherhood.
Because of the voluntary nature, obligations are self-incurred. From passive
spectators and helpless victims, we become responsible for our lives and the
world in which we live. Having built such spiritual bonds, it is not difficult
for us to identify the area specific problems and the ways to overcome them
in a manner that uses our efficiency and resources.
Depending on the needs of the area where we work, we have been engaged in
nearly two dozen projects to date. Some of the experiments have grown quite
large and generate considerable "impersonal wealth". These are Yogeshwar Krushi
(Farms of god), Matsyagandha (Floating Temple of fisherman), Hiramandir (Temple
of diamond cutters), Vrukshamandirs (Orchards and woodlands that are called
tree temples) and water conservation projects. However, it is not the utilitarian
aspect of these projects that is important to us. That is only a bi-product.
It is their bonding capacity that is important to us.
I do not know whether I have been successful or not. By any conventional
standards, the achievements of Swadhyaya stand out, but that need not be a measure
of our success. What I do know is that I am not a failure, and that people of
all faiths have responded positively to what I have proposed. Perhaps this award
is a testimony of it. Your appreciation has strengthened my belief that my work
is dear to God. You have delivered me the love letter of God. I truly and sincerely
thank the sensitivity of those who have appreciated what they have not even
seen. What you have not seen are the subjective changes in humankind and how
Swadhyaya is revitalizing human relationships. These cannot be described. These
have to be observed and experienced first hand. On behalf of our pariwar, I
invite you, Sir, the Templeton family, the panel of judges and those who are
present here to come and personally see the work and experience the transformation
that is taking place.
I once again thank God for his love and recognition and thank you for your
appreciation by way of the Award.