COVER STORY

Spiritual puzzle

The story of the Sanatan Sanstha—does it breed saints, or sinners?

34-the-sanatan-sanstha Mounting trouble: The Sanatan Sanstha ashram in Ponda, Goa | Amey Mansabdar

The Sanatan Sanstha’s declared goal is the “reinstatement of divine kingdom”. The radical Hindu organisation, which was founded by hypnotherapist Jayant Athavale in 1991, seems to have a plan in place to fulfil that. The Sanstha has been spreading its wings from its headquarters in Ponda, Goa. Around 300 outfits are now said to be associated with it. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), an affiliate set up in 2002, has been in the public glare, often more than the parent organisation, owing to its religious and social activities.

People who frequent the ashram say Athavale no longer meets anyone, and remains confined to his room.
The idea of India as a Hindu nation is more than a slogan—the Sanstha believes that it will be a reality by 2023.

The first time the Sanstha got nationwide attention, however, was for the wrong reasons. In 2008, it was named in the bomb blasts in the Mumbai suburbs of Panvel, Thane and Vashi. It was alleged that Hindu activists planted crude bombs at cultural venues to protest the staging of the play Amhi Pachpute, which allegedly portrayed Hindu deities in a bad light. The prosecution contended that all six persons accused in the case were members of the Sanstha. Two of them were convicted.

A year later, the organisation’s name popped up in the Madgaon bomb blast case. In September 2016, a special investigation team claimed to have recovered psychotropic drugs from the Sanstha’s Panvel ashram.

What put the Sanstha in the eye of a storm was its alleged links to the killers of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar (killed in 2013), communist leader Govind Pansare (killed in 2015), Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi (killed in 2015) and journalist Gauri Lankesh (killed in 2017). The special investigation team probing Lankesh’s murder has said that a large network of indoctrinated youths trained in using firearms has taken up the cause of “protecting dharma”. It is said to have a hit list of some 25 “anti-Hindu intellectuals”.

Recently, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad seized explosives from the house of Vaibhav Raut, who is said to be a Sanstha worker, and arrested five people. The explosives were allegedly meant for attacks in various locations in the state.

Matter of faith: Dr Jayant Athavale, founder of the Sanatan Sanstha. Matter of faith: Dr Jayant Athavale, founder of the Sanatan Sanstha.

The Sanstha says the allegations against it are a “conspiracy” to malign the organisation and an effort to establish the notion of “saffron terror”. “People arrested by the ATS might have attended meetings and programmes organised by us,” says Chetan Rajhans, spokesperson for the Sanstha. “They might be staunch supporters of hindutva. But that does not mean they are our members.”

A closer look at the Sanstha, however, would reveal that it is a lot more than a religious organisation. It is a powerful social and political entity which keeps itself abreast of the developments in the country and abroad through its vast network of affiliates. It regularly convenes conferences to promote Hindu values and rituals, and conducts workshops on topics such as ‘love jihad’ and Bangladeshi infiltrators. Other initiatives include conducting social media camps to strengthen the propagation of Hinduism and the hindutva ideology, networking with like-minded organisations and bringing Hindus together irrespective of caste. It had campaigned against the Maharashtra government’s move to take over the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar and the renaming of the Haj Bhavan in Karnataka after Tipu Sultan.

Athavale, 76, started the Sanstha in the middle of a successful career as a hypnotherapist. Born in Nagothane in Raigad district in Maharashtra, he studied medicine and psychiatry, and did research in hypnotherapy in Britain for seven years. After returning in 1978, he started a practice in Mumbai and trained some 400 doctors in hypnotherapy.

A turning point in Athavale’s career was the realisation that many of his patients who failed to respond to medicines were getting relief by going on a pilgrimage or meeting a saint or performing religious rituals. He figured out that spiritual science, unlike medical science, treated a human at both physical and mental levels. His desire to learn led him to saints. In 1987, he received the ‘guru mantra’ from Bhaktaraj Maharaj in Indore, and set out on the spiritual journey. He founded the Sanatan Bharatiya Sanskruti Sanstha in 1990, and the Sanatan Sanstha in 1991.

Athavale soon took up the causes of Hindu unity and protection of the nation, and started giving the title ‘Dharma Rakshak’ to people working for them. He urged Hindus to raise their voice against mockery of Hinduism and its deities, scriptures, saints and national leaders. This has often pitted Sanstha followers against the free-speaking liberals.

People who frequent the ashram say Athavale no longer meets anyone, and remains confined to his room. Apparently, he has been a recluse for almost a decade and is said to be unwell. However, the ashram celebrated his 75th birthday in May 2017, and he attended the various yajnas performed on the occasion. Some reports on the official blog and website of the Sanstha claim that he has undergone “divine changes”, like images of lotus and trishul appearing on his body and “divine particles” emanating from him.

Athavale advocates a path known as Gurukrupa Yoga—a combination of Karma Yoga, Dnyan Yoga and Bhakti Yoga—for fast spiritual progress. Here, the seeker pursues vyashti sadhana (for the welfare of the individual) and samashti sadhana (for the welfare of society), while focusing on the progress of the nation and dharma (righteousness/ religion). Through a sadhana performed under the guidance of a guru, one can progress faster, realise God and get liberated from the cycles of birth and death.

The Sanstha has developed a formula to assess the spiritual level of an individual. The level of an average person who does not engage in spiritual practice is 20 per cent. That of a person performing spiritual practice regularly through karmakand (path of rituals) like daily puja (ritualistic worship), reading pothis (holy verses) and fasting is 25 to 30 per cent. If one reaches a spiritual level of 60 per cent or above, he starts moving towards sainthood. An individual with a spiritual level of 70 per cent attains sainthood. Moksha (final liberation) is achieved when the spiritual level is 100 per cent. Athavale says saints have zero ego and have love for others. “The spiritual experiences like spiritual healing, spontaneous chanting, thoughtlessness, anand (bliss) and shanti (peace) are experienced in their presence,” he says.

Moksha cannot be attained without guru’s grace. To earn guru’s grace, one has to practise the various aspects of sadhana—chanting, satsang (sacred gathering), satseva (service), sacrifice for spiritual love without any expectations, bhav-jagruti (invoking of spiritual emotion), removal of personality defects and removal of ego. God-realisation (the highest state of consciousness) is possible only when one pursues not just the individual welfare but also the welfare of society.

According to Sanatan Prabhat, the mouthpiece of the Sanstha (a fortnightly in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, English and Gujarati), 1,142 seekers, including women and children, have attained the spiritual level of 60 per cent or above. Eighty of them have already attained sainthood.

Remembering the Martyrs: Volunteers collecting funds in Bengaluru for a literary meet against intolerance, planned for the death anniversaries of M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh | Bhanu Prakash Chandra Remembering the Martyrs: Volunteers collecting funds in Bengaluru for a literary meet against intolerance, planned for the death anniversaries of M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

The Sanstha tries to propagate the “right knowledge” of Hindu deities, festivals and rituals, the traditional roles of men and women, Hindu society and relationships through its camps, seminars and discourses. Various professions are also seen through the spiritual prism. For instance, the black robe of lawyers causes spiritual distress, says a saint at the Sanstha. He adds that it comes as no surprise that lawyers defend falsehoods in courts.

Sanatan Prabhat often reflects on the spiritual perspectives in crucial issues—from the National Register for Citizens and the water crisis in India to the intolerance debate and political parties’ attitude towards building a Ram temple in Ayodhya. All discourses, invariably, hover around the idea of Hindu rashtra. The Sanstha had lauded the Israeli parliament for passing the Jewish nation law, and it assures the followers that a Hindu nation will promote Sanskrit and follow the Hindu calendar, just like Israel did for the Hebrew language and calendar.

The Guru Purnima is one of the most important events at the Sanstha, and the faithful are reminded of their role in establishing a Hindu rashtra at these celebrations. According to the Sanstha, a nation rich in character is an ideal nation—the Ram rajya and Chhatrapati Shivaji’s Hindavi Swarajya were ideal, but today’s rulers have allowed things like pornography, pubs and live-in relationships, thus weakening the character of the citizens. The Sanstha envisages a Hindu nation which will have no caste demarcations or reservations, and it does not think it will be achieved through ballots or political leadership, but with the blessings of the saints.

The idea of India as a Hindu nation is more than a slogan—the Sanstha believes that it will be a reality by 2023. “Long before the invasion of Muslim rulers and Christians, Bharat was a Hindu nation,” said Umesh Sharma, a sadhak, in his Guru Purnima address. “None of the kings— from Bharata, Harishchandra and Prabhu Shri Rama to King Dahir of Afghanistan and Maharana Pratap of Rajasthan—was secular. Their kingdoms were Hindu states. At the time of independence, too, there were 566 Hindu kingdoms in Bharat. But in 1976, during the Emergency, when the opposition party leaders were behind bars, Indira Gandhi, driven by the liberals, included the word ‘secular’ in the Constitution. Secular democracy has caused tremendous loss to the nation and Hindus. As devout Hindus and Hindu organisations, we must unite to establish a Hindu rashtra.”

The Sanstha has been under the scanner for a while for its alleged role in radicalising the youths to commit crimes. Rajhans, the spokesperson, says the Sanstha is a soft target. “Previously, the RSS was the target. But now it has grown bigger and stronger. So, the anti-Hindu liberals and politicians are trying to implicate the Sanstha. But the truth will always prevail,” he said.

The Sanstha has the means to fight for its causes and against the challenges. The Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, a lawyers’ collective formed under the HJS, helps Hindu activists in the cases against them. “We are with Hindu activists,” said lawyer Amritesh N.P., who is a member of HVP in Karnataka. “The others have an army of supporters rushing to their aid and to bail them out. The Hindu activists are suffering from police torture and political victimisation, and we want to stop that. We will extend free legal assistance to all Hindu activists irrespective of the organisation they belong to.”

The Sanstha, which was bailed out in the Madgaon blast case, is now cornered again over the murders of the liberal thinkers and the charges made by the Anti-Terrorism Squad. Though the Sanstha dismisses it as a political controversy, the tension is palpable. The ashram in Goa, which used to open its doors even to strangers on Guru Purnima, has suddenly turned hostile. “No, the media is not welcome to the ashram,” said a trustee, citing the “malicious campaign” against the Sanstha for the ban.