By Yoginder Sikand
Lucknow-based Swami Lakshmi is not, as his last name might suggest, an orthodox Brahminical priest. He heads the ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity Front’, dedicated to promoting harmony between Muslims and Hindus. His way of promoting the cause is somewhat unique: exploring and highlighting what he regards as the striking similarities between Quranic Islam and the Vedas, or what he prefers to call Sanatan Vaidik Dharm or the ‘Eternal Vedic Law’.
I met with the swami earlier this year, at a conference in Delhi. Dressed in the ochre robes of a sadhu, he quoted liberally from the Quran and the Vedas to stress the claim of the universality of religion and to counter exclusivist understandings of each of them. The audience, mixed in terms of religious composition, heard him in careful silence, and when he was over, burst into hearty applause.
The swami was kind enough to grant me an interview. Keen to further understand his approach to promoting Hindu-Muslim dialogue, I asked him to begin by telling me about himself and how he had got so involved in dialogue work, which was now his major preoccupation.
He was born in 1952 in a village in the Kanpur district in Uttar Pradesh, the swami began, where he received his basic education, after which he shifted to Allahabad, where worked for a while as a contractor. But, increasingly, he began tiring of the world. ‘I wanted to live for God’, he said. It was at this time that he became an activist—though not a formal member—of the RSS and the VHP. As a result of this association with hardliner, vociferously anti-Muslim outfits, over time hatred for Muslims became almost a creed for him. ‘In government schools we were taught that Muslims came to India as invaders, that they slaughtered Hindus and destroyed their temples. Being active in the work of the RSS and VHP, my hatred for Muslims and Islam was further magnified,’ he went on. ‘It was as if my religion demanded that I should hate Muslims and their faith.’ This led him on to write a polemical treatise against Islam, titled ‘The History of Islamic Terrorism’, wherein he claimed that not just India, but, in fact, the entire world, was faced with what he had termed as the ‘peril of Islam’. The book was published by a pro-RSS publishing house, and was released, in 2002, by none other than the Shiv Sena supreme Bal Thackeray, known for his venom-spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric.
At that time a hardened Muslim-hater, the swami experienced a sudden change of heart shortly after he penned his vitriolic anti-Islamic treatise. ‘At around this time,’ he explained, ‘a number of Muslim clerics, particularly leading ulema of the Deoband school, had begun issuing statements and fatwas condemning terrorism, even in the name of Islam, and insisting that it had no place whatsoever in Islam,’ he elaborated. ‘This made me curious to understand Islam not from Hindutva writings, which were obviously heavily biased, but through the Quran itself and through the writings of Muslim scholars.’ The swami began researching Islam from its own original sources. In a short while, he discovered, much to his surprise, that what the Quran actually taught, particularly about the doctrine of jihad, was, if correctly understood, quite the opposite of what he had earlier thought it did. The Quran was not the treatise on terror that he had been led to believe and that he had accused it of being in his book. He had erred, he said, by ignoring the explanations of jihad given by numerous qualified Islamic scholars and by taking Quranic verses related to jihad out of their contexts or culling just certain portions of these verses while ignoring others (a crime radical Islamists, too, are guilty of), which had twisted their intended meaning completely.
To properly understand the issue of jihad—which remains one of the key causes of deep-rooted negative stereotypes about Islam among many non-Muslims—the swami began to delve into the history of the Prophet Muhammad. ‘I read his biography, for only in that way could I appreciate the question of jihad in its proper context,’ he went on. ‘It soon dawned on me that what I had earlier written about the Prophet was completely untrue. To repent for what I had done, I decided to write a second book, refuting what I had earlier written, and apologizing to God, to the Prophet and to Muslims in general, for my previous book, which I had completely disassociated from. In the new book I issued this apology very explicitly, and clearly mentioned that my earlier book should be treated as completely null and void.’ The new book, in Hindi, titled Islam: Atank Ya Adarsh? (‘Islam: Terror or Role Model?’ was published earlier this year. It argues, contrary to popular non-Muslim perception, that Islam opposes terrorism and that, in fact, it is a model religion for humanity. An English version of the book is to be out soon.
I asked the swami to tell me more about the vision behind his ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity Front’. ‘We want to bring Hindus and Muslims closer to each other, to bridge the gulf that divides them,’ he replied. The swami and his small band of disciples have organised numerous public rallies for this cause, and regularly attend seminars and activist meetings across the country, organized by Hindu, Muslim as well as secular groups, propagating the same simple message: of monotheism and righteous belief and conduct as the basis for human, including Hindu-Muslim, unity. This basic point, he says, is something that people of different faiths and communities can easily agree on. It is, or, rather can be, he argues, the foundation for a common consensus between Muslims and Hindus. He lauds the Quranic concept of unsullied monotheism, and claims that, if properly understood, the Vedas, too, talk of just one God and vehemently oppose polytheism, idolatry and the worship of avatars and other human beings, which he explains as a later accretion that have nothing to do with true Sanatan Vaidik Dharm.
Is this not what some neo-Hindu groups such as the Arya Samaj also claim? I asked the swami. ‘The Arya Samaj does talk of monotheism, and opposes idolatry’, he answered, ‘but its founder, Dayanand Saraswati, was vehemently opposed to Islam and Muslims.’ ‘On the other hand,’ he explained, ‘our approach is based on love and unity, seeking to bring Hindus and Muslims together and to assert the claim that a true Sanatani is actually also a true Muslim, in the real sense of the term as someone who has truly submitted to God.’