In the Vedas and other sacred texts,
India's ancient sages conveyed a view of the cosmos so complex and
compelling that it survives vibrantly today. Enriched but never overtaken by
newer religions over the centuries and by its encounters with the clamoring
"isms" of our own time, Hindu civilization pervades the life of modern
India. From deep within it, PANDURANG SHASTRI ATHAVALE is drawing strength
for his country's spiritual renewal and material uplift.
Born to a family of Brahmin religious scholars in Maharashtra, ATHAVALE
mastered Sanskrit as a youth and absorbed the wisdom of the Hindu classics.
In Japan to attend a world religions conference in 1954, he asserted
confidently the salience of Vedic teachings and way of life. Someone asked:
In your country, is there a single community that lives by these ideals?
Disturbed by this question, ATHAVALE returned home and pondered frankly the
grim realities of contemporary Indian life.
Having founded a school combining India's sacred knowledge with Western
learning, he began meeting regularly with a group of earnest young truth
seekers—entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, lawyers. He led them to cultivate
self-awareness (swadhyaya) and to devote a portion of their free time to
acts of devotion and gratitude to God. Taking up the call in 1958,
ATHAVALE's middle-class disciples ventured into rural villages to propagate
swadhyaya and to advance their teacher's belief that barriers of caste,
gender, and religion must be transcended in order to recognize the true
equality of all people.
In the ensuing decades, ATHAVALE's volunteers swelled to hundreds, then
thousands, then tens of thousands. Today, ATHAVALE or Dada (elder brother),
as he is popularly known, guides a huge spiritual movement that courses
through thousands of villages and touches millions of urban and rural
Indians. Although emphatically spiritual, the swadhyaya movement has brought
striking social and material benefits to its adherents.
In hundreds of villages, swadhyaya devotees have abandoned drunkenness,
gambling, wife-beating, and petty crime to devote themselves to community
betterment. Fisherfolk, chanting Sanskrit hymns, ply "boat temples" whose
daily catch is reserved for the local hungry. Villagers plant multi-hectare
"tree temples" to restore degraded land and to make their habitats green
again. Farmers cultivate the common fields of "God's farm" to grow food to
share with needy neighbors. Swadhyaya-imbued villages are clean, tidy, and
prosperous. Children faithfully attend school. Villagers of all castes, men
and women, worship side by side. Untouchability is not recognized. Moreover,
communal strife is rare in swadhyaya communities and, in some places,
Muslims, Hindus, and Christians share the same place of worship.
Even so, ATHAVALE often reminds people that swadhyaya has nothing to do with
politics and is not undertaken to solve the problems of the world. "We are
merely planting a bouquet of flowers," he says, "of love, compassion,
selflessness, and peace."
A small organization of volunteers gives some coordination to ATHAVALE's
vast "family" and guides the work of swadhyaya schools. But it is largely
through teaching that ATHAVALE leads the movement. His pithy, conversational
sermons hold multitudes in rapt attention and circulate widely in print and
In them, ATHAVALE teaches that "God resides in everyone" and that achieving
"spiritual oneness" will bring with it solutions for worldly problems.
Calling upon the oldest of Hindu teachings, but alluding to Western thinkers
as well, seventy-five-year-old ATHAVALE exhorts his listeners to liberate
themselves from preconceived ideas and "baseless beliefs." "The basic
revolution," he asserts, "should be of the human mind."
In electing PANDURANG SHASTRI ATHAVALE to receive the 1996 Ramon Magsaysay
Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his tapping
the ancient wellsprings of Hindu civilization to inspire spiritual renewal
and social transformation in modern India.