Sunday, February 12, 2006

Swami Sahjanand Saraswati

The Swami
The foremost of the leaders of the peasantry in Bihar was Swami Sahajanand Saraswati. Sahajanand was born in Ghazipur district in eastern U.P. in the late nineteenth century (1889?) [Sahajanand, 1952] to a family of Jujautia Brahmins. He was the last of six sons and had no sisters. His mother died when he was a child and Naurang Rai (as he was known then) was raised by an aunt. His father, Beni Rai, although a Brahmin, was primarily a cultivator, and was so divorced from priestly functions that he did not even know the gayatri mantras. The family held a small zamindari, income from which had sufficed in Sahajanand's grandfathers' time, but as the family grew and the land was partitioned, prosperity dwindled and (tenant) cultivation became the main occupation. However, the family was not so extremely poor that its condition would prevent Naurang from going to school, where he did very well both in the primary grades and in the German Mission high school where he studied English. Even at an early age, however, Naurang showed sings of brilliance and scepticism of conventional populist religious practices. He questioned the institution of people taking guru- mantra from fake religious personages and wanted to study religious texts deeply in order to be able to find real spiritual solace by renouncing the world. To prevent him from doing this, his family had him married to a child bride but, before the marriage could stablise, in 1905 or early 1906, his wife died. The last fetter in his way to sanyas (renunciation of the world) having been removed, in 1907 Naurang Rai was initiated into holy orders and took on the name of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati. This adoption of sanyas prevented him from appearing for the matriculation examination but he spent the rest of his life, especially the first seven years after sanyas, in studying religion, politics and social affairs. In all these he became increasingly radicalised so that towards the end of his life, the world was presented with the incongruous sight of a saffron-clad swami who denounced organised religion [Sahajanand, 1948:96-123].

However, before Sahajanand came to this stage, he had to traverse a long road. His first involvement in public activity started from the very narrow casteist Bhumihar platform. Only gradually did Sahajanand become involved in nationalist Congress politics, and then in peasant movements, progressively in Patna, Bihar and, finally, all over India.

Even in order to get to the peasant question, however, Sahajanand went through political schooling in Congress under Gandhi. In fact, the Swami and the Mahatma had a curious filial relationship. Sahajanand started off in Congress as a devoted Gandhian, admiring Gandhi's fusion of tradition, religion and politics and, by 1920, threw himself into the nationalist movement as directed by Gandhi. However, he first became disgusted with the petty, comfort-seeking hypocrisy of the self-proclaimed `Gandhians' especially in jail and, within 15 years, he was disillusioned with Gandhi's own ambiguity and devious pro-propertied attitudes. The final break came in 1934 after Bihar had been violently shaken by the great earthquake of that year. During the relief operations in which Sahajanand was deeply involved, he came across many cases where, in spite of the destruction perpetrated by the natural calamity, he found the suffering of the people to be less on account of the earthquake than as the result of the cruelty of the landlords in rent collection. When Sahajanand found no way of tackling this situation, he went to meet Gandhi, who was then camping at Patna, to ask for advice. Gandhi sanguinely told him, `The zamindars will remove the difficulties of the peasants. Their managers are Congressmen. So they will definitely help the poor' [Sahajanand, 1952:426]. In spite of this, the oppression of the peasantry by the `zamindari machinery including Congressmen managers' continued. These platitudes of Gandhi disgusted Sahajanand and he broke off his 14 year association with the Mahatma. After that, he consistently saw the Mahatma as a wily politician who, in order to defend the propertied classes, took recourse in pseudo-spiritualism, professions of non-violence and religious hocus-pocus.

After his break with Gandhi, Sahajanand kept out of party politics (though he continued to be a member of the Congress) and turned his energies into mobilising the peasants [Hauser, 1961:109-133]. By the end of the decade, he emerged as the foremost kisan leader in India. In this task of organising the peasants, at different times his political impetuosity took him close to different individuals, parties and groups. He first joined hands with the Congress Socialists for the formation of the All-India Kisan Sabha; then with Subhas Chandra Bose organised the Anti-Compromise Conference against the British and the Congress [Sahajanand, 1940]; then worked with the CPI during the Second World War [Das, 1981]; and finally broke from them, too, to form an `independent' Kisan Sabha [Rai, 1946]. In spite of these political forays, however, Sahajanand remained essentially a non-party man and his loyalty was only to the peasants for whom he was the most articulate spokesman and forthright leader. As a peasant leader, `by standards of speech and action, he was unsurpassed' [Hauser, 1961:85]. He achieved that status by a remarkable ability to speak to and for the peasants of Bihar; he could communicate with them and articulate their feelings in terms whose meaning neither peasant nor politicians could mistake. `He was relentlessly determined to improve the peasants' condition and pursued that objective with such force and energy that he was almost universally loved by the peasants, and almost equally both respect and feared by the landlords, Congressmen and officials. The Swami was a militant agitator; he sought to expose the condition of agrarian society and to organise the peasants massively to achieve change. He did this through countless meetings and rallies which he organised and which he addressed in his own inimitable forthright manner. He was a powerful speaker speaking the language of the peasants. Sahajanand was a Dandi Sanyasi and always carried a long bamboo staff (danda). In the course of the movement, this staff became the symbol of peasant resistance. They cry of "Danda Mera Zindabad" (Long live my staff), was thus taken to mean "Long live the danda (lathi) of the Kisans" and it became the watchword of the Bihar peasant movement. The inevitable response by the masses of peasants was "Swamiji ki Jai" (Victory to Swamiji) [Hauser, op cit]. "Kaise Logey Malguzari, Latth Hamara Zindabad" (How will you collect rent as long as our sticks are powerful?) became the battle cry of the peasants.

This was the manner in which a common communication was achieved. And it was vastly enhanced by the fact that Sahajanand was a Swami, which gave him a tremendous charisma. In 1937, he was reported to have said that as religious robes had long exploited the peasants, now he would exploit those robes on behalf of the peasants' [Hauser, ibid]. When landlords raised the question as to how a sanyasi (mendicant) was taking part in temporal problems of the poor, Sahajanand quoted the scriptures at them:

Prayen deva munayah swavimukti kama
Maunam charanti vijane na pararthnsihthah
Naitan vihaya kripnan vimumuksha eko
Nanyattwadasya sharanam bhramato nupashye

(Mendicants are selfish, living away from society, they try for their own salvation without caring for others. I cannot do that, I do not want my own salvation apart from that of the many destitutes. I will stay with them, live with them and die with them)[Sahajanand, 1952:171].
Such was Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, the charismatic sanyasi rebel, who laid the foundations of kisan organisation in Bihar, built it up into a massive movement, spread it to other parts of India and radicalised it to such an extent that what had started off as a move to bring about reform in the zamindari system, ended up by destroying the system itself. Sahajanand could not, however,m witness the legal death of zamindari in BIhar. While the battle for this was still being fought in the legislature and the courts, on 26 June 1950, Sahajanand passed away [Sudhakar, 1973:14].


Anonymous said...

A very nice and thought provoking article on the life and work of swamiji. A good work done by Mukhiya jee to publish such an informative Article which will help us understand our roots.

kulbhushan said...

A very nice and thought provoking article on the life and work of swamiji. A good work done by Mukhiya jee to publish such an informative Article which will help us understand our roots.