This interview with Swami Agnivesh continues the series recorded for Eureka Street at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne in December 2009. He is a prominent social activist and Hindu reformer in India.
He speaks about the need for dialogue among different religious and cultural groups, overcoming narrow religiosity, and his struggle against the oppression of caste, bonded labour, and child slavery in his country. (Continues below)
I first met Swami Agnivesh in India in 1999. I was there making a documentary for ABC TV about the murder of Australian Christian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two young sons by Hindu extremists. A few months after the killings, Swami Agnivesh led a group of religious leaders from all the major faiths on a pilgrimage to visit Staines' widow in the east of India.
The 75-year-old swami was born Shyam Vepa Rao into a wealthy high-caste Brahmin family in the south of India. But he renounced the privilege of this elevated position in society, and took the name 'Agnivesh' which means 'embodiment of fire' (agni is the Hindi word for 'fire').
He studied law at university, and in the 1970s and '80s was a member of the state parliament of Haryana just south of Delhi, serving for a time as its education minister. He founded Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front) in 1981, and since then has been its chairperson.
Despite laws banning bonded labour in India, the practice is still rife, virtually enslaving millions of people (estimates range from tens of millions to over 300 million people), mainly from the impoverished low castes. As a means of paying back small loans, people pledge their labour, or the labour of family members, often children. Then they are locked into years, or even a lifetime of work under onerous conditions.
During 30 years of struggle, Agnivesh and his fellow activists have achieved the liberation of 176,000 bonded labourers, including 26,000 children, 10,000 of them from the carpet industry. They have concentrated their efforts around Delhi, and set up ten education centres for child labourers who work in the vast quarries and brick kilns that supply the booming building industry of that sprawling city.
Agnivesh has been recognised with many international awards for his efforts to abolish bonded labour in India, and for ten years, from 1994 till 2004, he was chair of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.
His passion for social justice is fuelled by a deep spirituality that is impatient with the extravagant external trappings of Indian religion. His vision of true spirituality is summed up well by his adopted name.
'Fire is symbolic of purity, knowledge and wisdom,' he has said of his name. 'All human beings have the presence of this spiritual fire, the spark. Some choose to extinguish it, but others cultivate the fire of truth, love, compassion, and the raging fire of justice. I chose this name because I always loved the symbol of fire, and my heart and mind are full of fiery spirit.'
Peter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.