Pranavananda: Swami who revived Modern Hindu Nationalism
“The Hindus are not so much in need of ideas and ideals, as they are in need of strength, unity, organization, power of self-defence and a will for self-expansion. Ideas and ideals they have enough; they have enough of plans and programs. But everything has become meaningless for want of strength and energy. The entire Hindu population is to be vitalized by an infusion of tremendous energy.” – thus spoke Acharya Srimat Swami Pranavananda Maharaj (1896-1941), one of the greatest proponent of Hindu Nationalism and the founder of Bharat Sevashram Sangha that is marking its centenary year.
West Bengal nowadays often keeps in news for communal disturbances. Previously during the 34-years of Left Front rule (1977-2011) it used to be centre for aggressive secularism, which somehow led to the shrinkage of Hindu territorial and demographic space and rise of Jihadi menace. The long Left Front rule somehow led to marginalization of Hindu interests and planned discrediting of nationalistic discourse in academic circles. The West Bengal is a residual one-third of undivided Bengal, eastern two third of which had joined Pakistan in 1947, later to become Bangladesh in 1971.
The Hindus were in numerical minority of 45-55 percent in undivided Bengal. This decline appears to be result of protracted Muslim rule since 13th century. The establishment of British rule in 18th century led to the Hindu community taking advantage of educational, business and career opportunities. Thus by first half of 19th century, the Hindus began crystallize as an influential community. The famed Bengal Renaissance was product of Hindu reawakening. Its result was intellectual output, literary production and scientific pursuit. As the 19th century progressed Hindu society revelled in its ancient glory and defined itself as a nation. Its ideologues were likes Rajnarayan Basu (the grandfather of Sri Aurobindo), Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (who wrote Anandamath and composed Vande Mataram), Nabagopal Mitra (founder of ‘Hindu Mela’), Chandranath Basu, Bipin Chandra Pal and Sri Aurobindo. Bengal was the centre of new Hindu resurgence marked by high degree of intellectualism and gospel of Hindu Nationalism and Manliness.
India was projected as a nation with great ancient spiritual, political and military past but subjugated by the Muslims and then by the British. The aim was to rouse that ‘Atma Shakti’ (Power Within) to be master of own destiny. Here the monks and spiritual practitioners played an important role. They argued that all strength would come from spiritual energy. Spiritual, mental and physical culture went together. Acharya Pranavananda gave great importance to mental and physical ability along with focus on developing knowledge among the youth. He was a great champion of fitness and sports.
The administrative partition of Bengal (1905-1911) by Lord Curzon delivered a shot in the arm to the national fervour. But it also introduced the element of Muslim separatism, by formation of Muslim League. For the first time after long the Hindus of Bengal felt they could be threatened community. Thus we see a discourse to make Bengalis masculine, courageous and industrious by the late 19th century and this had greater implications for rest of India. The emergence of Hindu Assertiveness and a Manly Hindu identity laid the foundation for our freedom struggle and re-emergence of Indian Nation.
One of the manifestations of that Assertive Hindu nationalism was Bharat Sevashram Sangha (BSS) – a spiritual brotherhood of Hindu monks and volunteer workers founded in 1917 by Acharya Srimat Swami Pranavananda Maharaj. This article provides a brief outline of him.
Acharya Pranavananda was born in 1896 on the auspicious full-moon day in the month of Magh (February 28) in Bajitpur, this is close to my ancestral place of Faridpur, now in Bangladesh. The boot of British colonialism rested firmly on India’s neck and the masses were being mobilized to foment independence. Only three years had passed since Swami Vivekananda’s triumphant appearance at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The boy’s birth would later be interpreted as fulfilling India’s desperate call for great leaders.
Nicknamed Vinode, “source of joy,” by his parents, the child grew into a strapping youth, fully six-foot, six-inches tall and renowned for his physical strength. His preferred exercise was swinging two clubs, weighing 37 kilos each, for hundreds of repetitions at a time (a total of 5,000 a day), before settling back into meditation. Acharya Pranavananda beloved encouraged men to be physical fit and courageous. The youth should be able to defend our faith and country.
He rejected his family’s fish-eating diet and, despite their pleadings, became a vegetarian living mostly on milk and potatoes. Interestingly one of the US Department of Agriculture study claims, “such a diet would supply almost all of the food elements necessary for the maintenance of the human body.”
Early on, his ability to organize his fellow youth to help the poor attracted the attention of British authorities, who had to be convinced by the school that he was just a gentle 11-year-old doing nothing wrong.
At age 17, he sought out Baba Gambheer Nathji, the great yogi of the Natha Sampradaya, and underwent five years of intense sadhana and tapasya at Gorakhpur. An interesting anecdote is the fact is that Gambheer Nathji belonged to the ancient Gorakh Nath Sect of Aghori Yogis who during his time, headed the Gorakh Nath institution. The Gorakh Nath Monastry is of the most important centres of Indian Nationalism and has close ties with the people of Nepal and the brave Gorkha warriors. Yogi Aditya Nath the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh belongs to the Gorakh Nath institution.
Finally, in 1916 when he was about 20 years, he had a tremendous vision of his life’s mission and vowed to someday establish the Bharat Sevashram Sangha. So insistent was his talk of liberating the country from the British, the police set up surveillance of his activities and he spent a brief stint in jail. In January 1924, at age 28, he was initiated into Hindu monasticism (sanyas), by Swami Govindananandagiri and received the name Acharya Swami Pranavananadaji Maharaj. A month later, a group of his young followers were also initiated to Sanyas. As part of the Dasanami orders of Adi Shankara, they formed the core group of the BSS.
Acharya Pranavananda set lofty goals for his followers. He felt that sannyasins, and perhaps only sannyasins, could save Hindu dharma.
He wrote to one of his monks: “Man possesses unlimited strength, infinite capacity for work and boundless perseverance. It is because they cannot always realize that, most of them are so miserably inert. Since it is necessary to set before the country a new ideal of ‘sannyasi,’ a number of monks like you have to shed every drop of blood to purge the highly corrupt state prevailing in the country, by forgetting all thoughts of personal ease and comforts in the supreme cause of the Great Liberation of the world. You are to stimulate a good deal of activity among the monks of India now lying idle if the stigma that is now attached to them is to be removed. The more men come into contact with you, the more they will be attracted and deeply impressed by your wonderful stamina strength, manliness and your tremendous capacity for action. You are heroes in the field of action and should not waste your time over ordinary matters. A man who is born must die. And each one shall depart when his term is over.”
In 1917, Acharya officially formed the Bharat Sevashram Sangha, with the monks as the trustees, led by him. This compact chain of command allows the massive organization to shift focus easily in response to urgent situations. Bharat, of course, means India; seva means physical and spiritual service; ashram implies a system based on the ideals and practice of renunciation, self-control, truth, continence and honest labour; and sangha means a fellowship or brotherhood.
In the 1920s, Bengal suffered a famine. Acharya and his close disciples, along with 500 students, went door to door collecting cash and rice for distribution in the famine-struck areas of the Sunderban region. Their efficient success attracted public notice and support. Acharya’s goal was to eradicate untouchability from Bengal and to unite the so-called backward Hindus with the mainstream Hindus, as part of his drive for independence. He felt the divisions of Hindu society helped keep the British in power. His message was one of developing or reclaiming strength and power. The Bengal region was crucial to Britain’s hold on India. Acharya encouraged and inspired the freedom movement here, though not directly engaging in revolutionary activities. He skilfully engineered the development of village defence forces, Rakshadal, and their successful use to suppress communal attacks on Hindus.
He believed that proper preparations for self-defense by the Hindus would create security and forestall violent outbreaks. He criticized Gandhi’s non-violent approach, which he found too passive.
Going from village to village, he got Hindus of all castes to enjoy food together. As a result, untouchability is today less of an issue in Bengal than elsewhere in India. Similarly, he performed yagnas in the villages and invited everyone, including the women and lower castes, to chant the Vedic mantras with him.
Swami Pranavananda encouraged householders to seek initiation. No preparatory study was required, but the person must be a Hindu and have faith in the Hindu scriptures. In his time, Acharya personally initiated large numbers of people. Today, candidates usually come to the Kolkata main ashram and speak directly with the senior monk. After ascertaining their sincerity, he sets a date for the initiation and gives them mantras to chant in preparation. He explains to them that after the initiation they should be pure vegetarians and do regular ‘japa’ and meditation. They are enjoined to maintain a high standard of cleanliness and conscientiously fulfil the duties of householder life. In1924, the Acharya initiated the idea of “Milan Mandir” which became a great centre of religious awakening, social reform and cultural revival, including reconversion to Hinduism. Today, there are more than 500 Mandirs worldwide. BSS has set up reconversion efforts in areas where Christian missionaries are active. Acharya had pointed out that the ancient Hindu rishis converted millions and accommodated them into society, expanding Hindu society in large increments. He lamented, “The Hindu society, as it stands at present, is still steeped in meaningless superstitions and conservatism and is not ready to tolerate re-conversion and re-accommodation of the renegades and the tribals. What is needed is to wake up the sleeping masses.”
Acharya observed in his life, “After a thousand years’ slumber, the Hindus are bound to get up. I shall compel each one of them to count his beads by saying, ‘I am a Hindu,’ ‘I am a Hindu.’ I shall infuse in them great strength. The Hindu has learning, intelligence, wealth and capability. They also form the majority; and when there is unity among themselves, they will become indomitable in the world. Through the Mandir, all the problems of the Hindu families and society will be solved.” In a short span of 45 years that he lived he made a profound impact on the masses and re-emergence of nationalism.
The BSS mission statement stresses service and education: perpetuation of the monastic community; moral and spiritual regeneration; service to humanity, irrespective of caste, creed or national origin; spread of moral, spiritual and physical education; reconstruction of Hindu society; teaching of yoga and related health science subjects; education through moral and spiritual publications; tribal welfare and uplifting of the weaker sections of society. Today it comprises over 100 ashrams, 450 local religious centres called “Milan Mandirs” and hundreds of service and educational projects. It is one of India’s largest modern-day monastic orders, on the scale of the Ramakrishna Mission and BAPS Swaminarayan.
The monks are trained in martial arts. Techniques of Fire Fighting, Disaster Management, Combating Communal Riots are some of the important parts of the training module related to the Physical Fitness and Confidence Building. On 26th January 2001, when a devastating earthquake struck Bhuj district of Gujarat, the BSS was the first organization to reach the affected areas with relief and was feted nationally and internationally for their stellar work. Disaster relief has been a BSS speciality from its founding. They are able to mobilize thousands of volunteers within hours of putting out a call. When Bangladesh became independent in 1971 and millions of Hindu refugees swarmed into India, the BSS swamis took jeeps into the 16 districts of Bangladesh itself to distribute relief material. As of date, BSS has seven ashrams in Bangladesh, managed by 11 swamis.
Swami Akshayananda and Swami Ambarishananda of BSS Ahmedabad, had close associations with our present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and had worked together for many years in Gujarat during Swami Akshayananda stay in Gujarat.
Today the BSS is established in dozens of countries of the Indian diaspora. These include Fiji, UK, Central and South America (Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, etc.), US ,Canada and Nepal. They have been particularly effective and popular in Guyana, which has produced more than 15 monks. BSS holds consultative status as a NGO with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Thus BSS and Acharya Pranavananda Maharaj played a critical role in in reigniting our national pride, unity and manly identity. His teachings are as relevant in the current social political scenario as they were before for all nationalist Indians. Bharat Seva Ashram Sangh (BSS) flourished even in the darkest days of the British era, feeding the starving, educating the ignorant and uplifting the Hindu masses. It continues to do relentless social service while educating masses about our heritage and culture without hype.
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