CURRENT ISSUE AUGUST 12, 2002  

RELIGION: SWADHYAYA MOVEMENTS

Sins of the Daughter

Members of the sect are being increasingly attacked by Sunni Muslims in Bengal's Murshidabad district

By Uday Mahurkar

CHOSEN ONE: Talwalkar (right) with Athavale

He began his spiritual journey in the 1950s. He is the founder of the Swadhyaya Parivar, a religious order that has 10 million adherents in India and abroad. He has won the Templeton and Magsaysay awards. To his followers, he is the embodiment of divinity.

Today, Pandurang Athavale is 82, in the evening of life, so ill that he can barely speak. Yet a quiet and dignified culmination to his worldly mission is the last thing he is being allowed. The Swadhyaya Parivar is split over his legacy. Jayshree Talwalkar, 45, the aged preacher's niece, adopted daughter and chosen successor is being accused of hijacking his empire. "Didi", as Talwalkar is known-Athavale is universally addressed as "Dada"-is at the centre of a controversy that has gripped Gujarati society.

Though a Maharashtrian based in Mumbai, Athavale's message of the Gita and moral uplift found incredible acceptance in Gujarat. The western state is the capital of his spiritual empire. It is now a battleground, quite literally. This past week a dissident group met in an Ahmedabad hall to protest against the "dictatorial and self-glorifying" ways of Talwalkar. Swadhyayis loyal to Didi barged in and fists flew.

CHARGESHET

» Does Athavale's choice of heir mean the parivar will not be ruled by merit but dynastic succession?
» Athavale had called upon followers to donate 10 per cent of their income to the parivar. Where does this money go?
» Some 45 trusts account for Rs 200 crore in cash. Most of the money is controlled by Talwalkar and her husband Srinivas.

A majority of the parivar's adherents-and of its 3,50,000 "active members"-live in Gujarat. They have been attracted by Athavale's message of "rational religion". This stresses that religion is not just a matter of blind faith but grounded in reason and logic.

Athavale's work has helped millions fight alcoholism. He was a pioneer in that he took his Vedic message to the downtrodden, to the fishermen on the western coast of Gujarat and Maharashtra, to the Vaghris, a community of vegetable vendors. Borrowing from Gandhi-who called the "Untouchables" Harijans, Children of God-he saw the fisherfolk as Sagarputras (Sons of the Sea) and the Vaghris as Deviputras (Sons of the Goddess), giving them an elevated status in his world view and, more important, preventing conversion from Hinduism.

Problems arose in this island of egalitarianism when, in 2000, Dada announced Didi would head the parivar after him. As a small faction gained control of the levers of power-and pelf-a ginger group began to ask questions. Was the parivar to be ruled by reason and meritocracy-or by dynastic succession?

THE FAITHFUL: The Swadhyaya Parivar has 3,50,000 active members from all walks of life

Matters came to a head when at a public meeting in Ahmedabad in April 2001 Athavale declared, "Those who are opposing Didi are indulging in Brahmahatya (killing of a Brahmin)." Apart from the political incorrectness, the guru's support of Talwalkar shook even his oldest disciples.

Says Hitendra Gandhi, a chartered accountant who once worked closely with Talwalkar: "If we don't control the drift in the movement's ideological direction, then it is doomed. We invite Dada and Didi to an open debate." The anti-Talwalkar group comprises some Swadhyaya stalwarts. They include N.R. Sheth, former director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Rajiv Vora, Gandhian activist, and lawyers Hemraj Ashar and Vallabhbhai Shah.

Mahesh Shah once helped director Shyam Benegal make Antarnad, a film on Athavale's work. Today he rues, "Didi is the antithesis of what Dada has preached. She is more concerned with the parivar's wealth and power than spirituality." The professorial Sheth is cutting: "Dada's obsession with his adopted daughter and his refusal to follow the ideals he has been preaching is baffling. In a way, he has taken his followers for a ride."

Not that Didi-whose Mumbai office authorised her Ahmedabad followers to speak on her behalf-is bereft of support. As of now, the rebels have only managed to make a small dent in her support base. Says Rajesh Parikh, an active parivar member: "Those opposing Didi are very few but they are trying to mislead respected figures like Sheth. They are after power and wealth. They say they are following Socrates but we know they are aping Brutus." Didi's followers claim she is best suited to don the role because she is not only efficient but has proved her worth by delivering masterly discourses on Hindu philosophy.

THE REBELS: Mahesh Shah (left) and Jagdishbhai Shah are in the anti-Talwalkar camp

"Why isn't the parivar aiding Swadhyayis in need?"
Jagdishbhai Shah
, a dissident Swadhyayi

The parivar's influence and affluence are factors in the whole game. Over the years, Athavale has called upon followers to donate 10 per cent of their income to any of the 16,000 Swadhyaya kendras across India. Bhav samarpan, as the practice is called, to Athavale, is giving a share to God.

Where does this money go? One of the cornerstones of Athavale's philosophy is that it is not a religious order's duty to run schools or hospitals. This, he says, is the government's job. While there are no running projects, ad hoc programmes-after the 2001 earthquake, the parivar built 4,400 houses for victims in Kutch-use some of the money. Most of it lies in the estimated 45 trusts that Talwalkar and her husband Srinivas now control.

Together, parivar sources say, the trusts are sitting on Rs 200 crore in cash and Rs 500 crore in property. Take the Thane-based Tatvagnan Vidyapith. In 2000-1, it had a corpus of Rs 45.54 crore and received another Rs 5 crore in donations. Its income from interest and dividend was Rs 3.73 crore. Its expenses were just Rs 1.71 crore.

Another trust, the Sanskritic Vistarak Sangh, has around Rs 35 crore. The Jivan Sampada Trust's aim is to sell cassettes of Athavale's speeches. That of the Vandanam Trust is to market his photographs. Both do "brisk business", say the rebels. As for land, the parivar owns 15 acres, worth Rs 40 crore, in the heart of Ahmedabad alone. The Tatvagnan Vidyapith's seat near Mumbai takes up 19 acres. The list can go on.

B.J. Diwan, former chief justice of the Gujarat High Court, joined the parivar almost 50 years ago. Recently, he resigned from one of Athavale's trusts, writing a letter to the teacher and Talwalkar that reads like a chargesheet. "Dada," lamented Diwan, "who always said that the property belonged to God was now saying that the wealth belonged to him." The letter tabulated the trusts were worth Rs 700 crore.

Given the stakes, the Swadhyaya Parivar can only brace itself for a protracted inner struggle.

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