03/17/2011 12:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Revolutionary Religion: A Conversation with Swami Agnivesh

This interview is part of a series of conversations with activists working for development and peace and drawing their inspiration from their faith, based on interviews led by Katherine Marshall for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. The full interview can be found here.

Indian social activist Swami Agnivesh renounced worldly possessions and launched a political movement forty years ago, based on the principle of "social spirituality". He has been jailed eleven times, served briefly in government, and devoted himself to many social causes such as eliminating bonded labor and fighting for the rights of India's poorest and most marginalized citizens. His current focus is on addressing the conflicts involving both India's Naxalites and Kashmir and pursuing with fervor struggles against evils like corruption and female foeticide, and for social justice. Here, he speaks to me about his spiritual journey, his forays into politics, and the growing interfaith movement in India.

What's led you to the unique role you play today? What traditions did you grow up with?

I was born into an orthodox, very Brahman family. When I lost my father at the age of four, my mother moved with me and my four brothers and sisters to live with my maternal grandfather. A devout Brahman, he worshipped all the gods and goddesses and taught me about them. Though I had lots of questions, I was never allowed to ask them. As a result I grew up practicing superstitions, dogmas, and rituals as part of a religious package -- even untouchability.

At age 17 I went to Calcutta for college. It was there that I met the Arya Samaj, a worldwide Hindu reformist movement (its name means noble righteousness). It shook me from my foundations, showing me a completely new worldview. I was encouraged at every step of the way to ask more questions: about gods, about the caste system, and many dimensions of sectarian religion. The approach was very rational and very progressive, very egalitarian; overall a very spiritual ideology, which I embraced. Like a new convert, I became quite a zealot, with a will to propagate.

During this period, I was teaching in a Jesuit college. I came to reflect on how my colleagues, many of them priests who had come from Belgium, gave up a life of comfort to come to India, taking on challenges and leading an austere life as missionaries. Though I did not like their religion or religiosity, I felt challenged to ask what my own mission was. With my colleagues we debated intensely the root causes of poverty, inequality, and social injustice. All of this led me to leave my life as it was then behind me and go to the other side of India, to Haryana, to work with the very poor in rural areas.

What exactly did joining the Arya Samaj movement involve?

As a first step, I gave up my clothes, suits, and have worn orange ever since. I confirmed myself as a celibate in the Arya Samaj tradition. With my colleagues for a two-year period we studied, went barefoot, walked long distances, slept on floors, ate no salt, and lived with the bare minimum of clothes. I wanted to test myself, to see if I could stand the rigors of the discipline and struggle we had undertaken.

The next action steps came naturally. In each village. as we walked through Haryana, the people wanted to hear from us. We talked to them about their own problems, and the response was tremendous. The first real breakthrough in our approach was a long march that we organized in October 1968 across Haryana. There were 200 of us, all young men, and we walked from village to village. Our aim was to understand and have a dialogue with the rural masses. We wanted to know them closely, and to stir hope in their minds that change is possible.

The march was a great success, building confidence and momentum, and the government response came quickly and heavily. We were arrested on false charges, handcuffed, paraded in the marketplaces. The message was that we should stop what we were doing. And every time we tried to organize, using peaceful, nonviolent Gandhian methods, the government would come down heavily, and arrest us, then torture us in jail. They found our activities a threat to their power.

As we moved more actively to voice the problems we saw, we realized that political power is the answer. That was the only way to bring change. We concluded that we had to form ourselves into a political party. So on the day I was formally initiated as a full-fledged Sanyasi (Swami), we launched our political party. It was the 7th of April, 1970, and there was a huge gathering, with 7000 people. Swami Indravesh and myself were anointed as full-fledged swamis, and from the same platform we announced our new political party..

Its ideology could be summed up as Vedic socialism, or spiritual socialism. It was critical of capitalism, and also of state socialism, and communism, of China and the Soviet Union. So for many of our media friends it was difficult to place where we stood -- right or left? We were asking for a simpler lifestyle, Gandhian values, and a spiritual, political ideology. It looked Marxist, but the tools were nonviolent, always peaceful. We would use no foul word against our enemies or the government. The result was electrifying; people saw young men in robes with poor farmers, mobilizing thousands and thousands of farmers.

The heyday of our activism was 1968-75. We were young, and did not know much about politics. We minced no words and we were determined to fight for causes. The party was spearheaded by Arya Samaj, and it supported Muslims, Sikhs, people of different castes, and any other group that was pushed aside. I had three lodestars during this period: Gandhi, Marx, and Swami Dyananda (the founder of Arya Samaj), each with complementary but different social messages.

You mentioned that your activities were viewed as a threat by the government. How much time did you spend in jail?

I was in jail 11 times in the period leading up to 1975, including 14 months during the Emergency. And during the period leading up to the Emergency, I had to go underground several times, to change my clothes, and my name.

Then things changed. From 1977-82, for six years, I was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Haryana State, which then had a population of about 26 million. And I served briefly as Minister of Education. But even then we were protesting every day, and I found myself more and more upset with the system.

So I shifted my focus and since have worked as an activist, addressing the neglected issues that are keeping so many in India in poverty and injustice.

Turning to today, do you see roles for religious leaders in fighting corruption?

The issue of corruption has blown up recently and billions of dollars of cases are coming up to the government. With the Archbishop of Delhi, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Swami Ramdev , Maulana Mehmood Madani, and other religious social leaders, we have mobilized thousands of people from all over the country to take an active role in countering these problems. For the first time, religious leaders are coming together to speak against corruption, issuing statements and drafting proposals and bills to submit to Parliament. We will see how far the momentum will carry..

You're now involved with a new interfaith movement in India. What form is it taking?

Our movement, which is gaining much strength, is Sarva Dharma Sansad, which means Parliament of all the religions. It includes members from all the many religions present in India: Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Baha'i, Zoarastrian, Jains, and others. We have determined that we will not be an all-talk interfaith movement, but will focus on action on the main social issues facing India.

We need to bind together to discuss problems like mortality rates for women, women suffering from anemia, and other preventable causes. If women and men of South Asia who are religious and religiously motivated can be included in these discussions and if temples, churches, and mosques can become the centers of empowerment for people, there would be a revolution.

That, as far as I am concerned, is the real purpose of religion.