By Kinsuk Basu
Howrah (West Bengal): Monks at the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission on Monday said they had not anticipated that Narendra Modi would speak on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) at Belur Math and “we could not have whispered into the Prime Minister’s ears to stop midway”.
On Sunday at the Math, the Prime Minister had mounted a strong defence of the act and egged on students in the audience to raise their hands to show where they stood on the legislation. Modi’s controversial thrust at the apolitical platform came at a time students in several parts of the country have emerged as the principal force against the act.
Senior monks of the 123-year-old institution underscored that statements made by a politician “have not in the past and would not in the future” alter the guiding principle of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. That principle is to serve the poorest of the poor as “Shiva gyane jeeva seva (to serve mankind as God)”.
Swami Suvirananda, the general secretary of the Math and Mission, and several senior monks spoke to The Telegraph about the Prime Minister’s visit.
The following information is based on the conversations conducted separately on Monday. The sub-heads are additions by this newspaper.
The monks said the Prime Minister had expressed his desire to visit Belur Math and meet Swami Smaranananda, the president of the order. The PMO had wanted to know if the Prime Minister could spend a night at the Math itself. The Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission accepted the proposal.
Protocol requires that the host send a schedule of proposed programmes at the venue.
In a programme schedule sent to the PMO, the Math and Mission said the Prime Minister could stay at the international guesthouse located on the Math premises and offered him a chance to address a gathering of students on January 12, on the occasion of National Youth Day, Swami Vivekananda’s birth anniversary according to the Gregorian calendar.
“Since the Prime Minister would be present at the Math, we thought it would be in the fitness of things to invite him to address a gathering of students and youths that we have every year on this occasion at the Math,” said Swami Suvirananda.
After arriving at Belur Math, Modi told a gathering of senior monks that it was a kind of “homecoming” for him and that he was there “not as the Prime Minister”. Veteran monks recalled how Modi had visited Belur Math in his early days, hoping to join the order as a monk and how a senior monk had asked him to return and complete his studies.
On Sunday morning, Modi left the guesthouse around 8.30am and went to Swami Vivekananda’s room. He sat for a few minutes on the first-floor balcony overlooking the Hooghly and then went to the main temple.
“Swami Baidyanathananda, one of the senior monks who had served the temple for years, was present to receive the Prime Minister at the sanctum sanctorum,” said a senior monk. “The Prime Minister then took a flight of steps and wanted to take a photograph with monks and brahmacharis (trainee monks). He interacted with some of the brahmacharis and asked them to render a song. They sang ‘Ramakrishna Swaranam’.”
Several senior monks said that since the Prime Minister says he is a follower of Swami Vivekananda, the general understanding was that he would “stick to speaking about the great leader and his vision”.
Modi started by speaking about the leader’s ideals but deviated later.
“This was not what we had anticipated. But we could not have whispered into the Prime Minister’s ears to stop midway. It is not proper. He is the Prime Minister of the country. If the PMO calls me to make a speech and then tries to intervene midway, is it proper?” asked a senior monk.
Modi met Swami Smaranananda, the president maharaj, inside the heavily guarded room. An official photographer accompanying Modi clicked pictures of the Prime Minister sitting with monks and seeking the blessings of the president of the order. Prior to the visit, the Special Protection Group (SPG) had spelt out that no outsider would be allowed inside the headquarters with still cameras.
The PMO released the photographs of Modi with Swami Smaranananda within minutes of the meeting. “The Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission had no role in the publicity drive,” a senior monk said.
On Sunday, Modi wanted to click pictures with the monks and the brahmacharis and, accordingly, photographs were taken. Senior monks clarified that the Math and Mission “did not have any role” in organising the shoot.
Several monks recalled how politicians have chosen events at Belur Math to deliver speeches that could be construed as political. But that has not changed the basic fabric of the order, they said.
“We are not saffronised but saffron. All the monks of the order take the saffron robe from their birth (second birth after sanyasa),” said Swami Suvirananda. “It’s pointless associating monks of the order with saffronisation. The saffron robe on our body serves as a constant reminder about our goals of renunciation and service to mankind as a monk.”
A senior monk added later: “The Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission has come under criticism over the ages, from British rule to the Congress and the communists, but the DNA of the institution has remained unaltered: inclusiveness and Atmano mokshartham jagad hitaya chha (For one’s own salvation and for the welfare of the world) as formulated by Swami Vivekananda.”
Several senior monks of the order said the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission had survived “canards over the ages because it has never lost its focus on the main goal of serving the poorest of the poor of the society with the vision that service to mankind is service to God”.
Swami Suvirananda said: “In going about our goal, the Math and Mission seeks help from the welfare state and maintains a working relationship with governments, both at the Centre and the state.”
“Minus government help, we will not be able to help the poorest of poor. Our experience says the poorest of poor do not benefit unless there is government intervention. On our own, we can at best go down to the middle layer,” he said.
Swami Suvirananda added that last year, the Math and Mission had spent around Rs 720 crore to reach out to the poorest of poor.
“The monks of the order don’t have any personal agenda other than realising God through seva,” said Swami Suvirananda.
When the institution seeks funds, it is aimed at running welfare projects across the country through its different outfits, other monks said. The aid from the state and the Centre goes a long way in realising this vision of Swami Vivekananda, they said. “But that does not mean we become political in our vision or align ourselves with any political party.”