From Russia with love

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The Bhagwad Gita case is much ado about nothing and the Russians are hoping it will blow over soon. Revati Laul reports

The tumult over banning the Gita in Russia echoed in India too
Unusual din, The tumult over banning the Gita in Russia echoed in India too, Photo: Pintu Pradhan

TWO DAYS after Manmohan Singh shook hands with Vladimir Putin over a deal to jointly produce 42 Sukhois, a cold drift came in from Siberia. Over whether or not a district court in Tomsk is planning to ban the Bhagwad Gita. Actually, it’s not. But the whiff of this controversy had already begun to swirl a deathly cold current through believers. Indignant Indians said: “How can they even think such a thing. Those Russians!” In the usual din, the real story, that is no story, is almost completely lost. Here’s what happened.

In June, a few followers of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in Tomsk tried to build their homes in an area that is supposed to be a protected sanctuary. This became a court dispute. Those opposing the followers started raising hairs about who and what ISKCON is. Two local experts were summoned and given a copy of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, to read as reference. One was a professor of philosophy in the University of Tomsk, the other a linguist. In their opinion, they told the court, there are some references in this book by ISKCON founder Swami Prabhupada that seemed to be extremist. Therefore the said text should be banned. The court heard both sides. After the ISKCON people raised their hackles over this ‘expert’ opinion on their founder’s words of wisdom, the two experts withdrew their original comments and it has been struck from the court records as opinion not admissible.

But controversy has a way of warping the fact to suit its fancy. And so, the professor’s words, in the freezing —11 degree cold of Tomsk, travelled quickly south, transforming into hot wind, landing on the deaf ears of Indian MPs and ISKCON followers, who didn’t want to hear that really, it was much ado about nothing.

Partly acknowledging this mix up of metaphors, ISKCON director of communications Vrajendra Nandan Das had this to say: “Most Russians are religious people. So if this whole thing is a conspiracy, it’s not a good thing.”

All this forced Russian Ambassador Alexander Kadakin to issue this statement: “I consider it categorically inadmissible when any holy scripture is taken to the courts. For all believers, these texts are sacred… ”

Russia first had the Bhagwad Gita translated in 1788 in old Russian. They consider it sacred. ISKCON has been around in Russia since the 1980s, when Russia was the USSR. Even then, the country welcomed Krishna worship and all things oriental.

So now, in the time of Putin, in a decidedly post-communist Russia, how can religion force its icy cold fingers as a wedge between all things India and Russia?

But are the protesting people in indignant India listening? External Affairs Minister SM Krishna was. His statement in Parliament tried to explain the story, and sum it up with, “We don’t want to dignify with too much attention some misdirected individuals who have filed an absurd complaint.”

Putin has the makings of an Arab Spring on his hands. Manmohan Singh has Team Anna’s rising to contend with. There’s more trouble uniting the two nations for a small question of the opinion of two academics to get in the way. And so, the repeated appeal from Russia to Krishna worshippers, MPs and all Indians. To do what the Gita really prescribes. Seek the truth. From Russia, with love.

With inputs from Kunal Majumder.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
revati@tehelka.com

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