Thursday, December 22, 2011

Russians kick up an unholy row over holy book

The Times Of India:- The Bhagwad Gita's first Russian translation came out in 1788. Soon, another important Indian work, Kalidasa's Shakuntala, was translated to Russian in 1792. Indian literature, thereafter, became popular, especially among writers and intellectuals. The Russian poet, A S Pushkin, was drawn to the Ramayana and the Gita was a favourite with Leo Tolstoy.

Against this backdrop, the attempt in the Siberian city of Tomsk to get the Gita banned is baffling. First, it doesn't seem a trans-Russia sentiment at all. Second, the court case is probably an outcome of the uneasy relations between ISKCON and the local Russian Orthodox establishment. In this case, a property dispute appears to have been the complicating factor.

Reports indicate that Victor Fyodotov, the public prosecutor of Tomsk, on the instigation of local church figures, filed a case in a local court to get the book "Bhagwad-Gita, As It Is", with commentaries by Swami Prabhupada, banned. (So, the plea is not to ban Bhagwat Gita per se, but the one authored by Swami Prabhupada published by "Bhaktivedanta Book Trust" some 20 years ago. However, this version, too, contains the full Gita text.)

The prosecutor, it would appear, is a local anti-ISKCON activist, who has resorted to a number of lies. First, he claimed his plea was based on the authorized "expert opinion" of Tomsk State University.

In the first, second and third court hearings on 12, 18 and 29-30 August 2011, the so-called experts, Sergei Avanesov, Valery Svistunov and Valery Naumov of Tomsk University, said their opinion was not official but given in their personal capacity.

Secondly, contrary to their opinion earlier given in writing, they didn't support the plea in the court that the book contained any subversive or extremist content. The two advisers invited by the court, N V Serebrennikov and N N Kapritsky, also rejected the written "expert opinion".

However, these two advisers said some abusive words are used for non-Krishanites in Swami Prabhupada's commentary, but added that the book does not attempt to create a racial or religious divide. This argument was countered by the judge herself who told that the Bible, too, used phrases like: "Don't throw pearls before a swine."

In the court proceedings it came through that while there was a tendency to claim exclusiveness on the part of Swami Prabhupada (a characteristic of most religious texts), there was no evidence to support the accusations made against the book.

The Russian society appears to have been embarrassed by the episode. The media, for instance, has condemned the ongoing trial. The newspaper Vechernyi Tomsk (Tomsk Eveninger) carried a report titled, "Trial of Indian book brings shame to Tomsk".

The newspaper carried a satirical piece on how a work that was created 5,000 years ago has suddenly become an extremist document. The intellectual community of Russia has been no less indignant.

There have been protest pickets, round-table meetings and discussions on the trial in the Tomsk court. Nelly Krechetova, human rights ombudsman of Tomsk region, has termed the trial "absurd". Speaking on Radio "Echo of Moscow" she said, "This book is considered sacred by more than a billion people the world over, and in Russia itself the book has been in circulation for 20 years."

She continued that there was no manifest incident of extremism caused by the dissemination of the book. A ban on the book, she said, would amount to "violation of constitutional rights of citizens to freedom of conscience and faith."

On November 28, a discussion was organized by the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, in which scientists and members of the Russian Academy of Sciences and several religious figures participated. It adopted a resolution saying "there is no basis for conducting such a trial and the very fact of initiating a trial by the public prosecutor is an insult to the religious feelings of followers of Vaishnavism in India and Russia and it will give a body blow to Indo- Russian relations."

The overall picture and the response in mainline Russia should help us in India and our parliamentarians get a perspective on what may be called an extreme step by a fringe group in Tomsk.

(The author is a professor of Russian Literature, Delhi University)

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