R&I Report: Mumbai’s Marine Drive is hardly a place where you would expect to “bump into” a Russian Orthodox Church priest, let alone one from as far away as Siberia. On a breezy late-monsoon evening, a tall and young Russian man asked me the time. His features and accent had “Russian” written all over them and when my response came in his native language, he was pleasantly surprised. At first glance, I assumed the bearded man got lost somewhere in Goa’s hippie trail and ended up in India’s financial capital, but it was my turn to get surprised when I found out who he was.
The young priest hailed from Tomsk, a university town that unfortunately came in the radar of the Indian public in late-2011 when there were attempts by local officials to get the ISCKON version of the Bhagawad Geeta banned. He was in Mumbai to try and do some “personal research” on ISKCON or the Hare Krishna movement. After 3 months, he was convinced that the movement was not “extremist in nature” but still had reservations about its practitioners.
His knowledge of Hinduism as a whole was strong enough to put many practising Hindus to shame. “Hinduism is a religion of freedom and encourages thought,” he said. “But the ISKCON people both back home in Russia and here are neither open to debate or questioning.” When I told him that I thought he was generalising, he said that his talks with believers convinced him that they were on a mission of proselytisation and were authoritarian. “This is a movement that refuses to recognize any other version of the Geeta except their own,” he said. I couldn’t challenge the statement that particular evening, but I did find out later on that there was truth in it.
“One can only be born a Hindu,” the priest said. “So why are they trying to convert so many Orthodox Christians?” He went on to say that Hindus are actually a race and that all Indians belong to that race, “which within its own principles allow people to practise or believe in whatever they wanted.” He said Sufi Islam in India was Hinduism as well. If he wanted to leave the Orthodox Church in Russia, there are enough organisations in India that would make him their poster boy.
His views are in no way meant to be taken as the word of the Russian Orthodox Church, but the young priest said the church was a unifying factor in Russia and was ideal for a country, that is largely homogenous, despite having many ethnic minorities. “India’s greatness lies in it finding its Hindu spiritual roots and for all Indians to understand that and you see, Russia is again becoming great now since more people understand and appreciate traditional Russian Orthodox values,” he said.
The priest equated the Hare Krishna movement with Western missionaries and said both groups were looking at misleading Indians and Russians and destabilising the countries. I’ll admit that I have heard these “CIA agents” conspiracy theories but I am not really one hundred percent convinced.
The very fact that the young man came to India with an open mind to try and find out for himself what he heard from others has to go to his credit. He said he hoped that more people embraced vegetarianism and that in his opinion when Jesus said, “Thou shall not kill,” he meant to include animals as well. When I joked that his “friends” from ISKCON were also vegetarians, he took it in good stride and laughed as he called them “extremists” in their vegetarianism as they refused to eat onions and garlic!
He kept insisting that the Orthodox Church has a lot of regard for Indian culture, customs and traditions, but then was critical of the Indian government for decriminalising homosexuality. Calling it a sin and a sickness, the young priest said homosexuality was a Western creation and a serious danger for India as well! Divorce, single-parents, alcoholic women and rejection of traditional values would spell doom for Russia and India. This he argued was an orchestrated plan by the West to keep the countries “in suffering.”
Despite his speaking with clarity, I sensed a great degree of confusion in the young priest. He believed with his whole heart in the concept of a great Russia and a great India. Is some sort of religious conformity across both countries the only way to unite the largely “traditional” people and help the countries progress? The “godless Chinese” whose country is sandwiched between Russia and India seem to be doing just fine after experimenting first with the “Western evil” of communism and then with another “vice” from the West called capitalism.
Tailpiece: I personally love visiting Orthodox Churches and monasteries in Russia. Many of them are architectural marvels and the followers welcome outsiders, much in keeping with Russian tradition of hospitality. This kind of openness towards outsiders is not seen in Hindu temples in some parts of India.