The shankaracharya of Kanchi, Sri Jayendra Saraswati, is one of the most important religious figures in India.Recently, this "pontiff of the Hindu faith" worked to develop a formula acceptable to all sides of the Ayodhya dispute. The conversation below is excerpted with permission of Rediff from a longer interview conducted by Rajeev Srinivasan in August 2001.

The state of Hinduism today: Is the faith alive or is it still dormant? The rest of the world is getting increasingly dogmatic and religious, even in the generally secular West; how is Hinduism coping?

The faith is definitely not dormant; belief in and observance of the eternal dharma are not diminishing at all. But there are increasing changes in the associated culture. Hindu dharma is being observed by more people with greater devoutness, but in culture -- for instance in clothing and food habits and in general outlook -- there are changes taking place.There is massive conversion of Hindus going on, especially by Christians. For instance, in Kerala and in tribal areas in the Northeast: what is your view on this and on the reconversion activities?Conversions are not new -- they have existed for some time. The reason this happens especially in the tribal areas is because of the limited interaction with them by devout Hindus. We need to touch them, in both senses of the word: reach out and contact them, and we need to touch their hearts.
We need to work with them. They can always be brought back into the Hindu fold. If Christians are doing conversions with money power, we can reconvert them with manpower: the power of dedicated souls working for their upliftment. The conversions are not for spiritual reasons, but for material reasons: they want schools, they want food, which the Christians provide. There are many Hindu groups doing wonderful work in serving the tribals and other sections of society, but they go about it quietly and with no fuss.It is also true that Hindus have become half-Christian in a way. Look at the trousers you yourself are wearing, the foods you eat, the attitudes and values you have: these are all coloured by the Christian West. Conversely, Christians in India have become half-Hindu: they light Hindu lamps in their ceremonies, Jesus Christ sometimes wears a red tilak; they worship idols. Reconverting them to Hinduism is not difficult.Muslim conversion is much less numerous, but it is far more difficult to reconvert them. Muslims are increasing in numbers through increased fertility: more than one wife and many children; this is how they are growing in population.There are many ruined and decaying temples in India, including, alas, even such great ones as Chidambaram. What is Kanchi doing for them?Every year we renovate ten to twenty temples in Tamil Nadu alone. We receive a lot of applications from various states, including your home state, Kerala. We always consider the applications favourably, and where appropriate, we provide some money, at least a few thousand rupees. We have set aside funds for this, from the contributions of devotees who can explicitly mention this as the desired use of their donations.Sri Aurobindo, among others, predicted that unless India were to rejuvenate Hinduism, this country would have no future. Do you agree?Sri Aurobindo was a good man, a great man. He is right in a way: traditionally, the eternal dharma has always found a way to rejuvenate itself. Islamic and Christian challenges to Hindu dharma have grown, but these have always been repulsed. Whenever these challenges grew too grave, the eternal dharma stood tall once again and overcame them. This is true both in the spiritual and the political arenas: we suffer a lot of damage, but if the core of the dharma is under attack, we rise and overcome the challenge.There are different schools of thought about the role of ahimsa: some say pure pacifism is a meaningless construct as opposed to the 'just war' scenario in the Bhagavad Gita. What is the real meaning of ahimsa in today's world?

We need both pacifism and just wars for the good of the land. Wherever and whenever there is adharma, there needs to be himsa. As the Lord Himself says in the Gita:
Yadaa Yadaa hi Dharmasya Glanirbhavati Bharata
Abhyuttanam Adharmasya Tadaatmaanam Srujamyaham
Paritranaya Sadhunaam Vinaashaya ch Dushkritaam
Dharmasansthapanarthaya Sambhavami Yuge Yuge
The Lord reappears again and again to fight the just war. It is like in agriculture: there too when we need crops to thrive, we have to remove and destroy the weeds.

There are periodic controversies over cow slaughter. Some see mad cow disease as 'the revenge of the cow' for millennia of abuse (details). And there are diseased cows being culled. What do you think?It is a great sin to slaughter cows, a mahapapam. The cow is mother and goddess, and slaughtering the cow is morally wrong. But if cows are diseased, then it is clearly appropriate to destroy them. It is like surgery: if you have gangrene in your finger, it is best to cut it off so the rest of the limb can be saved.I am upset with your state, Kerala, because you do slaughter a lot of cows there (laughs and shakes his fist at me).Is mad cow disease the 'revenge of the cow'? Maybe. Every action has a reaction, as you know. Maybe this is reaction.There are those who believe that India as an idea is a British construct, and that we never thought in terms of India as a nation before.
Others point to how Adi Sankara set up his monasteries at the extremities of what was the conceptual Indian territory. What do you think?
The British never created anything in India -- they merely destroyed. Instead of uniting, they divided; so the question is meaningless. For 5,000 years Hindus have chanted in their morning prayers:
Gange cha! Yamune chiava! Godavari!
Saraswati! Narmade! Sindhu! Kaveri! Jale asmin sannidhim kuru!

There has been an explicit and clear geographical area that we have referred to as our land. Adi Sankara not only went to the four corners of this territory, he set up tens of shrines all over the Hindu land to be able to revive and revitalise Hinduism. It is absurd to think that India is a new idea.