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. The issues in Ayodhya: Bal Thackeray and some elements in the BJP believe that the Ram idol in Ayodhya should remain there. What do you think of this controversy?

There is no real issue in Ayodhya any more -- it is now clear that it is the Ram Janambhoomi. There used to be controversy there whether it was Ram Janambhoomi or the Babri Masjid. But there is an interesting fact. In Islam there is no mosque named after a human being; maybe it is named after a locality, but never a human. Since they only bow to Allah and the word of Allah, namely that which was conveyed to Mohammed, they do not name mosques after humans. Therefore it is an error to call the structure a "Babri mosque". It is merely a victory memorial, not a place of prayer, just a vijayastambham. Notice that even 50 years after Independence, we have not removed all the imperial vijayastambhams of the British. Just like this, the Muslim structure was only a victory memorial, and we have been late in removing it. There was finality/closure to the issue on December 6, 1992. It is regrettable, and the majority of Hindus regret that the structure was demolished. But the issue is closed: now there is no sense in retaining the land as an empty space, we should worship Ram there.
On December 6, a group of Hindus did demolish the structure. But for most Hindus, this was a black day, that it was destroyed thus. There was no clear verdict from the court case. The adjacent lands belong to the Muslim Waqf Board. If the Muslims and the Hindus can get together and donate all the land to the government, the problem will go away. Now there is no more controversy about whether it is Ram or Babri. It is no longer an issue whether it is Ram's place, but only whose land it is. There are many Hindus who have sympathy for Muslim grievances. The best way to turn this black mark into a white mark is to give the land to the government. This will show the world that we can live in harmony. Hindus may even be prepared to go so far as to relinquish their rights to the Kashi and Mathura temples that have been occupied by Muslims, in the interest of the unity and amity of Hindus and Muslims in India. This cannot be settled in court, but only in the heart. The status of women continues to be a blot on the human rights record in India. Is there scriptural authority for the ill-treatment of women? In my view, Hinduism is the only major religion that has any role at all for female deities, and there are stories of great female rishis in ages past. In my native Kerala, Hindus are still largely matrilineal. What has caused our society to turn, to some extent, brutally patriarchal? The usual scapegoat is the Manusmrti, both for its "na stri swatantryam arhati" and for its casteist tone. But isn't the Manusmrti essentially a relatively unimportant treatise?
Women and girl children have an exalted place in Hindu dharma. According to dharma, a girl child is Mahalaxmi. This whole dowry phenomenon is a 'modern' invention in the last 50 years. It is supposed to be compensation for the money used up in educating a man and equipping him to have a job, but the dharma shastras are against it and give it no credence. In the Manusmrti, the woman is respected, indeed worshipped. The virgin goddess is to be worshipped. It is only in the last ten to twenty years that we have had this sex selection business -- it is not from tradition, it is new scientific 'wisdom'. Nobody has any right to murder babies or foetuses. Even though the Manusmrti says 'na stri swatantryam arhati', that has been misinterpreted. There is freedom and then there is freedom. The soldier, for instance, is free to shoot to kill in war, but he is not free to eat as he pleases, to live as he pleases: he is constrained and disciplined by the system. Similarly there is no absolute freedom for anyone. In the ancient world, men were the only earners, but now since women also have economic freedom, things have to change. We have to be aware of these changes and adjust accordingly. There was a move to equate Hinduism with racism at the conference on racism in Durban. The missionaries and Marxists are trying to do what the Arabs once did to the Jews: get Judaism equated with racism. What is your view on this? What is the role of caste anyway? Do you think it is desirable? Is it going away?

This is absurd, because we never had slavery in India. The discords between Hindu groups have never been as great as those between, for example, whites and blacks in the West. There are various groups in Christianity -- Protestants, Catholics, etc -- and they are in constant conflict. The same is true in Islam as well. Compared to all this, the problems in Hinduism are much less -- you know yourself how in Kerala, Ezhavas, Nairs, etc have lived in relative calm and peace. The traditional culture did not have much conflict; it is only politicians who have created problems for their own vested interests. This general accord between groups does not exist in Christianity or Islam: there are inherent tensions, as the family bonds are less strong. The Manusmrti is not to blame; nobody actually follows it. How do you reform Hinduism to cleanse it of casteism, or other evils? There are two models: one that of E V Ramaswamy Naicker, aggression against Hinduism; the other that of Sri Narayana Guru, self-improvement and self-upliftment. The models of Sri Narayana Guru and E V Ramaswamy Naicker are poles apart. Sri Narayana Guru was one in the tradition of Adi Sankara, a true Hindu. You ask me why we cannot have reform like Sri Narayana Guru's reforms elsewhere in India, say in Bihar. Well, some day a great person like him will have to be born in Bihar for that to happen. The DK [Dravidar Kazhagam] model -- they say they have no belief in God, but only in culture. And this culture is Hindu culture. They perform all Hindu rites, eg cremation of the dead. They do a lot of things for public consumption, but they are only 'intellectual converts' in a way, just like a lot of Christians are 'food converts'. The DK/DMK have not really changed anything -- it's a somewhat superficial change they have created.
There is a general perception that the shankaracharyas are conservatives who uphold the traditions. For instance, some of your predecessors did not even travel except on foot. But you do not fit into this mould. So what is the role that the modern spiritual master should play? (Laughs) There is nothing modern or ancient about a guru -- it only has to do with the spiritual life and faith. Often gurus are problem solvers. They take into account the current circumstances in their actions. For example, up to 1970 the mathh had palanquins for the use of the swamiji. The periyavar used to use the palanquin and then he used to walk. Today we need to travel by car -- there are no palanquins available. So we are flexible. Modernity is not the issue. A few words of advice to the Hindu diaspora?

Wherever you are, in Europe, the US, you tend to live with more care, more self-respect, more pride in the Hindu way. This is good. My only sorrow is that you have left the country. But I am hopeful for the new generation: the youth are 90 per cent good in India, unlike, I am sorry to say, us older people. I will ask all of you to lead good lives with pride in your country and in your faith.

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