Few people may be aware that Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who breathed his last at Rishikesh on the 23rd of September, had in his youth been a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force, a journalist in Chennai and a company executive with Voltas. Similarly, not many know that Pope Francis has worked in his early years in a fascinating variety of jobs – as a laboratory assistant in a food diagnostic clinic, a psychology teacher and even as a tango dancer and night-club bouncer. Raman Swamy takes you on an as-yet untrodden path on holy men who have been multifaceted personas …
Swami Dayananda Saraswati was born in the year 1930, in the Thiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu, as Natarajan Gopala Iyer. He was influenced by the teachings of Swami Chinmayananda at the age of 23, and went on to become a renowned Vedic scholar and founded the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Coimbatore, Nagpur, Rishikesh and also in Pennsylvania, USA.
Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Italian parents. At 23, he was deeply drawn towards religion and enrolled as a novice to become a Jesuit priest. But he fell in love with a girl and was almost expelled from the Society of Jesus seminary. It was only after he took a solemn vow of chastity, obedience and life-long poverty that he was allowed to continue with his theological studies. He rose rapidly and served in many countries including Germany, Spain and Chile, but was always under close scrutiny due to his unorthodox views on issues like social justice, migration and poverty.
Dayananda Saraswati and Pope Francis lived worlds apart, with few things in common except that they were both ordinary and normal young men before donning the raiment of religious robes. Both, however, seem to have some similarities in their approach to society and spiritualism. One of Dayananda Saraswati’s favourite quotes used to be that “… a man can only become good by helping others”. This was comparable to what the Pope told Americans during his recent five-day visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia – “Do unto others what you would have done unto you”.
Just like Pope Francis the Roman Catholic Pontiff, Dayananda Saraswati the Vedic guru from India preached love, compassion and tolerance. But Guruji was fond of saying: “Have you ever thought about the word Compassion ? Have you ever noticed that there is no verb for Compassion ? You only have an adverb. I find that very interesting. You act compassionately. But then, how to act compassionately if you don’t have compassion ? Does that mean you have to start pretending to act compassionately?”
Even though many of his devotees and even his students found it very difficult to understand what the Swamiji was saying, it made them think deeply to solve the puzzle and search for the inner meaning. That is exactly what he wanted to them to do – he wanted them to ponder over the mysteries of life instead of blindly claiming to have faith.
Pope Francis’ own way of making people think instead of learning the holy books by rote and pretending to be deeply spiritual is strikingly similar. In all his sermons during his five day America tour, including at the United Nations, the Catholic Pontiff virtually echoed the Hindu Vedic philosopher’s words – “My sayings are like a bitter medicine, which, although they may bring some discomfort, are good for everyone”. Reports indicate that the Pope’s speeches did indeed cause some discomfiture. John Boehner, the Speaker of the US House of Congress, sat through the Pope’s address with tears in his eyes and then surprised everyone the next morning by announcing his resignation.
Political commentators claimed he had been planning to quit in any case and his decision was not directly linked to his contact with the Pope. Boehner himself confirms this up to an extent, admitting he was getting increasingly frustrated at the way political leaders from both the two major parties were behaving in the House and he was finding it impossible to control them.
But he added that listening to the Pope talking about the real role of politics and politicians – to help the weak – acted like a catalyst. “Last night I started thinking about this and this morning I woke up and I said my prayers and I decided today’s the day I’m going to do this. As simple as that”. He also recalled a private interaction with the Pope when they found themselves alone. “The Pope puts his arm around me and kind of pulls me to him and says please pray for me. Who am I to pray for the Pope ? But I did”.
Genuine spiritual leaders do have a profound impact on people who come into contact with them. Their very simplicity exudes an irresistible charisma that defies logical explanation. But not everyone thinks that way. There were many in India, including many other men in saffron robes, who did not see eye to eye with Dayananda Saraswati. Nor did every American politician fall for the Pontiff’s magnetic charm. No less a leader than Jeb Bush, a leading candidate seeking Republican Party nomination for the 2016 US Presidential Election had this to say: “The Pope is not a scientist, he’s a religious leader. I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my Pope.” What he was referring to was Pope Francis’s strong pitch on climate change, which Bush says he is opposed to because it will curtail the ability to re-industrialize America. It is a different matter that he is unaware that the Pope does have a science background, having graduated with a chemical technician’s diploma and actually worked for a few years as a technician in a large food laboratory in Argentina.
There are several others, who too were not too impressed by the political ideologies of either Dayananda Saraswati or Pope Francis.
The pope in particular was quite an enigma to many Americans. On the one hand he has won praise for highlighting the plight of poor working people and the retired, defending religious, intellectual and individual freedoms, calling for tolerance towards immigrants and even describing the profits made from weapons sales as “money drenched in blood”.
On the other hand, he has been called into question about his silence on some key issues that are high on the agenda in current-day social and political discourse. One columnist wrote: “The Pope gave a semi-apology for the slaughter of Native Americans who were the ab-original inhabitants of this continent. He conferred sainthood on a man who was the worst perpetrator of genocide by brutally massacring the Red Indians”. Also, he launched a thinly-veiled attack on the lesbian and gay community by saying, “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family”. At a time when the world is slowly veering towards greater acceptance of the rights of lesbians and gays, this shows that the Catholic Church is still practicing discrimination towards transgender people, say the Pope’s critics.
Another commentator said: The Pope champions the poor while his doctrine would force millions of women into poverty and servitude. He champions equality while his doctrine denounces LGBTQ people for simply being who they are. He is so good. He is so bad”.
During his life as a spiritual teacher, Swami Dayananda Saraswati too had his share of critics and skeptics, and his political views were oft-times controversial. He once said: “My ideas are like a bitter medicine. Some people may not like the taste of it. But I am satisfied if it makes people think more deeply about what is good and what is bad”.