Rahul Kumar, 2015.08.17 (DNA India): Three years ago, an anti-religion post was doing the rounds on Facebook. The man behind the post was in complete contrast to the sentiments expressed in them— from his sadhu-like appearance to, of course, his name, Swami Balendu. At a time when self-proclaimed godmen and godwomen in India are fending off allegations of illegal activities, Balendu is an anomaly. Once known for preaching Hinduism, he is neither a swami nor a ‘godman’ now, but identifies as an atheist.
In an interview with Rahul Kumar, Balendu talks about the business of religion, atheism and where he stands on this wide-ranging spectrum. Here are the excerpts from the conversation—
There are many examples of scientists, artists, actors, comedians and even politicians who are atheist. On the other hand, we have seen foreigners come to places like Vrindavan and Varanasi and turn into gurus or swamis. How did you, who were a preacher and a believer, become an atheist?
Superstition is present all over the world. Also, western travellers see the glorification of gurus here in India and get to know more about the guru business. It’s a business with no fear of loss as there is no investment, only profit. Anybody, Indian or non-Indian, can feel attracted to this and come into the business, which will bring them money by superstitious people in their own countries.
How did I go on this journey the other way round? It was a process which simply happened over time. A change like this doesn’t take place overnight and there was not one single incident that initiated it. In life, you develop and grow, step by step. I grew into atheism in the same way.
If I had to answer the question for the root of my change in one line, I would say it was the urge to live an honest life which made me turn towards atheism.
You spent quite some time alone in a place built underground, designed in a way to keep you out of the sunlight as well as contact with any living thing including animals and humans. When you got in, you were a theist. When you got out, you left the country for quite some time. What motive or intention did you have while going in?
I was a theist and very firm believer. Inspired by different scriptures, I was looking for some spiritual achievements. The idea was to spend time in complete isolation without talking, hearing or seeing anything, doing mantra meditation. For this purpose, I had designed this building, which we call the ‘cave’, and stayed in it for more than three years.
When I came out, there were thousands of eager people waiting for me. Some even thought that after such a long retreat I would be able to predict lottery numbers. After such a long time with only myself, I experienced this as a kind of devotional attack. I was not confused, no. I was fed up with these expectations and the idea that I should be responsible for telling others how to live their lives. That’s how I left the country and started my travels abroad.
You didn’t get what you expected. Did that turn you into an atheist?
No. I had a wonderful time which I spent just with myself. I realised a lot about myself. I would not say I went in as a theist and came out an atheist. This process took much longer. The seed for it, however, was planted during that period with myself.
Did you inherit the title ‘Swami’ from your parents and grandparents? If yes, why didn’t you disassociate with it after turning atheist?
I started my life as a preacher and spiritual guru as a young teenager. It is from that time that people have been calling me ‘Swami Balendu’. Obviously, even after I left behind religion and the work of preaching, there are many people who were used to calling me by this name and organisations named after it as well.
After my change of belief, it just didn’t feel right for me to change my name, as it had become a part of my identity over the course of years. More than a title, it feels like a name to me. The name ‘Balendu’ also has its roots in religious Hindu scriptures, just as lots of men and women are called Krishna. One could ask atheists with such names, based on Hindu gods or on scriptures, to change their names. But I think one should not comply to such requests if it doesn’t feel right.
If we now take a closer look at the word ‘Swami’, we will find that this word’s meaning in Hindi is simply malik, meaning ‘owner’ in English. After having turned to atheism, I actually feel this fits me more than ever. I don’t allow anybody to own me. I am my own owner and take full responsibility for myself and my actions. I don’t try to give another human or imaginary divine being this responsibility. This actually fits very nicely with my philosophy and thinking.
How did you manage to make money for your living after you dropped the idea of religion? As I understand it, you had inherited the business of preaching Hinduism.
Yes, I had been travelling throughout India and abroad as a Hindu preacher. This was my source of income. As I said above already, at some point this process of change started. I wanted to live an honest life and so I didn’t want to remain in this religious business, which I started perceiving as wrong, even though I was well-established in it.
So while my thoughts changed towards atheism, I changed my business and turned towards yoga, which I had been doing my whole life, just not as a profession. I started teaching classes abroad, in Europe and Australia. I taught Yoga Teacher Training courses for five years at the University of Cologne with my brother Yashendu. I also travelled to America and other countries to do workshops. During the transition, I had a tough time but I knew it was the right direction and so I remained firm with the decision.
People started coming to India as well and that’s how we now provide relaxing courses, training, retreats and holidays with Yoga and Ayurveda at our ashram in Vrindavan. We focus on physical exercise, oils and nutrition. We even offer Ayurvedic cooking classes, and all this without making false claims of curing cancer etc. as some yoga gurus do. People come from all over the world and love getting this experience without the danger of being brainwashed by religious and spiritual gurus!
When I visited your ashram in July about three years ago I saw you run a school for underprivileged children of Vrindavan. Did you start it after you became an atheist or had you been doing it earlier as well?
Helping poor children and students was something we have always been doing in my family. We previously provided students a place to live with us while they did their studies. We also ran free classes at our ashram. At a later point, we started supporting poor local children in other schools, paying for their school, books and uniforms.
Some incidents showed us however that my dream of creating an environment of equality and non-violence for these underprivileged children was not possible in other schools. That’s how we started our own school in 2007. We now provided education and food to the unprivileged children of the area. They experience a loving atmosphere where they can gain knowledge to improve their lives.
What has remained the same about you despite your detachment from ‘God’ and what has changed?
Changes take place as your consciousness grows. My idea of seeing things, life and the world has changed tremendously. But my heart, sensitivity and love remain the same, as well as my exploring nature which brought me away from God.
From what I recall from my visit to your ashram I saw everyone in the ashram including the kids who study in your school used ‘Jai Siya Ram’ as a term of greeting. I understand that you and your family members also use this term. Your website domain too is Jaisiyaram. Why do the kids have to utter a term that ultimately instils the idea of god and religion in them when you don’t believe in it yourself?
Yes, we all know what ‘Jai Siya Ram’ means and where it comes from. As our company’s name is Jaisiyaram, our domain and website name is also Jaisiyaram. We live in Vrindavan, a very religious place where people mostly greet each other with ‘Radhe Radhe’. Others say ‘Hare Krishna’ and some use ‘Jaisiyaram’ as well. These are greetings that carry the names of gods.
You have been here three years ago. In the meantime we have taught our children to use ‘Good Morning’ instead and while they may occasionally use something else, they normally use the English greeting without god’s name in it. We also don’t make our school children pray in the morning or teach them any prayers in class.
If someone comes to my home and greets me with ‘Radhe Radhe’, as is the usual case here, I don’t react outraged or disgusted to being greeted like this although I am an atheist. I will respect him and may even reply in the same way to respect the sentiment. It is not his fault that he doesn’t know my feelings. He may get to know it through subsequent conversations and chances are that we will say goodbye with a non-religious ‘Namaskar’.
Do you think atheism needs spreading?
Yes, I think so. As I always say, atheism is not a path or a way, it is a reaction. If there was not the fake illusion of theism, you would not hear the rebellious, revolutionary voice of atheism.
It is important that people hear of it, people who are still completely in religion and superstition or have started having small doubts. I believe when they hear of an atheist swami with a non-religious ashram in Vrindavan who was formerly a guru himself, they could find a way, an approach to think differently and to take another way.
We need to spread rational thinking and teach our children how to think, not what to think! Only through that can we save future generations from exploitation based on superstition and religion. That’s what it really is about, stopping exploitation and saving people from being cheated.
My fight is actually against poverty and exploitation. God and religion just came in between.
How do you manage to live in Vrindavan, surrounded by swamis and gurus? Most of Vrindavan’s economy is based on religious tourism.
I was born here and have grown up here, that’s how I live in Vrindavan. Of course, because we are surrounded by religious people it looks as though we are isolated. An atheist island in the ocean of religion. While Vrindavan’s economy depends heavily on religious tourism, the tourists that we welcome here for Yoga packages and retreats with nutritious Ayurvedic diet know beforehand that neither our place nor our offers have anything to do with religion. We are very clear about this to those coming from outside, and I never hide my atheist feelings and thoughts.
I know that religious preachers and gurus don’t appreciate my words and writings. They may however be happy to have one competitor less