Prof. K.S. Bhagavan, 73, is a well-known Kannada litterateur based in Mysuru. He taught English at the University of Mysore for 37 years before retiring in 2005 and is known for his translations of William Shakespeare’s plays into Kannada. He is the author of over 40 books on literature and social issues and is the recipient of the Karnataka Rajyotsava and Karnataka Sahitya Academy Awards among others.
In 1982, he published his research work on the eighth century Hindu philosopher Sankara in which he made some novel arguments that were considered to be provocative by the Hindu right wing, which began to threaten him. Rather than be cowed down, Bhagavan has continued to speak out against Hindu religious dogma on the basis of his extensive research into the history and literature of religious texts. A firm believer in rationalism and humanism, he never hesitates to attack what he perceives as flaws in the characters of Hindu gods such as Rama and Krishna and in texts such as Manusmriti and the Bhagavad Gita.
After the murder of M.M. Kalburgi on August 30, 2015, Bhagavan was given police protection. This judicious decision saved his life as investigations into the Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh murders revealed that he was slated to be assassinated after Kalburgi. The murderers came to his house in Kuvempunagar in Mysuru and on seeing the constables realised that it would be risky to attack Bhagavan. He continues to be on the infamous hit list of Hindu right-wing terrorists. Bhagavan spoke to Frontline at his home sitting amidst books, including Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Ernesto Che Guevara’s The Bolivian Diary.
You have been the target of the Hindu right wing from the time you published your book on Sankara. What did you argue in this book?
I wrote my book Shankaracharya Matthu Pratigamithana (“Sankaracharya and Reactionary Philosophy”) in 1979 and it was published in 1982. For the first time, I pointed out that Sanakra was not a philosopher and he was not an advaitin, that is, one who believed in the equality of all. He only preached this but did not practise it. I have also quoted extensively from his Sanskrit texts in which he says Sudras have no right to knowledge. Not only that, Sanakra was an enemy of Buddhism; he destroyed Buddhist monuments, effacing Buddhism from India. He was a hater of other religions, highly intolerant, and an out-and-out casteist who believed in the supremacy of Brahmins and treated non-Brahmins as slaves. Citing evidence, I have questioned his stature as a philosopher and argued that we cannot accept Sankara as an enlightened person.
Once the book was published, I got a number of phone calls in the 1980s from right-wing groups threatening me with murder. These threats started again a few years ago.
Why did the threats start again?
In 2016, I gave a lecture on the Bhagavad Gita where I stated that certain portions of it must be burned because these portions designated all non-Brahmins, Sudras and women as sinners. This led to a lot of threats. I said that we (non-Brahmins) are not sinners because we produce wealth and food for everyone, so we are virtuous people; rather it is the exploiters who are the sinners. I made this statement at an event held by a Dalit group called Dalit Welfare Trust, which had organised a seminar in the context of Sushma Swaraj’s statement that the Bhagavad Gita should become the religious text of the country. We opposed it in the forum.
You knew Prof. Kalburgi well.
Yes, he was very fond of me. And whenever I went to his house in Dharwad, he would always have a meal with me. While we are still not certain who his murderers are, he had angered a lot of Veerasaivas because he constantly sought to distinguish between the Lingayat faith and mainstream Hinduism. As you know, he stated that the followers of Basavanna do not believe in the Vedas. Basavanna is one of the greatest figures in world history. It is unfortunate that he is misunderstood and our people do not know what he truly said.
With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in power at the Centre, do you think the threat level has gone up?
Yes, really! And elements that promote fundamentalism, bigotry, etc., have gone on a spree. Last week, the Pune Police arrested five activists. I have condemned it. I think all this is happening owing to the failure of the Central government because it has not lived up to the expectations of the masses. They haven’t been able to achieve what they promised in their manifesto. Therefore, in order to cover it up they are diverting the attention of the masses. This is what I feel very strongly.
You were on the hit list of Hindu right-wing terrorists. The particular attention of the Hindu right wing is on writers, intellectuals and activists like you.
Yes. Because we, without caring for our lives, are trying to educate the masses. We are trying to make people aware of social inequalities and the reasons for poverty. And how the so-called gods of the Hindu religion are misleading them and are used by the exploiters. I have written a book on Rama, Rama Mandira Yeke Beda [“Why we don’t need Ram Mandir”, Ladai Prakashana, Gadag, 2018]. In the name of Rama and in the name of Krishna, the exploiters are preaching the wrong message. Look at the sources like the Bhagavad Gita; Krishna preaches inequality. When Krishna says he is for inequality, how can you say that Hinduism is a good religion? This is the case with Rama also. Valmiki clearly states in the Ramayana that it is the duty of Rama to protect the fourfold system of society. Rama was there as king to maintain this system.
My method of research is that I read the original. Take the Valmiki Ramayana, for instance, which is in seven parts and contains 24,600 stanzas or so. Then, I bring this to the notice of the people, revealing what has remained hidden all these years. Did you know that Rama condemns the Buddha? This is what Rama says. My book on this theme came out nearly four months ago, but none of the Hindu right-wing people are voicing their opinion.
So you say the demolition of the Babri Masjid was not justified religiously.
Yes! If anyone goes through my book, he will have no respect for Rama. And that is my intention—that these gods must be rejected. They are not gods. Manusmriti says that Brahmins are superior to God, and Brahmins have created God. All gods are under their control. So, therefore I have said Rama is a slave to Brahmins.
You recently made the statement that the BJP wants to bring in the Manusmriti and sideline the Constitution of India. Do you think this will happen?
Yes. If our people are not vigilant and do not vote against the BJP, it will happen. It is a real fear. We have to make people aware. If the BJP gets a parliamentary majority in 2019, no one can live comfortably, but I’m confident that this will not happen. If the opposition parties come together as it looks like [they are doing], the BJP will be washed out.
You are criticised for only targeting the Hindu religion. You do not criticise any other religion and its problems. What do you have to say about this?
Yes. What they say is correct, but I only know what Hinduism is. If you know Islam, you talk about it; if you know Christianity, you talk about it. I am not aware of these religions. I am a part of Hindu society, and I know what is happening in this society. I want to clean my house, and only after that will I think of cleaning other houses. What I see in Islam is that whenever a Muslim sees another Muslim he embraces him; where is this practice in Hinduism? You keep Dalits away from you. I am a humanist. I don’t believe in any ism.
Vivekananda is often used as a symbol of right-wing Hinduism. That is entirely wrong. If you see the writings of Vivekananda, he is the biggest critic of Hinduism. Why is this not so well known? Because it is not brought to the awareness of the people. That is our mistake. Vivekananda did not belong to any religion; he belonged to all mankind.
What does it mean to live under constant police protection, under a constant threat?
I did not ask for police protection. The minute Kalburgi was shot dead, the Karnataka government gave me protection. In fact, I was surprised to see police in my house. Then they told me why they were there. I felt very happy when I found out that I was on the hit list! Because I am glad what I am saying is catching the attention of the country.
So you do not feel scared?
Not at all! Why should I feel scared? I have not made any mistake; I have not committed any crime. I am educating the masses. I am duty-bound. It is in the Constitution of India. Article 51A on fundamental duties begins by saying that “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India…” and sub clause (h) says “…to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. This is what I am doing. I am carrying out my duty as a citizen of India. Whereas people are fighting for their rights, I am fighting for my duty. This is the duty of every citizen of India. I go to public events freely. After Kalburgi’s assassination, I was invited to Lucknow, Delhi, Kerala, Maharashtra and many other States.
Did you know Gauri Lankesh also?
Yes. She was a good friend of mine. She published all my articles in her paper. Eight to 10 of the articles here in my book Rama Mandira Yeke Beda were published first in Gauri Lankesh Patrike. In fact, I have dedicated this book to her. I also knew her father, the writer P. Lankesh, also intimately.
As someone who lived through the Emergency as a writer, do you think the situation now is worse?
Yes, it is worse than even that as writers, activists and intellectuals are constantly under threat. In fact, somebody came and told my wife: “Please advise your husband not to say these things in public platforms.” She told them that if he believes in what he says I will support him. She said: “Every man is going to die anyway, and if he dies for a good cause, I will be happy.”