Tomsk prosecutors wage war on the Mahabharata

Theologian Boris Falikov express his opinion on the Bhagavad Gita controversy.

Tomsk has been the scene of a tragicomedy. Three researchers at the local university declared the Bhagavad Gita to be an extremist book. The fact might have been ignored, because Russia is a vast country with many eccentric people, but the problem is that some of these people are in authority. The local prosecutor’s office asked employees of Tomsk University to examine the Gita text and filed a claim to ban the dangerous book. Do the prosecutors have a bone to pick with the holy Indian scripture? It is very simple: the Bhagavad Gita is worshipped by Russian Krishnaits and, as you know, they are a dangerous sect – the Bishops’ Council of Russian Orthodox Church made a relevant warning in 1994, calling for Russians to be watchful. So the prosecutors are keeping a watchful eye out. The local FSB office is watchful, too, lest some poor Tomsk residents be lured into the sect. The simplest way to tackle the problem is to declare the Krishnait extremists and ban them. But first it has to be proved that their propaganda is founded on destructive books. As a result of that simple deduction, “The Song of God” has become the subject-matter of a lawsuit.

They are going to try a specific book, “Bhagavad Gita As It Is”, translated from Sanskrit by Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. It was he who transferred one of the Indian Vaishnavism schools to the West in the 1970s; the school still exists as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). This manoeuvre brought about transformations in Vaishnavism, but it managed to survive. One proof is that it remains hugely popular with the Indian diaspora, which is rapidly growing in our world of globalisation. If some Indian businessman should come to Russia, he will see native temples here to pray at and ask Krishna to help him in his hard communications with local officials. The Russian people praying nearby also inspire confidence that there are people in this country with whom you can find a common language without incurring financial losses.

Prabhupada’s translation is not a literary masterpiece. Furthermore, it is a double translation: he translated the Gita into English and unnamed assistants further translated the text into Russian. The defects in this double translation are obvious. The first Russian translation of the Gita was also made from English and was published by Nikolai Novikov’s printing house in 1788. I would not advise using this text to familiarise yourself with the Gita. The brilliant translation by Vsevolod Sementsov is a completely different thing – the translator managed to not only convey the religious depths but also to transpose Sanskrit shlokas into Russian verse. Yet Prabhupada’s translation never aspired to literary heights. The author had a different aim – to make comments on the sacred book in the context of Bengali Vaishnavism. He naturally targets modern audience but he heals souls rather than adapts to the reader. His exposures sometimes sound rude. This style is typical of many modern traditionalist preachers with charisma. Any Orthodox ancient would effortlessly beat Prabhupada – the logic of such preachers is simple: they need to shake up sinners who are sunk in disbelief in order to open their eyes and souls.

The castigatory rhetoric of Prabhupada’s comments refers to Indian archaic practices, which may seem uncivilised to us. Yet, in comparing non-believers to dogs, pigs and camels, Prabhupada keeps strictly to the most sacred texts. Similar comparisons can be found in other traditions. The thing is, modern Christians are trying to refrain from them (unlike Muslims), while Prabhupada is not.

Most importantly, in order to understand the sacred texts properly, it is necessary to understand the context in which each given statement is made. This way you can easily pick misanthropic quotations from the New Testament. For example, take a quote from Matthew: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household”, and this concludes that Jesus calls for splitting families.

But it is on this practice that Tomsk University “researchers” built their “examination”. No wonder they found “features inciting discord” in the Bhagavad Gita.

This expert review is not simply uneducated. It was obviously “contracted” by prosecutors and the FSB – in the sense the word “contract” is used in the criminal underworld. But the amateur "experts" failed to show professionalism even in this narrow context. When a posse of Moscow Orientalists and scholars of religious studies arrived in Tomsk for the court hearings, the local researchers chickened out. The original findings were cancelled and a new examination was ordered. Yet, instead of inviting specialists, the new review will engage loyal “experts” from another Siberian university, with a reputation for being an anti-sectarian champions. The findings of the new study are easy to predict.

This tragicomic story in Tomsk attests to the security ministers’ lack of culture – they tend to eradicate extremism in extremism-free places and will never confess to faults when esprit de corps is at stake. We would not expect anything else. What is much more dangerous is that the imitation of justice is often accompanied by an imitation of expert activity, which is conducted by selected "intellectuals" who are not only ignorant but also have no “moral restraints”. This explosive mixture enables them to accuse a monument of world literature of extremism or help put an innocent person behind the bars for many years.

Translated from Moskovskiye Novosti

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