Russia court declares Hindu book Bhagavad Gita legal

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A Russian court has dismissed a call to ban an edition of the Hindu holy book Bhagavad Gita, in a case that triggered protests in India.

The BBC reports

Prosecutors in the Siberian city of Tomsk wanted the edition to be ruled “extremist”. That would put it in the same category as Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

The Russian foreign ministry said it was the commentary on the text, not the text itself, that was under scrutiny.

The edition – Bhagvad Gita As It Is – is used by the Hare Krishna movement. [….]

The controversial commentary on the text was written by A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the movement, whose full title is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.


Hare Krishna followers in Russia saw the case as part of efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church to restrict their activities.

The Associated Press explains

Prosecutors in the Siberian city of Tomsk had argued that the Russian translation of “Bhagavad Gita as It Is” promotes “social discord” and hatred toward nonbelievers, causing an outcry in India, where many considered the proposed ban a violation of the rights of Hindus in Russia.

The text is a combination of the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s holiest scriptures, and commentary by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which is often called the Hare Krishna movement.

The prosecutors had asked the court to include the book on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, which bans more than 1,000 texts, including Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and books distributed by the Jehovah’s Witness and Scientology movements. […]

The trial, which began in June, followed this year’s ban on the construction of a Hare Krishna village in Tomsk and was based on an assessment by professors at Tomsk University, who concluded that “Bhagavad Gita as It Is” includes strong language against nonbelievers and promotes religious hatred and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, nationality and language.

The New York Times’ India blog provides some details:

The case relies on testimony from several university professors who read the text for an audit by Russia’s Federal Security Service.  According to a report in the Moscow Times, while the experts have said the book expresses religious hatred, one university dean included in the audit also said it “depends on perception” and another professor said the text is not “extremist,” but polemical.

The defendants, the Tomsk chapter of the “Russian Society of Krishna Consciousness,” say the potentially offensive quotes were taken out of context. On Monday, the national organization released a statement on a Russian Web site, “World Religions,” claiming that quotes under scrutiny, like one calling it a sacred duty to fight, “even if you have to fight with friends,” were taken out of context.

One of the quotes in question comes from Chapter 2: “Contents of the Gita Summarized,” from Text 15. It states (in the English translation):

“But one who is serious about making his life perfect surely adopts the sannyasa order of life in spite of all difficulties. The difficulties usually arise from having to sever family relationships, to give up the connection of wife and children. But if anyone is able to tolerate such difficulties, surely his path to spiritual realization is complete. Similarly, in Arjuna’s discharge of duties as a ksatriya, he is advised to persevere, even if it is difficult to fight with his family members or similarly beloved persons.”

Reuters says

Seeking to avert a diplomatic spat, Russia’s Foreign Ministry stressed that prosecutors had not attacked the holy
book itself but a controversial preface written in 1968 by a founder of the Hare Krishna movement A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada entitled “As It Is”. The book was translated into Russian in 1984.

“I repeat this is not about the book per se, but about the unsuccessful translation and the preface written by the author,” spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in comments posted on the ministry’s website. […]

The Bhagavad Gita takes the form of a conversation between Hindu god Krishna and a prince called Arjuna prior to a battle. The book forms a bedrock of the Hindu belief system.

Rights activists say local officials have exploited Russia’s vaguely worded law on extremism in recent years to persecute religious groups frowned upon by the dominant Russian Orthodox Church.

The New York Times’ India Blog notes

The Tomsk Hare Krishna group disputes the contention that the trial is directed not at the Baghavad Gita, but against the Krishna version, noting that texts labeled as extremist include quotes from the original book, as well as commentary by Swami Prabhupada.

The organization, which has grown in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, has battled charges of extremism before. For almost a decade, the Moscow branch struggled to gain permission to build a new temple, facing opposition from some members of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2010, the city’s new mayor gave the movement permission to build on a five-acre plot of land near Moscow’s largest airport.

According to AFP

The case threatened to create an unexpected roadblock in relations between Russia and India, strategic allies that have had exclusive military and other trade relations since Soviet times.

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna had described the prosecutors’ attempted ban as the work of “ignorant and misdirected or motivated individuals” that attacked a text defining the “very soul of our great civilisation”.

And the work of India’s parliament was briefly suspended last week after an uproar over the issue, while furious protesters picketed the Russian consulate in the eastern city of Kolkata.

India’s top diplomat later held consultations with Moscow’s ambassador to New Delhi that reportedly concluded with assurances from the Russian government that it would ensure the text’s continued publication.

“We appreciate this sensible resolution of a sensitive issue and are glad to put this episode behind us,” Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in a statement issued in New Delhi after the ruling.

Theologically the Hare Krishna movement, formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is considered a sect of Hinduism

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This post was last updated: May. 9, 2014