Swami Agnivesh

(2004, India)
Joint Honorary Award with Asghar Ali Engineer

...for promoting over many years in South Asia the values of religious and communal co-existence, tolerance and mutual understanding.


Swami Agnivesh was born as Vepa Shyam Rao on 21st September 1939, the grandson of the Diwan (Chief Minister) of a princely state called Shakti, now in Chattisgarh. He gained law and business management degrees, became a lecturer in Calcutta and for a while also practised law. He comes from an orthodox Hindu family, but in 1968 he became a full-time worker of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reformist movement, and two years later became a sanyasi, renouncing worldly possessions and becoming, in the process, Swami Agnivesh. He has worked on a number of social issues, including child and bonded labour, inclusion of "untouchables" in Indian religious society, women's rights, and religious tolerance and reconciliation.

Contact Details

Swami Agnivesh
Bonded Labor Liberation Front
7 Jantar Mantar Rd.
New Delhi 110 001



Swami Agnivesh was born as Vepa Shyam Rao on 21st September 1939, the grandson of the Diwan (Chief Minister) of a princely state called Shakti, now in Chattisgarh. He gained law and business management degrees, became a lecturer in Calcutta and for a while also practised law. He comes from an orthodox Hindu family, but in 1968 he became a full-time worker of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reformist movement, and two years later became a sanyasi, renouncing worldly possessions and becoming, in the process, Swami Agnivesh.

On the same date that he became a "renouncer", Agnivesh co-founded a political party, the Arya Sabha, to work for political order, founded on Arya Samaj principles. The principles were spelt out in a book published in 1974, Vaidik Samajvad (Vedic Socialism). This rejects the lopsided materialism of both capitalism and communism in favour of what the Arya Sabha constitution calls "social spirituality".

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975, cracking down on opposition parties, Agnivesh and some colleagues were arrested. He was in jail for 14 months. After the 1977 elections which swept Indira Gandhi from office, Agnivesh was elected to the Haryana state legislative assembly, becoming education minister. He rapidly became disillusioned, resigned and decided to devote all his energy and time to social justice movements.

During this period he began to denounce bonded labour, a cause for which he became well known. He founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front) in 1981, and is still its Chairperson. Swami Agnivesh puts the number of child labourers in India (despite constitutional provisions) at 65 million. Some are in debt bondage or have been pledged by parents in return for financial advances; some are lured by procurers who promise bright prospects after training. BMM has secured the release of more than 172,000 Indian workers, and has helped create a number of trade unions, including the All India Brick Kiln Workers, the Stone Quarry Workers and the Construction Workers. Working also at the international level, Agnivesh has also thrice been elected as Chairperson of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

Agnivesh has had a high profile with a number of social issues apart from child and bonded labour:

In 1987 he led a 18 day long 'padyatra' (march on foot) from Delhi to Deorala in Rajasthan to protest against sati (the immolation of widows on their husband's funeral pyres) following a particularly notorious incident. The march was stopped, and Agnivesh briefly gaoled, but both received widespread, sympathetic coverage. The Indian Parliament later enacted the Sati Prevention Act. Back in Delhi Agnivesh launched a campaign against female foeticide, which also resulted in legislation.

In 1988/89 he led a movement to secure the entry of 'untouchables' into Hindu temples which were discriminating against them. Again he was arrested but the action had a substantial impact on public opinion.

In 1989 he led a multi-religious march from Delhi to Meerat to protest against and defuse communal violence that had claimed the lives of 45 Muslim youths. Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer was also a prominent participant in the march.

From 1989-95, he participated in a number of people's movements (including Narmada Bachao Andolan) in respect of land, water, forests and fisheries issues, and campaigned with women's movements against alcohol in both Andhra Pradesh and Haryana, winning total prohibition (for a short period) in both states.

In 1999, concerned about escalating religious fundamentalism and obscurantism, he helped to launch a multi-religious forum called Religions for Social Justice, which led a group of 55 religious leaders to the place where an Australian Christian missionary and his two sons had been burned to death in their sleep by Hindu religious fanatics. The leaders in The Times of India on the theme of religious tolerance and reconciliation, written by Agnivesh, attest to the impact of this initiative. For many years he has also written articles in leading newspapers jointly with a Christian priest, Rev. Valson Thampu.

For many years, Agnivesh has deplored in newspaper articles the consumerism and materialism that he perceives to be undermining Indian culture. In 1997, the Arya Samaj movement launched a people's movement against the 'western cultural invasion' and the 'neo-colonialism' of the WTO and World Bank.

Four years later, Agnivesh led a protest march from Mumbai to Gujarat against economic globalisation.

In 2002 happened the massacre in Gujarat, which disturbed Swami Agnivesh deeply. He once again organized a group of 72 eminent religious-social leaders who spent five days in the violence affected areas of Gujarat and denounced the Hindu fundamentalist organizations and sectors responsible.

In 2004, Agnivesh became the president of the World Council of Arya Samaj.


Acceptance Speech by Swami Agnivesh

December 9th, 2004

Right Livelihood: A Universal Goal 

Hon'ble Mr. Speaker and distinguished friends,

I consider it a special privilege to be honoured through the Right Livelihood Award, respected globally as the "Alternate Nobel Prize". I would like to thank the Right Livelihood Award Foundation for finding me worthy of this unique recognition.

I welcome this not just as a distinction conferred on me personally, but as a global recognition of a spiritual mission that I have had the privilege to share with people of many faiths and cultures over the last four decades specially with Islamic scholar activist Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer and a Christian priest of renown Rev. Valson Thampu. Additionally, it is a tribute to the unique spiritual genius of India that breeds a composite culture of harmony and mutual respect. Sadly, this has come under assault from organized vested interests in recent times. But the soul of India spoke against it in decisive terms through the idiom of democracy recently. And I feel a sense of legitimate pride about the spiritual goodness of my people who have reasserted our shared spirituality and rejected parochial and sectarian agendas and advocacies. 

I see this is an occasion to share with you, albeit briefly, the essence of my spiritual vision and mission. To me, the essence of spirituality is the duty to live to its full the glorious destiny of being human. The purpose of religion should be to empower all people in this adventure of living with dignity and fulfilment. Sadly, the spiritual core of all religions has decayed and the competitive agendas of ghettoized religious establishments have become a blatant contradiction of their spiritual mandate. Religions have become a hindrance, rather than a help, to our shared pursuit of peace and progress. They tend to make us meaner rather than better human beings, less sensitive to the demands of justice, compassion and fellow humanity in our times. This is regrettable in the extreme. 

Early enough in my spiritual pilgrimage it dawned on me that the ultimate value in this world is life in all its manifold forms and expressions. To that extent I want to emphasize that the focus on "right livelihood" needs to be centered on a commitment to value and celebrate life. Spiritually, life is a festival, a celebration. Joy is of the essence of life; and, as per the Indian spiritual worldview, joy is of the essence of God as well. The hallmark of God is ananda, or pure bliss. Because we carry, deep within us, the imprint of the nature of our Creator, all human beings have a right, and duty, to be joyful. Anything that thwarts this spiritual human right goes against the very purpose of human being. Spirituality mandates us to wage a relentless war to eradicate these forces of oppression and disempowerment. But joy is not merely a matter of obtaining some material advantages alone. Material advantages beyond basic needs tend to contribute to human unhappiness. It is the result of the right relationship between the Creator and the whole of creation. Spirituality defines, directs and empowers that relationship. 

This explains why I attach special significance to this award among all the awards conferred on me. To institute the "Right Livelihood Award" is to focus attention on a wholesome approach to spirituality as the foundation of life. I was born into an orthodox south Indian brahmin family, practicing a religion of multiple Gods & Goddesses, idol worship, caste system, a superstitious, ritual ridden way of life. At the age of 17, I came across the universal Vaidic spiritual vision of Mahrshi Dayanand - The founder of Arya Samaj Movement in 1875. It demystified and simplified religion for me and inspired me to be my own prophet. Based on that vision, I want to place on record my spiritual conviction that the religions of the world must be assessed, not on the basis of their convoluted theologies, but in terms of the extent to which they serve as forces of liberation and empowerment. Religion as the watchdog of the status quo is a curse and a liability. It is high time we cast it out, lock stock and barrel. That being the case, and going by mounting contemporary evidence, I have no hesitation in stating that the agenda of "Right Livelihood" has two complementary dimensions. First, we must liberate people from religion, as religion is understood and practiced today. Second, we must effect a paradigm shift from religiosity to shared spirituality.

This agenda assumes unprecedented urgency and significance in a globalizing world. The retrograde and mutually antagonistic outlook of religions is a liability we have inherited from the era and mindset of nation states. In the fields of economics and politics, in internal relations and trans-national military enterprises, the global outlook has shifted from competition to cooperation. It is a matter of supreme irony that, though the vision of globality was intuited first in the sphere of spirituality, the religions of the world shut their eyes willfully against its opportunities and challenges, thanks to their narrow and narcissistic dispositions. 

The global village is shifting progressively from antagonism to alliances. This does not mean that peaceful coexistence will result automatically. Alliances can continue to be possessed by the spirit of antagonism and keep our world bleeding itself to death. Peace among religions is a precondition for world peace. But religions, as religions, can never be at peace with each other. To enable religions to be instruments for peace we need to enable, first, religious communities to progress from religion to spirituality. 

For the world order to be one of peace and justice, for the global village to be a theater of right livelihood, it is imperative that a new and proactive spiritual vision commensurate to the challenges of the emerging world order be enunciated without delay. The challenge is to make "right livelihood" a universal goal. Recognizing this value in a symbolic way through an award like this is a significant step in the right direction. This is not, however, our journey's end. We must not rest until right livelihood is within reach of every human being upon this earth we love and cherish. 

We all have a role to play in achieving this goal.

Today, the world is agog with a Global Alliance for War Against Terrorism and a re-elected born again Christian President of a superpower has hiked his country's military budget to a whopping 400 billion US dollars in the current climate.

Can we who are committed to Global Peace with Justice call for a 10% reduction in all military spending worldwide? Such a reduction would make a staggering US$100 billion a year available to provide millions of people the necessary amenities to lead a life of dignity, a life of Right Livelihood. Illiteracy, poverty and unemployment often create fertile breeding grounds for religious fundamentalism and eventual terrorism. One hundred billion dollars annually would make the difference to curb the spread of these influences. In addition to this, each one of us who wants to contribute to avoiding contributes to global inequity avoidable and injustice should be able to cut down on incremental 10 % consumption of alcohol, tobacco and meat. Let us unite for a Global Alliance for War Against Poverty and Exploitation and Contemporary Forms of Slavery. Let us launch a People's Movement for Right Livelihood. In all humility I offer myself and nearly one million members of Arya Samaj to work for such a movement.

In accepting this unique honour, I renew my pledge to continue my spiritual struggle against all forms and forces of oppression and exploitation, of irrationality and obscurantism, and to endeavour to cleanse the garden of life from the weeds of discrimination, alienation and antagonism. Universal kinship  - the insight that we are all children of God, equally - is the quintessence of a spiritual vision. Today we pay lip service to this glorious truth. Let us walk hand-in-hand to make this a flesh and blood reality. 

It is a said that the birth of every human being is a God's statement of faith in the potential goodness of human life. I share this deep optimism about life. And it is my prayer that the global village will be a garden of life and not a wilderness of death, marked by hostility and destructiveness. I wish to conclude by saying a prayer that millions in my country have been saying from time immemorial: 

Asatoma Sadgamay,

(O Divine ! Lead us from untruth to Truth) 

Tamasoma Jyotirgamay, (from darkness and ignorance to light & wisdom) Mrityorma Amritamgamay (from disease & death to immortality).


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