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The Relics Of Saint Seraphim: A Journey Through Russian Orthodoxy

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Saint Seraphim of Sarov

The Orthodox Church is going through deep changes in these last days of 2018. Ukraine is establishing an independent church leading to a serious controversy within the Orthodox world that has prompted a schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and Constantinople patriarchate.

In this series of articles, elements of the history of Orthodoxy in Russia will be (re-) explored to feed the debate covered in most media around religion, power and politics.

The story of Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833), one of the most revered Orthodox saints, is a symbolic journey through the various milestones in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) over the past two hundred years till nowadays.

After decades of seclusion, the pious hermit began to receive visits from pilgrims as word of his ability to heal body and soul spread among the faithful. Some accounts relate Seraphim’s prophesies about the fate of the last tsar Nicholas II who was killed during the Bolshevik revolution in 1918. Seraphim would also have foreseen the future of Russia under the Soviets. According to these narratives, he anticipated the repression against the church during the twentieth century. Other accounts raise the affinity that Seraphim might have had with the Old Believers, the Orthodox Christians who refused Nikon’s reforms of the mid seventeenth century to preserve traditional ways of worship. Seraphim’s teachings of internal unity and spiritual purity thus transcended the canonical differences between the ROC and the Old Believers, a schism that still exist today.

It is known that he was canonized in 1903, but Soviet authorities confiscated his relics when they closed the Sarov Monastery in 1923, at the beginning of the repressions against the Orthodox Church. Like many other objects of veneration, his relics were kept in a storage room in the Museum of Religion and Atheism in Leningrad. The city of Sarov where Seraphim engaged in ascetic struggle, became the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear program. Sarov was a closed city with limited access to keep the research secret. During the buildup of the nuclear center, many churches were destroyed or repurposed in a failed, yet violent attempt to eradicate religion and all its manifestations.

With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Saint Seraphim’s relics were uncovered and displayed in a Moscow convent. In the wave of spiritual revivalism and enthusiasm for Russian saints, Russian believers were now able to pay tribute to the holy man. In 2003, the Patriarch Alexey II and President Putin paid a visit to Sarov to celebrate Seraphim’s hundredth anniversary of canonization and the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 2016, a tiny piece of these relics orbited around the earth on board the spaceship Soyuz MS-02. Russian cosmonauts now regularly take religious objects with them into space, such as icons, the Gospels, and stones from Mount Tabor (the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus), symbolically spreading their faith around the world. This practice has become a tradition for space missions since 2008, when relics of Saint Sergius of Radonezh accompanied cosmonauts into space. Ironically, space conquest was formerly heralded as a great achievement of the antireligious Soviet authorities. A popular Soviet propaganda poster even depicted Yury Gagarin in space with the caption: “There is no God!”

Another chapter in the story of Seraphim’s relics was the meeting in Cuba in February 2016, where Patriarch Kirill offered some fragments of the saint’s remains to Pope Francis as a token of the rapprochement between the two churches. For memory, Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church are at odds since the great schism of 1054. This historic encounter in Cuba held a highly symbolic value as no head of the ROC had met with the head of the Catholic Church. During this encounter, both pontiffs agreed that “the past method of ‘Uniatism’ is not the way to reestablish unity”. The Joint Declaration further cast“ hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms,and that all the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine may live in peace and harmony.” It was almost three years ago.

Recently, in December 2018, archeologists from the Russian Academy of Science have made interesting discoveries during their excavation in Sarov monastery. They found a marble plaque commemorating the canonization of Seraphim and testifying the attendance of the Tsar Nicholas II with his family. This artifact resurfaces as a thread connecting the past and the present.

Saint Seraphim’s unique journey during his life has continued after his death with each milestone epitomizing a key moment in the unfolding history of Russian Orthodoxy.

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Religion

The Hindu, Hinduism, and Hindutva

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Congress leader Salman Khurshid’s book Sunrise Over Ayodhya has irked not only the Hindu extremists but also some moderate leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad. The bone of contention is his comparison of  Hindutva to terror outfits with ISIS and Boko Haram. Some people pelted stones on Khurshid’s Nainital residence, before trying to set it afire. In viral videos, Khurshid says,’If you want to see what Hindutva does, see the burnt door in my Nainital home’. Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of the occupied Kashmir, and Rahul Gandhi supported Khurshid’s observations in the book. Mehbooba said, `Those who make Hindus and Muslims fight in the name of religion can be compared with ISIS or any other (terror group) because both of them kill people in the name of religion’. Referring to ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world is one family, as taught by Hindu scriptures), she said: “Sanatan Dharma teaches us that the world is one family. What BJP and RSS are trying to teach us is neither Hindutva nor Hinduism.”

She said Sananatan dharam teaches inclusivity and BJP is antithesis to that. Mehbooba clarified that the real Sanatan Dharma doesn’t teach communalism. She accused RSS-BJP combine of hijacking Hinduism and Hindutva, and making people fight against each other all over the country.

Rahul Gandhi questioned, ‘Is Hinduism about beating a Sikh, or a Muslim? And then answered ‘Yes, Hindutva, of course, is’.

The Hindu and Hindutva

The ‘Hindu’ were persons inhabiting the Indus valley area and beyond. The territory inhabited by them was Hindustan. But the communalistic Hindu calls the territory Hindusthan (the Hindu’s place). The suffix ‘-stan’ being of non-Hindu origin is obnoxious to the communalists. The communalists find Bharatvarsha more palatable. This word originated from an ancient Hindu king Bharatvarsha. The communalists’ outfits like Sangh Parivar use this name preferentially as it emphasizes Vedic roots of the country and its original people.

According to the bulk of literature on the subject, `Hinduism’ is not a closely-knit or bounded faith or collection of doctrines. It is a religion (mazhab), not a deen, or a way of life without a founder. According to Encyclopedia Britannica 1994-2001: “Hinduism is both a civilization and a congregation of religions: it has neither a beginning nor a founder, nor a central authority, hierarchy nor organization. Every attempt at a specific definition of Hinduism has proved unsatisfactory in one way or another…”.

Hinduism does not have One Church, One Pope, One Prophet, One Holy Book or One Ritual. A One can be a Hindu as well as a believer or an agnostic or an atheist!

Hinduism does not prescribe one system of marriage or one system of succession/inheritance. The Hindu law reforms (1955-1956) tried to bring about uniformity but diverse practices continue.

Hinduism allows a Hindu to worship other gods and saints. Thousands of Hindus go to worship at the shrine in Velankanni or pray at the Golden Temple in Amritsar or offer obeisance at the Dargah Sharif in Ajmer.

Hindutva

Hindutva is controversially defined in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in his book Hindutva and adopted by Hedgewar as the basis of his ideology (An Indian parliamentary committee resurrected him as a hero by allowing his portrait to be hung in Indian parliament). The RSS’s aims are a mix of cultural, religious and political objectives – To serve Hindu dharma (religion), sanskriti (culture) and rashtra (nation). Sarvarkar distinguishes ‘Hinduism’ from ‘Hindutva’. He clarified that the `Hinduism’ was concerned with `relevance of life after death, the concept of God and the Universe’. ‘Hindutva’, on the other hand, was ‘Hindus being a nation, bound by a common culture, a common history, a common language, a common country and a common religion’.

Two camps

The book has brought into limelight the bitter reality that the majority of India wants a minority-mukt  India. The feeble voices about peaceful existence are fading. The RSS, BJP and their ilk speak the same language.

Mohan Bhagwat (RSS) who shouts ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, actually prefers the term “Hindu” to “Bhartiya,”. Bhagwat equates “Hindu” and “Bhartiya/Indian”.

While speaking on the occasion of launching the Krishnanand Sagar’s  book ‘Vibhajan Kalin Bharat ke Sakshi’ (The Witnesses of Partition-era India), Bhagwat said, ‘India’s suffering at the time of Partition should not be forgotten and that it will go away when the Partition is “undone”. This is India of 2021 and not of 1947’.

He spoke in the same vein as had Pandit Jawahar lal Nehru and Vallabha Patel. Before his final flight (Aug 7, 1947) from Delhi to Pakistan, the Quaid sent a message to the Indian government: “the past must be buried and let us start as two independent sovereign states of Hindustan and Pakistan, I wish Hindustan prosperity and peace.”

But, Vallabhbhai Patel replied from Delhi: “the poison has been removed from the body of India.” Even Nehru, an ostensibly liberal leader, regarded the creation of Pakistan as a blunder. His rant against Pakistan reaches a crescendo in his remarks: “I shall not have that carbuncle on my back.” (D. H. Bhutani, The Future of Pakistan, page 14).

There is marked similarity between Bhagwat’s speech and Narendra Modi’s speech earlier. While delivering the Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15 earlier this year, PM Modi declared, ‘August 14 will be observed as the ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. He described partition as “one of the biggest tragedies” of the last century.

Jihad under Hinduism and other religions

The concept of holy wars (or call it terrorism) exists in many religions.In the historical context, the term “holy war” meant different things to different individuals and communities. The oldest ‘terrorists’ were holy warriors who killed civilians. Recent examples of religious terrorists are Aum Shinrikyo (Japanese), Rabbi Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir (Jews).  The Israeli media describes Hezbollah and Hamas as ‘religious terrorists.’ In the first century A.D Palestine, the Jews publicly slit the Romans’ throats. In the seventh century India, the thugs strangulated gullible passersby to please the Hindu Devi Kali. And the 19th century, adherents of Narodnaya Volya (people’s will) mercilessly killed their pro-Tsar rivals. The term `terrorism’ became notorious during the French reign of terror in 1793-94.

It is now common to dub one’s adversary a ‘terrorist’. Afghan “freedom fighters” became “terrorists” like the Kashmiri freedom fighters. Doing so, forecloses the possibility of political negotiation and gives the powerful definer the right to eliminate the ‘terrorist’.

Gita:  Verse 193 is no different from what Krishan taught Arjun. How is this any different from Lord Krishna telling Arjun in the Bhagavad Gita to fight as his dharmic duty?

BG 2.33: “अथ चैत्त्वमिमं धर्म्यं संग्रामं न करिष्यसि। ततः स्वधर्मं कीर्तिं च हित्वा पापमवाप्स्यसि। (O Arjuna! If you do not fight for this religion and turn away from your religion, then you will lose your fame and glory).” Surely, Hindus will know the context.

 Bible: Deuteronomy 20:1-4: “When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory’.”

Torah: Do Torah’s verses also speak of genocide and pillage?

Numbers 31:1-10 say: The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” Moses spoke to the people, saying, and “Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the LORD’s vengeance on Midian. You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.” … “The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments.”

Hindu holy and unholy wars

The Ramayanas and the Mahabharata wars elucidate various types of yuddha (wars). In ancient India there were three schools of war. Bhishma’s school of warfare belonged to dharma yuddha (ethical or just war). Two other schools, Brihaspati and Krishna’s school of warfare belonged to koota yuddha (all-out war) or maya yuddha (war by tricks or stratagems). There is too much of negative publicity about Islamic jihad (struggle). But, there is little limelight on koota yuddha in India’s history. Koota yuddha signifies all-out, no-holds-barred or unethical warfare.

Bhishma stressed chivalry and ruled out surprise and deception. But Brihaspati recommended that the king should attack an enemy only if the enemy’s strength is one-third of his own (`Udyog Parva’). He suggested that the king should never trust the enemy or spare him, no matter how old or virtuous he may be.

Concluding remark

The world is unconscious about the undercurrents of Hindu jihad in Indian politics. It is manifest from lynching minorities and legislativive steps to gag voice of minorities struggling for rights. Some political parties are exploiting Hindutva concept to hoodwink masses and win elections. Political gains are uppermost in BJP’s mind. It has agreed to withdraw controversial farm laws but will never withdraw anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizenship. 

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Pulling back from the brink

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The family of nations is balancing on the edge of an abyss as mushrooming religious and ethnic intolerance becomes the norm.

Western as well as non-Western societies have helped paved the road towards the abyss: the West by abandoning the post-World War Two principle of ‘Never Again’ and the non-Western world by never embracing it and failing to adopt the principle of ‘forgive but don’t forget.’

Exasperating matters is the fact that the United States and Europe look at individual crises rather than a threatening pattern of developments. In doing so, they fail to recognise the structural problems that challenge Western values of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism.

Citing a litany of crises and tensions in Central and Eastern Europe, Balkan scholar Damir Marusic warns that “the whole edifice feels rickety. It feels like the order we have all taken for granted since the end of the Cold War is badly decaying, and has gotten so fragile that it might well shatter soon… We notice individual problems, but we don’t see how it adds up, nor how we got here… We are still, in some strange way, operating as if things are more or less fine—yes, adjustments must be made, but our world is durable and sound.”

Mr. Marusic argues that the rot in the system has been exasperated by the troubled US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. “As the final collapse of the Afghanistan project earlier this year proved, the whole optimistic premise of nation- and order-building upon which the EU project is ultimately premised was also undermined by America’s failures,” Mr. Marusic said.

Geopolitical battles are being fought on the backs of innocent and desperate people. They fuel tensions and threaten stability in Central and Eastern Europe and spark humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and Afghanistan. An ethnic and religious divide characterises the tens of thousands of Middle Eastern migrants ferried by Belarus with Russian support to the Polish border. Ten British soldiers have been dispatched to the border to help Poland with fencing.

The exploitation of deep-seated religious and ethnic hostility drove Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik to threaten to withdraw Serb troops from the army of Bosnia Herzegovina and create a separate Serb force. Bosnia Herzegovina was created as a federation at the end of the Bosnian war in the 1990s with Muslim, Serb and Croatian entities that enjoyed autonomy. The federation retained control of the military, top echelons of the judiciary, and tax collection. Mr. Dodik has said that the Bosnian Serb parliament would also, in what would amount to de facto secession, establish a separate Serb judiciary, and tax administration.

The writing is on the wall across the globe from the United States and Europe to Afghanistan and China.

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have become mainstream. Hindu-Muslims tensions spill across South Asian borders. Sunni Muslims persecute their Shiite brethren in Afghanistan, risking clashes between the Taliban and Iran. The Christian minority in the cradle of Abrahamic faiths has been decimated.

Men like former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Republican Jews in the United States have joined thinly veiled anti-Semitic attacks on liberal philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros rather than insulate their political and ideological differences with the billionaire from assaults laced with undertones of religious prejudice and racism.

Similarly,  French presidential contender Eric Zemmour questions the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer whose false conviction for treason sparked bitter controversy in the walk-up to World War One. Mr. Zemmour also rejects the notion that French collaborationist wartime leader Philippe Petain assisted in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps, asserting instead that Mr. Petain had saved Jews.

Finally, China has launched a frontal assault on Turkic ethnic and religious identity in the north-western province of Xinjiang that has gone largely unchallenged in the Muslim world.

At the core of the problem lie not social media that function as megaphones, aggregators and creators of echo chambers and silos rather than instigators but political, religious, ethnic, and cultural leaders who play on base instincts in pursuit of popularity and power.

Lebanon, Iraq and potentially Afghanistan are fallouts of the institutionalisation and instrumentalisation of religious and ethnic prejudice and intolerance at the expense of notions of mutual respect, adherence to human dignity and coexistence.

Sectarian warlords loot the Lebanese and Iraqi states and weaken their institutions. Recent violence in Beirut suggests that protagonists, including former Christian warlords and Shiite allies of Iran, are willing to risk a second round of civil war to secure their vested interests, sending a middle-income country spiralling into widespread poverty.

Long-term, the solution is education systems that stress the importance of humanitarian and moral values as well as religious and ethnic tolerance as the guardrails of governance and politics and ensure that ethnic and religious prejudice and racism are socially taboo attitudes.

The short-term tackling of the problem will have to involve dialogue and negotiation. A recent study showed that John F. Kennedy’s decision to seek an arms control treaty rather than escalate a debilitating and risky arms race after the Soviet Union detonated the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon in 1962 succeeded where accelerated conflict may not have.

Applied to religious and ethnic intolerance, lessons learnt from Mr. Kennedy’s approach require that governments and religious and ethnic groups that pay lip service to interfaith and other forms of dialogue or assert that they promote democratic and humanitarian values are held to account rather than be allowed to rest on their laurels with hollow promises and declarations.

This year’s chairmanship by Indonesia of the Group of 20 (G20) that brings together the world’s largest economies has an opportunity to stress humanitarian and democratic values and promote a framework for dialogue. The chairmanship puts Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society organisation that emphasises those values, on global public display given that it is poised to play a role in the G20’s inter-faith tack.

Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, argued in a New York Times op-ed entitled ‘The Last Time America Broke,’ that the United States, despite deep-seated polarisation that has brought religious and ethnic intolerance to the forefront, had not passed the point of no return. He noted that civil society had repeatedly brought America back from the brink.

“We’re not just helplessly hurtling toward inevitable civil war; we can be actors in this story. The first step is acknowledging the dangers inherent in democracy. To move forward, we should look backwards and see that we’re struggling not with a collapse but with a relapse,” Mr. Grinspan wrote.

It’s a message that is as true for the rest of the world as it is for the United States.

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Why specific Muslim community bothering Indian BJP government

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India, a place with a strong political history governed and ruled by Muslims and colonial powers during their regime setup. Being a democratic state and a Majoritarian government it is currently pursuing a political ideology which unfortunately invites a great sum of criticism. Adopting a policy against the minorities particularly Muslims living in the vicinity is a matter of grave concern. It is not haunted by all Muslims worldwide. Only a specific Muslim community with a similar or somehow shared ethnicity is and has been  their target. It reflects its biased character in international system  which is again questioned by many experts concerning its legality and practicality. The gap between first world and third world states has always developed a sense which leads us to change our attitudes and ethical principles and so the same is being done by Indian regimes for decades. The in-build hate and hope is the strategy and a tactic to promote injustices.

Why subcontinent or south Asian region has been the epicentre for India as a state to express its worldly materialistic grudges. Why Middle east or Europe has not been its targets although they are officially recognised as Muslim dominated areas. Why its foreign relations are still functioning and progressing with them. On a serious note, the realistic hegemonic character is dominated to exert pressure better apt for their illegal interests. The trade relations also follow the same suit. It is power politics and that’s how it regulates the system while committing injustices and prejudices. Why UAE and Saudi Arabian Muslims are not targeted? Although they are the main offshoot of Islamic creed. They share historical bond with the religion which is considered as one of main the cause of conflict with rest of the Muslims.

India is one of the states that has seen worst political shifts while promoting so called democratic values which in its true essence is and never will be implemented in India. The elections of 2014 had invited Prime Minister Modi to exercise power and decide future of India. However his winning position clearly portrays the agenda of extremists Hindu nationalists. With that as a core element of their agenda they somehow bring in practice the revival of Hindu nationalism among Hindu masses because they are the majority. While looking at the concept of majoritarian state as foundation of political philosophy or an instrument being used by majority of the population and have a greater access to exercise the right to decision making which ultimately affect the society. His policy which is being opted and adopted as a governing body is directly affecting India’s society at every level. Not particularly the regime is targeting anti religious minorities but is also hitting anti nationalist and opponent government groups.

As depicted and seen Modi is a strong leader who is exercising all powers as a political figure and a leader. In any state elite is a small group involved in elite politics but fortunately Modi was lucky in backing all the arguments by the opponents. Symbolising the liberal democracy which in reality is illiberal and in nature is realistic approach. The mix blend of governance has been played well by Modi. By the support of large number of middle class he countered the politics of elites. These were those groups who were aware of the hegemonic role of the great elites and so was easily convinced and targeted by Modi. The policy adopted by Modi to impress local citizens and nationalists were more towards development forming an alliance aimed at promoting economic growth and it was evident through the continuous economic growth in his area Gujrat. The greater source of motivation for Hindus was linked with religion so they were influenced by Modi at first. Being a core Hindu dominating party the BJP introduced their mission by building a Hindu centric nation that is developed. Further the global hegemon recognition draws more attention to their majoritarian agenda.

In reality one could clearly observe the biasness and impartiality towards Muslims who are considered as the real perpetrators of the land division during partition times. It was evident by their issued statement and atrocities and along with their applied methodology in achieving agendas. Through the lens of normative culture being setup in this region it is unfolding many truths one would  like to ponder upon. Why Myanmar, Kashmir, Pakistan, Bangladesh has been its most awaited targets. Why their ethnic cleansing is not being taken into consideration. Why religion divides them and militancy is legitimised in this regard. The silence of international community is ultimately boosting their morale. Till the time Modi has remained a political leader of Indian state they will make Muslims suffer a lot either through policy making or direct confrontation. Be wise is a term that has never be taken into account while making and taking decisions at state level.

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