Moscow: A Russian court is to decide today whether a religious text central to the global Hare Krishna movement is "extremist' and should be banned, in a case that has angered Hindus around the world and highlights the continuing challenges for minority religions in Russia.
Prosecutors in the Siberian city of Tomsk have argued that the Russian translation of "Bhagavad Gita As It Is" promotes "social discord" and hatred toward nonbelievers. 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 that is often called the Hare Krishna movement.
The prosecutors are asking 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.
Yuri Pleshkov, a spokesman for the group in Russia, said the book in question has existed in Russia for 25 years and has never inspired violence or extremist activity.
"On the contrary, this book teaches humane attitude towards all living beings," Pleshkov said.
The trial follows this year's ban on the construction of a Hare Krishna village in Tomsk and is 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 trial began in June and was scheduled to conclude on Dec. 19, just after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's two-day visit to Russia. That day protesters gathered outside the Russian consulate in Kolkata, and the speaker of India's lower house of parliament adjourned the body for several hours after members began shouting in anger over the proposed ban.
Officials in Tomsk agreed to hear further testimony from experts and the Russian ombudsman for human rights and postponed the court decision until Wednesday.
Indian officials last week appealed to high-level Russian authorities to intervene.
The Bhagavad Gita "is not merely a religious text, but one of the defining treatises of Indian thought," said Indian Ambassador to Russia Ajai Malhotra in a statement. "The Bhagavad Gita has circulated freely across the world for centuries and there is not a single instance of it having encouraged extremism."
The Foreign Ministry insisted that the Tomsk court is not taking issue with core Hindu scripture itself, but rather with the author's commentary and poor translation in "Bhagavad Gita As It Is."
"I would like to emphasize that this is not about 'Bhagavad Gita,' a religious philosophical poem, which forms part of the great Indian epic Mahabharata and is one of the most famous pieces of the ancient Hindu literature," ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said at a briefing in Moscow on Thursday, adding that the book was first published in Russian in 1788.
Still, followers of the Hare Krishna movement in Russia see the proposed ban as a result of continued intolerance of minority religions by the Russian Orthodox Church. Pleshkov estimates there are at least 150,000 Hare Krishna devotees in Russia.
"The current problem is, above all, the misuse of the law on combating extremism," Pleshkov said. "It is used to search for enemies where they can not even be defined."
In 2005 a Russian Orthodox archbishop asked the mayor of Moscow to ban the construction of a proposed Hare Krishna temple, calling the Hindu deity Krishna "an evil demon, the personified power of hell opposing God," according to Interfax. The temple was later allowed in a Moscow suburb.