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Pandurang Athavale, 84; Founded Indian Religious Movement

October 29, 2003|From Associated Press

Pandurang Shastri Athavale, who founded a religious movement in India based on selfless love for the poor, has died. He was 84.

Athavale died of a heart attack Saturday at his home in Bombay, as India's Hindu majority celebrated Diwali, the festival of light.

Born into a family of religious scholars in a village near Bombay, Athavale founded the Swadhyaya movement in western Gujarat state in 1954. The movement, which sponsors housing and agricultural projects across India, now has 5 million followers worldwide.

Athavale, who in recent years suffered from Parkinson's disease, preached a blend of community spirit and religious harmony and asked his followers to see God -- in whatever form -- in every person.

"We are trying to develop this selfless love," he said in a 1997 interview. "I don't want anything from any villager, not even a cup of coffee. But I want to see: What is my brother?"

He was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1997, which has also been given over the years to the Rev. Billy Graham and Mother Teresa, and a rural development award by the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation in 1996.

Thousands of Athavale's followers travel throughout India and undertake social programs to build homes and feed the poor through improved farming and fishing techniques.

Athavale persuaded farmers to give away crops to the needy and fishermen to donate one catch every year to their community.

He always spoke of the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad-Gita, "and told us how hard work coupled with a strong faith in God will build a strong society," Sadashiv Nanchne, a schoolteacher, said Tuesday.

Athavale's movement, named after the Sanskrit word for introspection, accepted followers of all religions and had no formal organizational structure.

Obituaries in the Indian news media described him as a "social reformer and spiritual leader."

"He was our friend, philosopher, guide, mentor," a spokesman of the Swadhyaya movement said on condition of anonymity. "We will strive to fulfill his ex- pectation that the movement should continue forever."

Athavale is survived by his wife and daughter.

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