The situation surrounding the Russian version of “Bhagavad Gita”, a sacred text of Hindus, has evoked an international uproar.

The Prosecutor’s Office in Siberia seeks to declare the book and its commentary extremist, although it has yet to find judicial support.

Moreover, prosecutors have now been asked to provide explanations to scholars and the public, while a proposal has been made to establish an independent expert council to appraise scriptures and their possible extremism.

The Foreign Ministry has also been forced to comment on the situation.

Root of matter 

Krishna followers in the Tomsk region believe that they were persecuted last spring when their unlawfully built lodges in a village were demolished. The demolition was supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, the authorities and local residents. Meanwhile, Human Rights Commissioner Nelly Krechetova called the act “barbaric.”

Several months later, the prosecutor’s office asked the court to recognize as extremist the Russian translation of “Bhagavad Gita” and its commentary, which were written by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

After a Tomsk district court dismissed the action, prosecutors contested the decision.

At the appeals hearing, prosecutors said the court had misinterpreted the concept of extremism, as the law prohibits not only calls for extremist activities, but also propagation inciting hatred. 

Nevertheless, the district court’s judgment was upheld.

Representative of the Tomsk Society for Krishna Consciousness Alexander Shakhov stated that the prosecutor’s office is likely to continue challenging the judgment as it has proved consistent in defending its position.

Disputable commentary

At this junction, First Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman attempted to defuse the situation. He said the subject in dispute is not the holy Hindu writing, but rather “Bhagavad Gita As It Is,” its Russian translation and commentary earlier published in English.

In turn, Alexander Dvorkin, the head of the Justice Ministry's Religious Expert Council, said the prosecutors’ request was well grounded. In his view, “Bhagavad Gita As It Is” is simply a poor translation.

At the same time, Indian Research Center Chief Researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Oriental Studies Institute Irina Glushkova said the commentary is inseparable from the text and is required reading for a modern individual seeking to understand ancient scriptures.

What about Bible or Koran?

The authorities should draw serious conclusions from this litigation, Krechetova said. She believes that the law on extremism cannot be applied so broadly.

“This way, one can apply it to absolutely anything. One can find signs of extremism even in the Bible, or the Koran, etc. Dissent cannot be subject to the law on extremism,” Krechetova said.

She noted that the Society for Krishna Consciousness is registered with the Justice Ministry and its members and followers enjoy the rights and freedoms provided by the Constitution.

Krechetova added that the Krishnaites have been supported by Russian scholars, as well as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which mentioned the Russian precedent in its annual report.