Obituary: Achyut Patwardhan

Achyut Patwardhan, politician, theosophist, philosopher, philanthropist, born Ahmednagar 5 February 1905, died Varanasi 5 August 1992.

Achyut Patwardhan, the founder of the Socialist Party of India, was a political activist and philosopher who believed fundamental change in society begins with man himself.

Patwardhan was one of the last few survivors of Mahatma Gandhi's Quit India movement against the British in 1942, and also a wily urban guerrilla who skilfully defied British rule in his native Satara region in the former Bombay Presidency (modern-day Maharashtra state) in western India by setting up a parallel government, earning himself the epithet 'The Lion of Satara'.

As a follower and friend of Jiddu Krishnamurti, the former Theosophist philosopher who declared that true revolution happens in the psyche of man and not through economic and political systems, Patwardhan enlarged the Krishnamurti Foundation and founded a chain of excellent schools across India. But Patwardhan's relationship with his mentor was stormy. In 1929, when Krishnamurti broke with the Theosophical Society and went abroad, a disillusioned Patwardhan left to join India's freedom struggle and the yet unknown Mahatma Gandhi. The struggle between politics, theosophy and Krishnamurti's philosophies which was to dominate Patwardhan's life had begun.

With the zeal of a new convert, Patwardhan joined the Congress Party in the forefront of the freedom struggle; he was frequently interned for participating in civil disobedience campaigns in the Thirties and Forties. Whereas Gandhi abjured violence Patwardhan channelled it to demoralise the British Raj through looting government offices and treasuries. He was a fighter who could seldom brook being thwarted.

An extensive tour of England and Europe in the early Thirties, however, exposed Patwardhan to the changes brought by socialism and, encouraged by people like Jawaharlal Nehru, Patwardhan launched the Congress Socialist Party in 1934, becoming its general secretary at the age of 31. He realised the climate in the Congress was inhospitable to socialism and, 13 years later, at the time of India's independence, Patwardhan formed the Socialist Party proper, in 1947.

Patwardhan was born in 1905 into a prosperous Brahmin family in Ahmednagar in western India and was adopted soon after by his uncle, Sitaram Patwardhan, after the death of Hari Keshav, his father. After schooling in Ahmednagar, Patwardhan did his masters in economics from the Central Hindu College in Benares (modern-day Varanasi) and joined his Alma Mater as a lecturer, but left in 1932 to join Mahatma Gandhi.

From childhood, Patwardhan was deeply influenced by theosophy, a philosophy professing to achieve a knowledge of God through spiritual ecstasy and occult mysticism, as his entire family were ardent followers of Dr Annie Besant, its high priestess in India, and Jiddu Krishnamurti, its modern messiah. Patwardhan's commitment was further strengthened by a deathbed promise made to his uncle that he would never desert Krishnamurti. His opulent uncle, influenced by Malthus's population theory, also made him promise he would never wed nor ever work for a living. Patwardhan kept all three promises, but his fealty to Krishnamurti was neither unquestioning nor without turmoil.

Soon after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Patwardhan came to see the significance of Krishnamurti's belief in alleviating human suffering not through politics, science or social reform but through spiritual change in man himself.

In 1947 Krishnamurti returned to India and with it began Patwardhan's journey back to his mentor and endless debates on the fundamental problems of life and death. It took time for him to withdraw from politics, something he achieved by the Fifties. He then exclusively devoted himself to spreading Krishnamurti's message through a newly instituted foundation.

Welding theosophy, politics and Krishnamurti's teachings, Patwardhan in his later years argued that socialism cannot be concerned merely with man's economic needs but must create an equality of spirit. He wrote over 100 books and pamphlets on socialism and philosophy and most recently was expressing distress about India's declining political standards, corruption and blind consumerism. It was his belief that these ills were aggravated by overpopulation and at all public forums he stressed the need to control rising numbers, something which today's political establishment is seriously considering.