Yogesh Vajpeyi is a senior journalist with over 40 years of experience of working with leading newspapers like National Herald, The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Telegraph and The New Indian Express. He is currently writing in various journals and teaching journalism.
Sectarianism has been the bane of what has been euphemistically defined as Sanatan Dharma (ancient religion) of the Hindus since ages. And the Hindu Akhadas (militant ascetic orders) reflect this in all its vicissitude.
No wonder, therefore, that the events that followed the conviction of the Dera Saccha Saudagar, Baba Ram Rahim and subsequent mob violence in Haryana, Punjab and adjoining areas of Central India have triggered a churning in the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad.
The Parishad is a council of all 13 Akhadas, drawing their spiritual lineage from the 8th-century seer Adi Shankaracharya, who is said to have established orders of martial monks with the aim of defending the Sanatan Dharma.
Ram Rahim’s is not the only case of its ilk. Over the years, most godmen across the country have been accused of, and sometimes convicted for, crimes against women. The commonality between these cases highlights the ugly side of their godliness. Spirituality has been replaced with a lure of lucre and has been thoroughly commercialised. Stung by exposure of pervading criminality in the operations of godmen across India, the Parishad has now opted for in-house cleansing.
Maintaining that these individuals by indulging in criminal and immoral practices were harming the Sanatan Dharma and maligning the image of genuine saints and sadhus, this umbrella organisation of the Hindu religious leaders, has released a list of 14 self-styled Hindu godmen who it claims to be fakes.
“These individuals are bringing a bad name to all genuine saints and seers working for the betterment of the common man and Sanatan Dharma. Anyone claiming to be a saint and indulging in illegal, immoral and anti-social activities needs to be identified and unmasked before the people, so that not just the government acts against them but even people boycott them,” says Mahant Narendra Giri, head of the Akhada Parishad.
The organisation is now busy finalising a mechanism for identifying more such ‘fake’ seers and plans to bring out a much bigger list after Diwali. Giri claims that ‘fake’ seers and Shankaracharyas – there are now 46 of the latter instead of the original four are misusing their titles and misleading people for vested interests. The parishad has set up region-specific secret committees of seers and saints belong to different Akhadas that would keep a watch on the activities of holymen in their respective areas. This panel would report anyone acting against the duties, principles and practices expected of a seer and saint.
While some Hindu religious heads have welcomed the move, others have their reservations. “We cannot allow self-styled babas to tarnish image of genuine sadhus through their immoral and illegal acts,” says Mahant Ramanand Puri of Niranjini Akhada, stressing that the Akhada Parishad, as a top body of all Akhadas, was well within its rights to denounce, criticise or initiate action against a seer, saint or individual posing as one.
Unhappy with the inclusion of his disciple Acharya Lushmuni in the list of fake seers, the president of Akhil Bharatiya Dandi Sanyasin Prabandhan Samiti, Swami Vimal Dev, has served a legal notice to Akhada Parishad president, Narendra Giri. According to him Akhada Parishad’s role is confined to assisting the government in smooth organisation of Kumbh Melas. It has no power to test the legitimacy of any seer.
That the Akhada Parishad itself is riddled by internal feuds was vividly demonstrated at the Mahakumbh Mela at Ujjain Sinhastha in 2016. The Simhastha (the Ujjain Mela takes off at the time when a planet is in the Simha Rashi) started with a strong protest from three Vaihsnavite Akhadas against Madhya Pradesh government’s decision to recognise Narendra Giri as president of the Akhada Parishad.
Giri belongs to Shaivite Nirnanjani Akhada and supporters of his rival Mahant Gyandas of Vaishnavite Nirvani Ani Akhada have challenged his election in the Allahabad High Court.
While the rivalry between the Vaishnavite and Shaivite sects dates several centuries back, and has seen many violent clashes at previous Kumbh Melas, there has been a spurt in clashes among various factions within the Akhadas of late. The month-long mela at Ujjain witnessed a bloody clash between two factions during election of the Sri Mahant of Ahvahan Akhada, a Varanasi-based Shaivite, outfit in which fire arms were used. A similar clash between two groups was reported in the Dutt Akhada, another Shaivite outfit.
The Vaishnavite Akhadas, which had split into two factions during Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ayodhya anti-Babri Masjid movement in the late eighties and early nineties, continue to simmer with inner squabbles.
A powerful group within the Nirmohi Ani Akhada, for instance, is challenging Mahant Rajendradas’s claim to be recognised as Sri Mahant of the Akhada. “He has misled the mela administration in collusion with the self-styled president of the Akhada Patrishad, Narendra Giri,” alleges Mahant Paramatma Das. Rajendradas belongs to Shyamanadiya Nirmohi Akhada while his rivals represent Ramanandiya Nirmohi Akhada.
On record all the prominent Akhada leaders deny existence of caste as a factor in contemporary sadhu politics. This was reflected in the sharp reactions from Shankaracharya Swaroopanand and Akhada Parishad president Narendra Giri to the BJP’s attempt to organise Shabri Kumbh at the Simhastha to woo Dalit and lower castes.
Despite their claim that a sadhu doesn’t have any caste and any attempt to divide them on caste lines could prove dangerous, social historians maintain that caste has played a key role in evolution of the Akhadas since Mughal period.
“Hindu ascetics have played an important role in shaping Hindu thought and social order since early times, but the role itself has changed over the passage of time,” says Robert Lewis Cross in his monumental study of Indian asceticism titled “The Sadhus of India”.
Though they differ over the origin of the institution, most historians agree that the first major attempt to organise them into Akhadas was made by the first, or Adi Shankaracharya (8th century AD), who established ten Shaivite groups to defend Hinduism against the challenges of Buddhism and Jainism.
The Vaishnavite groups with similarly structured Akhadas appeared after Ramanuja in the 11th and 12th centuries. These proliferated after the emergence of Ramanandi sects from 13th century onwards that opened up gates of Hindu religious order to low Shudra castes. There are several instances in which instead of fighting against alien religions, the Akhadas of Shaivites and Vaishnava sects fought each other in 1690 CE and 1760 CE at Nashik Mela (60,000 died) and Haridwar Mela (1,800 died). In 1780, British establish the sequence of order of processions for royal bathing by the Akhadas, but the fights continued even after India’s independence.
According to pioneering Indian sociologist GS Ghurye, “Militant asceticism began to depart from its strict orientation of world negation in 13th and 14 centuries to become more politically responsive and militarily active in defending Hinduism against Islam.”
Along with Muslim fakirs, the militant sadhus formed the first wall of resistant against British colonialism. While ruthlessly repressing their militancy, the British adopted a policy of carrot and stick, with the Akhada heads and this policy was continued by the Congress governments after the transfer of power in 1947.
While the bargaining for power and pelf between the Indian sadhus and the ruling political establishment continued behind the stage, the first overt attempt to use them as a tool for political mobilisation of the Hindus was made by the RSS saffron brigade during the Ayodhya movement to capture power in Uttar Pradesh in 1991. But the demolition of the Babri mosque and post 1993 developments made it realise that caste — one of the basic features of Hindu social organisation — presents a major road block in its path.
During the run up to 2014, the BJP led by Narendra Modi sought to revive the role of these Hindu ascetics by trying to break the caste barrier in the consolidation of the Hindu monolith vote bank by showcasing the support of Hindu sects led by low caste Hindus. Propping up of Dalit sadhus at Ujjain Sinhasths was an experiment in this direction. Now that the BJP under the Modi-Shah due has actually managed to install a Hindu sect leader, Mahant Aditya Nath, as the chief minister of India’s largest state, the message is loud and clear. Unifying the heads of warring Hindu sects, however, is a thankless task with guaranteed failure. The most vivid example of their never ending feuds is the ongoing battles of the seat of the Shankaracharya.
The recent episode of Swami Achyutanand anointing himself as the Shankaracharya of the Dwarka Sharda peeth has brought into focus the issue of multiple Shankaracharyas who have proliferated across the country. While starting the monastic order, the Adi Shankaracharya had ordered setting up only four Mutts, whose chiefs were to be ordained as Shankaracharyas. Today close to 50 seers have anointed themselves as Shankaracharyas of various peeths across the country. Disputes and court cases are going on in these matters.
In the Dwarka Sharda peeth, for instance, there are currently three seers (including Achyutanand) who have declared themselves as the Shankaracharya. Due to seers coveting high religious offices and trying to grab these by any means, established norms in the religious field are increasingly being violated and unity of the sadhus’ community is seriously threatened.
The issue of fake seers and Shankaracharyas comes up every Kumbh and ardh-Kumbh but due to divided Akhadas, the seers were unable to come to a conclusion over the controversy.
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