Sharad Gupta is a political commentator with over 30 years experience of working with publications like The Times of India, The Indian Express, India Today, Hindustan and Dainik Bhaskar. He is presently Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
Does anyone know Gauri Shankar Shukla? Or Dr Rajiv Sharma? Or Sudhakar Dwivedi? Or Dayanand Pandey? There is every likelihood that you might not have known any of them. The fact is all of them are sadhus, occupying the highest position among Hindu priests Shankaracharyas. They might not be as notorious as Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim of Dera Sacha Sauda, who was convicted of rape charges last month. But, they all do have dubious credentials.
• Gauri Shankar for example, was a wireless operator in the Indian Army. A native of Nawada Khurd village in Pratapgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, Shukla claims to have suddenly developed strong inclination towards spiritualism in 1990. He resigned from the Army and headed towards Haridwar. He met a lot of people, sadhus and Akhada owners. Ultimately, Acharya of Agni Akhada agreed to indoctrinate him in sainthood. He was given the title of Mahamandaleshwar and rechristened as Swami Shankar Chaitanya. Not content with that, he kept his hunt on and found solace at Varanasi, where Shankaracharya of Kashi Peeth Swami Shankaranand Saraswati agreed to elevate him to the post of Shankaracharya.
Shukla, who got married at the age of 11 and became a father at 18, thus became the first Shankaracharya of Prayag Peeth. His name was changed to Swami Madhavananda Saraswati. He set up his peeth at a small house in Allahpur locality. But soon, the police demolished the illegally constructed building. He then forcibly occupied a 14-room building in the same locality. He has declared eldest of his five sons, christened Onkaranand as his successor of Prayag Peeth.
• Then there is the case of Dr Rajiv Sharma who was a senior leader of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who decided to become a saint. He got himself declared as Shankaracharya of Dwarka Peeth and took up a new name – Swami Raj Rajeshwaranand. The last Shankaracharya of Dwarka, Swami Abhinav Sachchidanand in his will had declared Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati as his successor. But, people like Raj Rajeshwaranand and Achyutanand each claim to be the Shankaracharya of Dwarka. Achyutanand in fact, got ordained as Shankaracharya of Dwarka in February this year though a function organised in Haridwar.
• Sudhakar Dwivedi, alias Dayanand Pandey, too had a defence background. He was a non commissioned officer in the Indian Air Force before he turned to sainthood and became Shankaracharya of Sharda Sarvajna Peeth in Jammu in 1993. He was renamed swami Amritanand Saraswati.
However Sudhakar hit headlines in 2006 when he along with his friend Rajesh Pachauri was named by Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) of the police on charges of engineering explosions outside a mosque in Malegaon, Maharashtra that killed 6 persons. He was arrested on basis of his mobile phone records which was in the name of Dayanand Pandey. Such incidents have raised questions over appointment process of
A Shankaracharya is to Hindu religion, what Pope is for Christians. But, Shankaracharyas are being produced in the country at an industrial speed. There are no checks and balances. That is why it is very difficult to decipher the genuine sadhu from the fake one.
At last count there were at least 46 shankaracharyas of one or the other Peeth. This includes one who claims to be a Shankaracharya of a Peeth located in, hold your breath, Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
There is a whole hierarchy from being a simple Pujari to Mahant, Acharya, Mahamandaleshwar and ultimately Shankaracharya. Examples of Sudhakar Dwivedi and Gauri Shankar Shukla go on to show how people have been manipulating the system and traditions, yet going scot free. Nobody challenges fake babas except those directly affected by their tricks.
This is why Akhil Bhartiya Akhada Parishad released a list of 14 fake babas. This was in the wake of the massive hue and cry after the sentencing of Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Interestingly, the list fa fake saints was released by Parishad’s president Narendra Giri and included names of Sukhvinder Kaur alias Radhey Maa and Beer Bar owner Sachin Datta – both of whom had been ‘appointed’ Mahamandaleshwar by Narendra Giri himself.
The list had the likes of Rampal, Nirmalpreet Singh alias Nirmal Baba, Ashumal Shrimalani alias Asaram Bapu and his son Narayan Sai, Aseemanand, Shivmurti Dwivedi alias Ichchhadhari Bhimanand, Vivekanand Jha alias Omji, Brihaspati Giri, Kush Muni, Om Namah Shivay Baba and Malkan Giri. Interestingly, most of these names have already been arrested or have been in the news for all the wrong reasons like rape or murder charges. But the name of Nithyananda was missing from the list, though he too faces rape charges.
These are the few well-known ones who have been found out. But, for every one of these there must be thousands who have been indulging in various unlawful activities and fooling the public.
Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 AD) founded four seats (Peeth) in four corners of the country to propagate and disseminate Sanatan Dharma. They were Jyotir Peeth in Badrinath (North), Shringeri Peeth in Chikmanglur district of Karnataka (South), Sharda Peeth at Dwarka in Gujarat (West) and Govardhan Peeth at Puri in Odisha (East).
The entire idea behind this was to let these scholarly saints keep an eye over the developments of Sanatan Dharma and congregate at the four Kumbhs every three years to discuss the way forward and settle disputes of philosophical nature arising within the Sanatan Dharma. It must be noted that at the time of Shankaracharya, there was no entity called Hindus, as the faiths practiced in Bharatvarsh were largely philosophy based and not schools of religion. The term ‘Hinduism’ was a much later – and some say maleficent – invention.
Later two more places were recognised as upa-Peeth or sub-seats Kashi in Uttar Pradesh where Adi Shankara lived and Kanchi in Tamil Nadu where he died.
Adi Shankaracharya has written in his book ‘Mahaanusashan’ that someone would be a Shankaracharya if he is learned, knows the Vedas, Vedanta and Shashtra well. He should be a Brahman and a disciple of a sitting Shankaracharya. He should be a Dandi Sanyasi, a hermit whose sole personal belonging is a stick forked at the upper end, and a jhola, for collecting alms. Dandi Sanyasis cannot ask for, least of all demand, anything from anyone.
The Sanskrit scripture ‘Mathamanya Upanishad’ lays down foolproof selection process. The tradition is that a Shankaracharya would nominate his successor in his lifetime who will be subsequently recognised by the Kashi Vidwat Parishad and Akhil Bharat Dharma Mahamandal (ABDM). Also, in case where a Shankaracharya fails to nominate such a successor, the Parishad would appoint a candidate from among his disciples, says its general secretary Batuk Prasad Shastri.
Kashi Vidwat Parishad (KVP) is a 150-years old organisation with 35 living members. In case of disputes Parishad should adjudicate and its decision will be binding on warring parties.
Vested interests, however, have created three more similar sounding organisations Varanasi Vidwat Parishad, Varanaseya Vidwat Parishad and Akhil Bhartiya Vidwat Parishad. Some people have created a Prayag Vidwat Parishad as well. When the process is so clearly laid out then how do delinquents like Shukla and Dwivedi find loopholes in it?
Septuagenarian Batuk Shastri clearly remembers Sudhakar Dwivedi’s anointment. KVP Vice President Ram Yatna Shukla along with KVP spokesman Shivji Upadhyaya approached Shastri with Rajesh Pachauri requesting him to convene a meeting of the Parishad for selection of Sudhakar Dwivedi a.k.a. Swami Amritanand as Shankaracharya of Jammu Peeth.
They claim to have support of at least half a dozen other KVP members. Shastri objected on two counts first Jammu is not a Peeth. The Northern seat of Shankaracharya is in Badrinath. Secondly, Dwivedi had two wives and the matter was in court.
Shastri cancelled the meeting but Pachauri, Shukla and Upadhyaya formed a parallel body called Varanaseya Vidwat Parishad and went ahead with abhishek (anointment) of Dwivedi as Swami Amritanand Saraswati of Kashmir.
After Dwivedi’s arrest by the ATS, Shastri demanded a thorough probe into the matter. Convener of the function, RY Shukla, now denies having even attended it. Shivji Upadhyaya says he attended the function in his capacity as pro-vice chancellor of Sampoornanand Sanskrit University and did not take any money for that. Pachauri has been untraceable since Dwivedi’s arrest.
Kashi Vidwat Parishad ordained Swami Achyutanand as Shankaracharya of Dwarka in February this year. The function was attended by heads of a number of Akhadas including Akhada Parishad chief Narendra Giri. Ever since, questions have been raised on its functioning. Swami Sadanand Saraswati who is incharge of Dwarka Peeth’s Haridwar ashram, has filed an FIR against both KVP and Achyutanand in a Haridwar police station.
There is section of Sadhus which has been accusing KVP of becoming a den of vested interests. Some of its members are now making money, they claim.
Let alone the despicable case of fake Peeths, barring Shringeri Peeth, three of the four original Peeths are facing ownership disputes with each centre having more than two claimants. Many of them are fighting legal battles for decades while others are slugging it out publicly. Jyotir Peeth at Badrikashram: After the period of Swami Ramakrishna Tirtha in the 18th century, the mutt was extinct for about 165 years, before it was revived in 1941, under Swami Brahmananda Saraswati. He was appointed by Akhil Bharat Dharma Mahamandala, Kashi Vidvat Parishad and Akhil Bharatiya Dharmasangha, with concurrence of Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha, the then Sankaracharya of Puri, and Swami Chandrasekhara Bharati of Sringeri peeth. Hindu rulers of Garhwal, Varanasi and Darbhanga were also involved. Swami Brahmananda Saraswati passed away in 1953. A few weeks after, a will was found, according to which his disciple Shantananda Saraswati was made Shankaracharya, who in 1989 named Vasudevanand as next Shankaracharya.
However, followers of Brahmananda Saraswati claimed he had named Swami Krishnabodha Ashrama his successor who in 1973 named Swaroopanand newe Shankaracharya. Meanwhile, Ashrama’s another disciple Madhvashrama too laid claim on Shankaracharya’s legacy. He also accused Swaroopanand of engineering at least two murderous attacks on him.
For 28 years all three donned the mantle of Shankaracharya of Jyotir Mutt. But two years ago, Vasudevanand Saraswati was declared by a court as a ‘fake’. The Allahabad civil judge Gopal Upadhyaya rubbished the claim of Vasudevanand over the seat, stating that Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati was the rightful Shankaracharya of Jyotir Mutt. Vasudevanand to banned from using the title of Shankaracharya and not to sit on the throne and carry other symbols like a dandi and the special umbrella meant for the religious head.
According to Mahaanusashan only a Shankaracharya is entitled to these symbols. The 308-page court order also stated that Vasudevanand had furnished fake documents to prove his claim over the throne.
Vasudevanand challenged this order in Allahabad High Court which on September 22 this year, dethroned both the contenders. The bench of Justices Sudhir Agrawal and KJ Thaker ordered fresh election of Badrikashram Shankaracharya, by remaining three Shankaracharyas in concurrence with ABDM and KVP within three months. The Court also upheld civil court’s ruling against Vasudevanand, saying he was in government job and had yet not become an ascetic when he laid claim on Shankaracharya’s peeth.
Sharda Peeth, Dwarka
A complication was introduced in 1982, when the Shankaracharya of Dwaraka passed away, leaving a will with a few names, including Swaroopananda, who was then coronated at Dwaraka, in a ceremony presided over by the then Shankaracharya of Sringeri.
There have been two other claimants for being Shankaracharya of Sharda Peeth. They are Swami Raj Rajeshwanand Saraswati and Swami Achyutanand Teerth, who was coronated by Akhada Parishad in Haridwar this year. Achyutanand has interestingly never set his foot in Dwarka. He has been heading Bhuma Akhada in Haridwar.
Govardhan Peeth, Puri
Though Swami Nishchalanand Saraswati is officially recognised Shankaracharya of Puri, yet an imposter Adhokshanand Saraswati surfaced about 10 years ago, claiming to be the ‘real’ Shankaracharya of Puri. After a log drawn court battle, Nishchalanand succeeded in getting an order banning Adhokshanand’s entry in Puri. Still the latter goes around the world terming Nishchalanand a fake and himself as the true heir of Puri Mutt. He once announced to mediate between Kashmiri Hurriat leaders and the Government of India to bring peace to the Valley.
Swami Nishchalanand’s deputy Swami Gopalanand claims Adhokshanand hails from Varanasi and claims to be a disciple and successor of Swami Niranjandev Devatirtha, the previous shankaracharya of the Puri Mutt. “Nishchalanand ji is aged about 60 while Adhokshanand is about 28 years old,” he said adding that the latter had nothing to do with the Govardhan Mutt.
Kanchi Kamkoti, Kanchipuram
There is no leadership dispute on this Upa-Peeth, though both, the origin of the mutt as well its head priest Swami Jayendra Saraswati, who too is an RSS protégé, have been involved in many controversies. The mutt claims to be 2,500 years old though the Adi Shankaracharya’s lifetime was 8th century AD. Secondly, the mutt claims that Adi Shankara died here and it houses his Samadhi as well. Skeptics doubt this, saying how can there be a Samadhi inside a temple, and claim that Adi Shankara spent his last days in Himalayas near Kedarnath.
Jayendra Saraswati was named as an accused in the murder of a fellow priest Shankaranand. The main accused Appu alias Krishnaswami not only confessed to murder but also implicated Jayendra and his successor Vijeyendra Saraswati, as chief conspirators. After a decade long trial, both Shankaracharyas were absolved, as there was ‘insufficient’ evidence.
The Way Out
The Puri Shankaracharya Swami Nischalanand Saraswati has underlined the need for the launch a nation-wide campaign to expose fake godmen. His deputy Swami Gopalanand claimed that the Shankaracharya would interact with all the acharyas and sants to clamp down on activities of self-claimed Sankracharyas. “We are also not ruling out the possibility of legal action. At the moment, however, religious interaction appears to be the best way to deal with the situation,” he said.
“The Shankaracharya of Puri is already in talks with the other three Shankaracharyas. Also, he will try to bring all the Madhavacharyas, Nimbarkacharyas, Ramanujancharyas and Ramanandacharyas together on this issue,” Swami Gopalanand said.
A new dimension to the disputes over the institution of Shankaracharyas has recently been added by Sadhwi Trikal Bhawanta Saraswati, a woman seer, who claims to be Shankaracharya of Gayatri Triveni Prayag Peeth. She says male sadhus are biased for not giving the Shankaracharya’s post to females.
It is more than clear thus that unholy characters, with the intent of capturing the immense wealth of these religious centres, have broken down all hierarchy and process, subverting all the original checks and balances that Adi Shankara had made institutional for the protection of Sanatan Dharma. Today, anyone can declare himself a sadhu, take a fancy designation and start his business. Any attempt to curb such practices are bound to be labelled as ‘infringement’ in religious traditions and practices.
Even Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a self-proclaimed organisation of Hindutva torch bearers, too is in no hurry to look within. A senior VHP leader said this is a vilification campaign launched by anti-national elements to divide the Hindu society. But the situation within the original Sanatan Dharma today is not just sad, it is scary: allegations of murders, rapes, court cases… it just stinks!
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