On the fateful night of 22 December 1949, the sadhu Abhiram Das and his followers furtively made their way into the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and planted an idol of the Hindu deity Ram within its inner sanctum. The repercussions of Das’s brazen act—entirely unbecoming of an ascetic—would go on to inflect the Indian polity in complex ways, for years to come. The communal tension stirred by this event escalated over several decades before culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, at the hands of a Hindu right-wing mob, on 6 December 1992. In the communal rioting between Hindus and Muslims that followed, at least 2,000 people lost their lives. These catastrophic events were, in large part, an outcome of the politico-religious mobilisation of Ayodhya’s sadhus and their akharas, or militant orders of ascetics—a task that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has unrelentingly pursued since as early as the 1980s. Since then, the sadhus of Ayodhya have become key to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Hindutva project.
Even today, the sadhus of Ayodhya are not so much moved by the virtues of the devout ascetic life, as they are by wealth, influence and power. They control some of Hinduism’s most important emblems, such as the Kumbh mela, and enjoy the patronage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent, the RSS. In his latest book, Ascetic Games, the journalist Dhirendra K Jha explores the culture of politics among Hinduism’s spiritual elite. Relying on nearly a decade of reportage, Jha’s account looks beyond the garb of spiritualism to reveal the relationships that the insular world of sadhus and akharas have nurtured with power, the state and an openly communal Hindu Right. At the launch of the book, held in Delhi on 5 August, Digvijay Singh, the senior Congress leader who is a member of the Rajya Sabha, said, “The VHP should get credit for destroying the very essence of sanatan dharma as it stands today.”
“The problem is that faith makes you blind,” Jha told Appu Ajith, an editorial intern at The Caravan, during an interview conducted ahead of the launch. “That is why these akharas, despite the fact that their world is fueled by their greed and not by their spiritual prowess, have managed to cover themselves under the veil of spiritualism.”
AA: You are among the few Indian journalists to have engaged deeply with the Hindu monastic orders. Why is it important to understand this clandestine world of the sadhus in India’s prevailing political context?
DKJ: Much has been written about how the RSS operates in political space. We also know that the RSS’s ability to influence the political space depends largely on its ability to utilise religion for its political purposes. But our understanding regarding how the RSS operates in the religious space is very limited. Unless you understand how it operates in the religious realm, you won’t be able to understand exactly how it is able to manipulate the political space. This has been one of the reasons why I focused on this.
When I started [reporting], the initial idea was to understand the secret world of sadhus and akharas. But as I delved deep inside, I found the presence of a nexus. The RSS utilised sadhus for political mobilisation, creating what many people call political Hinduism. Once I got to know about this nexus, it became the focus of my study.