The veil of spiritualism has made Hindus blind to what lies beyond it: Dhirendra K Jha

Courtesy Westland
10 August, 2019

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.

AA: What are the most important characteristics of the akharas?
DKJ: Akharas, especially Shaiva akharas [which promote the worship of the deity Shiva], started as militia organisations. They lent their services to various princes and kings during the medieval period. Later, Vaishnava sadhus, especially of the Ramanandi order formed their akharas and joined them. [Vaishanava sadhus propagate the worship of the deity Vishnu. Ramanandis worship Ram, who is said to be an incarnation of Vishnu.] The motive here was purely mundane. They used to provide services and used to get money in return. That was the kind of arrangement and that was the objective too. But later when their fighting skills were not required—that is, once the British government established their empire in India—they shifted their focus to real estate and moneylending. Much later, once the VHP started using sadhus, akharas got into politics as well.

If you ask me what their main characteristics are, I’ll tell you that spirituality is certainly not one. It is their greed that is driving them. Once they got involved in politics, once they allowed themselves to be used by the RSS and the VHP for the politics of Hindutva, they got quite exposed to wealth, power and positions. This exposure, on such a large scale, has almost destroyed their world, where spiritualism has been simply taken over by their greed. In the past too, the greed was a dominant factor. But, in the past, at least a spiritual cover used to remain intact. However, what is happening now is that with the making of the Hindu vote, there has been a complete unmaking of the sadhus in India. Now, this is the challenge for them, especially because they claim to be the keepers of the sacred knowledge of Hinduism. What has happened to them is not good for them. How do they come out of this?

When you are looking at akharas with devotion in your heart, you would always move on the surface. But once you start looking at these sadhus not as keepers of sacred knowledge but as laymen, then the entire world becomes different.

AA: The book discusses how the sadhus are engaged in a turf war with each other in Ayodhya itself—for property, land and temples. What led to this?
DKJ: The VHP and the Sangh Parivar wanted to present themselves as the champions of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. So, it was necessary for [them] to tell the world, “Of course, we are representing the sadhus of Ayodhya.”

But most of the mahants of Ayodhya in the beginning were not with them. And it was very critical for them to have the support of these mahants. It was against this backdrop that a completely silent process began in Ayodhya, in which the VHP and the RSS started backing ambitious disciples—chelas. These chelas then started grabbing mahantship through force. Eventually, all of Ayodhya became a killing field. That is why you will see that almost each and every temple has some property-related case in court.

AA: In particular, you have mentioned the feud between Gyan Das and Dharam Das, the two sadhus who stake claim to the Hanumangarhi temple, the most powerful monastic establishment in Ayodhya. Dharam Das is also a litigant in the Ram Janmabhoomi case and is one of the founders of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, the trust that seeks the building of Ram Temple.
DKJ: Capturing Hanumangarhi has always remained a big challenge for the VHP. Even during 1990s, at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the VHP was not able to bring Hanumangarhi under its influence. Gyan Das, for example, has been a heavyweight. And he has been against the idea of using the Ram Janmabhoomi movement for the political purposes of the BJP. Although he is not against the construction of the temple, he doesn’t want that movement to be used by the RSS. So, since he was a heavyweight sitting inside Hanumangarhi, the VHP was not able to penetrate to influence the decision making of this establishment.

Hanumangarhi is also the main seat of power of Nirvani akhara, one of the Ramanandi akharas. It is Hanumangarhi which decides who would be the next chief of the Nirvani akhara. Further, Hanumangarhi has its own system of taking decisions, based on rotation. So, when Dharam Das, decided to claim that position [in the 1990s]—the position of shri mahant [or the head priest] in the Nirvani akhara—the VHP happily backed him. But since Gyan Das was very powerful, the battle continued for almost five years. Later, finally, Dharam Das succeeded. And after that, the VHP certainly got more leeway in the internal decision making of Hanumangarhi than it used to have earlier. But since Gyan Das is still there, and he still commands major support even at present, the VHP’s influence is limited.

I don’t think Dharam Das can in anyway influence the outcome of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. Number one, he is not one with the VHP on this issue. He was one of the founders [of the trust] because he was a part of the VHP in those days. He is still technically part of the VHP, but has practically dissociated himself from the VHP now. He has developed his own interest and he thinks that his interest is not aligned with the one that is being pursued by the VHP. Number two, he is not one of the original litigants. He entered into the case much later, in the 1980s, whereas the case had started in the 1950s.

AA: What is the nature of the akharas’ relationship with political leaders and parties? It is not only the BJP that has engaged in politicising the akharas and recognised their political salience. Hasn’t the Congress also extended their patronage to the sadhus?
DKJ: It is true that Congress has also been into this. There are several prominent sadhus who are claimed to be under the influence of Congress leaders. For example, Swaroopanand Saraswati—the shankaracharya [or head] of the Dwaraka Peeth [in Gujarat]. Or the high-profile sadhu of Madhya Pradesh, Computer Baba [the moniker of Namdeo Das Tyagi, a self-proclaimed godman, who is patronised by Congress leaders]. But there is a basic difference here. Congress may use some individuals for its political purposes, but it cannot promise something like an ecclesiastical status to the akharas, as the RSS can. Therefore, the RSS can utilise the entire mass of the sadhus for its political purposes. Congress can utilise only those individual sadhus who do not agree with the politics of the RSS, or who are outside the patronage network that the RSS has created in the world of sadhus.

Insofar as the Hindutva politics is concerned, relationships between leaders and sadhus have been institutionalised during the last few decades. In 1986, the RSS influenced the formation of a body of sadhus called the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti. Although this body claims to be an independent body of sadhus, the fact is that it is an outfit of the RSS. And most of the sadhus in this body are either pracharaks or swayamsevak-turned-sadhus [ideologues or volunteers-turned-sadhus, respectively] or they are enjoying the network of patronage that the VHP has created in the world of sadhus. Therefore, these sadhus are totally dependent on the Sangh Parivar. So, the Samiti is just like the VHP, or the BJP, or the Bajrang Dal or any other outfit of the RSS. And once it acts as an outfit of RSS, then the relationship becomes very structured.

As far as sadhus who are under the influence of non-RSS political formations are concerned, they don’t have this kind of a structure. For example, Narendra Giri, who is the president of All India Akhara Parishad [a body of akharas], is said to be under the influence of Samajwadi Party leaders. Similarly, Swaroopanand Saraswati is said to be under the influence of Congress leaders. In fact, in 1992, after the demolition of Babri Masjid, [the then prime minister] Narasimha Rao [of the Congress party] used Swaroopanand Saraswathi, and before that the high-flying sadhu, Nemichand Jain. [Rao] used the sadhus to rupture the bond that had emerged between the sadhus and the RSS. So, they have used sadhus from time to time. But the Congress could never create a proper structure to give space for the sadhus.

AA: What is the sadhus’ relationship with the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath? Does he wield significant political currency among them?
DKJ: Of course. Once you do politics on the basis of religion, then religious figures become very important. Especially Adityanath, since he is also the mahant of Gorakhnath temple. So, he is much more important than any other sadhu in the camp of the RSS, because he will be the representative voice of political Hinduism.

AA: In an earlier interview, you had mentioned that Adityanath was more of a Brahminical figure than a Hindu figure.
DKJ: See, it is not that this world has members only from Brahmin or upper-caste communities. There are a whole lot of sadhus belonging to OBCs, and Dalit sadhus as well. But this world is guided by the Brahminical vision of ritual, tradition, et cetera. So, no matter whichever caste a sadhu belongs to, he will be promoting that vision itself. And this is exactly the vision the RSS would also like to promote.

AA: You have also reported on the Kumbh melas, and the RSS’s and the VHP’s attempts to politicise these events, particularly the Ardh Kumbh Mela held earlier this year. What kind of devices do they employ? How successful have they been in this endeavour?
DKJ: Kumbh melas are important. It is the largest congregation of Hindus. And I can say with certainty, since the 1989 Kumbh in Allahabad, the RSS and the group of sadhus under its patronage have been using the Kumbh Mela to spread the message of Hindutva. The 1989 Kumbh Mela was significant because it gave a push to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Later, they continued to use it in that manner.

The 2013 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad almost became a kind of a political theater. This was repeated in the Ardh Kumbh as well, earlier this year. For example, I distinctly remember it, in 2013, they tried to turn the entire electoral effort of the BJP and [the prime minister Narendra] Modi in particular into something of a divine project for Hindus. The slogan that was very popular, which I had seen in so many hoardings, was: “Jo Ram ki baat karega wahi desh par raj karega.” [Only those who talk of Ram will rule the nation.] Through these things you just turn the entire mela into political theater.

And this time around, it was so brazen that the RSS, which used to operate from behind, simply came out and captured the entire show. Of course, that created some kind of reaction and backlash. And that backlash was led by people like Swaroopanand Saraswathi, Narendra Giri and Computer Baba. And of course, because of this backlash they [the RSS and the sadhus] couldn’t achieve the kind of [impact] they wanted, through the Dharma Sansad [referring to a meeting of prominent sadhus and other religious leaders that takes place at the Kumbh]. The VHP’s Dharma Sansad, for the first time after 1989, simply flopped. It flopped simply because Narendra Giri gave a boycott call. Narendra Giri is the head of just one of the seven Shaiva akharas, and one of the thirteen akharas which together constitute the Akhara Parishad. At the most, he could have influenced sadhus belonging to his own akhara, the Niranjini akhara. But the fact is that, most of the sadhus belonging to different akharas followed that line and decided not to attend the Dharma Sansad. But they [the sadhus who attended] did succeed in spreading the message [to the public at large].

AA: Are people influenced by this political theatre?
DKJ: Yes, because they return with this impression that voting for BJP would be a divine task. I don’t know whether they actually do it on the basis of that or not. But at least the attempts are being made to make the election look like a divine project for the Hindus.

AA: Why is it that the larger public and the devotees are not aware of the seedy side of this world, of the murky feuds and the infighting?
DKJ: The problem is that faith makes you blind. It prevents you from seeing what is obvious. 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. If you are a devotee or a believer, you wouldn’t like to go beyond that veil. That veil itself becomes very sacred to you. That is the biggest problem that Hindus are facing, actually.

The akharas themselves would claim that they took up arms in the medieval times, in defense of Hinduism, that they were the last line of defense against invaders, Muslims and the British. But the fact is, they were working for whichever paymasters promised them bigger booty. In the third battle of Panipat [in 1761], for example, they were working for Shuja-ud-Daula of Awadh. And Shuja-ud-Daula participated in that battle against Marathas. Shuja-ud-Daula was part of the conglomeration that was created by Afghans. In that battle, sadhus fought against Marathas. They fought under the leadership of a Muslim ruler. So, the truth is different from what these people are telling us. Even Vaishnava akharas were formed not because of the challenge posed by the Muslims or British, but because of the challenge that was posed by Shaiva akharas. That is why Ramanandis got together and they organised themselves in the form of akharas.

AA: The book ends on an almost hopeful note. You seemed to be suggesting that the RSS’s or the VHP’s influence over the sadhus and akharas could wane in the future.
DKJ: That maybe possible but that will depend on so many things. As of now, what could be that? Like what happened in Ardh Kumbh? [Referring to Narendra Giri’s decision to boycott the Dharma Sansad.] That means the patronage politics has among sadhus, has its limitations. Those who do not get benefits might opt for the other side. There may also be people who might think that they may benefit through oppositional politics. So that gives the impression that perhaps it is not all gone.

But then there is another aspect too. The RSS pracharaks and swayamsevaks have become the main recruiting ground for sadhus, which means that in the days to come—because genuine people have stopped largely or their numbers have come down—perhaps this section might supply most of the sadhus. If that happens, then the RSS’s control over sadhus could even increase further.

This interview has been edited and condensed.