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Education, justice, poll tickets — what are Karnataka’s mutts & how they became power centres

Headed by pontiffs hailed as custodians of knowledge & traditions, mutts have existed in Karnataka for ages, but it was only after 2000 that smaller sub-sects got own spiritual HQ.

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Bengaluru: Come election season and mutts (mathas) in Karnataka witness a stream of high-profile visitors, from ticket-seekers to national leaders. Most castes and sub-castes in Karnataka, including Lingayats, Vokkaligas, Kurubas, Valmikis, Nayakas, and Madigas are categorised under various sections of the state’s backward classes list. All these castes and sub-castes have their own spiritual centres, known as mutts.

On 31 December last year, Union Home minister Amit Shah was seen with Sri Nirmalanandanatha Mahaswamiji, head pontiff of the influential Adichunchanagiri Mutt which represents the dominant Vokkaliga community, as part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) poll campaign for the 2023 assembly elections.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several other top BJP leaders took to social media to condole the death of Sri Siddeshwara Swami of Jnana Yogashram in Vijayapura district.

Why these religious leaders — whose influence is limited to a few districts at best — are so revered, is key to understanding the state’s politics. ThePrint explains how these mutts became power centres.

Also Read: What Bommai govt’s quota upgrade for Lingayats & Vokkaligas means for EWS in poll-bound Karnataka

What are mutts & how do they expand

With tens of thousands of followers each, mutts are caste-specific spiritual centres that exist across Karnataka, representing various communities.

A member of the community who has served its religious leaders for several years is appointed to preside over these mutts. These pontiffs are hailed as custodians of knowledge and traditions, and become the spiritual gurus of their respective communities. 

While there is no official count of the number of mutts in Karnataka, it is believed that most castes and sub-castes, or at least the prominent ones, have their own institutions.

For instance, the Siddaganga Mutt in Tumkur, Tontadarya Mutt in Gadag, Suttur Mutt in Mysuru, and Murugha Mutt in Chitradurga are among prominent spiritual centres of the dominant Lingayat community. Similarly, the Adichunchanagiri Mutt in Mandya is the spiritual headquarters of the Vokkaligas, while the Kanaka Guru Peetha in Kaginele represents the Kurubas, and the Madarachannaiah Gurupeeta in Chitradurga the Madigas.

Though mutts have existed in Karnataka since time immemorial, it was only around the year 2000 that smaller sub-sects, other than influential Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities, started building their own mutts. Experts believe that Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru — head pontiff of the Murugha Mutt in Chitradurga, currently in jail on charges of rape — helped smaller sub-sects set up their own spiritual headquarters.

“The head of the Murugha Mutt helped build smaller spiritual centres for Vaddars, Kurubas, Madigas, Kolhis and Bhovis, among others. But these smaller mutts gained significance over time and are no longer subordinates to Murugha Mutt that wanted to be the spiritual headquarters,” said writer R.K. Hudgi, a retired Gulbarga Technical University professor.

Almost all mutts in Karnataka sustain themselves and grow in strength with the help of community members who are either wealthy or wield political clout.

Besides running educational institutions and orphanages, most of these mutts also engage in charity in rural parts of Karnataka.

The Siddaganga Mutt alone has over 50,000 students studying in its over 130 schools and colleges, while the Murugha Mutt runs about 150 such institutions and the Tontadarya Mutt nearly 90 schools and colleges, offering professional education and a host of other courses.

Most of these educational institutes are located in rural parts where they cater to children from lower-income groups who are sent there for free education and food. In turn, mutts rely on these efforts to expand their base. One way to do that is to have beneficiaries of the mutt’s philanthropy project its religious leaders as a spiritual being or an avatar of god.

On why communities felt the need to set up these mutts, experts say their main objective was to preserve, protect and promote the heritage and history of a specific caste or sub-caste. But these spiritual centres have evolved over time. They now seek higher reservation for their communities, settle disputes and in some instances, even influence a political party’s candidate selection process for specific constituencies.

Works of social anthropologist Aya Ikegame, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tokyo, provide insight into the scope of the powers of these pontiffs. In her paper, ‘Moral transcendence? The guru in democracy’, Ikegame spoke of her travels to a village in central Karnataka in 2015 where she encountered a Lingayat religious leader who ran a “nyaya peetha” or seat of justice, to settle disputes, besides selecting people who the mutt believed should represent the community in local and state governments — a practice referred to as ‘aike’.

Moreover, complex layers of reservation for backward classes in Karnataka made room for prominent caste groups to mobilise the masses and demand better benefits and representation.

“Caste-based mutts have become such that they only demand benefits for their own groups without consideration of any other groups who are socially, educationally and politically backward,” said K. Kariswamy, author of the paper ‘New Mathas, New Battles’.

Political clout of mutts

People from all walks of life, especially from economically backward sections, send their children to educational institutions run by mutts since many of them offer free education, food and even accommodation. This allows mutts to expand their follower base, and instills a sense of identity and pride among members of the community affiliated with the mutt.

The religious leaders heading these mutts then assert this influence to demand more reservation in government jobs, educational institutions and legislatures.

Top political leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several of his predecessors, have been photographed visiting these mutts and seeking the blessings of the influential religious leaders running them in the hope of gaining their endorsement come polling day.

In 2018, soon after Union Home minister Amit Shah (then BJP president) visited the Madara Channaiah Gurupeeta, scores of people thronged the religious leader with files or ‘biodata’, falling at his feet and seeking his blessings. As the religious leader explained, some of these were ‘ticket aspirants’ who sought the pontiff’s endorsement to contest local or state elections.

“Whichever way the society goes, I will also go the same way. And whichever way I go, society also goes. If both are in sync, then we head in the same direction,” the religious leader told ThePrint when asked how these spiritual centres exercise their political clout. 

Pictures of Shah touching the feet of the religious leader and seeking his blessings were widely shared on social media by pages managed by Madigas, projecting the gesture as a sign of pride and prestige for the community.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, amid speculation that they might contest as candidates, the names of many religious leaders did the rounds in political circles, including that of Basava Murthy Madara Channaiah of Madara Channaiah Gurupeet in Chitradurga.

Successive governments in Karnataka have supported these mutts. However, it was only during B.S. Yediyurappa’s term as deputy chief minister in the BJP-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government, that the state began giving the mutts budgetary grants.

Noted Kannada writer Baraguru Ramachandrappa told ThePrint that prominent Lingayat religious leaders had rallied behind Yediyurappa after he was removed as the chief minister just one week into his tenure in 2007. They then backed him in the 2008 election, helping the BJP form its first government in a state in southern India.

“Several Lingayat religious leaders had protested against Yediyurappa’s removal (in 2011 and in 2021) and several gave public statements, expressing their displeasure,” he said. Yediyurappa returned the favour by allocating Rs 20 crore for such mutts in the 2011-12 state budget.

According to Ramchandrappa, “there was no backing away” after Yediyurappa’s largesse.

A strong bargaining force, Mutts oppose government policy like the release of findings of the Chinnappa Reddy Commission report — on backwardness — and have even halted industrial projects. Head pontiff of the Tontadarya Mutt famously sided with farmers and successfully campaigned against a proposed 6 million tonne steel plant in Gadag in 2011.

Paroksha (indirect) has become Prathyaksha (direct),” Ramachandrappa explained.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: ‘Hindutva sidelined’ — why Right-wing outfit Sri Ram Sene plans to take on BJP in Karnataka polls


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