Prayagraj: “Sita isn’t an archetypal wife,” says Trikal Bhavanta, the 65-year-old Shankaracharya of Pari Akhara. “Without her, there’s no Ram temple.”
Bhavanta — a Vaishnava renunciate who commands a group of 50,000 women ascetics across India — holds forth at her ashram in Prayagraj.
Set on the banks of the Yamuna, her ashram, a 500-year-old cavernous Shiva temple on the fringes of the Kumbh Mela, is a far cry from the vibrant camps that dotted the fairgrounds until February.
The Shankaracharya rues the rejection of her akhara — monastaries for religious renunciates — by the Uttar Pradesh government despite filing a petition at the Allahabad high court.
“Our ascetics got camps in Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik, but Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath rejected us,” she says. “We need to validate Sita’s presence publicly to validate Ram.”
In a politically-surcharged climate, and just weeks ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Ram temple was the rallying cry for the Sangh Parivar and its religious affiliates at the 49-day Kumbh Mela, which ended Monday.
The fervour even spilled over to become the common vocabulary across the mass Hindu pilgrimage, including sections of disgruntled ascetics.
The dispute over the Ram temple and its associated religious rivalry was not only brought to the forefront but also leveraged by the Hindu nationalist groups to address other Hindutva agendas like ‘ghar wapsi’ (reconversions), ‘akhand Bharat’ (undivided India), clean Ganga, cow protection and vegetarianism.
Across the fairgrounds, the politicisation of a grand religious event was set in bold. A centuries-old tradition was re-branded to boost cultural nationalism in an election year.
‘Important for state to merge its identity’
On every street corner, saffron flags, LED screens, hoardings, and life-size cut-outs of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s top politicians stood out ubiquitously. Heads of akharas and ideologues smiled down from hoardings while boasting the social welfare programmes of the government. Ram kathas and Ramlilas dominated almost every cultural centre.
“It was important for the state to merge its identity with the akharas and ritualistic traditions to boost the Ram temple issue, which would help them consolidate the Hindu vote,” says Archana Singh, a professor of caste and gender studies at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute (GBPSSI) in Prayagraj.
The political resonances at Kumbh were felt long before it started, when the government decided to play an active host of the event.
Last October, the BJP dispensation in the state changed Allahabad’s name to Prayagraj, in what critics deemed an attempt by the Hindu nationalist government to erase India’s diverse history and identity.
In December, the government organised theme-based Kumbhs in Ayodhya, Varanasi, Prayagraj, Vrindavan and Lucknow to highlight issues such as harmony, environmental protection, women’s empowerment and inclusivity.
At these events, the speakers tried to situate modern ideas within the Hindutva ideological framework, in order to set the tone for Kumbh.
“The government worked consciously to turn Kumbh into a development narrative through the prism of politics,” says Rama Shankar Singh, an academic at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla.
A major street art initiative called ‘Paint My City’ was launched by Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath in October to beautify the public buildings of Prayagraj; hoardings and ads were mandated to bear the Kumbh logo with sadhus taking a dip in the ceremonial waters; and statues were painted over.
“The government wanted to showcase Hinduism as a model religion that includes everyone,” says Badri Narayan, a cultural anthropologist and social historian at Prayagraj’s GBPSSI.
“The political advantage is clear before the elections because the government and religious heads want to dictate India’s social and cultural norms.”
Issues at akharas
To impress the inclusive nature of Hinduism, the BJP government banded with monastics to co-opt groups left out of the patriarchal akhara structure, including transgenders, Dalits and women.
Malegaon blasts accused Pragya Singh Thakur — a disciple of Juna Akhara’s Swami Avdheshanand — established the first women’s akhara, Bharat Bhakti Akhara, despite getting no support from the All India Akhara Council.
Last November, Juna Akhara — the largest of the 13 akharas with over 400,000 sanyasis — had announced it would take Thakur back into its fold since “she has been given a clean chit by the NIA in the blast case”.
Prabhunand Giri — former Bajrang Dal president of Chandigarh — was appointed the first Dalit ‘Mahamandaleswar‘ (spiritual guardian), over 500 years after poet and ascetic Ravidas broke caste and gender barriers in pursuit of spiritual freedom.
“Hinduism has included everyone, even dissenting sects,” says Panchanand Giri Maharaj, the chief spiritual guardian of the Juna Akhara.
By aligning with Hindu ascetics in the tightly-controlled akharas, the BJP saw an unparalleled opportunity to influence the congregated masses. The government also saw in it a basis for political and religious mobilisation.
“Issues like Ram temple and cow protection were centered at the akharas or camps to attract gullible voters,” says Heramb Chaturvedi, a professor of medieval and modern history at the University of Allahabad. “They also aided in polarisation along communal lines.”
In pre-modern India, the Kumbh Mela was an intriguing blend of religiosity, trade and social communication, but the British sought to control it for becoming a conduit for nationalist ideas.
Later, the pilgrimage morphed into a more popular form of pious expression. The All India Akhara Council was formed in 1954 to minister 13 akharas whose renunciates were drawn from different spiritual traditions across India.
The Akhara council has unwaveringly supported the movement for building the Ram temple at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid.
It pushed the movement even more this Kumbh.
At guru Rajendra Das’s Nirmohi Akhara — a wealthy sect claiming the disputed site in Ayodhya — the discourse is on building the Ram temple to consolidate Hinduism.
“(Prime Minister Narendra) Modi will establish Ram temple before the elections,” said Das, the 30-year-old zealot, before an audience of over a dozen devotees at the fair last week.
“Religious leaders need someone who can safeguard tradition and cleanse India of foreign influence.”
Awadhesh Gupta, BJP’s Prayagraj president, avers that his party needs the support of religious leaders to centre people’s faith in Hinduism.
“We will follow our spiritual exemplars on whatever course of action they suggest on the Ram temple. They are the upholders of tradition,” says Gupta.
Push for Ram temple
A few miles from Das’ akhara, the sprawling 14-acre Sangh Parivar-affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) camp with over 320 luxury tents, has as its centerpiece a model of the Ram temple.
Dazzling screens around the site showcase VHP’s social change initiatives across rural hinterlands and its demands for Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace of Lord Ram) to assuage wounded Hindu pride.
VHP’s regional organisation minister, Mukesh Kumar, says, “Over 13 crore Hindus across the world will meditate on Ramnavami for the Ram temple in an unprecedented display of faith.”
Pumping his fist in the air, Kumar declares that only the Sangh Parivar with the backing of monastics can “yield an India steeped in its religious traditions”.
But even among the religious leaders who agree over the push for the Hindutva agenda, the political fault lines have stated showing up before the elections.
Juna Akhara, which was most magnanimous in its reach-out efforts at the mass Hindu pilgrimage, believes the BJP government has let it down.
Panchanand Giri Maharaj says, “How can we expect globetrotter Modi to build the Ram temple when he hasn’t even visited Ayodhya?”
Giri also lambasts the government for deceiving people on its clean Ganga initiatives, for dragging its feet on the cow protection bill, and turning Kashmir into an intractable problem.
‘How is BJP inclusive?’
Dalit ‘Mahamandaleswar‘ Prabhunand Giri says the BJP has done nothing for the welfare of Dalits and continues to uphold the Brahmanical ascetic order.
“Modi washes the feet of sanitation workers but doesn’t attend my coronation, nor does any other BJP politician. How can we say they are inclusive?” asks Giri.
On 24 February, PM Modi washed the feet of five sanitation workers, including two women, in Prayagraj a bid to push his Swachh Bharat programme.
The former Bajrang Dal leader claims he carried out ‘ghar wapsis’ in sanctified tents along the banks of the Sangam upon the direction of religious heads, who stood behind him when the politicians failed.
“I owe my position not to Modi or Adityanath, but to the thousands of sadhus who went back disgruntled because the government turned its back on us,” says Giri.
In agreement with the Dalit ‘Mahamandaleswar‘, All India Akhara Council president Narendra Giri believes only monastics infused the pilgrimage with “true religiosity”.
“It’s our calm approach to religion that triggered a wave of ‘ghar wapsis’ at Kumbh,” says Giri. “Over 4 lakh people, especially from Northeast India and Kashmir embraced Hinduism because of us.”
‘Sangh Parivar hungry for votes’
Over at the akharas, too, the echoes of disappointment over the BJP government’s egotism are manifestly clear.
Inside a thatched hut at a now tumbledown campsite, Adhokshjanand Maharaj, the chief spiritual guardian of the Govardhan Mutt in Puri, says the BJP government has turned Lord Ram into a polling agent.
“The Sangh Parivar is only hungry for power and votes,” says Adhokshjanand, a 45-year-old ascetic with a large global following.
“The government can’t build the Ram temple, so they’ve started warring with Pakistan to divert people attention.”
Adhokshjanand believes the spirit of Kumbh has been broken since politicians are rising above the religious leaders to trumpet their faith.
In January, Adityanath had held a cabinet meeting on the fairgrounds, which led Samajwadi Party members to accuse the BJP of making a “mockery” of religion and culture.
The Kumbh Mela Management, which spent over Rs 4,300 crore on Kumbh, had no hand in the political content that was peddled at campsites through books, films, posters, hoardings, banners and cutouts.
“We gave the parties unregulated access as long as they didn’t compromise the mela’s spirit,” says Vijay Kiran Anand, District Magistrate at the Kumbh Mela.
But on the margins of the fairgrounds, Pari Akhara’s Shankaracharya Bhavanta remains intransigent.
“The government created a sheen of modernity to attract potential voters before the elections,” says Bhavanta, infuriated at the sadhvis being sidelined.
“When women ascetics will come together on the Ram temple, it’ll be all action. We will finally claim Ram’s birthplace”
Priyadarshini Sen is a Delhi-based independent journalist.