January 25, 2020
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Hardwar's Holy Wars

Politics, factionalism, violence the temple city seems to have little time for prayer

Hardwar's Holy Wars

HARDWAR'S holy men are at unholy war. Disgusting divisions, petty politics, and vicious violence have had these godmen rampage their way into the most ungodly riots through the recent Mahakumbh. They terrorised, looted, fought, burnt. They despised each other. The rabid rivalries continue. And make this tiny embankment town, God's abode to the Hindu mind, home for shocking hatred.

"I renounced the world and became a sadhu, now after being beaten up by fellow sadhus till I bled and fainted, I want to renounce being a sadhu! The groupism, the casteism in Hardwar is terrible. It makes me feel ashamed at being a part of the sadhu samaj—men of God who disgrace God by being so demonic," says a doleful Pandit Badri Prasad Sharma, Sangathan Mantri of the Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Parishad. The fragile sexagenarian has all but lost his faith in God, attacked as he was by a mob of rioting sadhus during the Mahakumbh. To have come all the way from his ashram in Madhya Pradesh's Vidisha, to holy Hardwar, "for peace and quiet" only to receive gaping wounds. His money and meagre belongings snatched away from him; even his slippers taken off his feet when he fainted. "When men of God sin, the world can't be saved."

 The world might just survive. But Swami Jitendra's fractured faith might not. Besmeared in turmeric tilak, his head bows for the umpteenth time to show the deep wound that is his reward for travelling all the way from his ashram in Kanpur for a dip in the Ganga. "Sadhus were burning vehicles in the ashram where I was staying. They kept beating me with lathis even as I was yelping with pain. And God allowed it! I can't believe it happened!"

But it did. A line of burnt cars, scooters and cycles in Hardwar's Keshav Ashram are painful reminders of events that saw the politics of religion overthrow religion during the Kumbh. "The sadhus who did it are still at large and could still harm us. The situation is still electric with hatred, anything might happen," says a petrified inmate. Time that should be spent in prayer, says the sad sadhu, is these days spent lobbying with the police for security, filing cases against other sadhu groups and organising press conferences to badmouth each other.

 A crude casteism and dangerous groupism have gripped Hardwar's sadhu samaj. The Dandi sadhus, who are mostly Brahmins, speak condescendingly of the 'lower' Naga sadhus: "They wear nothing on their bodies and have nothing in their brains. They smoke ganja and they loot. They've ruined the spiritual atmosphere here. They were traditionally meant to be warrior sadhus for our protection but they have started thinking they are our equals." The Nagas, on the other hand, consider themselves dharam rakshaks (protectors of religion), take pride in being wild and smirk at the Dandis for "politicking more than praying".

But hatred is a complicated emotion and things are more complex than simple two-sided skirmishes in Hardwar. Both the Nagas and the Dandis are hopelessly divided amongst themselves. The Nagas, comprising 13 akhadas (orders), are raring to kill to prove supremacy over each other. The battle over the right to take the first dip in the Ganga during the recent Mahakumbh had hundreds of them hospitalised with serious injuries. The aftermath has seen the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad (ABAP), a union of all Hardwar's akhadas, split into two and the formation of a rival faction called Khaddarshan Akhada Parishad.

The Dandis aren't doing any better. A shameful fight is on between three claimants to the seat of Shankaracharya for Jyotispeeth. Political patronage and "hired Naga sadhu hooliganism" have made things worse. On March 28, Swami Madhavashram, one of the three claimants to the seat, was beaten till his bones broke by sadhus who, he alleges, were sent by rivals Swami Vasudevanand and Swami Swaroopanand.

And then there are the sadhvis who have their own list of complaints. Still reeling from the recent humiliation of having the sadhu samaj turn down their proposal to make one of them Parvatacharya, a female equivalent of the Shankaracharya, they're crying hoarse over the increasing insecurity they feel within the holy community. Their anger has been aggravated by the fact that the rath carrying Ma Anandmayi's likeness during the Kumbh was plundered by Naga sadhus for its silver embellishment. The sadhvis on the rath, it's alleged, were manhandled in the skirmishes between various sadhu factions. Says 36-year-old sanyasin Mahamandaleshwar Santoshi Ma: "What happens to our rights in a religious community where all the infighting is really about male egos? The fights are about being the best men."

 "But Vashist and Vishwamitra fought, why shouldn't we? It is in the tradition of sadhus and their duty to debate and die for principles. And to take up the trishul to protect Hinduism's honour," proclaims proud Paramanand Saraswati, leader of the militant Juna Akhada. Three

cases against his name in the local police station for instigating riots—the slight man dismisses the laws of men to declare his belief in the laws of God. At loggerheads with the Niranjani Akhada, his sadhus, he declares, outnumber the former and therefore will continue to kill, if the need arises, for their right to take the first dip in Ma Ganga. "We train them to fight. In these times when Hinduism is threatened by infidels, they need to keep their warrior instinct at their sharpest! They have to fight!"

BUT fight what? Paramanand is not quite certain, but that doesn't take away from his determination to die fighting. "Well...all the non-Hindus who are breeding in this country, the Westerners who come and photograph us because they think we are naked monkeys, the administration that makes us fight with each other, the Niranjani Akhada that keeps putting us down...."

This embarrassing militancy has made the ABAP blacklist Paramanand's Juna Akhada. But there are wheels within karmic wheels here too. ABAP's president Shankar Bharati is also the secretary of the Niranjani Akhada that has always hated the Juna sadhus. The "boycott" could be about personal vengeance. "Only an apology by the Juna Akhada will have us accept them into the mainstream again," threatens Bharati. But what of the fact that Juna has managed support from four other akhadas to form a rival union: "Why investigate religious divides alone? Look at how many factions there are in the Congress party today! All this is a media conspiracy to shame the newly-formed Hindu government at the Centre!"

For his part, president of the newly formed rival faction, Khaddarshan Akhada Parishad Swami Govindanand, justifies these rival groupisms amongst sadhus by philosophising about Life's Truths: "Nothing is ideal anymore. Son hates father. Husband and wife divorce. Women don't breast-feed their babies. Sadhus are politicised. Why blame the sadhus alone? The BJP, VHP, SP—are all vying for our support. They want the Hindu vote, they want the sadhus and the sants. How long can a lotus remain unsullied by the mud that it grows in. Look at the BJP, now that it is in dirty power politics, it seems to have discarded its commitment to the Ram temple!"

It is significant, perhaps, that no conversation with any of the sadhu sangathans is complete without the names of political parties cropping up more than once. A deep awareness of the wheeling-dealings at the Centre and a proud consciousness of the importance of their support in the vote-bank politics is reflected in all the stances and postures of various groups within the holy community. Unabashed name dropping, both to show strength and to justify weakness, is very common.

Little wonder then that Swami Madhavashram, one among the three Shankaracharya claimants who was beaten up, accuses the BJP of supporting his rivals who he alleges are the perpetrators of the crime. "Vasudevanand and Swaroopanand enjoy the VHP's support. Why else was my security lifted just around the time I was attacked. Also, Swaroopanand's name couldn't be listed as the Shankaracharya of Jyotispeeth with the Kumbh mela bureaucrats without the Centre's intervention. This despite the fact that Varanasi's Vidwat Parishad (Council of the Enlightened) has named me Shankaracharya," says the battered swami, huddled in a room at Delhi's Civil Lines with heavy, but 'temporary' security. ("Please write temporary or else the Central powers might interfere again.")

It's almost surreal—-hearing the swami speak of the alleged conspiracies to kill him in the last three years, of the political bigwigs who he says are part of these conspiracies, seeing his plastered and bandaged limbs, reading the pamphlets he has prepared for the press conferences he plans to hold in Delhi. There is little here that one would associate with the spiritual world. To add to the unreality of it all, a disciple sitting at the swami's feet perks up: "I am a member of the Uttarakhand Sangharsh Samiti. Madhavashramji has always helped us. We are entirely with him and will see to it that the two others aren't allowed to enter the territory."

NOT to be outdone, meanwhile, Swami Swaroopanand accused Madhavashram of "mad hunger for power" over a telephonic conversation from his ashram at Jyoteshwar near Jabalpur. "I am and have been the Shankaracharya of Jyotispeeth for the past 25 years. All the good people in the Vidwat Parishad have died. Now the body that has appointed Madhavashram has people who'll anoint anyone for a price," the swami fulminated. Adding sarcastically that he expected no better from a body that had bestowed the title of Jagatacharya and Rajrishi on Chandraswami and V.P. Singh respectively.

Spokesperson at Varanasi's Vidwat Parishad, Shivji Upadhyay is as harsh at dismissing the sanctity of Swaroopanand's claims. "He should be taking a good look at himself. He has been abroad several times, is already the Shankaracharya of Dwarkapeeth, and that disqualifies him for the Jyotispeeth seat as far as religious texts are concerned. He is the one who suffers from hunger for power," says an irate Upadhyay.

The third claimant, Swami Vasudevanand, who would certainly have had his bit to add to the controversy and help make it murkier, is currently travelling and unavailable for comment. But he has the Juna Akhada's support and Paramanand Saraswati takes up his cause: "When everyone else is fighting for their cause, why shouldn't he? Vasudevanadji has a large following and our support. We will fight for him." And then, perhaps, the Niranjani Akhada will fight back for someone else.

 And there are many else. J.P. Sharma, a commissioner rank bureaucrat who is still wrapping up matters for the battle-scarred, post-Kumbh Hardwar, says he was shocked to find at least 20 applications requesting allocation of land, water and electricity from sadhus claiming to be Shankaracharyas. And that's not all the mess that the bureaucrat has had to handle over the past few months of Kumbh, along with an allocated mega budget of Rs 99 crore. Hundreds were injured, policemen thrown into Ganges, properties destroyed on March 28, the day the Naga sadhus went berserk.

Appalled by the tension between the town's holy men, Sharma had passed orders banning the Shahi Snan of Mahakumbh. But his negotiation skills saved the day in the end: with the Juna Akhada being boycotted from within the community. "Historically, the warrior sadhus might have been stopped by non-Hindu monarchs, so they fought. Now they have no one to fight. The administration clears the roads for them, makes arrangements for their camps, helps them. So, I suspect, having no one to fight against, they fight among themselves."

 And battles without causes always have the worst casualties. In Hardwar they seem to have killed many a heart's belief in the Men of God. At twentysomething, phone booth owner Sandeep Bhardwaj at Hardwar's Aryanagar Chowk is annoyed at his town's vulnerability to the wild sadhus. Says he: "During Kumbh I wouldn't let my sisters step out of the house with these madmen on a rampage. I always accompany them to temples. To think we can't trust the sants of our community with our women."

 In queue to make a call, an older and more conservative Asha Bhatnagar cannot help but qualify. All sants aren't bad, she says, only some are. Pleading her case further, she observes that sants cheat people of meagre amounts compared to the scamster politicians. "So long as they don't burn things or harass people, why should it matter to me who or how people are fighting to be the Shankaracharya, I'll offer my pranams to whoever wins. God would have seen him through." That is clear faith in a holy mess.

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