Liberation is a word hewn in stone for Maoists of different nationalities. Liberation of land, liberation from the exploiters, liberation from the cultural hegemony of the powerful. In the republic of Nepal, with the monarchy dethroned and the fledgling democracy yet to mature, the battle for liberation has shifted from the countryside to Kathmandu’s famous temple of Pashupatinath, the much-revered presiding deity of the country. The Maoists want Nepalis to replace the existing Indian priests responsible for conducting pujas, in the hope of stamping out a centuries-old tradition which symbolises, at least to the radical Red, Nepal’s cultural subservience to India.
The origin of this latest battle lies in the resignation of two Indian bhattas, or priests—Ramakant Bhatta and K.P. Ramachandran—from their duties at the Pashupatinath temple in August-end. In stepped the Pashupati Temple Sangharsha Samiti (PTSS), which invoked arguments of national pride and cultural sovereignty to demand that Nepali priests succeed the Indians. It was a demand Maoist leader and former prime minister Prachanda had abortively sought to implement earlier this year.
But the ministry of culture, on the recommendation of the Pashupati Authority Development Trust (PADR), appointed Raghavendra Bhatta and Girish Bhatta to the two vacant priestly posts. The announcement was made following the moolbhatta or chief priest’s certification that both Raghavendra and Girish satisfied the prescribed prerequisites—the priests should be married, belong to the area south of the Vindhyas (both belong to Karnataka), have adequate command over the four Vedas, and possess abilities to invoke tantric knowledge for the worship of Pashupatinath.
Maoists protest their appointment
Stung to the quick, the PTSS retaliated on September 4, dragging out both Raghavendra and Girish from their pre-initiation, ceremonial ‘secret refuge’, partially stripping them, beating them mercilessly and tearing off their sacred threads. As Kathmandu watched the invasion in shock, Indian ambassador Rakesh Sood visited the temple and the assaulted priests, and Union external affairs minister S.M. Krishna declared that “any harm to them (priests) will not be acceptable to the government of India.”
India’s strong response prompted the PTSS to call off the agitation. But the Maoists continued to protest innocence. Maoist leader K.B. Mahara said, “There has been an effort to link us with the Pashupati incident. Our party believes in religious freedom, and we are not involved in what happened in Pashupati area.” But just about everyone in Kathmandu accuses the Maoists of committing the sacrilege. The PTSS is considered a front of the Maoists; their demand for Nepali priests is perceived as an attempt to fan anti-India sentiments.
Indeed, it’s because of the Maoists that the appointment of priests at the Pashupatinath temple has become controversial. When chief priest Mahabaleshwar resigned in October 2008, a demand was raised to find a Nepali replacement for him. Then, on January 2 this year, then PM Prachanda hastily announced that he had appointed Bishnu Dahal, a Sanskrit professor, as Mahabaleshwar’s successor. The elaborate procedure to judge a person’s eligibility for the post of the head priest was dispensed with. Brushing aside criticism, Prachanda portrayed the appointment as an assertion of Nepali nationalism against India’s cultural hegemony. It was as if he was asking, why should Nepali Hindus accept Indian priests? Is it because the Hindus of India are culturally superior?
Dahal’s tenure, however, lasted only a few days. Nepal’s supreme court intervened and issued a stay order against Dahal’s appointment; even the temple staff and pilgrims opposed the Maoist interference in temple affairs. The Maoists retreated, and Mahabaleshwar resumed his duties as chief priest. Last week’s turmoil at the temple is seen as yet another attempt by the Maoists—now out of power—to build support for indigenising Nepal’s Hindu traditions. It hopes to employ culture for the purpose of forging a new nationalism that is defined, at times, in anti-India terms.
Just as the Hindutva brigade built its agitation against the Babri Masjid, periodically bringing its cadres to Ayodhya and then retreating, the Maoists are likely to rekindle the priest issue at an opportune moment. Mahabaleshwar’s successor, for one thing, has yet to be found; he will function as chief priest, the tradition demands, till such time he personally initiates his successor to the post. The contentious issue hasn’t been resolved; it has only been put in abeyance. Nor is the PTSS any less determined. As its coordinator, Ganesh Chandra Adhikari, told Outlook, “We are committed to the cause of liberating the temple from India’s hegemony.”
Interestingly, the rationale behind the appointment of Indian priests has disappeared. Tradition demands daily puja and offering to Lord Pashupatinath; any disruption is said to bring disaster upon the country. A former padt member explains, “People used to look upon the king as head of the family; his death was observed as the day of national mourning during which no Nepali could offer puja.” Thus, the appointment of Indian priests enabled Nepalis to surmount the problem of propitiating the Lord even on a King’s death. With the monarchy abolished, and the king reduced to the status of an ordinary citizen, many would argue against the need for Indian priests. “Yes, Nepali priests can be appointed,” says Govinda Tandon, who has a PhD on Pashupati’s cultural history.
There’s also a section in Nepal, apart from the Maoists, that believes the offerings at Pashupatinath temple are pilfered and the money collected isn’t utilised for social welfare. And though the padt was established in 1987 to bring about transparency in the temple’s accounting system, it failed to curb the unfettered rights of the priests. This school believes the appointment of Nepali priests could help reform the temple administration.
The issue is lodged in Nepal’s consciousness. As culture minister Minendra Rizal told Outlook, “The issue of having or not having Indian priests can be debated. But we can’t discontinue it unless we have an agreed alternative. But how are the Maoists, whose party is anti-religion, entitled to do what they did?”
Rizal’s opinion isn’t going to worry the Maoists. They will press ahead on their pet project of indigenising Nepal’s Hindu culture. Considering the outcry against the harassing of the priests, it seems this cultural battle is a tougher fight than the one they waged from the bush, against the monarchy.