Ram Temple Politics: Brief History Of Sadhus, Nawabs And Inter-Hindu Rivalry In Ayodhya

After Shankaracharyas, Nirmohi Akhada Mahant says he won't attend Ram Temple consecration. Tracing the reason for dissent among sages takes us back centuries through the evolution of Ayodhya.

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Sadhu Sants and VHP workers shout slogans as they leave for Ayodhya 84 Kosi Parikrama Yatra from Krishna Temple Udasin Ashram near Rajghat Power House in New Delhi. Photo: Getty Images

In December last year, Bharat Rashtra Samithi leader and former Telangana Chief Minister KCR’s daughter Kavita had said that the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya is like a “dream come true for Hindus”. But in the weeks preceding the temple's consecration on January 22, several Hindu seers and sects have raised objections and concerns about the event with some even refusing to attend the invite-only ceremony. 

In January, amid debate around the Shankaracharyas’ comments on irregularities in temple consecration, Champta Rai, the head of the temple trust, declared that the Ram temple belongs to the Ramanandi sect, and not to the Sanyasis, Shaktas, or Shaivites. While the comment goes against the homogenous idea of Hinduism and pan-Hindu identity propagated by Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Sangh Pariwar, the war of words is a reminder of old fissures and fault lines that run deep and have been intrinsic to the history of Ram Mandir and the evolution of Ayodhya. 

Incidentally, the latest priest to have opted out of attending the grand opening being helmed by the BJP, is Mahant Purushottam Das, a member of Nirmohi Akhara. A resident of Hanumangrahi, Das who has been actively involved in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement has told the media that he wouldn’t be attending the event since the Akhada, which has played a key part in the movement, has been sidelined in the larger narrative that is building around Ram Mandir. 

Since the announcement of the Ram Janmabhoomi Teertha Kshetra Trust, there have been grumblings in the “sadhu-samaj” of Ayodhya and beyond. With the the Lok Sabha elections expected to take place in the coming months, the breakneck pace of construction in Ayodhya and the consecration of the temple before its physical completion has led many to dub act as “political” rather than religious or spiritual.

The country’s four most venerated Shankaracharyas who head the four key  Peethas or ‘Math’ (considered holy by Hindus and followers of Santan Dharm) may not be attending the consecration ceremony. 

Two of the Shankaracharyas have raised objections against the way the. The temple is being inaugurated. These include Swami Nishchalanand Saraswati, 145th Sankaracharya of the Govardhana Peetha at Jagannath Puri, Odisha, and Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Jyotish Math in Uttarakhand. While Swami Nishchalanand who has been Shankaracharya since February 1992 said that the ceremony had turned into a political show. Swami Avimukteshwaranand said that while the sadhus were not “anti-Modi”, the ceremony was against their “dharma shashtras”. 

While initial media reports suggested that the Shankaracharya Bharati Teerth of Sringeri Sharda Peeth in Karnataka and Sadanand Saraswati of Paschimannaya Dwarka Shardapeeth had also decided against attending, their respective Peethas later communicated that they might. 

“The shankaracharyas are saying that the consecration ceremony is not taking place according to scripture. How can an idol of god be installed or Pranapratishtha done in an incomplete temple?” Says Baba Dhaaram Das, Mahant of Nirvani Akhada. Much like Nirmohi Akhada, the Mahant of Nirvani Akhada also feels that many of those who have dedicated their whole life to the Ram temple movement have been left out of the final stage of the temple’s construction. He too has received the golden invite to the event which consists of a commemorative book of saints and sadhus who have been involved with the event. “Baba Abhiram Das is on the second page,” Nirvani Akhada saints say. “He was the first one to convert the masjid into mandir,” Dharam Das, his disciple, states, referring to 1949 when the idol of Ram Lalla was said to have miraculously appeared inside the temple. 

The statements by the different heads of religious sects and Akhadas need to be seen in the context of the historic factional divides and rivalry within the Hindu Sadhu Samaj.

Sanyasis vs Vairagis

Hindus have traditionally been divided into two sects - Shaiva Sanyasis and Vaishnava Bairagis. While the former are older and worshippers of Shiva and Shakti, the latter, are worshippers of Vishnu and his ‘avatars’ like Ram and Krishna. While Vaishnavas emerged as the dominant sect in North India from the mid-18th century onwards, in the 16th century when Babur is believed to have commissioned the construction of Babri via his general Mir Baqi, (as per an inscription inside Babri), the Shaiva Sanyasis were more powerful.

Historian Valay Singh in his book Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord, describes how north India, till the 15th-16th century, remained a fairly dangerous place for Vishnu worshippers who were divided into sects like Ramanujis (followers of Saint Ramanuj) which later led to the creation of its offshoot Ramanandis (the followers of Saint Ramanand)

Shaivas sadhus have historically been associated with militant priesthood and before the arrival of the British, they enjoyed political patronage of both Hindu and Muslim rulers, owing to their bravery and military might. In return for fighting for rulers, they would get control of certain religious sectors. 

The story of the competition between Shaivas and Vaishnavas, now nearly extinct in the contemporary context, is intrinsic to understanding the various strands of Hinduism that have been lived in and laid claims to Ayodhya and its ancient heritage. A study of literature produced by both sects also helps one understand the history of Ram worship in Ayodhya, which is one of the prime underpinnings of the pro-temple “mandir masjid” discourse.

In Ayodhya, local tour guides and priests readily narrate to tourists that Ram along with all Ayodhywawasis left Ayodhya nine lakh sixty-five thousand years ago. While no physical proof of Ram’s existence in Ayodhya has been scientifically or credibly established, literature produced by various sects and commentators who lived through the medieval period in Ayodhya helps us guess the date of Ram worship. 

Hindu nationalists claim that Ayodhya is the extant kingdom of Ram and the place of his worship which predates modern history. They also claim that the Babri mosque was built by the Mughal emperor Babur after the demolition of a temple built on the ‘birthplace’ of Ram. Valay Singh points out in his book that the “worship of Ram in Ayodhya is intrinsically linked with the sub-sectarian Ramanandi movement in the larger Vaishnava tradition at the cost of the 17th and 18th centuries… Ayodhya’s growth as a major centre for Ramanandis heralds the identification of a particular spot in Ayodhya as Ram’s exact birthplace”. 


Who are the Ramanandis?

The Vaishnava tradition is divided into four “sampradaya” or orders that follow the teachings of Vishnuswami, Nimbarkacharya, Madhvacharya and Ramanujarya. The Ramanandis, followers of the reformist saint Ramanand, started as a reform movement within the Ramanuji sect and eventually gained followers not just from its parent sect but the rest of the orders of Vaishnavism across north India. Ramanand is believed to have rebelled against the strict caste-adhering rules of the Ramanuji sampradaya and thus the Ramanandi sub-sect gained popularity among large masses of north India as it included not just Brahmins and Kshatriyas but also members of so-called “lower” and “untouchable” castes. This opened up the sect to wider follower bases and spread the worship of Ram in north India. 


The Ramanadis rose in prominence in Ayodhya following 1713 when in a meeting held in Galta, Rajasthan, Vaishnava leaders decided to arm their four orders with a view to protect their followers and their teachings from attacks of Saivas.  The Galta meeting, in fact, according to historian William Pinch’s book ‘Peasants and Monks in British India’, was held after an army of Dashnami sanyasis, an armed Shaiva sect, captured Ayodhya in the early 18th century and drove out the Ramanandis. 

While not much about the life and times of Ramananda is known or can be factually corroborated, he is believed to have been born in Prayag in the 12th century and then moved vio Benaras where he joined the Ramanjua sect. Some accounts of Ramananda state that he himself was not from an upper caste and thus broke away from the Ramaniuji group to form his own more inclusive sect which even included Muslims and women. This marked a major turning point in Vaishnav Hinduism and may have played a key role in the shift from Sanskrit religious texts to texts written in more Vernacular languages. After 1713, radical Ramanandis described themselves are distinct from the Ramanujan sect.


Tulsidas, who is believed to have adapted Valmiki’s Ramayana sometime 16th century, belonged to the Ramanandi sect, which is perhaps the reason why he wrote the text not in Sanskrit but in the vernacular Awadhi dialect. This minor difference has left an astronomical imprint on the propagation of Ramcharitmanas among the large masses of India including Dalits, tribals and even Muslims. (Incidentally, Tulsidas never mentioned the construction of Babri after breaking a temple, though he is believed to have lived at around the same time).

Following the Galta meeting, Ramanandis started to form armed groups known as “akhadas” to fend off Shaiva armies and by the second half of the 18th century, all three major Akhadas within the Ramanandi sect - namely, Nirmohi Akhada, Nirvani Akhada and Deegambari Akhada, had entered Ayodhya and started establishing their bases. 


These inter-sectoral wars among Hindu saints were unfolding in the backdrop of the rulers following Islam who helped sway over large swathes of north India including the region of Awadh of which Ayodhya is a part. At this point, the fight was within the different sects of Hinduism and not really against the Islamic kings, a historical fact that the portents of “Mandir-Masjid” politics and beliefs or Janmabhoomi theory often ignore. 

In the book ‘Ayodhya: A Dark Night’, authors Krishna Jha and Dhirendra K Jha describe how the Baba Abhay Das, then mahant of Nirvani Akhada, led the fight to drive out Shaivas and Muslim Faqirs who worshipped an image of Hanuman located on a hill called “Hanuman Tilla”. It was under his leadership that the villa was converted into the temple of “Hanumangarhi” which was eventually developed into a fortress. Incidentally, the Ramanandis built Hanumangarhi on land granted to them by Muslim Awadh rulers who gave the land on once condition - that namaz continues to be read on the land. The practice was discontinued by Muslims in the late 19th century but the compound and vicinity of Hanumangarhi and the supposed Ram Janmabhoomi area is dotted with multiple mosques, bazaars and dargahs. 


Jha also describes how the inter-Akhada rivalry which also developed as the Ramanandis slowly grew in influence in Hanumangarhi, which by the 20th century had become one of the most important points of politics, religion and economics in Ayodhya. An interesting example is the 1949 placing of the idol by Abhiram Das of Nirvani Akhada inside the premises of Babri Masjid, thus changing the location of what was erstwhile believed to be the birth spot located at “Ram Chabutra”, which was under the control of the Nirmohi Akhada. Getting control of Ram Janmabhoomi means ownership and control of all the pilgrimages and donations that come to the holiest of holy spots. Today, Akhadas not only handle the day to day of religious activities in their own temples but also administer large networks of property and wealth, and play key roles as political pressure groups.


While contemporary political right wing led by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, VHP and now the Bharatiya Janta Party, try to project an image of a monolithic and unified “Hindu Samaj” but Dhirendra K Jha argues that a “unified Hindu samaj” is an impossibility. “Though sadhus and sects have given patronage to BJP on and off, it has never been absolute,” he states. The historian adds that communal hate or discrimination against Muslims, has nevertheless become the unifying point among certain sections of Sadhus who are politically inclined. 

When did Muslims become the 'enemy?' 

The last Hindu ruler to have governed Ayodhya was in the 1100s. Since then, the city which has historically failed under the kingdom of Awadh, has slipped in and out of prominence but has always been regarded as a place of asceticism and religious importance for Hindus. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the kingdom was under the Nawabs, the Ramanandis were growing in dominance and several new temples and places of Hindu worship were constructed in Ayodhya. Scholars believe that more than a love for secularism alone, the construction of temples may been a tactic used by Nawabs to counter the demand of Maratha rulers trying to assert control over Hindu religious centres like Kashi, and Ayodhya which were in the Awadh provinces. Rajput kings in the medieval periods often envisaged themselves as Ramayana's titular god-king as can be seen in an adaptation of the Ramayana, commissioned by a Rajput king of Mewar in the late 17th century in which Ravana was depicted as a Mughal. Prints of the Ramayana survive in a museum in the UK. 


Nevertheless, Awadh nobility consisted of a large number of Hindus as well and Nawabs like Shuja-ud-daula and his sons invested in several temples along Ayodhya.  In fact, even after the Awadh court shifted from Faizabad to Lucknow, the spirit of “Hindustani” culture prevailed till the late 1800s and the end of Wajid Ali Shah’s reign. 

But, as Singh notes, despite the syncretism of the nobility, the ground realities of Hindu-Muslim relations were changing. A decisive shift in Hindu-Muslim relations can be observed after the arrival of the British in the late 18th Century. Intimidated by the militant Shaiva sanyasis and their war-like attitude, the British were scared of their military prowess and instead favoured the Vaishnava side of Hinduism, which aligned more with their post-enlightenment Christian approach. The “Vaishnava values of complete devotion” were more appealing to the British who held similar beliefs pertaining to Christianity as opposed to the tantric practices and non-conforming 


As Shaiva armies were slowly disbanded, the Vaishnava influence in Ayodhya and other parts of north India grew. With the Saivas in decline, and the British constantly trying to scuttle Hindu-Muslim relations for their own expansion, Islam emerged as the bigger enemy. 

It was the Marathas of Rajasthan (incidentally a stronghold of Vaishnavites before they expanded) were constantly warring with Muslim rulers which played a role in shaping anti-Islamic tendencies of the Hindu populace as well as the stance later taken by Vaishnavites. The power struggle between the Shaivas and Vaishnavas has played out in the backdrop of an era wrought with warfare, incoming Muslim dynasties, clan wars and shifting political and geographical alignments, leading to a chequered but unique religious syncretism. Proof of this tapestry can still be seen in Ayodhya, on the stone gates of centuries-old temples inscribed with twin fishes, the emblem of the Nawabs. Some of the oldest temples in the city like the Nageshwarnath temple were built under the patronage of Muslim rulers. 


The genesis of the Babri conflict is often traced to a bloody war between Hindus and Muslims in Ayodhya in 1855. A war did take place in 1855 between Hindus and Muslims in Ayodhya. But unlike the popular belief, it was not about the Ram temple but about the alleged breaking of a mosque by Vaishnavite Bairagis in Hanumangarhi. In the war, Muslims were routed. Valay Singh in his book argues that till 1855, Babri Masjid had not been claimed as the place of birth of Ram. 

It is, however, recorded, that while facing rout in this battle, the Muslims had sought shelter inside a mosque, believed to be Babri which might be how the mosque became part of the war.