Religious Quid Pro Quo
The hornet’s nest was stirred. Sankaracharya Swami Nischalananda Saraswati of the Gobardhan Peeth at Puri had opined that climbing of devotes on the raths of the three gods was ‘mahapaap’, and this should be restricted. The Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, the chief servitor of the Lord Jagganath too seconded this opinion. This did not go down well with the daitapatis, the pandas and priests who made quick bucks by letting devotees climb the chariots and pocketed a tidy amount in the process. Each year, there were unpleasant instances where greedy pandas misbehaved, assaulted and sold the lords devotion for huge amounts.
The ruling BJD government was forced to take a stand but soon found that they had a tiger by the tail. They called an all-party meeting, the results of which were inconclusive. Meanwhile, the Orissa High Court gave a quick decision on a pending case and ruled that the Sankaracharya’s writ should be enforced.
The cornered daitapatis had to eat humble pie. They made small noises but eventually were made to see sense and agreed to the seer’s diktat. However, the temple administration issued a letter to the Sankaracharya asking him that he should come alone atop the chariots for his traditional visit. The Sankaracharya leads a small contingent from the Gobardhan Peeth and climbs the chariots along with his disciples and offers prayers as a part of customary practice.
The temple administration’s letter informing him that nobody could accompany him to the chariot made the seer see red. Strongly protesting the decision, the seer said he would not perform the customary rituals on the chariots and abstained. The temple administration on its part said that the letter was sent to the seer in accordance with the directives of the Orissa High Court, while the opposition BJP said the decision was unwarranted.
The Puri seer has accused the government of mishandling the sensitive issues and becoming a machine in the hand of selected anti-socials. He alleged that the temple and the state administrations have become tools of the vested interests whose intent is to malign the Hindu institutions and seers to extend certain benefits to a section of servitors. The Sankaracharya is not a person; rather he is one of the important institutions of Hindu faith. It is surprising that the Sankaracharya who heads the top religious seat of Hindu religion has been subjected to the mercy of the administration.
Politicians of all hues made a beeline to the seer’s ashram at Puri. Ministers Dharmendra Pradhan and Jual Oram called on him. The VHP and the RSS have come out strongly and threatened to launch an agitation if the administration does not apologise for insulting the jagadguru and thereby causing a deep sense of hurt among crores of Hindus.
The Govardhan Peeth was established by Adi Shankara in 846 BC and is 2,492 years old, it is the most important of the four peeths as it is associated with the Rig Veda. There is a misconception that the Jagannath Temple is one of the Char Dhams, it is in fact the Govardhan Matha which is the Dham. The Jagannath Temple came up only in the year 1,174 CE when Ananga Bhima Deva rebuilt the temple. As per the record of rights, the Sankaracharya is the Dharma Guru and chief advisor and supervisor of the Jagannath temple in all religious matters.
The Temple administration’s letter to the Puri seer asking him to visit the chariots all alone without his assistants is an irresponsible and arrogant act, and the temple administration should apologise to the Sankaracharya at the earliest. It has overstepped its jurisdiction by imposing restrictions on his customary visit to the chariots during the Rath Yatra.
Others too have joined the fray. A PIL has been filed in the Orissa High Court challenging the right of the Sankaracharya to climb the chariots during the Rath Yatra. The PIL stated that there is no documentary proof in the temple’s Record of Rights about Sankaracharya climbing the chariots during Rath Yatra. The petitioners contended that the Sankaracharya had no role either in the pujas or in the rituals atop chariots.
Mixing of religion with politics is a dangerous trend because religious attitude is diametrically opposed to democratic feelings. Politics, or rajniti, is the code of conduct followed by the ruling class. Rajniti has always been a part of dharma-shastras such as Manusmriti or Yajnavalkyasmriti. The Dharma-shastras are the books written by sages of India which delineate the duties of citizens according to various classes or varnas. Dharma is meant to give ultimate welfare to society and politics is but a part of it.
Religion and politics are both combustible subjects, and throwing them into each other’s arms is sure to cause a fire. The courts cannot sit on judgement on religious matters. For these and other reasons almost every country erects a wall to keep God out of the Constitution, yet in India it seems to be a leaky wall—religious belief is rarely far from sight when politics grow heated. For millions of people God’s voice is louder than anyone else’s. We can’t wish the conflict away or legislate it out of existence. The struggle between God and politics is actually a struggle between human behaviour and human aspirations.
We are all part of that conflict, and once we realise that fact, the crisis will begin to come to an end—for now, at least. The temple administration is now making noises about apologising and have reiterated that they have all respect for the seer. Meanwhile, the Lord of the Universe watches it all with his amused wheel eyes, Jai Jagannath!