A storm is gathering along the banks of the river Ganges. Emergency calls of ‘dharma yuddha’ are ringing across the akharas of naga sadhus, who have been asked to stand up now to protect the ‘sanatan dharma’ – Hindu religion.
The militant naga sadhus have been tasked with “restoring the lost glory of the religion” that can allegedly be harmed by followers of certain deified figures, like Sai Baba of Shirdi.
Entangled with the war cry is the ‘honour’ of a Shankaracharya who feels Sai Baba is certainly not an incarnation of God. To buttress this view of the Shankaracharya across the Hindu matrix, the akhara leaders have asked all the naga sadhus to assemble in Prayag (Allahabad) and Haridwar. Their target will be to formulate a strategy on “demolishing the belief that Sai Baba was a God.”
The naga sadhus are believed to be in a state of meditation (tapasya) round the year, except during the Shahi Snan in Kumbh. But now they have been asked to take a break from asceticism and get ready for a war to save the religion.
There are about two lakh naga sadhus in the country. Observers say in case the naga sadhus take to the streets, it could be a major law and order problem.
It all began recently when Shankaracharya of Dwarka Peeth, Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, objected to the worship of 19th-century religious figure Sai Baba by the Hindus. Swami Swaroopanand had said Sai Baba of Shirdi was a Muslim and Hindus should not worship him. He had also claimed that Sai Baba was declared a Hindu avatar by those who have been trying to weaken the Hindu religion.
All of it irked hundreds and thousands of Sai Baba’s followers who are now gunning for the Shankaracharya. Swami Swaroopanand’s effigies were burnt, and there have been allegations that his stance will promote enmity between the communities.
Caught in the middle of it is BJP leader and Union minister Uma Bharti, who had supported worshipping Sai Baba. Bharti had even said in Haridwar that she sees the “bhagwat satta” (presence of God) in Sai Baba, much to the chagrin of the Shankaracharya and his supporters.
The Shankaracharya retorted by saying that he used to think Bharti was a follower of Lord Ram, but she actually followed a Muslim and because of that she failed to construct the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya.
Interestingly, Swami Swaroopanand is known to be a harsh critic of the BJP, PM Narendra Modi and the Ram temple movement. He is perceived to be close to the Congress. His jibes come at a time when the BJP is newly in power.
Meanwhile, Swaroopanand’s anti-Sai Baba stance has been criticised by many. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had said Swaroopanand’s criticism of Sai Baba was unnecessary.
Two days ago, RSS leader Indresh Kumar said in Varanasi that the Shankaracharya shouldn’t interfere into the religious affairs of others.
“I feel that the saints and seers shouldn’t interfere into the affairs of others concerning gods and goddesses,” Kumar had said.
Manath Gyan Das, former chief of Akhara Parishad, said: “It is a non-issue. We cannot stop people from worshipping a particular spiritual guru. But Swaroopanand is creating unnecessary controversy for strange reasons.”
But the Shankaracharya’s supporters are in no mood to relent. They think any attack on their spiritual figurehead – who is revered as a God – is nothing short of an emergency. So, they are counting on the naga sadhus.
Govindanand Brahmchari, secretary of Agni Akhara, said: “There is a religious emergency now and the naga sadhus are expected to take up the job actually assigned by Adi Shanka-racharya who founded the akharas in the eighth century to train the sadhus as protectors of religion. We have asked them to assemble in Prayag and Haridwar.”
Acharya Narendra Giri, secretary of Niranjani Akhara said: “Some of our members have already started removing the idol of Sai Baba from the temples… The disrespect that Sai followers have shown towards the Shankaracharya wouldn’t be ignored. Our weapon-wielding sadhus would soon take up the issue.”
Fakir Who Believed in Unity of Religions
Maharashtra has always been known as the land of seers, but Sai Baba of Shirdi stands out for the simple reason that he was from the 19th century and he was photographed.
Though there are a very few photographs of Sai Baba, the fact that his image could be seen in flesh and blood,unlike the corroborated depictions of other saints, seems to be reassuring for his crores of devotees not just in India but abroad too.
There is no information in details about the birth of Sai Baba. One fine day in 1858, he turned up in Shirdi, about 240km from Mumbai, along with a marriage party, according to the Shri Sai Satcharitra, the biography of the saint written by devotee Govind Dhabolkar alias Hemadpant.
The cavalcade alighted near the Khandoba temple at Shirdi where the priest, on seeing the young fakir, welcomed him as Sai, which means both a saint and master. The name stuck to him from then on.
He dressed as a fakir, resided in a dilapidated mosque, chanted ‘Allah Malik’, and also recited India’s holy scriptures. He talked about Brahma Gyana and the Brahman (not the religion but the embodiment of the Brahma). He cultivated a fire in his abode at the mosque and gave its ashes the udi as prasad to his devotees.
He was so untraditional that he smoked a chillam and on certain occasions, offered to his devotees.
To which religion did Sai Baba belong? Unlike the self-appointed apostles of religion, Sai Baba professed unity of all religions and God as it is evident from his slogan ‘Sabka Malik Ek’.
Hindus refer to him as Sai Nath, as in the yogi belonging to the Nath sect who maintained the tradition of Kundalini awakening through the centuries, while for Muslims he is Sai Baba, an Aulia who had amazing healing powers.
Even before devotees begin flocking to Shirdi to seek his blessings, Dhabolkar in his book has mentioned how Sai Baba shared a good rapport with other saints of those times.
The story of 60 years of Sai Baba’s life at Shirdi is replete with miracles, including instances of healing. However, among the hundreds of miracles one that is well-known is the one where he lights diyas with water instead of oil.
He took samadhi on October 15, 1918.
Today, the Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust that runs Sai Baba’s place of worship at Shirdi is mammoth organisation, employing more than 2,200 permanent employees and 4,000 contract employees.
About 38,000 people come for daily worship at Shirdi, while on holidays and special occasions, it is close to a lakh.
A Controversial Seer Who Took Part in Quit India Movement
At 90, Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Dwarka Peeth, is mired in controversy for his remark on Sai Baba, a seer revered by people as a God across religions.
Last week, the Shankaracharya described Sai Baba as a Muslim ascetic who could not be worshipped like a Hindu deity. On Sunday, he also taunted Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti to clarify whether she was a Sai or Ram follower.
Perceived to be close to the Congress party, he created a furore in Varanasi, from where Narendra Modi was fighting an election as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. He forced the BJP to drop its ‘Har har Modi, ghar ghar Modi’ slogan in the holy town and expressed serious resentment over the ‘politicisation’ of the sacred mantra, ‘Har har Mahadev’.
Swaroopanand also hit out at Modi during the run-up to the last two phases of the Lok Sabha elections, saying “he could not represent Varanasi that is known for its composite secular culture as Modi oversaw a communal conflagration in Gujarat in 2002”.
Born on September 2, 1924, in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur town, the Shankaracharya’s original name was Pothiram Upadhyay. Leaving home at a tender age of nine, he went about on a pilgrimage where he met and became a disciple of Swami Karpatri alias Hariharananda Sarawati, who, in turn studied under ‘Guru Dev’ Swami Brahmananda Saraswati.
At 19, he joined the Quit India Movement in 1942 and came to be recognised as a revolutionary sadhu. Going back, after Guru Dev’s death in 1953, Swami Shantanand was made the Shankaracharya of the Jyotir Math. However, instead of him, Swaroopanand adopted a different guru called Swami Krishnabodhashram Maharaj, who was also in parallel made the Shankaracharya by Swami Karpatri.
Politics set in with Swaroopanand becoming the chief of the Ramrajya Parishad Party, which was set up by his original guru Swami Karpatri.
By the early 1980s he managed to get the title of the Dwarka Shankaracharya, though sources said he spent most of his time in Varanasi and Madhya Pradesh, where he was born.