The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Sankaracharaya of Kanchi, who enjoyed his brief moment in the sun, and needless to add, in the bright lights of the media, has been denied his chance of rewriting the history of contemporary India. In a way, it would have been a more welcome “saffronization” of history, but his vacillations between June 16, 2003 and July 6, 2003 are nothing but an indication of his confusion about exactly what role he would play in such a rewriting. For between mid-June and early July, the sankaracharya has turned from an arguably independent negotiator into a plain and simple message bearer. And the message that he bore to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board — that they voluntarily relinquish all claim to the disputed property and be prepared for more such “gifts and donations” — ensured that they refuse to accept such a choice.

In the bargain, the sankaracharya has lost a chance, not so much of resolving the contentious issue of the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi, as of declaring himself the religious leader of all Hindus. Did not a plaintive Jayendra Saraswati assert a short while ago that he is “the leader of all Hindus”, when there were unpleasant reminders from within the Hindu right that as a leader of a section of Brahmins, and Saivite Smarthas at that, he could not intercede on behalf of Ram Lalla' The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, were probably worried that their ground would be stolen by the possible resolution of a problem they had all along claimed was a “question of faith”. They were quick to reject the sankaracharya’s proposals, suggesting that this was not in fact a problem between Hindus and Muslims, but a question of Hindu national honour and pride.

Meanwhile, the sankaracharya was, in the last few months, proving to be quite adept at political manoeuvres: a master stroke was when he thanked the Congress for allowing the worship of Ram Lalla to begin in 1986 (under Rajiv Gandhi) and for the undisturbed demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 (under P.V. Narasimha Rao). Left to himself, then, he was veering towards the role of an avowedly political negotiator, allowing for some give and take. By forcing him to become their message bearer, the VHP and the RSS have reasserted their right to a final solution, and pushed the sankaracharya back into his more innocuous role as a leader of Smartha Brahmins. But not before the sangh parivar took quick advantage of the AIMPLB’s rejection of the proposal as one more insult that they must avenge.

The sankaracharya’s efforts came at a time when the Hindu right was mulling over a series of setbacks to its temple-building agenda. The Archaeological Survey of India foray, which was supposed to yield unambiguous “evidence” of a 11th century temple below the foundations of the 16th century mosque at Ayodhya, has turned up a motley collection of artifacts that may even further muddy the waters. The “temple” at Ayodhya is turning out to be as elusive as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. After crying themselves hoarse about “evidence”, the sangh twins have realized the wisdom of retaining the option of representing the sentiments of Hindus. This was a strategy they had tried with success in the textbook controversy when they could not deny, for instance, that Guru Tegh Bahadur was a hero who did shirk from using tactics of terror. By claiming to defend the nebulous question of sentiments, they could wield the censor’s pen on all that called the perfect Indian past into question. The sankaracharya’s effort, which initially urged everyone to accept the verdict of the dig, soon evaded with blameless pragmatism the question of evidence altogether in fashioning a compromise.

Embarrassments are mounting on the legal front as well. The Supreme Court refused to adjudicate on the question of whether there was a temple, and the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court has allowed an ASI dig, which is now proving counterproductive. Most embarrassing of all, a number of disgruntled kar sevaks appearing before the Central Bureau of Investigation special court have identified the leaders of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, including political top guns such as L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, as having directly instigated the demolition. With Kalyan Singh joining the bandwagon of the discontented, the leaders will be hard-pressed for a fitting reply. The Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas itself faces a legal challenge in a Faizabad court from a trustee, Mahant Dharamdas, who seeks the replacement of managing trustee Ashok Singhal and president, Ramchandra Paramhans Das, for alleged irregularities in its functioning.

Once more, the sankaracharya, who had urged all parties a year ago to accept a court verdict, has now joined the VHP chorus by saying that courts are irrelevant in such matters. Assigned a less significant role among the political Hindus, the sankaracharya will thus return to a lonely reign over matters religious among his small and possibly shrinking flock. In Karnataka for instance, “saffron” has gained a different kind of visibility. In the past two decades, Karnataka’s mathas, which had historically served only Brahmin and Lingayat communities, has seen the emergence of separate backward caste organizations.

About two decades ago, the Vokkaligas, the dominant peasant caste that has cut an aggressive path of success in the urban areas of Karnataka, notably through the establishment of educational institutions, acquired a religious head and a matha of their own. Balagangadharaswamy of the Adichunchunagiri matha rose swiftly to prominence, associating himself with the spread of Vokkaliga influence in urban areas and institutions, and gracing almost every major meeting of Karnataka’s political parties. He was also conspicuous by his presence, since 1990, in anti-Bharatiya Janata Party rallies to promote communal harmony. He proved an equal match for his influential counterpart from the Lingayat matha of Suttur near Mysore, headed by the powerful Shivarathri Desikendra Swami.

Others were not far behind, and now practically all backward castes have their own mathas. And they are not confining themselves to adjudication over caste issues. The Jana Matha rally in May 2002, which was largely unreported in the media, for instance, was organized by a very wide range of groups in Karnataka who were appalled by the events that were unfolding in Gujarat. In addition to civil rights groups, women’s groups, left wing groups and assorted trade unions from the public sector, the rally also included an impressive array of caste organizations. Moreover, the speakers on the dais included a wide array of matha heads, ranging from the head of the (Vokkaliga) Adichunchunagiri matha, to the head of the (Lingayat) Suttur matha and the Shivakumara Swamiji of Sri Siddaganga Math of Tumkur. They thought nothing of sitting alongside, and giving a patient hearing to a former underworld don turned publicist, “Agni” Sridhar.

The large splash of orange on the dais did not diminish the impeccably correct and somewhat predictable speeches. Speakers distinguished real Hinduism from the travesty that was unfolding in Gujarat, warned Dalits and lower castes against the programmatic (Hindutva) Brahmin plot to reassert themselves in the caste order, and exposed the motives and role of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal in the critical political events since the early Eighties. The swamijis made passionate speeches about the traditions of dissent that Hinduism had nurtured, recalling, as the Shivakumara Swamiji of Sri Siddaganga Math did, atheistic traditions, the materialist philosophies, as well as the critical anti-caste traditions of the 12th century Veersaivas in Karnataka. Nor did they fight shy of admitting the founding violence of Vaishnavism and Shaivism in Karnataka against heterodox and popular sects such as Jainism.

Such activism considerably diminishes the possibility of a unified Hindu voice. All told, then, the Kanchi sankaracharya may have to return to more trivial pursuits in his attempt to rewrite Indian history. In January this year, the four sankaracharyas of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, Dwarka Jyotirmath, Badrinath Govardhanpeeth and Puri unanimously accepted April 3, 509 BC as Adi Sankara’s exact date of birth, bringing an end to the alleged debate on the subject. At that time, the Kanchi sankaracharya spelt out his understanding of history. Since no political party or government in the country has understood the importance of Indian tradition, he said, “It is the duty of spiritual leaders to come together to establish this date as the beginning of determining and asserting many more truths of Bharat, now India”. But we also know the reason for the sankaracharyas’ anxiety to revise historical chronologies: this way, the four seers will ensure that the Adi Sankara’s 2500th birth centenary celebrations at his birthplace, Kaladi in Kerala, in 2010 occur well within their lifetime.

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