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Uma wades into Shirdi row

Lucknow, June 29: A war of words has broken out between Union minister Uma Bharati and the Dwarka Shankaracharya over whether the Shirdi Sai Baba should be worshipped.

The face-off stems from a debate between two rival Hindu sects, one represented by Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand which believes that the “Sai Baba was a human being” and should not be deified, and the other which sees him as god.

The octogenarian Shankaracharya told disciples in Chennai last week that Hindus should not worship the “Sai Baba as he was human being and not God”, re-igniting the controversy.

“The Sai Baba is certainly not an incarnation of God as there are only 24 incarnations of Lord Vishnu as mentioned in sanatan dharma and the Sai Baba is not one of them,” Swaroopanand had said, touching off protests by Sai Baba believers and a court complaint.

The comments by Uma, the water resources minister, came yesterday in Delhi when she was asked about the protests against the Shankaracharya on the sidelines of a meeting on the Ganga clean-up plan. “I am myself a devotee of the Shirdi Sai Baba,” she said.

Contending that the Sai Baba had never claimed to be God and there was no question of his being immortal, she said the Shankaracharya should not interfere in the matter. Uma has been locked in duels earlier with the Shankaracharya, who had criticised the BJP’s Ayodhya temple plans and is seen by detractors as being close to Congress leaders.

The Shankaracharya hit back today, accusing Uma of indulging in “the politics of pressure” and asking her to keep off religious issues.

Uma Bharati mantri hain, bhagwan nahi, unhe janta ne sashan karne keliye chuna hai aur woh dharmik vyavasthaon mein dakhal na dein (Uma Bharati is an elected leader and not God. She has been elected to serve the people, she should not interfere in the systems of faith in the country),” the Shankaracharya told a meeting of sadhus in Haridwar called to discuss the Sai Baba issue.

The Shankaracharya’s stand echoes that of the sanatani sect — representing the traditional Hindu systems of faith — which disapproves of the Sai Baba’s teachings.

The protests against Swaroopanand’s comments last week unfolded in several places, but mainly in Haridwar and Varanasi, where an effigy of his was burnt.

One complainant moved court. Chandrakant Kunjir, a trustee of a Sai Baba temple in Varanasi who filed the petition, has sought a case against the Shankaracharya for promoting enmity between two communities and hurting religious sentiments. The plea, moved before a magistrate, is likely to be heard this week.

The Shankaracharya’s backers have hit out too. “We condemn the attacks on the Shankaracharya for his stand on the Sai Baba and we would like to make it clear that we, the sanatan dharmis, are capable of countering such disgraceful opposition,” Sriprakash Mishra, an office bearer of the Hindu Scholars’ Council in Varanasi, said.