The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The sankaracharya's arrest has become inevitably politicized

Monastic intrigues have been a source of macabre fascination for the laity. From Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose to Dan Brown's best-selling Da Vinci Code, tales of machinations of monks, cardinals and godmen have enthralled both believers and sceptics, not least because they have also provided valuable insights into a mysterious and cloistered world where theology, ambition and greed produce a volatile cocktail.

Over the past week, there has been considerable popular interest in the dramatic arrest of the sankaracharya of Kanchi on a charge of murder. Even as crime reporters and unnamed police sources have had a field day presenting some extremely fanciful theories to a hungry media, the case has become inevitably politicized. Passions have been further aroused by the public prosecutor's description of Sri Jayendra Saraswati as a 'criminal' who deserved no exceptional treatment. It has been suggested that the sankaracharya's arrest is a calculated assault on Hindu institutions and the Hindu religion. Conversely, in atheistic circles linked to the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, there have been celebrations over the humiliation of a Brahminical bastion. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief, M. Karunanidhi, has even gone to the extent of demanding a government takeover of the Kanchi math whose assets have been estimated by the media to be worth some Rs 10,000 crore.

The arrest of the Kanchi sankaracharya is no ordinary event. While it has become woefully common for sundry sadhus, maulvis and padres to be charged with serious criminal offences, this is the first time in living memory that a person of such elevated standing has become embroiled in a murder case. The 69th sankaracharya of Kanchi is the living embodiment of a monastic order that was begun by Shankara at his final resting place in the 9th century. Along with the peeths in Sringeri, Dwarka, Puri and Badrinath, all established by Shankara in the course of his journey to revitalize the sanatan dharma, the Kanchi math constitutes one of the five pillars on which traditional Hinduism rests.

However, the importance of the Kanchi sankaracharya extends beyond the range of the institution at Kancheepuram. While orthodoxy attaches greater importance to the other four maths, it is Jayendra Saraswati who has in many ways emerged as the public face of Hindu dharma. Since he took over from the revered Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati in 1994, the Kanchi seer has consciously broken from the tenets of the dasanamisanyasi order that has defined the conduct of the Shankara orders. He has extended the activities of the math beyond meditation and spiritual quest to social activism. From campaigning against religious conversions and championing the unrestricted temple-entry of Dalits, he has involved the Kanchi math in grand projects centred on education and healthcare. Indeed, he has been a pioneer in steering an orthodox Hindu order to the type of activism that was the hallmark of Swami Vivekananda. He has even plunged headlong into the treacherous world of politics as evident from his deep involvement in attempts to find a negotiated settlement to the Ayodhya dispute.

The arrest of such a man, in circumstances that reek of government insensitivity, should, ideally, have triggered a monumental Hindu explosion. Yet, apart from an outpouring of Brahmin anger in Tamil Nadu, a bandh in Kerala, some camera-friendly demonstrations by Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders and some strong words from the Swami Dayananda Saraswati-led Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, the reaction has been strangely muted. Despite Atal Bihari Vajpayee's expression of concern and Murli Manohar Joshi's show of solidarity, even the Bharatiya Janata Party has trod a cautious path.

It is conceivable that the nature of the charge against Jayendra Saraswati has prompted more concern than anger. Although the personal involvement of the sankaracharya in the murder of Sankara Raman, a former math functionary who had fallen out with the present dispensation, is still fiercely contested,there seems to be a grudging acknowledgment that a section of the math establishment did take the law into its own hands. Adding to the murkiness are whispers of an underlying power struggle involving the sankaracharya and his heir-apparent, Sri Vijayendra Saraswati. The observation of the Art of Living proponent, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, that 'saints should keep a watch on people around them' has struck a chord.

Regardless of how the legal battle proceeds, the entire incident has been a colossal setback to Hindu activism in India. The absence of a backlash from those who revere the institution of the sankaracharya has underlined the serious limitations of a Hindu-right-or-wrong approach. The principle of equality before law, an important tenet in the process of secularization, has, it would seem, prevailed. Of course, if the sankaracharya is honourably acquitted, there may be an explosion of anger. However, its manifestation is likely to be electoral, and against the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief, J. Jayalalithaa, rather than sectarian. The faultlines are unlikely to be dharma versus adharma.

The relatively passive reaction of Hindus to the sankaracharya's arrest can also be explained by caste. Despite attempts to reach out, the Kanchi seer's appeal remains confined to Tamil Nadu's beleaguered Brahmin minority. His pan-Indian importance, as a spokesman of religious Hindu interests, was out of proportion to his social limitations in south India. No wonder the visible protests were organized by groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, VHP and Hindu Munani, which have no stakes in electoral politics and, consequently, were not deterred by the awesome power of anti-Brahminism.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that the arrest of a sankaracharya has failed to generate a mass reaction. In 1990, the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, arrested the Dwarka sankaracharya, Swaroopanand Saraswati, for leading a march to Ayodhya. The Dwarka seer, who is favourably disposed to the Congress, was attempting to undercut the BJP and VHP on the temple issue.

The reluctance of Hindus to be spontaneously moved by those representing the traditional institutions of sanatan dharma has certain profound implications for the future of political Hinduism. It is more than likely that legal difficulties of the Kanchi sankaracharya will prompt a reordering of priorities in the math. Already criticized for adopting a public profile and confronted with the threat of a government take-over, it is entirely possible that Jayendra Saraswati and his successor will eschew activism for passive philanthropy and prayer.

If this retreat materializes, it is entirely possible that the advocacy and promotion of Hindu causes will pass almost exclusively to political and religious leaders who are less inhibited by tradition and more confident of their social clout. As things stand, the recent expansion of the Hindu social sector has not been heralded by the centres of orthodox religion or established players like the Ramakrishna Mission who have shed Hinduness for universalism. The initiatives have been taken by religious figures such as Sathya Sai Baba, Mata Amritanandamayi, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the Swaminarayan sect, individuals from the Aurobindo Ashram and lesser known figures like Swami Asheemananda in Gujarat. It is they who are giving the Hindu faith a new energy and new dynamism which is likely to overshadow the Brahminism of the traditional orders.

The likely eclipse, in unfortunate circumstances, of Jayendra Saraswati's overhaul of orthodoxy may pave the way for a more socially-committed, politically inclusive, creative and modern Hinduism. The hierarchy of the Kumbh Mela may yield way to the ratings on the Aastha channel and God TV. The change, in many ways, could resemble the transformation of the Christian faith in the United States of America. The consequences, too, may not be dissimilar.

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