Book review: Ascetic Games busts myth around Kumbh's camera-friendly sadhus

Sadhu politics. Photo: Reuters
It is a question that has often intrigued me. Each time there is a Kumbh Mela, tens of thousands of sadhus appear, seemingly out of nowhere. As the world media train their cameras, the sadhus march naked and then snarl or emote into the lenses. These images are relayed around the globe by enthusiastic TV channels: at one Kumbh, a British terrestrial channel even had a daily (yes, daily!) show on events at the mela.

When you and I see the sadhus in their full regalia (or not: many are naked), we ask ourselves the obvious question. Where do these guys come from? What do they do when they are not parading before the crowds and the cameras at the Kumbh?

Because most of us are not cynical by nature, we assume that the sadhus return to the Himalayas, sit in caves and meditate. It is only at the Kumbh that they emerge from meditative states to see what the world now looks like.

Dhirendra K Jha, the author of amrit, the nectar of immortality?”

The difference between Jha’s befuddlement and ours is that his is rhetorical. He knows the answer. No, they don’t go back to caves to resume the search for spiritual nirvana. They don’t resume lonely, meditative existences at the edge of Himalayan glaciers, either.

They simply go back to their day jobs.

Sadhu politics. Photo: Reuters
The central message of Ascetic Games is that there has always been a vast gap between our romantic notion of the solitary sadhu, connected to God through the pureness of his soul, and the grim reality of how India’s sadhus are organised. Devout Hindus (and all Hindutva supporters) will find this blasphemous but Jha treats the sadhus as groups of organised fighters, not solitary souls in search of fulfilment.

He argues that as far back as the medieval period, such groups as the naga sadhus (so beloved of foreign TV crews during the Kumbh) were organised into akhara, with its echoes of a wrestling ring, is appropriate because these sadhus were, he says, “driven by money rather than any political agenda. They frequently took up assignments as mercenaries and worked like small-scale guerrilla armies during the seventeenth, eighteenth and even early twentieth centuries... The gradations of discipleship evolved seamlessly into a military hierarchy of soldiers, field officers and commanders and enabled smaller armed groups to grow into larger and institutionally complex naga regiments”.

So, it is less Hermann Hesse and more George R R Martin. Not quite Game of Thrones.

Jha’s thesis is that over the years, the akharas have had their ups and downs but they remain, essentially, well-organised outfits that own property, make money and, increasingly, take part in party political battles.

He points out that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) created the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in 1964 to reach out to the sadhus and to make use of their structures. The RSS, he says, was careful to keep the Jana Sangh (the forerunner of today’s Bharatiya Janata Party) out of this equation and ran the VHP with a core group of Sangh pracharaks. (The VHP then gave birth to the militant Bajrang Dal.)

The first time the RSS really used the VHP and its sadhu supporters, Jha says, was in the 1960s, to launch a high-profile anti-cow-slaughter agitation outside Parliament.  Hundreds (possibly, thousands) of angry sadhus laid siege to Parliament Street and their pictures made the front pages. But Indira Gandhi held firm. The most she would agree to do was to set up a committee to examine their demands (on which, significantly, she included the RSS’s “Guruji” Golwalkar) and the sadhus returned to their akharas, dispirited.

Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and the Making of the Hindu Vote; Authors: Dhirendra K Jha; Publisher: Context; Pages: 216; Price: Rs 599
After the Congress’ 1971 victory, some of the akhara network to weaponise the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, in the mid-1980s.

Till then, the dispute had been confined largely to Ayodhya and the surrounding area. But the VHP turned it into a national issue. The BJP first claimed that it was the VHP’s agitation but when the fires had been nicely stoked, L K Advani slid into his rath and turned Ram Janmabhoomi into the BJP’s key political plank.

Since then, argues Jha, the sadhus have become part of what he describes as the “Hindutva project”, and see themselves as part of a glorious project to reclaim Hindu India from invaders. As he says, “The sadhus I interacted with, especially those attached directly to akharas, believed that there was once a golden age when their fighting skills drove politics in India and were unhappy that those contributions were not part of the nation’s consciousness. This perception further encouraged their overt participation in politics... This desire received an unusual push with the VHP’s entry on the scene and its promise of an elevated status for Hindu religious leaders and monastic orders in the new India.”

Many Sangh Parivar supporters will, I suspect, dispute Jha’s characterisation of akharas and sadhus. But for those of us trying to understand where the Godse-admiring mentality of somebody like Sadhvi Pragya comes from, this book offers one explanation. Pragya is not the problem. She is merely a tiny symptom of a much larger phenomenon.

So, the next time you see the naga sadhus on camera at a Kumbh-like spectacle, do not be fooled into thinking that they have paused their pious meditation to take part in this holy event. Some are much worldlier than that.

And some, according to Jha, may not even be real naga sadhus anyway. When the cameras are rolling and the visuals are important, he says, the akharas hire outsiders to pose as sadhus to swell their numbers.

Ultimately, sadhu politics can be like Indian party politics: always dependent on rent-a-crowd.

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