On January 31, 2019, when the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP), representative body of various akharas, the militant orders of Hindu monasticism, decided to boycott the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) two-day “Dharma Sansad”, a shock wave ran through the Sangh Parivar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-led conglomerate of Hindutva outfits. The decision was a rarity; never in the past had ABAP openly tried to stop sadhus from attending VHP events.

The new circumstances bewildered the Sangh Parivar and forced RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat into a huddle with top VHP office-bearers and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, the political outfit of the RSS. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, the poster boy, himself a member of the ascetic community, had to make an unscheduled visit to the Kumbh Mela area at Prayagraj, venue of the “Dharma Sansad”, to meet Bhagwat and prominent religious leaders. But they could not salvage the situation. ABAP refused to budge. Faced with this unexpected obstacle, the VHP-sponsored conclave of sadhus lost its raison d’étre, failing in its bid to use the Kumbh, the largest congregation of sadhus and devotees, to create a saffron tide ahead of the Lok Sabha election, due in April-May.

“VHP works for BJP, and sadhus should stay away from politics. That’s why the Akhara Parishad decided to boycott the Dharma Sansad,” ABAP president Swami Narendra Giri told me on February 1 at his camp in the Kumbh mela area.

“But this is hardly a secret. The VHP has always been working for the BJP. Why didn’t it take a similar decision earlier?” I asked.

Narendra Giri flashed a smile, a practiced gesture unique to politicians. “As a matter of fact, politics is tempting, perhaps, but unrewarding in the long run,” he said. “I wish I had realised this earlier.”

What was most striking about Narendra Giri’s explanation was his self-confidence when he said he could have taken a similar decision earlier had he “realised” politics was not in the interest of sadhus. There was something about the answer delivered with mild amusement that gave the impression that his decision to boycott the Dharma Sansad had more to do with his new equation with Sangh Parivar rivals than his sudden awakening in the early hours of January 31.

Equally striking was the fact that ABAP, through its boycott, was trying to control individual sadhus, the majority of whom are attached to various akharas. “This is extremely unfortunate. The Akhara Parishad is not even a registered body and its role is limited to promoting harmony among akharas and to organise Kumbh Melas. It should avoid taking decisions that may have political implications,” said Devanand Saraswati, a prominent member of VHP’s Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal (central governing body) and one of the secretaries of Juna akhara.

VHP works for BJP, and sadhus should stay away from politics. That’s why the Akhara Parishad decided to boycott the Dharma Sansad.

Juna is one of the seven akharas—the term refers at the same time to a militant ascetic order and to a wrestling ring—of militant Shaiva ascetics. Other Shaiva akharas include Mahanirvani, Niranjani, Atal, Anand, Awahan and Agni. The last is different from the rest in so far as its ascetics refer to themselves as Brahmacharis coming, as they claim, from the Brahmin caste. In the other six akharas, caste is not a barrier for new entrants. These Shaiva ascetics are also called Dasanami—literally meaning “ten names” or lineages said to have been started by the disciples of Adi Shankara, the eighth century philosopher who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita or monism, and one of the greatest and most influential of Hindu revivalists. These lineages—Aranya, Ashram, Bharati, Giri, Parvata, Puri, Saraswati, Sagara, Tirtha and Vana—are reflected in the names of sadhus of all the seven Shaiva or Dasanami akharas.

Vaishnava sadhus are organised under their own set of akharas. While the organisation of the akhara is at best a marginal phenomenon in other sub-sects of Vaishnavism, it is a major one among Ramanandis—a Vaishnava order founded by the 14th century philosopher Ramanandacharya. Nirvani, Nirmohi and Digambari are the three major akharas of the Ramanandi order, and all have their principal seats of power in Ayodhya, considered central to their theology as it is believed to be Lord Rama’s birthplace.

There are, in addition, three akharas that owe allegiance partly to Sikhism and partly to Shaivism. Sadhus of these orders—Bada Udasin, Chhota Udasin and Nirmal akharas—appear closer to Dasanamis than Vaishnava akharas.

In general, Vaishnava monastic orders—in which Vishnu or one of his incarnations like Rama and Krishna is worshipped as the central deity—and the Shaiva tradition which holds Shiva as the titular deity, control most of the ascetic space in Hinduism. The two orders have their own set of mathas and ashramas but all are ultimately linked to their respective akharas. This link is extremely tenuous and does not reflect institutional or power hierarchies. Only at Kumbh does it become operational as it helps sadhus take part in the shahi snan or royal bath during the time allotted for their respective akharas.

Together, these 13 akharas have formed a steering committee—ABAP—for settling disputes and for organising Kumbh Melas, held periodically at Prayagraj, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik.


Narendra Giri, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad. Photo: Prabhat Singh

“There was a time, not so long ago, when the Akhara Parishad met only for issues related to Kumbh Mela. Of late, it has started expanding the scope of its authority,” said Swami Martand Puri, a Mahamandaleshwar or high-ranking priest attached to Mahanirvani akhara. “This may have been provoked by the Sangh Parivar’s growing interference in the world of sadhus.”

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he interference started around the mid-1960s, when the RSS sought to draw upon the dense network of sadhus and their mathas and ashramas to mobilise Hindus as a religious group in order to capture political power. With this objective, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, second chief (sarsanghachalak) of the RSS, met a select group of religious leaders on August 29, 1964 in Bombay (Mumbai). The VHP, the organisation born out of that meeting, has since been a two-tier structure—while a group of RSS pracharaks act as the core of the body, a vast network of prominent sadhus of various sects formulate a Hindu perspective not just on social but also on political issues. In the beginning this network was a loose structure, but later it was given formal shape under the name of “Margdarshak Mandal”.

In accordance with this objective Golwalkar named one of his close associates and RSS pracharak S. S. Apte as the VHP’s first general secretary and Swami Chinmayananda, an influential sadhu close to the RSS as its first president. The collaboration between Apte and Chinmayananda symbolised the association of RSS pracharaks and Hindu sadhus—an association that has remained the cornerstone of the VHP ever since.

Raising the Hinduism-in-danger bogey, Apte gave a clear hint of its political right after the Bombay meeting when he said: “The world has been divided into Christian, Islamic and Communist, and all three consider Hindu society as a very fine rich food on which to feast and fatten themselves. It is therefore necessary in this age of competition and conflict to think of, and organise, the Hindu world to save itself from the evil eyes of all the three.” (The Organiser, Diwali Special, 1964)

Golwalkar’s decision not to use the Jan Sangh (predecessor of the BJP till 1980) to ensure large scale involvement of sadhus and monastic orders to consolidate Hindus but to launch a separate outfit that could claim to operate outside politics was a shrewd tactical move as it bypassed the constraints of the contemporary government’s secularist approach. The VHP, as it turned out, gave the RSS an opportunity to identify itself with Hindu monastic groups and enabled it to lobby for their views among a larger audience. In time, this identification became critical in setting the ground for invoking Hinduism and polarising voters for the BJP’s electoral benefit.

Before the VHP, the Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad—two other Hindutva parties outside the Sangh Parivar—had been the leading political forums for religious leaders interested in Hindu politics. The Mahasabha, for instance, counted in its ranks Mahant Digvijay Nath, head of the Gorakshapeeth temple of Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh). His disciple Mahant Avaidyanath also stayed with the Mahasabha till 1989, when he shifted to BJP and contested two subsequent Lok Sabha elections on its ticket. Abhiram Das, a little known Ayodhya sadhu attached to Nirvani akhara and whose secret planting of the Rama idol in Babri Masjid in 1949 left a permanent scar on Indian polity, was also a local Mahasabha leader.

Sadhus at the Shahi Snan or the holy bath at Kumbh Mela, Prayagraj. Photo: Prabhat Singh

Ram Rajya Parishad, a political party led by one of the members of the ascetic community, Swami Karpatri, was another platform for politically-motivated sadhus after Independence. Besides him, the Shankaracharya of Puri, Niranjan Tirth, was among other important leaders this party drew directly from the ascetic community.

For almost two decades after its formation VHP, like Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad, could attract only sadhus in search of a platform and greater legitimacy. But the RSS persisted. In the early 1980s, Christophe Jaffrelot notes in his book The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics (p. 353), Balasaheb Deoras, Golwalkar’s successor, gave VHP fresh impetus by providing it with 150 pracharaks. In July 1982, as reported by The Organiser (weekly organ of the RSS) in its August 1 issue, the VHP got about 100 of its cadres initiated as sadhus by the Shaiva akharas of Haridwar. These new sadhus, called “dharma pracharaks” by the VHP, worked at district, division and state levels where they sought to bring together religious leaders to form regional Margdarshak Mandals.

All this helped the VHP gain influence among the Shaiva akharas. But its success in getting sadhus to work for the Hindutva project was marginal. It was this failure of the VHP that led RSS to relaunch it around the mid-1980s, the prime intention being a sharper political strategy. The Ramajanmabhoomi issue, almost forgotten after a few months of commotion generated by the surreptitious planting of the idol on the night of December 22, 1949, became VHP’s full-time obsession. In early 1984, it organised its first Dharma Sansad, which unanimously adopted a resolution demanding the “liberation” of Ayodhya, birthplace of Lord Rama.

The revised agenda did create some hype among a section of sadhus, but it didn’t appear to be working among Vaishnava akharas of Ayodhya, epicentre of the Ramjanmaboomi movement. The Dutch academic Peter van der Veer described in his article “God must be Liberated” how the VHP’s procession from Sitamarhi in Bihar with the mission of “liberating” the Rama temple in October 1984 met with a lukewarm response among majority of Ramanandi sadhus in Ayodhya.

“As far as I could see only some five to seven thousand people had come to listen to the speeches. This seemed a disappointing number. […] The Hindu press was not taken aback by this number, however, and inflated it to fifty thousand and in some papers even to a hundred thousand, numbers which were taken over by the national press,” he wrote. The next day, the procession started for Lucknow to present a petition to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. “Some of Ayodhya’s sadhus accompanied the procession to Lucknow and said, after their return, that it had had far greater success in Lucknow and in places on the way than in Ayodhya itself,” he noted.

The VHP’s prospects among Hindu monastic orders started looking up towards the end of the 1980s. The change was witnessed at the Kumbh Mela of 1989 at Allahabad (Prayagraj). The three-day Dharma Sansad VHP organised in the last week of January became notable not only for the presence of a large number of sadhus of both Shaiva and Vaishnava persuasions but also for the extremely militant tone of various participants in their speeches. The Statesman (February 1, 1989) said: “The Shankaracharya of Kanchi [Jayendra Saraswati] and most other heads of Hindu sects were present, thus ensuring a mammoth crowd of Kumbha Mela pilgrims.”

The change was also noted by Mark Tully in his book, The Kumbh Mela. “The stage in the vast tented pavilion on Kumbhanagar’s main road was crowded with holy men wearing saffron, lemon-yellow, dark-red or white robes. Some were old and frail; some young, sleek-skinned and prosperous. Some were lean and intense, and some rather stout and somnolent. Thousands of people sat shoulder to shoulder on straw strewn on the floor of the pavilion, and thousands more stood outside listening to the speeches on loudspeakers,” he wrote.

Among the resolutions the Dharma Sansad passed in 1989, one that gave VHP huge traction among both Shaiva and Vaishnava akharas concerned the building of a Rama temple in Ayodhya. This enabled the RSS outfit to create considerable opportunity for the Sangh Parivar to use religious discourse and mass-scale ritual actions in the political arena.

What is certain is that while the majority of sadhus felt an irresistible attraction to the project, a small minority took maximum advantage of the new circumstances. This section saw—sometimes even more clearly than their political partners—real opportunity in a dazzling mixture of spiritualism, politics and business.

Researchers are unanimous that BJP leader L. K. Advani’s rath yatra in 1990—considered the turning point for the party—would not have been so successful had the VHP with its network of monastic orders not played the role of catalyst and worked with ever-increasing vigour to transform the saffron party into a major political force.

Prof Richard H. Davis, the Indologist, for example, captured the VHP part of the rath yatra vividly in his incisive essay “The Iconography of Rama’s Chariot”. He observed: “The hard-core imagery, for which the VHP and related groups were primarily responsible, was religious, allusive, militant, masculine, and anti-Muslim. Making much use of Rama as paradigm, it played out themes inherent in the primary terms of mobilization. The BJP and Advani placed themselves often in the position of trying to reframe this imagery or put a softer spin on it. […]The BJP […] was able to disavow the more militant imagery as originating from the VHP and so attempt to maintain its electoral respectability, while at the same time profiting from the undoubted power and commitment that militant imagery evoked for some.”

The conversion of the BJP and the VHP on the one hand and the Sangh Parivar’s alliance with Sadhus and Hindu monastic orders on the other has continued openly ever since. The events, which were primarily political and carried out jointly by the two RSS affiliates, culminated in the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The demolition shook the nation, but it set the ground for BJP’s gradual political ascendance at the Centre.

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t is difficult to determine exactly what attracted sadhus and their establishments to the Hindutva project—a lust for wealth and power or an intense desire to drive the politics of the country, or a combination of both. What is certain is that while the majority of sadhus felt an irresistible attraction to the project, a small minority took maximum advantage of the new circumstances. This section saw—sometimes even more clearly than their political partners—real opportunity in a dazzling mixture of spiritualism, politics and business. They understood instinctively that the rising demand for conferring sanctity on profane and mundane ideas like a nation and a political party, and the growing stakes of electoral and business magnates, combined to make a gold mine. The profit the new spiritual market promised outstripped traditional sources of income. As they set out to exploit the new opportunity asceticism, their core strength, became the first casualty. The moment that happened, they turned into slaves of power and wealth. But as good entrepreneurs, aware of the market demand, they devised ways to keep their ascetic image intact—a precondition for survival in the market of spiritualism.

Even the VHP strategy to link monastic orders with the politics of Hindutva was designed to ensure it created no intrinsic moral problem for the majority of sadhus who lent their support to the project. The issues and movements it picked up to strengthen Hindutva projected multiple meanings, not a single message. The use of explicitly Hindu rituals and symbols in routine affairs of electoral politics have given sadhus reason to believe all they have done is to celebrate their religious symbols in the public sphere—in the name of propagating Hindu culture.

Gods and goddesses revered by large numbers of people and whose characteristics best lend themselves to supremacist ideology have become VHP’s chosen deities. Rama, the perfect Hindu king, is pre-eminent and most sadhus are obviously attracted to the idea of treating his birthplace in Ayodhya as the epicentre not just of Hindutva politics but also of their religious quest.

Ram-rajya (Rama’s rule) has long signified the ideal of good government. While for Hindu supremacists this generally means India should be a Hindu state instead of a secular republic, for sadhus it signifies the restoration of an order sanctioned by Hindu mythology. It has also meant that the demolition of Babri Masjid built by the Muslim emperor Babur not only represents a triumph of political Hinduism but, most sadhus believe, also the culmination of a long battle for supremacy between Hinduism and Islam in India. It is this fusion of religiosity with the political motivations of Hindutva that has led sadhus to identify with the RSS project and participate in large numbers in its bid to create religious imagery that could be exploited for the BJP’s electoral benefit.

Part of the reason why so many of the monastic orders fell into this trap is a distorted understanding of their past. Sadhus, especially those attached directly to akharas, genuinely believe there was a golden age when their fighting skills drove politics in India, but these glories are the least appreciated part of the nation’s consciousness today. In fact, the sense of loss is so deep-rooted among akharas that almost every new entrant to their world gets a glimpse of the intensity of their desire for political revival. Largely suppressed until the VHP broke through, that impulse was magnified after the VHP promised them significant space, almost amounting to ecclesiastical status in the “new India”.

This new relationship grew unhindered as the majority of sadhus and their akharas had no idea of what was wrong with their participation in politics. But once the BJP-led government came to power at the Centre in the late 1990s, Sangh Parivar dominance in the world of sadhus forced monastic orders to adjust to the new realities. The strains began to show. But the reaction followed no obvious pattern, occurring instead as a series of disparate events.

One such event took place in 2005—about a year after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance dislodged the National Democratic Alliance from the Centre. The ABAP took strong exception to the VHP’s attempt to make sadhus condemn Advani’s statement that Mohammed Ali Jinnah deserved the title of freedom fighter for his contributions to the freedom movement. The statement had created a hue and cry in the Sangh Parivar and VHP, working at RSS’ behest, wanted the religious leaders to come out heavily against Advani. Swami Parmanand Saraswati, ABAP general secretary, told reporters there was nothing objectionable in Advani’s statements and that VHP was trying to use sants to serve its political ends. “We shall no longer follow the VHP agenda. Now we shall set the agenda and VHP should follow,” he added.

At that time ABAP was headed by Narendra Giri’s predecessor, Mahant Gyan Das, a Nirvani akhara heavyweight and most prominent resident of Ayodhya’s largest monastic establishment, Hanumangarhi. Gyan Das abhorred the idea of VHP having a say in the affairs of Hindu monastic establishments. His stature started growing in the first half of the 1990s when, despite VHP gaining considerable traction among Ayodhya’s sadhus, he and a dedicated band of young sadhus of Hanumangarhi emerged as the local facilitator for Congress leader and then prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao. Gyan Das’ role was critical in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, as Rao set out to break the bond between sadhus and the Sangh Parivar. In those years, Gyan Das had the blessings of Chandra Swami, the godman who was among the first to be deployed by Rao to strike at the roots of the Sangh Parivar’s power to exploit the Babri Masjid issue for political purposes.

Chandra Swami, who described Rao as his disciple, started his career as a Youth Congress leader. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s he emerged as a Tantrik guru commanding a transnational spiritual empire with legendary skills in exchanging spirituality for money. In 1988 he was arrested on a charge of fraud and then released. His role in the Iran-Contra scandal through his devotee Adnan Khashoggi, the international arms dealer, set him apart from other jet-setting gurus of this period. Chandra Swami’s first act to achieve the Rao’s brief was to organise a gathering of 300 sadhus and dharmacharyas at Delhi in April 1993. Gyan Das played a key role in this exercise. Among those present was Jagatguru Ramanandacharya Haryacharya, the Ramanandi sadhu who enjoyed the blessings of Gyan Das and support of the majority of Ayodhya’s sadhus, particularly Hanumangarhi. One of the main resolutions at the meeting urged Hindu religious figures to abjure politics.

In the first week of June that year, Chandra Swami organised a Vedic sacrifice, called Som Yagya, in Ayodhya. Again Gyan Das’ role was crucial, primarily meant to break the Sangh Parivar monopoly in the temple town and make a parallel show of strength among local sadhus. That the venture had the patronage of the Centre could not remain a secret. “There is little doubt the Congress (I) was behind the Rs. 2-crore extravaganza,” a detailed report in India Today (June 30, 1993) said.

“Apart from senior leaders’ presence, the state government danced to New Delhi’s tune. The district magistrate of Faizabad, V.N. Pandey, who refused to give permission for the yagya on security grounds, was replaced. SSP Harbhajan Singh’s objections on similar grounds were overruled.”

Though this political gambit to counter the Sangh Parivar ended in an embarrassing fiasco and Chandra Swami had to end the Yagya on June 7, a day earlier than scheduled, in view of poor attendance of vairagis, Gyan Das’ stock rose. He became a local magnet for all anti-VHP forces in Hanumangarhi.

After becoming ABAP president in 2004, he was even more bullish about getting VHP out of Ayodhya. The RSS outfit then set out to weaken him. First it quietly backed Dharam Das, an ambitious sadhu resident of Hanumangarhi looking desperately to use the support of Hindutva forces for status and influence, to become the “Shri Mahant” (chief abbot) of Nirvani akhara. A protracted battle began in 2005 between Gyan Das and Dharam Das and continued for nearly five years. Although at the end in late 2009, Dharam Das did become Shri Mahant, Gyan Das’ authority could not be undermined in Hanumangarhi or the ABAP. It took six more years for the VHP to get Gyan Das removed from the ABAP presidency.

 

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arendra Giri who belongs to Niranjani akhara might have found it a great deal harder to oust Gyan Das had he not enjoyed the VHP’s blessings. He took charge as ABAP chief ahead of the Kumbh Mela at Ujjain in 2016 and for almost a year did nothing to annoy the Sangh Parivar. But since he took over, the world of sadhus has been repeatedly hit by scandals involving high-profile individuals. This led Narendra Giri to step out of the limited ABAP mandate in a move to restore the credibility of sadhus and akharas. First in September and then in December 2017, ABAP—for the first time in its history—issued two consecutive lists of “fake sadhus and babas” and warned devotees to beware of them. The list included, among others, Radhey Ma, Asaram Bapu, his son Narayan Sai and Swami Aseemanand, an RSS pracharak-turned-sadhu, accused in terror cases but exonerated for lack of evidence.

According to a senior ABAP office-bearer, VHP was extremely upset at Aseemanand’s name in the list of fake babas. That was perhaps the first time strains appeared in his relationship with the VHP. Yet it did not reach breaking point. He tried to regain VHP’s confidence in October 2018 while recommending the expulsion of Computer Baba from Digambari akhara. Computer Baba, a high-profile sadhu of Madhya Pradesh, rebelled against the Sangh Parivar ahead of crucial Assembly elections in the state. Though akharas are not obliged to follow ABAP suggestions in their internal matters, Digambari akhara, in which VHP has maximum penetration, followed suit and expelled Computer Baba.

During the campaign in Madhya Pradesh, Computer Baba played a big role, organising a series of rallies of unusually large numbers of sadhus in the state and building public opinion against BJP. Congress defeated the BJP. The victory also elevated his status in the world of sadhus and forced Digambari akhara to revoke his expulsion ahead of the Kumbh Mela. “This was a slap on the face of Narendra Giri,” Computer Baba told me.

In any case, Narendra Giri worked in tandem with Sangh Parivar when the preparation for Kumbh Mela began. Despite being aware it was basically “Ardh-Kumbh” Mela, he did not object to Adityanath’s move to change the nomenclature through the Prayagraj Mela Authority Bill. But he was not the sole offender—no representatives of an akhara raised a voice in disagreement. The Kumbh is held every 12 years at Prayagraj just as it follows a similar cycle separately at Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain. An ardh-kumbh is held in between at each of these sites. At Prayagraj, the last Kumbh was held in 2013 and the next one is due in 2025. The religious spectacle being celebrated this year is Ardh-Kumbh.

The renaming was part of the BJP government’s attempts to turn the 2019 Ardh-Kumbh into a grand event. The idea was to create hype around the symbolism as the mela would be held just months before the Lok Sabha election. The akharas did not object primarily because they thought they would benefit from the hype which would help attract devotees to Prayagraj.

But soon after the rechristened Kumbh Mela bagan on January 15, their hopes were dashed. The paucity of devotees in the tents set up by individual sadhus, mathas and ashramas showed that it is easy to change nomenclature but harder to change popular perception about the fair.

“That exposes sadhus [of the ABAP],” asserted Swami Martand Puri. “Kumbhs and Ardh-Kumbhs are calculated in accordance with the positions of celestial bodies. They can’t be changed by a government order or for the sake of helping BJP in the election. They should have questioned this change. This is a political jamboree organised to send the message of the RSS and not that of the Kumbh.”

The last straw probably was the attempt by the RSS and its various outfits to hijack the religious spectacle. In the Kumbh Mela area the VHP set up a canvas city with several hundred tents housing leaders of the Sangh Parivar as well as sadhus attached to it. Other RSS outfits—BJP, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Vidya Bharati, Sanskar Bharati and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram—had their own separate camps. This overbearing Sangh Parivar presence turned off the akharas. The spectre of a rival focal point in Kumbh Melas has always been an issue of concern for them.

Out of ideas, facing widespread criticism for helping BJP create the mess and fearing loss of credibility, ABAP made a somersault and announced its decision to boycott the Dharma Sansad. The decision was the strongest ever reaction by ABAP to RSS interference in the world of akharas. Though the ABAP’s snub has in no way weakened the RSS influence over akharas, it definitely took the steam out of the VHP’s conclave of sadhus and diminished the possibility of the Kumbh being used by the Sangh Parivar in the coming elections.

The wound caused by Narendra Giri’s decision was still festering when BJP president Amit Shah visited Kumbh on February 13. The ABAP chief along with other prominent sadhus accompanied Shah when he took a dip at the Sangam. But Narendra Giri’s discomfiture remained undeniable all the while he was in water—a fact noted by many who were present there.

The wound was opened afresh when on the same day Shah together with Adityanath visited the camp of the Niranjani akhara which Narendra Giri heads. The trio did talk and even tried to laugh the tension away, but the exchanges the BJP leaders had with him were laced with open sarcasm. “Narendra Giri ji knows how to maintain relationship,” Shah said, in a jibe at the ABAP chief’s proximity to Samajwadi Party leader and former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav—a fact which is said to have contributed to the boycott decision. Narendra Giri did not reply to the remark; he simply tried to defuse tension by laughing at Shah’s remark. The same response he exhibited moments later when Adityanath introduced another sadhu, Anand Giri, to Shah by saying: “He is a disciple of Narendra Giri but a member of our party.”

Clearly, neither Shah nor Adityanath wants to give the impression that despite all the media blitzkrieg and massive preparations for months ahead of the Kumbh they could not claim to have made a political show out of the religious spectacle. Nor would they allow anyone to know how little they could do to overcome the damage from the ABAP’s decision to boycott the Dharma Sansad.

“ABAP’s diktat is not sacrosanct for the majority of sadhus,” said Yatindranand Giri, Mahamandaleshwar of Juna akhara and a member of VHP’s Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal. “It clicked because a large number of sadhus are disenchanted to see that even at the end of the BJP’s five-year rule, the Centre has done absolutely nothing to expedite the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya. In the last election, this possibility had led most sadhus and akharas to work for consolidating Hindu vote. Had the BJP done something to build the temple, no one would have listened to Narendra Giri.”