The Shankaracharya's significant dissent: Hinduism's high priests challenge prevailing politico-religious discourse
It is noteworthy that a strong and vociferous point of view against the developments in Ayodhya has come from religious leaders rather than the political opposition, which has struggled to frame its line of argument clearly.
The inauguration of the Ram Temple on January 22 has seen unprecedented euphoric reactions in large parts of India on the one hand and internal dissonance on the other hand with stiff opposition from Hinduism's pontiffs, the Shankaracharyas - there are four of them - citing age-old scriptures and violations of Hindu traditions. The celebrations brought us a sea of saffron flags, particularly in the north of the country, highlighting a political mobilisation that the ruling BJP and many others are assured will bring unprecedented dividends for the party in the 2024 national elections. The opposition to the temple inauguration, first on scripture technicalities, then on invitation niceties, and later on larger issues of overall propriety and political capture, brought out differences that point to an internal breakdown of a shared understanding and trust within the broader pro-mandir group.
Not everybody is willing to stomach the command-and-control operation that the temple movement has been turned into by BJP strategists, and certainly not the Shankarcharyas, who have put up a significant dissent. The BJP appears to be saying to its constituents: 'We gave you the temple. We know the way. Follow us and ask no questions'. Many from the army of political 'bhakts' seem to agree. But those now uncomfortable seem to say: 'We fought for it. And this is not what we bargained for'.
Questions on the date of the inauguration, the centrality of Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the consecration ceremony, the unceremonious treatment of the Shankaracharyas and their subsequent refusal to attend the event, the display of wealth and showbiz in the invitations to select pro-BJP business magnets and assorted notables, the focus on material grandioseness, the overwhelming use of security forces that became inevitable when the inauguration was all about politics, have raised new questions even for those thought to be with the BJP on the temple issue. This is not the first time that fellow travellers have felt left out or seen the BJP as the enemy within, a force that swells at the cost of everything else the wider group might hold dear. If you have doubts, ask Uddhav Thackeray and his Shiv Sena in Maharashtra!
In the January 22 display of bhakti mingled with political mobilisation, the Shankarcharyas dissent represents an important voice that stands in contrast to the political narrative sought to be pushed by the BJP and its associates. The dissenting voice has been clear, unambiguous and dispassionate, unlike the frenzied discourse built around exaggerated claims dressed in superlative adjectives for a futuristic Ayodha-dham. The Shankaracharyas arguments though not in these words point to the political capture of the temple movement by the BJP, the weaponisation of the movement for narrow political gain and their immediate cause of ire – a date of inauguration that the Shankaracharyas hold has nothing to do with an auspicious moorat and everything to do with the coming elections. They have pointed out with force and conviction that the temple cannot be inaugurated now when the construction itself is not yet complete.
Opposition from religious leaders
In sum, the statements that have been coming from them, notably the Shankaracharya of Jyotish Peeth, Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, and the Shankaracharya of Puri Peeth, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati, have torn the entire edifice on which the BJP appears to be preparing its election campaign.
As matters stand today, these positions have a strong grounding in religion, tradition and morality but not necessarily a political edge that the BJP may worry about. They may not dent the votes that the BJP expects to encash in return for the temple. But they mark a significant point of departure, bringing the force of scriptures and their understanding as embodied in the institution of the Shankaracharyas, to challenge those using the same scriptures and traditions for political rewards.
It is noteworthy that a strong and vociferous point of view against the developments in Ayodhya has come from religious leaders rather than the political opposition, which has struggled to frame its line of argument clearly. This unexpected turn of events points to the complex nature of the current discourse, and self-defeating narratives in the past that have brought us simplistic understandings and flavours marked out as “hard” or “soft” versions of communalism, or at the other extreme, the demand for a water-tight dividing line between religion and politics.
Each of these versions is exploitative in its way and unappreciative of the values and principles that, for example, Mahatma Gandhi brought to his discourse on politics unhesitatingly mixed with religion. Gandhi openly saw Rama as his Lord and saviour and brought him into an inclusive political discourse. As he said: “Rama … has brightened my darkest hour. A Christian may find the same solace from the repetition of the name of Jesus, and a Muslim from the name of Allah. All these things have the same implications and they produce identical results under identical circumstances. Only the repetition must not be a lip expression, but part of your very being."
BJP response muted
Interestingly, it is Shankaracharaya Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati who recently referred to Gandhi in a glowing light, explaining to his audience Gandhi’s sacrifice, his work for the nation, how the nation has lost its path now, and how and why Gandhi gets the title of a Mahatma. The Shankaracharyas are of course religious, overtly and completely by the very definition of their roles, and position. Their statements on the form and substance of the temple inauguration bring a refreshing dissent in the face of political forces that have done everything to wipe out dissent. Politics and religion mix up here but in ways that serve the nation well, even though historically the Shankaracharyas views have not always been progressive and not always welcoming of Gandhi’s reforms and his fight on issues of temple entry for all castes and classes.
The typical response of the BJP to the Shankaracharyas dissent on the Ayodhya temple consecration has been to go on the attack; Union Minister Narayan Rane, who is from Maharashtra, asked what the Shankaracharyas have done for Hinduism while the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath made the point that no one can be bigger than Lord Ram. But soon enough these attacks have stopped and the BJP leadership appears to have realised that overtly targeting the 'jagadgurus' will be counterproductive.
Meanwhile, it may be business as usual as Ayodhya is sought to be brought on the global tourist map and well-connected builders buy up land to put it for sale at exorbitant markups to investors looking to park funds. One offer being pushed reads: “Launching Ayodhya’s First seven-star mixed-use development, by the sacred Sarayu River with an integrated five-star hotel. Located 15 mins from Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Temple & 30 mins from Shri Ram International Airport.” An area of 1250 sq. ft is on offer for Rs. 1.70 crore onwards. Bookings are open. Amitabh Bachchan is said to have booked his plot. “Development” is coming to Ayodhya!
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)