Wednesday, October 6, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Two swamis stir up debates on caste and celibacy

politics: karnataka

Thought Waves

Two swamis stir up debates on caste and celibacy
Sugata Srinivasaraju

Two acts in the last few weeks, both by swamis, have set people
thinking. One is seen as progressive and the other is attracting
cynicism. Veerabhadra Chennamalla Swamiji, the pontiff of the
Nidumamidi math in Kolar, subjected himself to introspection over the
months of July and August, and concluded with an indictment of the
practice—and avowal, often suspect—of celibacy by swamis. He also
criticised the luxurious lifestyles swamis have come to be associated
with. These pronouncements have stirred debate and won Chennamalla
swami praise.

The other initiative, if one may call it that, was by Basavananda
Maadara Chennaiah Swamiji of Chitradurga, who is of Dalit origin. In
mid-September, he undertook a 'harmony walk' through a conservative
Brahmin neighbourhood of Mysore. What was surprising is that people
there washed his feet and even allowed him to perform puja at their
homes. Commendable, but the swami's connections with the Sangh
parivar—a few steps removed though they may be—have cast the shadow of
politics over the padayatra and raised questions about the motives

Maadara swami undertook the walk at the instance of Vishvesha Theertha
Swamiji, the Brahmin pontiff of the Udupi Pejawar math, a leading
light of the VHP and the Ayodhya movement. The Pejawar swami wanted
the padayatra as part of his drive to prevent Dalits from converting
to Christianity. He had visited Dalit colonies himself, and says: "The
Dalit community is growing weaker as a result of conversions and
Hinduism is being destroyed. In order to save our culture, I have
decided to bring about equality among Hindus."

Whatever the motives, and orchestrated though the event might have
been, the washing of the feet of a 'Dalit' swami by Brahmins is not
without significance. Maadara swami is elated with the reception he
got, especially the feet-washing. "That was a revolutionary day," he
says. "The same people who hounded out Basavanna (the 12th century
poet-saint) and treated Babasaheb Ambedkar and Babu Jagjivan Ram with
contempt have felicitated me. Things are changing."

Not everyone is impressed. C.S. Dwarakanath, a senior advocate and
former chairman of the Karnataka Backward Classes Commission, calls
the whole exercise "an rss conspiracy". "The brain of the Pejawar
swami," he says, "is more dangerous than an AK-47. A man who kept
quiet for decades when atrocities were being committed against Dalits
has now come up suddenly with this dubious experiment."

The observations of the swami from Kolar, have, however, resonated
well, not only within the Veerashaiva Lingayat community, of which he
is a luminary, but also in the Hindu community as a whole, rife as it
is with godmen of curious persuasions. Here are the salient points the
swami made while addressing a gathering in Davangere and has since
elaborated on in later talks:

Even those who meditate in the Himalayas have been unable to achieve
and maintain complete celibacy. They have been riddled with doubts and
have sometimes strayed. When that is the case, how can our
swamis—living as they do in luxury, in ashrams resembling
palaces—possibly succeed? The sattvic environment necessary for the
discipline of  celibacy, he says, isn't to be found anywhere these
days—not even in his own Nidumamidi math.
Ordaining children as saints is as cruel as child marriage.
Many religious leaders have worked to educate the oppressed and
backward classes, before and after independence. But of late many
religious leaders have become greedy, especially after they got into
the business of setting up professional colleges.
If swamis lead principled, spartan lives, their followers will do so too.
The swami says there was no provocation for his statements; they were
the result of his reflections. "I was attacked for what I said by
vested interests," he says. "But my statements aren't empty words. I
speak with utmost pain, concern, anxiety." The religious-minded, it
might be supposed, share that despair.


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