Sadhus, akharas and sacred games

Urmi Chanda-Vaz | Updated on June 21, 2019 Published on June 21, 2019

Undercover: Jha spent over a decade making inroads into the highly secretive world of Naga sadhus   -  Reuters

A book that lifts the lid on shocking facts about so-called saints and their operations

The title of Dhirendra K Jha’s new book Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and the Making of the Hindu Vote is so much like Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra’s hit novel and its Netflix adaptation, that one’s first reaction may well be that of mild derision. But a few pages into it and one realises that there could not possibly be a more appropriate title. For what Jha describes about the life of some so-called ascetics and their organisations can be called nothing but games.

This book has to do with the “political aspect of the sadhus’ spiritual life”, seemingly an oxymoron. But it is not one, as you would know, in a post-saffron India where some political leaders and Members of Parliament — indeed those with criminal track records — wear ascetic robes.

Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and the Making of the Hindu Vote; Dhirendra K Jha; Westland/ Contxt; ₹599


A seasoned journalist, Jha spent over a decade making inroads into the highly secretive world of Naga sadhus to investigate and understand the ways in which they were associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and affiliated bodies such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). This is familiar territory for Jha, who is the author of Shadow Armies: Fringe Organisations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva (2017) and the co-author of Ayodhya: The Dark Night (2016). “They (the Sangh) understood instinctively that the rising demand for conferring the quality of sacredness on nation-building combined with the growing stakes of political and business magnates in this project made Hindutva a gold mine,” he writes in the preface.

Much of the action in his book takes place at Hanumangarhi — a fortress-like temple complex in Ayodhya, which is the power centre of the Naga sadhus. Nagas are the naked ascetics cameras tend to focus on at every Kumbh Mela. With their militant past (they often fought in the armies of Indian princes as mercenaries) and aggressive appearance, their shahi snaan or royal bath processions are always a draw at the mela.

Brutal is the normal in the sant ‘circuit’, Jha writes. The race to the top, whether for the local mahant-ship of a temple or a gaddi in the upper echelons of power, is marked with treachery, innumerable court cases, black money and even murders, the book states. There are instances of a favourite disciple killing his guru to take over a temple and its revenues.

Jha charts the path taken by the VHP overtly and the RSS covertly in their bid to realise Hindutva icon Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s vision of a Hindu Rashtra, post Independence. By creating politically charged campaigns around issues such as cow slaughter and the building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the VHP slowly got a foothold into the world of Hindu ascetics, who were till then largely indifferent to the nationalist cause.

Even MK Gandhi, he writes, had realised the importance of mobilising this small yet significant force that could sway the opinion of the religious Indian. For, indeed, there is no sphere of Indian life that is untouched by religion, and no corner where the ubiquitous holy man cannot make inroads.

By placing their pracharak-turned-sadhus in important offices, by organising Dharam Sansads and pumping in money at the Kumbh Melas, the VHP succeeded in conflating religion and nationalism first in the minds of the ascetics and then, through them, in the minds of the lay people, especially in North India. This reached fruition in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, and again in 2019.

Writes Jha: “The VHP’s rhetoric became even shriller in the 2013 Allahabad Kumbh when it strongly urged ascetics to communicate to Hindus across the country that supporting the BJP and Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was a divine project. The political overtones of the religious fair attended by millions of Hindu devotees and thousands of sadhus was evident in the VHP’s politically-charged slogan, which could be heard frequently in the meetings of ascetics organised by the VHP and seen in hoardings it put up on the streets of the Kumbh Mela area — ‘Jo Ram ki baat karega, wohi desh par raj karega’.”

Jha lifts the lid on many other shocking facts about the hierarchies and operations of religious organisation. He writes about the bitter rivalries between the Vaishnava and Shaiva akharas and the different mutts; the invention and sale of dubious spiritual titles such as ‘mahamandaleshwar’, ‘jagat guru ramanandacharya’ and so on; and the rituals of extortion. He writes about temple towns that are the refuge of criminals and the “recruitment” of fake or temporary ‘Naga’ sadhus at the Kumbh to inflate their numbers.

He also acquaints the reader with the inner world of some of the authentic sadhus, who lead truly austere lives and undergo brutally painful rites such as the Naga initiation tang tode (breaking of the leg — an allusion to the symbolic ‘breaking’ of the penis, which ensures that the naked sadhu never gets an erection). Then there are the so-called saints — such as Radhe Maa, Asaram Bapu and Swami Nithyanand — certified fake even by the All India Akhara Parishad. There are also stories of many other gurus who will stop at nothing to gain financial power and political muscle in an arena where god and goodness are merely incidental.

Even with its disturbing contents, Ascetic Games is unputdownable. Here is a book to remember and to keep for bedside reading before the general elections of 2024.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a writer and researcher focusing on Indian cultural history

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on June 21, 2019
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor