What role should swamijis, religious gurus play?


NIKHIL MORO writes from Mount Pleasant, Michigan: The alleged use of “mine power” by the Bharatiya Janata Party to lure newly elected legislators from the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka is passé.

The real story is elsewhere.

Star of Mysore reports that swamis “of Veerashaiva mutts” are in an “operation to woo” Siddaramaiah into the BJP. No matter that Lal Krishna Advani continues to condemn “vote-bank politics”.  Or that Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay rejected politics which impeded “integral humanism.”

Without commenting on what might, or might not, make Siddaramaiah politically eligible, the real story is how the BJP has given a new meaning to Swami and Friends: Should swamis, who are presumably living vows of renunciation, associate with particular castes?

Should they be playing such an avowedly political role?

Further, is communal advocacy consistent with Basava’s teachings?  Might it create disaffected communities, cynicism, bitterness; even lead away from the constitutional egalitarian ideal?

Specifically, should Shivarathri Desikendra Swamiji (of Suttur) and Shivamurthy Shivacharya Swamiji (of Taralabalu) visibly advocate for Veerashaivas? Should Balagangadharanath Swamiji (of Adichunchunagiri) bat for Vokkaligas?

These questions are not new. But they gain importance in the context of the Election Commission’s proposals for electoral reform and continuing reports of Vidhana Sabha candidates abusing caste.

But most interestingly, the swamis’ political activism exposes a severe disconnect between theory and practice.

Vedanta, the system of philosophy which forms “the foundation of the spiritual culture of India” (Swami Nikhilananda) lays an unequivocal emphasis on vairagya—a renunciation of temporal objects and of ego. 

Swami Vivekananda in Raja Yoga declares renunciation as the “real heart of all spiritual culture,” central to the four yogas of religious practice—Karma, Bhakti, Raja and Gnyana.

The goal of religious practice, Vivekananda writes, is to manifest the

“Divinity [which is] within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”

Separating religion and politics may not come easy in Hindu cultures because Vedanta prescribes merging of the temporal life with spiritual.  That’s why Hindu dharma is sometimes described as a pan-religious “way of living”. Still, that’s little threat to Western-style democracy or secularism, given that Hindu religious practice is inclusive and personal (non-proselytizing).

Karnataka has more than 50 large mutts which, together, possess real estate worth numerous billions, manage vast business and philanthropic empires in education or healthcare, and seem to be treated with kid gloves by reverential tax authorities.

The mutts are led by swamis who command the reverence of millions. Many swamis are renowned less for spiritual accomplishment, or for intellectual wherewithal, than for social service.

Which begs the question: What sort of religious gurus do we want?

Should they resemble spiritual giants such as Vivekananda or Ramana? Economic titans like Ratan Tata or Anil Ambani? Storytelling maestros like Morari Bapu or Bhadragiri Achyut Das? Intellectual hulks such as Rajneesh or Rajaji?

The “Veerashaiva swamis”, acting as BJP agents, are recruiting a six-time legislator whose persona is underwritten less by statesmanship than by an abiding frustration. From being part of a 1980s’ “dream team of second-line leaders” Siddaramaiah today seems clueless to confront Deve Gowda’s Machiavellian politics. 

So why is the BJP recruiting him other than to access the substantial Kuruba vote which he controls?

What should be swamis’ social role, if any?

Should they indulge in scholarly pursuits—explications of philosophy, tradition and ritual? Give us new interpretations of text? Prescribe tests for dharmic hypotheses? Or run schools and hospitals?

Or act as agents of political parties?

They should know best who own the least.

Photographs: (Left to right) Shivamurthy Shivacharya swamiji of the Taralabalu mutt, Visvesateertha swamiji of the Pejawar mutt, Deshikendra swamiji of the Suttur mutt, Balagangadharnath swamiji of the Adichunchunagiri mutt