The Mahakaleshwar temple is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, and the only one which is Swayambhu (self-manifested). It is immensely important to the town both spiritually as well as economically. The administration is under a trust & city officials chair it. However, they’re more concerned about the revenue side of things & maybe the upkeep of the temple.
So who looks after the rituals & updates them to these testing times?
The spiritual authority governing the Jyotirlinga goes by verbal & occasionally jotted-down tradition. These allow the Jyotirlinga to be touched by devotees and be anointed by oblations traditional to Shiva like Bhaang and Panchamrita. Liquor is allowed as oblation in the Garhkalika temple. The Sant-Sadhu Samaj is in agreement that this unbroken tradition should continue.
However, in a small town, people with literary and socio-cultural ambitions want to be taken seriously. They establish awards to be arbiters of taste and culture. In Ujjain, a group of people came together a few years ago. They have just enough academic and minor civil servant credentials to figure in a story. These journalistic contacts will soon do them good.
They call themselves the Ujjaini Vidwat Parishad (Ujjain Intellectual Committee). Dr. Mohan Gupt is the head, Dr. Santosh Pandya the secretary. Its eleven members include a Jyotishacharya and a VC of Panini Sanskrit Vedic University.
In June, 2016, they hold a meeting which is covered by local editions of Hindi dailies Bhaskar, Patrika, Jagran & a few websites. Three points emerge from this meeting.
1. The Mahakumbh should not be hosted in Haridwar in 2022 but in 2021, per the Jyotishacharya. Further consultations are proposed with the Shankaracharyas, Acharyas and *Vidwat Parishads* of Haridwar and Kashi.
2. A Parjanya Anushthan should be organised in Mahakaleshwar Temple strictly according to scriptural procedure.
3. The Kshipra river was polluted post the Simhastha Kumbh. The Govt. would be asked to ban fishing & immersion of Ganesh & Durga idols.
The Mahakaleshwar temple however, had already had its Trupti Desai moment.
In 2013, a city social worker named Sarika Guru filed a petition in Indore High Court citing irregularities in temple management by the Mahakaleshwar Temple Management Committee (MTMC) which comes under Mahakal Temple Act, 1982. She objected to 35 % of donations in the Garbha Griha hundi & 75% of abhishek receipts going to the priests, not permitted by the Act. The Indore HC judged in her favour, but this was challenged by the MTMC & a stay was ordered.
In 2017, Ms. Guru moved a special leave petition in the Supreme Court. Through her lawyers Ashok Chitle & Anand Bhatt, she sought a ban on the Panchamrita Shringar of the Mahakal Jyotirlinga, similar to bans on Mallikarjuna, Somnath & Omkareshwar Jyotirlingas.
Ms. Guru also sought devotees to be restricted from touching the Jyotirlinga & their entry banned in the Garbha Griha. The Supreme Court constituted an ‘Expert Committee’ comprising officials from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Geological Survey of India (GSI) to survey the temple & present their findings.
This is where different threads in our story converge.
The Expert Committee made over 12 recommendations, chief among them being:
1. Use of jal/Ganga jal to be restricted
2. Use of milk and products including ghee & honey to be restricted, except symbolically during the Bhasmaarati
3. Rubbing of jaggery & other powders on the Jyotirlinga to be restricted
4. Use of flowers/bel patra etc be symbolic
5. Metal aachman utensils & vessels be replaced with wooden/*good plastic material* to avoid scratches
6. Entry of devotees in the garbh-griha be restricted.
While Ms. Guru’s petition seemed to be winning, the Ujjaini Vidwat Parishad insinuated itself in the discussion. They declared that the use of Bhaang paste, naivedya and perfumes (ittar) in the abhishek could be causing cracks as well, since store-bought substances have corrosive chemicals and acids. They cited records that 50 years ago, the shringar with Bhaang & ittar was done only on Rakshabandhan. They objected strongly to liquor oblations in the Garhkalika temple, calling it a scandalous aberration!
The SC-appointed Expert Committee gave the Bhaang claim a pass, but this intrusion was so objectionable to the Sadhu-Sant and priestly Samaj that they wrote to the DM and demanded an end to it.
Local press found this story juicier and gave enough coverage to the Parishad and its claims for them to feature as progressive reformers of orthodox practices.
During the earlier Omkaleshwar deliberations, the stakeholders dithered over possible solutions within their own ambit. It was only a matter of time for the PIL-ASI-SC trifecta to step in and take away spiritual agency from them, who have already lost governance of the temple to the government.
May be this case didn’t provide such a chance. The litigant seems an old adversary and the Parishad new opportunists. But the case is a perfect illustration of what evils beset Hindu Samaj.
1. Though Ms. Guru’s case of irregularities in financial & personnel hiring didn’t stick, the temple management didn’t come out unblemished. The move to take on temple administration in a temple town is a shortcut to fame in appropriate circles. This move has been played out with varying degrees of success against Shani Shingnapur & the Sabarimalai pilgrimage.
2. The involvement of a female litigant immediately turns the narrative into a brave heroine standing up against a deeply patriarchal, and regressive society, a superstitious, anti-science faith and goondaism. Depending on success, the moving pieces are tweaked – appearance, approach, message, the risk the women are willing to take – and then tested against another temple.
3. Ambitious locals with their own agendae, ride onto such existing controversies. They succeed in pulling in press for themselves.
4. There is no cohesive response from either Hindu society or Sadhu-Sant Samaj. While they wrote an appeal to the DM & the SC appointed Expert Committee rubbished the Bhaang paste theory, their response is more of a reaction. They seem out of touch with how this narrative plays out once it hits prime time and goes beyond local factors that they still could control. One can picture them making gaffes upon gaffes and putting potential supporters off, while detractors get more material to lampoon them, and by extension, their cause and faith.
5. The Supreme Court is a different entity altogether. They pay attention to popular opinion and seek to shape it through cases most fitting the outcomes they’re pursuing. In this case, both Ms. Guru & the Parishad seem to have done their homework. They’re seeking SC intervention to label traditional practices as environmentally unsound and specifically local customs as non-scriptural. This is a direct move to reduce the spiritual authority of the priests and the Sadhu-Sant Samaj.
6. Popular opinion in the upwardly mobile middle class is shifting towards environmental causes. These Hindus view their religion as one that encourages green practices & at the same time, one that’s affecting the environment. Without going into details, if Hindus find that a feelgood factor exists and the outcome brings about a tiny personal catharsis, they will swing for it.
7. There is a chasm between popular Hindu opinion (brought about by years of conditioning) about their faith and rituals, and how the Sadhu-Sant Samaj sees the same. This chasm is being happily plugged by litigants, the Courts and the media for their own outcomes.
8. This specific instance could have been resolved if the temple management had been actively looking for a resolution. But – and this is an important point – management of the temple is in the hands of the city administration (and indeed the Govt.) while rituals are with the priests. When rituals are attacked, city administrators wash their hands off while the priests having no real power, can only twiddle their thumbs. The litigants go to Court, which establishes its rules. That’s the way Awadh fell to the British. The East India Company (EIC) made the rules, the Resident – EIC’s representative in princely states, as per the doctrine of Subsidiary Alliance – enforced them, but the Nawabs took the fall.
In all the legal wrangling and apparent struggle for one up-manship by highly motivated elements from within the Hindu samaj, the regular Dharmic Hindu person has to ask themselves this –
Does the word of the Sadhus & Sants in matters of Tradition and Rituals count for nothing? And how can they be guided to shape their perspective and explain it better and / or change it as the need arises.
Can a small bunch of folks with amplifying resources of media and backed by legal carte blanche (in absence of laws to keep out courts from Hindu traditions) get to dictate to crores of devotees how they should follow their millennia old rituals?
If the Swayambhu idol of Mahakaal, the supreme god himself, has to be subjected to man made legal hassles, then it’s time we question our own willingness to stand up for our faith.
(Writing credit: This article has been written by Lavanya Shivashankar (who tweets as @SignofFive), with inputs from Abhishek Muglikar)
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