The Leftover Godmen

“Juna Somvariya hote hue, Pipli naka aur bada pul paar karke, shamshaan ghaat ke aage padega Valmiki Ghat.” While millions washed their sins away at Ram Ghat, I was undertaking a journey made famous by BJP President Amit Shah. He went looking for Dalit sadhus and so was I.

A few kilometres from the main ghats is where the sadhus of the 13 akharas gather for the shahi snans, momentous occasions where the entire Hindu pantheon is expected to descend over the chosen waters to splash about with its disciples. Mere mortals are not allowed to partake in these saintly ablutions, but apparently neither are the sadhus born on the lower orders of the caste system. The Dalit sadhus are relegated to the faraway Valmiki Ghat.

Dalit sadhus hit headlines after BJP President Amit Shah took a holy dip with them in the Kshipra river at Valmiki Ghat in Ujjain.

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

This is where Shah had gone to bathe during his stint at the Kumbh. In doing so, he mixed politics with punya, making headlines along the way. It was pretty much the only headline this otherwise-quiet Kumbh seems to have made. Leaders of a few akharas were unhappy with what was seen as blatant pandering to the Dalit community, while others decried the advent of caste politics into the spiritual realm. The journalists followed the politicians and, as a result, alerted the world about the existence of the Dalit sadhus.

The words Dalit sadhu are in themselves a bit of an oxymoron. Why is a tribe of men at a holy event tied together by virtue of caste? Aren’t ascetics supposed to be free of the rules that bound the miserable lives of the unenlightened masses? While the rest of the Indian ascetic order is divvied up based on their allegiance to either Shiva or Vishnu, why is there an order of shunned godmen who’ve been made to base their allegiance on caste?

The answer lay at the other end of a long trek through a crowd that would stop at nothing for a shot at a good afterlife. I braced myself for another day at the Kumbh.

The Valmiki Ashram, founded by Sant Umeshnath, sits atop a hillock overlooking the river. A temple, cast in shimmering white stone, dedicated to Lord Ram and the sadhu’s own gurus, is the nucleus of the complex. Outside, on a low diwan, a guru is waiting to start his pravachan. He is a middle-aged, wiry man whose eyes scan all corners of the crowd he is presiding over. He is clad in saffron and rudraksha beads; his pet, a hulking German Shepherd, lies at his feet.

 As soon as we enter the tent, we are approached by two of his followers. The friendly men want to know the purpose of our visit. Once we establish our identities as “media”, we are promised a meeting with the ashram’s patron saint.

 I am not prepared for what happens next. My name is announced over the loudspeakers and I am told to move to the front. This interview, it seems, was about to take place in front of the gathered followers. I am about to get my quotes in a sermon. This is a first for me.

 “Swaami ji ke shabd dhyaan se sunein,” blared the loudspeakers, and thus it began. I would have to quiz the man at the centre of a caste row at the Kumbh surrounded by a hundred of his disciples. Thankfully the sadhu doesn’t believe in mincing words, even an sermons that preach love and samrasta, or unity. He addresses the very issue I have come seeking answers on.

 With slow, studied and impassioned oratory, he speaks about his Dalit pride, openly criticises the “dharmacharis” who look down on the sadhus of his “kul” and draws upon the ascetic traditions of his community, tracing it back to Maharishi Valmiki himself. Wasn’t the author of the Ramayana, the repository of Hindu knowledge, an untouchable, he asked. Then why question the worth of his successors?

It is unlike any other sermon at the Kumbh. There is anger, there is hurt, but above all there is honestly.  Later, I’m told that all this anger stemmed from recent comments made by a prominent spiritual leader that had questioned the “sanskaars” of the Dalit sadhus. The leader, Avdesh Anand Giri had maintained that these “pariah godmen” could only be assimilated with the dominant monastic orders if they learn their ways first.

 “Par sadhu jivan toh ek hi hota hai, Dalit ka bhi, pandit ka bhi,” said Umeshnath

Sermons at Valmiki Ghat are unlike any other at the Kumbh. There is anger, there is hurt, but above all there is honesty.

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

After the fire and brimstone of the sermon, he concludes on a harmonious note, that the life of a sadhu, whether born into the Valmiki kul or Brahmin, is the same. When the sermon-cum-interview is over, and the crowd has moved on to the bhojanalaya for free lunch, Umeshnath’s right hand man, Devendra Devgan, quietly disagrees. Sadhus of the lower caste may be in every akhara but will never rise in the ranks of the Hindu monastic order, he tells me with a tone of resignation. They remain foot soldiers while the upper echeleons are reserved for those born in the upper castes.

“Ab toh aurat bhi Mahamandaleshwar ban chuki hai, par Dalit abhi tak nahi bana, kyun,” he asked. Just earlier that day the newspapers had hailed the “pattabhishek” of Kanakeshwari Devi as the leader of agni akhada as a ground-breaking triumph for Hinduism.

But while women may have finally shattered the spiritual glass ceiling, the Dalits still have a long way to go. The Amit Shahs may come and go, the media spotlight may shine and wane, but the Dalit sadhus will continue living in forced isolation, the leftover godmen who worship a casteist god, waiting for assimilation. Until then, they will remain here, relegated to the Valmiki Ghat.