Co-opting Bahujan Gods: Ram Mandir Inauguration and Religious Marginalization in India

Politicizing Brahminical Gods for Power and Profit
Co-opting Bahujan Gods: Ram Mandir Inauguration and Religious Marginalization in India

On January 22, we witnessed an extraordinary moment with the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The Prime Minister writing in top national dailies called it a moment of ‘return of the king’ – even as the media spectacle and his supporters pronounced him the incarnate of the mythical king. The Congress and other mainstream political parties meekly protested – not so much the ceremony itself but the fact that it had been given a political colour by ignoring the Shankaracharyas. Similarly, the Shankracharyas protested the politicization of the event. But one of them condemned the appointment of a Shudra priest to the Ayodhya temple – betraying perhaps their real reason for their boycott.

The temple trust (dominated by RSS) deflected the issue by saying that the rituals of Ramanand sect were being followed and therefore the Shankracharya’s directions could not be followed. Liberal thinkers like  Pratap Bhanu Mehta lamented that Hinduism had once and for all become a ‘political’ religion and there was no possibility of turning back. While everyone advanced their own version of Hinduism, a deep confusion (read discomfort) about religion, caste and identity marked all camps.

What justice was being restored and by whom – whose maryada was being extolled? This piece tackles this question head-on raising the question of the real religious marginalization continuing for ages in India – the marginalization of Bahujan religiosity.

In this piece, we draw from the example of Odisha, one of the four teerths of Hinduism and seat of one of the Sankracharyas. The Puri Shakracharya Nischalananda is infamous for his casteist remarks – ranging from calling for the establishment of caste system in the US, to calling for the banning entry of Dalits to temples. But this attitude is not new, infact it is seeped in the socio-political fabric of Odisha. The Chief Minister of Odisha has matched upto the PM in  spending Rs. 800 crores on Jagannath Mandir Parikrama in hopes to reap gains in the upcoming Assembly elections. We now turn to these issues.

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Return the Gods to our humble homes : from Jagannath to Dokhri Budhi

In 1881, the Jagannath temple was attacked by members of the Mahima Alekh religious movement (comprising mostly of Dalits and Adivasis). They claimed that the Lord Jagannath had been stolen from the original inhabitants of Odisha and placed in the temple. They entered the temple with a pot of rice that they had carried from their homes and desecrated the ‘bhog’ of Jagannath. The message was clear – Jagannath belongs to us and our everyday food is his bhog. The Mahima Alekh religious movement owed its origins to Bhima Bhoi, a Kondh Adivasi poet of the 19th century, which came to enjoy the following the Adivasis and Dalits alike in the Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) region and nearby Adivasi populated areas of Chhattisgarh. This movement was severely iconoclastic and rejected the increasing imposition of Brahminised dogmatic and regressive religion which arrived in this region after the colonial contact with Adivasis. It rejected the idea that indigenous Gods belonged in temples. In line with the movement’s ethos of Dalit-Adivasi unity, we use the word Adivasi/original inhabitant/indigenous interchangeably as an inclusive terms which encompasses the original inhabitants of Odisha – the marginalized castes.

The symbolic protest with home cooked food rather than ‘favda’ (spade), that the kar sevaks carried to the Babri temple is revealing about the meaning of religousity. The claim that “Jagannath was stolen” is not to be understood – reductively – as comparable to the Ram Jamnabhoomi’s claim for restoration of temple premises. Instead, the protest was a statement of iconoclasm and anti-casteism. It showed that God belonged in the shed of the Dalit-Adivasis and not in a bhavya temple with chappan bhog. This is because the paraphernalia of a bhavya temple necessarily means the creation of a priestly class – an idea that both the Mahima movement and the original inhabitants of Odisha reject.

As Kancha Illiah Shepherd puts it in his book ‘Why I am not a Hindu’ : “Dalit Bahujan society never allowed the emergence of a priestly class/caste that is alienated from production and alienates the Goddesses and Gods from the people. There is little or no distance between the Gods and Goddesses and the people.” This idea of working class/caste (Shudra) priest is central to original religiosity of Odisha. Unlike North India, several local and indigenous temples in Odisha used to have priests from Shudra castes of Mali, Raula, Nai and other OBC castes. But today, they are being replaced with Brahmin priests and the temples being co-opted into organized Brahminical religion.

The local indigenous Goddess Dokri Budhi
The local indigenous Goddess Dokri Budhi

This co-optation of Gods and their establishment as idols of Hinduism has been seen most clearly in the KBK region of Odisha. In a documentary Flames of Freedom, Subrat Kumar Sahu shows how in Ichapur village of Kalahandi district the local indigenous Goddess Dokri Budhi – originally worshipped as a pole in a shed – is stolen and established in a pucca temple as Kanak Durga and Brahmin priests are appointed, much to the chagrin of the original inhabitants of the region, comprising of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs (“Kondh, Dom, Mali, Teli, Dhoba”). In this new temple, the slokas are uttered in Sanskrit, a language alien to the indigenous inhabitants of the village. What follows is a fierce opposition by these oppressed castes.

In Odisha’s first Dalit novel, titled Bheda written by late Akhil Nayak, this clash of religious sensibilities between Bahujan Gods and Hindu religious icons comes out clearly. To the argument that all Gods are the same, the indigenous priest reminds a character that if so, why only certain Brahminised Gods had big temples built for them by Sahukars, whereas the indigenous Gods lived in small hutments. The paragraph below is instructive, because it presents the idea of an insurgent God, who sides with the original Bahujan inhabitants of Odisha:

 “ 'Yes... now you are coming to the point. Thutimaili does not live in a temple, do you know why? Is it only Thutimaili? None of our gods and goddesses lives in a temple. We are only agricultural workers, labourers, and poor people. Our house is either a room or two. A hut made of mud and twigs. Then would our gods and goddesses like to live in big temples instead of living either under trees or in huts?” (pg. 121)

Contrast this with, the opening lines of PM Modi’s speech, “Our Ramlalla will no longer live in a tent. Our Ramlalla will now live in this divine temple.”. When the Dalits and Adivasis of Odisha read this, they are reminded that divine temples that have never been open to them. If anything, the divine temples have been places where their Gods are prized away from them and imprisoned with Brahmin priests.

Destroying Gods, stealing lands: Brahmin Gautia and violent Vedanta

In Niyamgiri, the Adivasis consider the mountain as their God – their Niyamraja, of whom the Dongria Kondhs are offsprings. In the past two decades, the state (led by an upper caste Chief Minister) has sought to mine the underbelly of this Adivasi God – unperturbed by the claim that mining the hill would be a desecration of their religious beliefs. We picked up an interesting story in Niyamgiri which brings out clearly how the upper caste-state-corporation nexus of Odisha deals violently with indigenous religiosity. It goes thus. Once a government official told a Kondh leader opposing mining, “Don’t worry about the mountain, the company wants what is in the underbelly of the mountain. The mountain will remain as it is after the bauxite is removed from its underbelly.” To this, the Kondh replied, “Sir, you are extremely well read. If I remove your intestines and your corpuscles – tell me, will you still remain the same?”. This story captures how the bhavya idol-focused religiosity of Brahminical Hinduism in Odisha has done unimaginable violence to the cultural sensibilities of Adivasis – all in hope to extract minerals and profit Vedanta Co, run by Anil Aggarwal. Even after losing their case in the Supreme Court, the state continues to propose mining in nearby hills of Sijimali and Kuturmali, which are similarly sacred for the Adivasis and Dalits of this region. So when Naveen Patnaik poses with his deputy, bowing to the news channel showing the temple inauguration in Ayodhya – the Kondhs know what to make of it.

This brings us to a core truth about this Brahminical religiosity – it is a tool not just of religious subordination but also social and economic subordination. In the Ichapur village, where Dokri Budhi was replaced by Kanak Durga, the original inhabitants have come alive to this truth. Till today, this village has a Brahmin Gautia (zamindar) and most of the land belongs to the Brahmin minority of this village. The Gauntia claims to be both a religious and economic head of the village – parallel to the elected sarpanch.

In his novel Bheda – mentioned earlier – Akhila Nayak has shown how the prosperous Brahmins from coastal Odisha came to this region and took over land from the original inhabitants by subterfuge – siding with colonial bureaucracy. Till today, in this indigenous regions with a majority Dalit and Adivasi population, Brahmins remain in control of land – the promises of ‘land reform’ notwithstanding. Thus religious subordination in Southern Odisha has equalled socio-economic subordination. The infamous goti cultural practice of making slaves out of Adivasi-Dalits by loan-traps by zamindars and moneylenders continues today – as the original inhabitants are reduced to farm-hands in the lands of their forefathers.

The Adivasi and Dalit will not pray (here): rejecting the violent religiosity of Ayodhya

In his collection of short stories ‘The Adivasi will not dance’, Hansda Sowendra Shekhar’s last story narrates the predicament of a displaced Adivasi dance troupe, when they are forced to perform at the inauguration of a steel plant constructed on the land belonging to their forefathers. In the inauguration ceremony, the Adivasis take a stand on stage before the Governor of the state and suffer the brunt of the police atrocities, they say – the Adivasis will not dance to the tunes of their annihilation.

The inauguration of the Ram temple and the spectacle of Brahminised idol-worshipping bhavya Hinduism evokes a similar feeling in us. We are reminded of the destruction of our homes, stealing of our Gods, prizing of our lands and our life in servitude of the upper-castes.

Therefore, we refuse to pray in this temple. Return our Gods and lands to us. As one of Ambedkar’s 22 vows goes “I shall have no faith in Ram and Krishna who are believed to be incarnations of God nor shall I worship them.”

- Authors Amlan and Madhusudan are activists with the Mulnivasi Samajsevak Sangh in Odisha

Disclaimer- The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of others.

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