Opinion: Why The 'Rebel' Shankaracharyas May Not Be Taken Seriously

The Shankaracharyas of Puri and Badrinath have controversially termed the Ayodhya Ram temple consecration ceremony as a breach of the Shastras and are likely to skip the January 22 event.

Swami Nischalananda Saraswati of Puri and Swami Avimukteshvaranand Saraswati of Badrinath are the key players in a raging debate that has sharpened political positions and criticism of the ruling BJP.

The seers also say the consecration must not happen until the entire temple structure is completed and have hinted that January 22 has been chosen for political purposes.

Adi Shankara had, in the 8th century, founded the four holy shrines in Puri, Badrinath, Dwarka and Shringeri to propagate Vedic and religious knowledge.

The 'rebel' seers are not likely to find any serious support because of their own fractious legacies and the war for power that they have waged for decades.

The Jyotirmath Problem

The problem began with the Jyotirmath Peeth at Badrinath, which remained without a pontiff for 165 years until 1941. That year, the other three Shankaracharyas formed a committee of monks and scholars to search for a suitable Dandi Sanyasi to take charge of the Badrinath math. A Dandi Sanyasi is an ascetic who has renounced worldly ways and has studied the Vedas thoroughly.

Adi Shankara, who founded the four peeths, had set down clear guidelines on how to select a pontiff, in his books Mathamanya and Mahanushasan. In essence, the pontiff must be a Dandi Sanyasi, must have good knowledge of Sanskrit, must be well versed in the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and other ancient texts, and must be a Brahmin.

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After intense consultations, Swami Brahmanand was chosen to head the Badrinath peeth and appointed Shankaracharya in 1941.

When Swami Brahmanand died in 1953, a tussle erupted over his succession. It was found that Swami Brahmanand had left a will naming Swami Shantanand Saraswati as his successor. The will included two more names as Shantanand's successors. As a result, Shantanand Saraswati was anointed as the seer of the Jyotirmath in June 1953.

A furore broke out among a section of monks led by Karpatri Maharaj and Swaroopanand Maharaj. They claimed that the late pontiff Brahmanand Saraswati was of "unsound mind" and incapable of writing a will, so the document was "fake".

About two weeks after Shantanand Saraswati's appointment, Karpatri Maharaj's group propped up Swami Krishna Bodhashram as the next seer of Jyotirmath.

The dispute went to court and Karpatri Maharaj's team argued that Shantanand Saraswathi was not qualified to be pontiff "since he had not previously taken any education and until a few years back, had been a Book Binder at Geeta Press, Gorakhpur." Since he did not have the requisite Sanskrit education, they argued, he was not a Dandi Sanyasi, hence unfit for the position of pontiff.

In January 1970, a civil judge in Allahabad (now Prayagraj) held that Shantanand Saraswati's appointment as pontiff was valid and that Krishna Bodhashram's anointment was illegal and invalid.

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Krishna Bodhashram challenged the order. However, he died in September 1973, and the case abated.

Shantanand Saraswati resigned as Shankaracharya, and appointed as his successor Vishnudev Anand Saraswati, who, in turn, appointed Vasudevanand Saraswati as the next Shankaracharya of Badrinath in 1989.

After Krishna Bodhashram's death, it was Swaroopanand Saraswati's turn to take charge as Shankaracharya of the Badrinath mutt. So powerful was he that by 1982, he was pontiff of both the Badrinath and Dwarka mutts.

However, in a landmark 2017 judgment, the Allahabad High Court struck down the appointment of these Shankaracharyas as illegal and invalid. To sum up, the anointment of Krishna Bodhashram, Swaroopanand Saraswati and Vasudevanand Saraswati as Shankaracharyas was deemed illegal and invalid. The court held that only late Shantanand Saraswati's anointment was legal and that a committee must be set up to search for a new pontiff for Badrinath peeth within three months.

The Political Swamis

Shankaracharyas are expected to remain apolitical and engage only in the task of spreading religious knowledge. But Karpatri Maharaj and his disciples have repeatedly dabbled in political affairs.

In 1948, Karpatri Maharaj started a political party, the Akhil Bharatiya Ram Rajya Parishad. He appointed his disciple Swaroopanand Saraswati as the president of the party.

The Parishad won three Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan in the 1952 elections and won one seat each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the 1962 elections.

Karpatri Maharaj was a firebrand swami, raising his voice against the Hindu Code Bills and cow slaughter, in the years just after Indian independence.

After initially flirting with the Congress party, Karpatri Maharaj went on to lead sadhus on a protest against cow slaughter in 1966, resulting in Delhi police opening fire and killing eight Naga sadhus. With this, relations between Karpatri Maharaj and Indira Gandhi soured. The party eventually merged into the Jana Sangh, which later became the BJP.

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Karpatri Maharaj's disciple, Swaroopanand Saraswati was known to be close to Congress leaders, especially Digvijay Singh. He was also a vociferous opponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, having announced that he would campaign against him in 2014 in Varanasi.

Avimukteshvaranand Saraswati succeeded Swaroopanand Saraswati after his death in September 2022. However, this too went to court with the Supreme Court staying his coronation in October 2022 after two cases were filed against the succession, claiming that the Swami did not fulfil the conditions to become a Shankaracharya.

Karpatri Maharaj's other disciple, Nischalananda Saraswati, was appointed Shankaracharya of the Govardhan mutt in Puri.

In effect, the disciples of Karpatri Maharaj now head the Badrinath and the Puri mutts and they have turned against the Pran Pratishtha ceremony.

The long and protracted power struggle within the Shankaracharya mutts has finally come home to roost and some pontiffs, with their hunger for power, now stand exposed.

The Head Priest Clarifies

The Shankaracharyas of Badrinath and Puri however, have not cited a single text to qualify their arguments that the Pran Pratishtha must not take place until the temple is completed.

But in a letter to a disciple, Ganeshwar Shastri Dravid, the head priest of the Pran Pratishtha rituals along with Lakshmikant Mathuranath Dikshit, explained why the ceremony is legitimate even without the temple's completion. In his reply, he said the consecration can proceed once the sanctum sanctorum (garba griha) of the temple is completed and cited various puranas like the Narada Purana to bolster his point.

Comparisons between the apolitical head priests and the 'rebel' Shankaracharyas are now unavoidable. The chequered political track record of the disciples of Karpatri Maharaj makes it only natural for the average Hindu to take their words with a pinch of salt.

(Sandhya Ravishankar is a journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.