The priest of Dasna Mandir in Uttar Pradesh's Ghaziabad, Yati Narsinghanand, has been given the title of Mahamandaleshwar by the Juna Akhara – the biggest and most influential among the 13 Akharas part of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP).
Barely a few days later, it was reported that the Ghaziabad police had initiated the process of slapping the Goonda Act against Narsinghanand.
Known for making hate speeches against Muslims, Narsinghanand has made a number of incendiary comments in the past – from calling for an all out war against Islam, criticising Prophet Muhammad to calling former President APJ Abdul Kalam a "jihadi" and attacking even Sai Baba.
The question is, why has an Akhara as important as Juna Akhara chosen to honour him as Mahamandaleshwar?
WHO ARE MAHAMANDALESHWARS?
'Mahamandaleshwar' is a title bestowed by various Dashanami Akharas as an honour for someone who has achieved the highest levels of Hindu spiritual guardianship.
There are different theories regarding this institution. According to pioneering Indian sociologist GS Ghurye, Mahamandaleshwars became common during the 19th century as Dashanami orders felt the need to appoint people of learning from within the Paramhansas within their ranks to counter the discourse of Christian missionaries.
Another theory is that the institution of 'Acharya Mahamandaleshwar' came about in the beginning of the 20th century as a result of a dispute within the Dashanami orders and the need to have an authority to perform the initiation ceremonies of sanyasis.
The Mahamandaleshwar, however, is different from the 'Acharya Mahamandaleshwar' and doesn't have the authority to perform initiation ceremonies. They can, however, function as preacher-leaders within the Hindu community.
'MAHAMANDALESHWAR' A MECHANISM TO GARNER REVENUE AND CLOUT?
It is believed that granting of the status of Mahamandaleshwar became common after Independence as sources of funding for the Akharas dried up following the decline of princely states and they had to come up with new ways of earning revenue.
Author and journalist Dhirendra K Jha has closely studied various Hindu Akharas for his book Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and Making of the Hindu Vote.
"Akharas make huge profits from bestowing coveted titles that turn sadhus into preacher-leaders... in particular the title of mahamandaleshwar granted by Shaiva akharas, and which comes with a hefty price tag."Dhirendra K Jha, Author of Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and Making of the Hindu Vote
Speaking to The Quint, Jha said that "In addition to revenue, Akharas also bestow the title in order to gain political clout and expand their influence."
The financial aspect is, interestingly, embedded into the Mahamandaleshwar system.
Jha writes, "To Dashanami akharas, Mahamandaleshwars act as permanent sources of income. Ascetics desirous of the title not only pay the concerned akhara a hefty amount – the 'white' part of which is made public, called pukar – for obtaining the title but also have to provide contributions to the akhara at regular intervals."
For instance, they are supposed to donate liberally during the Kumbh Mela.
"To an outsider, these offerings may appear to be voluntary in nature but they are mandatory and fixed on the basis of a Mahamandaleshwar's ability to pay. Defaulting on payments is dealt with sternly by the Akharas."
He says that it is also customary for Mahamandaleshwars to donate a part of their income to the Akhara at least twice a year as 'Guru Dakshina.'
These aspects are relatively above board and known to the public. However, often there are allegations of titles being given clandestinely in return for money. The Juna Akhara had to face a massive controversy in this connection in 2012-2013.
BEFORE NARSINGHANAND, JUNA AKHARA HAD MADE RADHE MAA A MAHAMANDALESHWAR
The Juna Akhara, which has now made Yati Narsinghanand a Mahamandaleshwar, had given the same title to controversial godwoman Radhe Maa in 2012.
One faction of the Akhara accused the other of taking a hefty sum of money for giving her the title and carrying out the initiation ceremony in a clandestine manner late at night "to keep attention away from the huge amount of cash that had exchanged hands."
The objections of a section of the Juna Akhara wasn't to the fact that Radhe Maa was a woman, but to what they called her "non-ascetic lifestyle."
Jha writes in Ascetic Games that Yatindranand Giri, a Haridwar based Mahamandaleshwar, told him, "Radhe Maa is a walking beauty parlour. There isn't even an ounce of ascetic quality in her."
Under pressure, the Akhara had to suspend Radhe Maa's title and set up an inquiry committee.
Later in 2013, Radhe Maa is said to have demanded that the Akhara return the money, which the latter is said to have declined.
Juna Akhara isn't the only Akhara that has faced controversy for its Mahamandaleshwar appointments. The Mahanirvani Akhara made Swami Nithyananda the Mahamandaleshwar in 2013, despite several allegations against him.
THE ROLE OF MAHANT HARI GIRI IN NARSINGHANAND'S APPOINTMENT
It is not clear whether the motivation to give the Mahamandaleshwar title to Narsinghanand has a financial element or not.
What is clear is that unlike the Radhe Maa case, there doesn't seem to be any major pushback within the Juna Akhara against his appointment.
However, it is significant that in the appointment of both Radhe Maa and Narsinghanand, the same person within Juna Akhara played an instrumental role – Mahant Hari Giri.
Days before Narsinghanand was made Mahamandaleshwar, Mahanti Hari Giri accepted him as his disciple.
Hari Giri is one of the most powerful figures associated with the Juna Akhara. He is the 'international patron' of the Akhara and is the secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad.
There's another aspect to Mahant Hari Giri – he is known to be very close to the Sangh Parivar.
Politically, he is known as a "pragmatic" compared to the late Narendra Giri, the head of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, who is alleged to have died by suicide in September this year.
In early 2019, Narendra Giri as ABAP president, slammed the Narendra Modi government and said that "they have no intention of getting a Ram Temple constructed in Ayodhya."
He said that Narendra Giri's statements are his "personal opinion" and alleged that they were issued without consulting other members of the ABAP.
"Such a statement smacks of pessimism and seemed to have been made impulsively. Narendra Modi never tells a lie and nor does Amit Shah," Hari Giri told The Times of India.
Though known to be close to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Hari Giri defended the Modi government from the VHP's attack on the Ram Mandir issue and accused them of trying to "cut the branch they are perched on."
But then Hari Giri's pragmatism has also meant having cordial ties with whoever is in power. He is known to have given a rudraksh to the then CM Mulayam Singh Yadav in January 2007, despite the latter having given orders to fire at karsevaks during the Ram Mandir agitation.
The need for cordial ties is important because the Akhara Parishad needs to have the UP administration's support in organising the Kumbh Mela.
It is important to highlight Hari Giri's political astuteness in trying to understand the reasons behind Narsinghanand's appointment as Mahamandaleshwar. It indicates that the appointment is essentially a political one. But what are the political calculations behind it?
'DHARMA YUDDH' AND THE POLITICS BEHIND NARSINGHANAND'S APPOINTMENT
"A Muslim has put a reward of Rs 150 crore on Yati Narsinghanand Maharaj... Juna Akhara tan-mann-dhan unke saath samarpit rahege (Juna Akhara will support him in every way)," Hari Giri had said after the ceremony appointing Narsinghanand as Mahamandaleshwar.
In response, Narsinghanand said on Twitter, "The most respected Gurudev Shri Hari Giri Ji Maharaj has entrusted me with the responsibility of Dharam Yudh (religious war), I will fulfill this responsibility by sacrificing my life. We will show you the victory of Sanatan Dharma's religious war and we will eradicate the enemies of Sanatan Dharma."
Honouring Narsinghanand is a signal from the Sadhus that they are committed to the protection of Sanatan Dharma from what they call the "threat of Islamic Jihad."
But what would this Dharma Yudh entail?
It appears that, to begin with, Narsinghanand will be deployed in the political and religious landscape of Uttarakhand, which happens to be going for elections in early 2022.
"Some people want to turn Uttarakhand into Kashmir. Some people want to change the name of Badrinath. We won't let their evil plans succeed," Hari Giri said after Narsinghanand's appointment.Mahant Hari Giri after Narsinghanand's appointment
Hari Giri has promised Narsinghanand the complete support of all the Sants and Sadhus of the Juna Akhara.
A source in the VHP told The Quint that the Juna Akhara's decision to appoint Narsinghanand as Mahamandaleshwar is closely linked to the "plan to counter the rising influence of Muslims in Uttarakhand, especially Haridwar district."
While there is no data to support this fear of "rising Muslim influence," it largely stems from the fact that Muslims account for over 30 percent of the population in Haridwar district and are present in larger proportions in places like Roorkee, Manglaur and Piran Kaliyar within the district.
Muslims and Dalits together account for over 50 percent of the population in Haridwar district, making it a problem area for the BJP electorally in Uttarakhand.
However, Narsinghanand's importance goes way beyond elections.
Within Hindutva outfits, Narsinghanand's popularity stems from a combination of factors: his unabashed anti-Muslim oratory and popularity on social media, his mobilisation of backward castes for the Hindutva cause in Dasna – a place with a high Muslim population, his lending of a militaristic ethos including arms training to recruits and his lack of hesitation in even taking on BJP leaders when necessary.
All these aspects make him a good candidate to expand the base of hardline Hindutva outfits and to increase their bargaining power vis-a-vis the BJP government at the Centre as well as in states like Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
One of the BJP leaders with whom Narsinghanand is known to share a frosty relationship is Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The UP Police's reported move to get him booked under the Goonda Act is said to be the result of this tussle.
However, by being made Mahamandaleshwar and getting the support of the Juna Akhara, Narsinghanand has added a layer of protection around himself. Though this protection is symbolic and has no legal value, having the support of Juna Akhara would make it politically tricky for the Yogi government to act against him.