8:17 pm - Saturday November 7, 2015

Shankaracharya wages war on Sai Baba, backed by Naga sadhus

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Bhopal: The controversy over the deification of Sai Baba of Shirdi threatens to spill on the streets with the Naga sadhus accepting the call of the Shankaracharya of Dwarka and Jyotir Math, Swami Swaroopanand to launch a crusade to save the Hindu faith. The swami is insistent on an apology from Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti for proclaiming her devotion to Sai Baba. The temperamental sanyasin, however, has remained uncharacteristically quiet so far. Swaroopanand, who has the support of the minister’s spiritual guru, made his intent clear by marshalling the aggressive Naga sadhus.
Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand.
The Shankaracharya kicked off the controversy last week with a command that Sai Baba, being a human being, should not be deified. Uma Bharti spoke more like a minister of India than as a Hindu fundamentalist by admitting her own faith in Sai Baba. She expectedly ran into trouble with Swaroopanand and his band. She tried to douse the controversy by showing deference to the sadhus and politely contended that Sai Baba had never claimed to be God and there was no question of his being immortal. She said the respect for the Shankaracharya prevented her from commenting further.
On Sunday, Bharti reacted saying she had no regrets over her devotion to Sai Baba, enraging Swaroopanand further. He has launched a fresh attack on her saying she was worshipping a Muslim. That is the reason she failed build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. He argued that Sai Baba was a Muslim ascetic and thus could not be treated as a Hindu deity. He accused certain forces of corrupting the Hindu religion by creating new gods and there was a conspiracy to divide the Hindus. He even said foreign forces were behind the practice.
The issue took a grave turn when despite written clarification from the minister the sadhus persisted with venomous statements and directed the Sai disciples to be prevented from chanting the name of Lord Ram and taking a dip in the Ganga for purification. Interestingly, the Muslims devotees of the Shirdi saint are unaffected by Shankaracharya’s diktat. It is the devout Hindus who face the dilemma.
Why would the 90-year-old seer create so much fuss over a non-issue? The question has flummoxed many. Most political observers in Madhya Pradesh refuse to accept religion being the sole reason for Swami Swaroopanand to be going as far as he has gone. He has not opposed Sai Baba’s deification for the first time. But, he has not whipped up such frenzy before.
Those who know Swaroopanand for his proximity to many Congress leaders for the last 30 years are surprised by the timing of his action. He has liberally enjoyed the hospitality of politicians, mostly Congressmen. There is a synergy with the Congress. However, if he is trying to help the Congress find its feet again the action could prove counter-productive, feel observers. He has antagonised the Sai devotees among the Congress supporters and by demanding Uma Bharti’s resignation he has provoked the BJP to rally behind her.
In January, he had hit the headlines by slapping a reporter for persistently raising questions about Narendra Modi. Is it a ploy to get closer to the Hindutva hardliners who are also supporters of the BJP? In Maharashtra, many temples are devoted to saints like Eknath, Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar and Gajanan Maharaj. None of the Shankaracharyas seem to object obviously because they are Hindu saints. By making the point that Sai Baba is a Muslim – the jury is still out on this – he could be pandering to a section of Hindus. But why antagonise Uma Bharti?
Swaroopanand’s past as a freedom fighter and Ramrajya Parishad nominee in the 1952 election leaves him with enough reason to revive links with BJP. A flashback on his eventful career is worth it. Pothiram Upadhyay, who was born in 1924 near Seoni in Madhya Pradesh, left home as a nine-year-old and after years of wandering reached Varanasi to join the tutelage of Hariharanand Saraswati, better known as Karpatri Maharaj. The disciple of Brahmananda Saraswati of Jyotirmath, Karpatri Maharaj brought him into the ascetic order as Swaroopanand. As a 19- year-old he served two jail terms as a revolutionary before returning to the fold in 1950. Karpatri Maharaj got him to contest election in 1952 as a member of his Ramrajya Parishad. The Parishad later merged with the BJP.
Whatever his motive, his move to mobilise the aggressive Naga sadhus and efforts at enlisting the support of other saints in his fight against the cult of Sai Baba is likely to trigger a storm in the spiritual community.

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