Prayagraj (Uttar Pradesh): Flanked by gun-toting sentries on Prayagraj’s sprawling Kumbh Mela grounds, 32-year-old Kanhaiya Prabhu Nandgiri extols the inclusive tenets of Hinduism.
“Only the Sanatan Dharma has space for untouchables,” says the high priest of the Juna Akhara – the largest order of sadhus in India, with over 4,00,000 members.
“For centuries, we were relegated to the margins of society. This is the beginning of a new chapter,” adds Nandgiri, ensconced in his ceremonial chair in a saffron-splashed tent.
In a historic turn this January that set many eyeballs rolling, Nandgiri, an Azamgarh resident from the Dalit community, reversed the centuries-old Brahmanical ascetic order at the Kumbh Mela.
Nandgiri was roped into high priesthood amid chanting of mantras and ritual offerings into a consecrated fire while on a silver chariot. Later, he joined sadhus and akhara heads to take the customary holy dip, cementing his position as mahamandaleswar among Hindu religious leaders.
“Over 500 years ago, poet and ascetic Ravidas broke caste and gender barriers in the pursuit of spiritual freedom,” he says. “I, too, want more lower castes to join the Hindu religious mainstream.”
Nandgiri believes his spiritual elevation will be a boost to marginalised sections of society, tired of unequal access to social and economic opportunities, and encourage their return to Hinduism.
“We need to break outdated notions that ‘untouchables’ pollute sanctified spaces. More awareness will trigger more ghar wapsis,” he says, beaming at the 100-odd devotees kneeling before him.
Nandgiri, who claims to be a descendant of an ancient Indian snake-worshipping warrior tribe, says he was always victimised for his ‘low-caste’ lineage. In school, he wasn’t allowed to study Sanskrit, and was taunted or attacked by classmates. Later, he was denied jobs and entry into temples.
He then decided to learn the Vedas and Puranas himself, drawing inspiration from Hindu mystics and philosophers such as Chanakya and Ramakrishna.
In 2007, Nandgiri enrolled at Chandigarh’s Bharatiya Jyotish Vigyan Parishad to study astrology and Hindu shastras. He also became a member of the militant Bajrang Dal in 2001 to “protect India’s Hindu identity” from the perceived threats of conversion and cow slaughter.
But when Nandgiri was in Chandigarh to attend a congregation of Sikh seers in 1999, he realised the assertion of his Dalit identity in politics wasn’t enough. Despite being a Bajrang Dal member at the time, he was stopped from touching the head priest’s feet because of his caste.
“I realised my caste was irrelevant as a Bajrang Dal member and later as president of the Chandigarh outfit. But it became my defining identity in religious places,” he says.
In desperation, Nandgiri turned to Juna Akhara’s Jagatguru Panchanand Giri Maharaj to push for the inclusion of Dalits and lower castes within the Hindu religious mainstream.
In 2016, Panchanand Giri appointed Nandgiri as the main priest of a Chandigarh-based temple and gave him diksha in Ujjain. That set the ball rolling for his appointment as a mahamandaleswar in the Hindu ascetic order.
When the All India Akhara Parishad appointed Nandgiri as a mahamandaleswar in January, his makeshift tent in Prayagraj became an abode for socially marginalised groups. Six disciples – four sadhus and two sadhvis – were roped in to consolidate the high priest’s position at the Kumbh Mela.
“We wanted a caste-free and gender-neutral Kumbh so that monastics and devotees of all kinds can fit in,” says Panchanand Giri. “Our focus is to strengthen Hinduism, and that’s possible only by including all castes, women and transgender people.”
Rama Nandgiri, a disciple from the Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh, says the elevation of people from the lower castes in the ascetic order will help free society of certain prejudices. “We will help our guru set up ashrams across India where priests from the lower castes can preside over religious ceremonies,” he says. “In the secular realm, we will push for schools, jobs and better housing and medical facilities for the deprived.”
Amiteswar Nandgiri, the first Dalit child to receive diksha from the mahamandaleswar, says he will help his leader set up schools for the underprivileged, which will focus on Sanskrit and English education. “My parents want me to become a great saint and a proponent of the Sanatan Dharma,” says the ten-year-old Azamgarh resident, wearing a saffron robe and rudraksha beads.
On ghar wapsi, Amiteswar echoes the thoughts of other disciples. “Our guru has carried out over 550 ghar wapsis in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand since last April,” he says. “We will accompany him to different villages where he will wash the feet of those who reconvert.”
Nandgiri’s newly ordained women disciples such as Bhairvi say they want to end discriminations faced by Dalit women. “It’s a dual stigma to be a woman and Dalit,” says 37-year-old Bhairvi, her forehead smeared with red and gold paint. “Sadhvis will motivate more Hindu women to fight for gender equality in religious and secular spheres.”
In the next four months or so, Nandgiri aims to give diksha to 60 more disciples from the low castes. They will help him propagate the Sanatan Dharma across India.
But Nandgiri’s ascendency in the Hindu ascetic order hasn’t gone without criticism, backlash or even outright withdrawal of support.
Fearing dilution of the old Brahmanical ascetic order, some monastics have vociferously opposed the inclusion of a lower caste monastic. A Nirmohi Akhara seer said, “The sanctity of the close-knit akhara structure needs to be protected. We can’t include those who have no knowledge of the Hindu shastras.”
Even the government has provided no financial or logistical support. Nandgiri says, “We don’t have a camp of our own; and I’ve hired these gun-wielding bodyguards to protect me from my adversaries. But at least the government has given us token recognition.”
Dalit scholars and social activists, too, are divided on Nandgiri’s elevation.
Rajesh Kumar Paswan, professor of Hindi at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes the mahamandaleswar’s appointment is an eyewash before the upcoming general elections.
“Nandgiri is Hindutva’s divine slave. The BJP has a new trump card, and he’ll be used as a tool to tap the Dalit and backward-caste voters,” says Paswan.
Political theorist and writer Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd believes until a Dalit is appointed as a shankaracharya, there will be no real change in India’s caste-steeped social hierarchy.
“If there was any desire to reform Hinduism, there would have been Dalit priests in every temple and monastery across India,” says Ilaiah. “This is just drama being played out by Yogi Adityanath and Mohan Bhagwat to make people believe in a Dalit ‘homecoming’.”
Lal Man Dravid, a Prayagraj-based social activist, thinks Nandgiri has no understanding of the Dalit movement or the ideals of Ambedkar. “To me he’s just a slave of the Sangh, corporates and media, and may become irrelevant after Kumbh,” says Dravid.
But other academics are more positive about the stirrings of change in the Hindu ascetic order.
Alok Prasad, professor of history at the University of Allahabad, says, “Even though Nandgiri’s ascendency is manifestly political, he has the potential to bring about revolutionary change by questioning caste hegemony like Sant Ravidas.”
Prasad’s colleague B.C. Lal, too, believes it’s a constructive development since most pilgrims who visit Kumbh are from lower castes, but have had upper caste monastics hold forth for centuries.
“Whether it will improve the social and economic status of Dalits is questionable, but it has certainly helped them gain religious legitimacy,” says Lal.
Nandgiri says these criticisms have only firmed his resolve to serve the Dalit community. He wants to build more ashrams, appoint lower caste priests and increase the visibility of Dalit youth in schools, businesses, police stations, courts.
“I want my disciples to look like new-age priests who wear the best clothes, drive cars and live in swank apartments,” he says. “It’s not where you begin, it’s where you end up that matters.”
Priyadarshini Sen is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. She writes for various India and US-based media outlets.