- Pramod Ranjan
BILARA (Rajasthan), 13 January 2017: Travelling is always a pleasure and even more so when you have friends for company. We are walking on air. And why not? “Anils” (one of the meanings of the word “anil” in Hindi is air) have come to me from two directions: Anil Varghese, a journalist who writes in English, from the south of India, and sociologist Anil Kumar from the north. Our “udankhatola” (a fictional flying vehicle in folk tales) is a Honda CRV, a bit too old for such a long a journey but still a very comfortable ride. Ravindra Ravidas, our driver, amply makes up for his somewhat less professional experience with his modesty and his desire to learn. This “yatra” will take us to Kanyakumari via the western and central parts of India. On our way back, we will cover the eastern parts. We were not been able to include the Himalayan and north-eastern states in our itinerary.
Starting from Delhi on 5 January, we have visited Rohtak, Hisar, Goga ki Medi, Kalibanga, Jaisalmer, a village called Sam, another village called Ranuat in the Thar Desert, and Tanot and the Pakistan border close by. We spent a night with cattle-rearers near the Indo-Pakistan border in the Thar Desert. That night, our car got stuck in sand and we had to take a bumpy, albeit eminently exciting and memorable, ride to our desolate destination on a tractor. After crossing Thar, we have been staying put in Bilara, a small town near Jodhpur, for the past two days. This town boasts temples of Raja Bali and Aayee Mata. But our stay has to do more with the urgent need for washing our soiled clothes and less with visiting these temples. Besides, we also want to put pen to paper and record the experiences of our journey so far. Anil Varghese is working on a travelogue while Anil Kumar is compiling the details of the Bahujan traditions we have encountered so far.
Our travelogue will be available for the readers of forwardpress.in soon in Hindi and English. Being a fully bilingual website, translations do take some time. Writing while travelling is difficult but we know that if we put off the task, it will be difficult to recall the experiences of such a trip. Once we are back, the fast-paced life of Delhi will not allow us to go back to our notes and write.
To retain a personal touch, these pieces will be published with the names of their writers but they will also comprise the shared thoughts and suggestions of his co-travellers. Thus, you will be able to enjoy the personal experiences of the writer as well as the shared thoughts and points of view of the FP team and the facts they have put together. You will be able to read all these pieces together by clicking the byline “FP on the Road”.
Be that as it may, until both the Anils are through with penning their reminiscences, let me share mine with you.
Dr Swamy: A Nathpanthi Ambedkarite sadhu
We can never be completely original. Biases are so deeply engrained in our subconscious that it is impossible to break free from them. Before leaving Delhi, we had decided that our focus would be Bahujan culture, traditions and problems of the people, that we would try our best to free ourselves from our biases and that we would try to see and understand things from all possible perspectives. We are trying to do just that.
But on our way here, we met two people whose thoughts and conduct were so out of the ordinary that we were left dumbfounded. One of them was Swami Dr Rameshwaranand, whom we met at Hisar (Haryana) and the other was Charan Singh of Kalibanga (Rajasthan). Meeting them made us realize how biases can come in the way of understanding the true personalities of people.
Our meeting with Dr Swamy on the morning of 6 January was a coincidence. We had spent the night at the farmhouse of Vedpal Singh Tanwar, a politician friend. After breakfast, when we were about to leave for Rajasthan, Tanwar told us that a great “Sadhu Baba” was on his way to the farmhouse and that we should meet him before leaving. Thanking him, I said, “You should earn the ‘punya’ and allow us sinners to leave.” On this jocular note, we boarded our vehicle and the driver revved up the engine. Just then, the cavalcade of the godman pulled in. Slim body, handsome face, peppered beard and saffron robes. Out of courtesy, I stepped out of the car. But this attire has become so notorious that it was with great effort that I said namaste to him.
But once we got talking, what he told me about himself was beyond my imagination. He had a degree in medicine from the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences. But his rebellious nature did not allow him to continue in this lucrative and secure profession. His father was in the army and the family had enough money. We did not talk about what made him turn a recluse but it became clear that he has delved deep into the writings of Shahu Maharaj, Phule and Ambedkar. He said social equality is his real religion.
He is a Nathpanthi and his ashram is in Pushkar. He is the patron of Goga ki Medi, Rajasthan, and runs many Nathpanthi ashrams. He has known Narendra Modi from even before the time he became the chief minister of Gujarat. He shared an interesting piece of information – that Modi used to talk about Ambedkar even then. He felt that India’s current political situation was bad and that mutual hatred and hostility were on the rise.
We had a detailed discussion with him, in the presence of his Dalit-OBC disciples, on religion, spiritualism, reservations and more. He had been keeping a close watch on the developments with respect to the Mahishasur movement. He said that he had been working for preservation of tribal customs for a long time.
As studying the present status of Nathpanth, Kabirpanth and Arjak Sangh was on our agenda, we decided to put off our departure deeper into Rajasthan and instead, on his invitation, visit Goga Ki Medi, a key pilgrimage centre of the Nathpath in Rajasthan, which is quite different from the run-of-the-mill temples. We spent the night at the guesthouse of the temple. Swamiji was not there. He had gone somewhere else that night itself. But the conversation we had had with him filled us with admiration and respect for him.
It pained me to see that the Nathpanth is abandoning its principles and symbols. But it was heartening to see the portraits of Phule and Ambedkar, along with those of other leaders, in the dining hall (bhandara) of the Medi. Our room in the guesthouse was tastefully done up and what was surprising was that there was no picture of any god or goddess in the room. Neither were any Mahants or patrons of the temple smiling at us from the walls. This was very much unlike most temples.
Legend has it that Goga’s father was the ruler of a place called Daderva, in today’s Churu district. He was a Chauhan (a Rajput sub-caste). Goga, a valiant prince, was given the title of “Jaharveer”. Stories about him detail his love and marriage with Sirial (a princess of his caste) and his miraculous and brave efforts for protecting the “Gau Mata”. As the Chauhan clan was Nathpanthi, the stories repeatedly refer to Gorakhnath Guru, Guru Jalandhar, Machendranath and others. The CDs of songs on Goga, lockets, and religious books about him are available for purchase near Goga Medi. The books include Goga Purana. Local Brahmins wrote most of these books – this is also one of the reasons for the brahmanization of the legend of Goga. At the same time, most of the devotees visiting the Medi are either Dalits or OBCs. Many past Mahants of the Medi were Dalit-OBCs. The present Mahant, Balyogi Roopnath, is a Tribal (Meena).
Most of the visitors to Medi come seeking a son. Goga’s blessings are also believed to be effective in cases of snakebites. Goga’s disciples treat snakebite victims with feathers of a peacock. During my travels through Bundelkhand and Jharkhand a few months ago, I could see that fear of snakebites, using peacocks to defend against snakes, and worries about cattle falling prey to snakes are a recurring theme in Bahujan traditions.
From Goga ki Medi, we had planned to travel to Kalibanga, settled by tribals 4500 years ago. But dense fog – so dense that it was difficult to see anything beyond three metres – came in the way. Hitting the road was out of question.
We spent the foggy morning clicking photos. Hundreds of couples were visiting with their small children. Some believed that Goga ji had blessed them with sons. Others were praying for sons. There were a large number of people, mostly Dalits and from those labelled low-OBC castes, who were staging various types of stunts to earn some money. Some were displaying snakes, others were beating drums and still others were whipping themselves. Those giving money to them were also Dalits and those from low OBC castes.
One thing that drew our attention was that most of the idols in the dhuni (the central part of the main building) were not of four-armed gods but of humans. Besides Machendranath, Gorakhnath and Goga and some other Nath sadhus, there were also some of the Medi sadhus who had passed away. At one place, Hanuman was shown with Gorakhnath and Goga. The walls of the outer buildings were cluttered with pictures of four-armed goddesses and Shankar. The bhandara had photographs and portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru, Abdul Kalam Azad, Vallabh Bhai Patel and others, besides Jotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and Rabindranath Tagore.
We felt that whatever progressive symbols we could see in Goga ki Medi were because of the Phule-Ambedkarite inclinations of Dr Swamy. As he said, he was trying to change the superstitious religious system from the inside. But what begs the question is whether he can really do it. Or is he just creating a new army of people who would pray to Phule, Tagore, Nehru, Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh for sons?
(To be continued. In the next installment, read about the mysterious Sardar Charan Singh of Kalibanga)
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