Saturday, July 12, 2014


For the breaking of convention, this year’s Ratha Yatra, held on June 29, will figure in the annals of this celebrated festival in Puri, mainly because of the attention the media paid to it. Jagadguru Sri Shankaracharya, the head of Govardhana Matha, an institution that was set up by Aadi Shankaracharya in the fifth century– some say, in 483 - BC, did not participate in the Ratha Yatra this year. He did not climb the Rathas and did not have sparsha darshana (seeing and touching) of the Deities there. A convention of many years was broken – no one knows precisely how many. According to some, hundreds of years; according to others, just a few decades. The Administrator of Jagannath Temple is reported to have observed that this practice is not all that old; there is no documentary evidence in support of such a claim.

Another convention was broken – again one doesn’t know when it started. Some say that it is only a few decades old: devotees could climb the Rathas and have sparsha darshana of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra (and Sudarshana) on their respective Rathas. Devotees do not just touch the Deities, especially Jagannath; they embrace Him, caress Him, and stroke His face, although often servitors on the Rathas tell them not to do so, at least not stroke His face. Apart from foreigners and non-Hindus, no one was forbidden from climbing the Rathas till this year. This year the devotees were not allowed to climb the Rathas; they had to be content with darshana from the ground; no sparsha darshana for them.

There are foreign devotees of Jagannath now, due probably to the spread of the Krishna Consciousness movement. They want to offer worship the same way as the other devotees. There are also foreigners who are Hindus, but even they are not allowed to enter the Jagannath Temple or climb the Rathas. Thus for temple entry, to be a Hindu is not enough, one must not look like a foreigner! This matter was raised at various public forums a couple of years ago, and it seems there was considerable support for the entry into the Temple by the foreigner Hindus. Reportedly the concerned authorities were inclined to do away with this discrimination, but they did not succeed. According to those who opposed the move, the foreigners might be Hindus, but did they really follow the Hindu cultural practices, for instance cleaning themselves with water.

Last year An Italian Odishi dancer, a Padmashree awardee, who lives in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, was allegedly roughed up on the Ratha of Jagannath, allegedly by some servitors. Some say this happened because she was a foreigner but the dancer seems to have said that this happened because she refused to give one thousand rupees that some servitors on the Ratha demanded from her. The year before too, a foreigner had been roughed up on the Ratha. Such reports invite adverse publicity about not merely the servitors but also the Temple administration and the government. Furthermore, it hurts the sensitivities of the people at large.

Presumably, on this account, the Temple authorities sought the advice of the Sri Sankaracharya of Puri regarding whether foreigners could climb the Rathas and have sparsha darsan of the Deities. The advice of Mukti Mandap had probably been sought on this matter before Sankaracharya’s advice was sought, but the media has not projected the views of this priestly body of interpreters of religion and tradition. Conventionally matters relating to the Temple, such as say, observance of rituals, have been referred to this body, which is considered to be the arbitrator on such matters. Whatever are the attitudes and the views of those unconnected with this institution about it, it is part of the Temple organization. The same can hardly be said about the institution of Shankaracharya. The temple authorities might have decided to seek Sri Sankaracharya’s advice probably because of his high status in Hindu religion.

He advised that touching of the Deities on the Rathas by anyone, irrespective of whether he is an Indian or a foreigner, cannot be permitted because it is gravely sinful to do so and only those people must remain on the Rathas who have a seva there, that is, who have to be part of some ritual to be performed on the Rathas. Agreeing with him, the Gajapati Maharaja of Puri, who is the head of the Temple administration, and who is the first among the servitors (prathama sevaka), said on television that it is not just papa (sin) but maha papa (grave sin) to touch the Deities on the Rathas. The Temple administration accepted Sri Shankaracharya’s advice. But a section of the servitors who traditionally conduct the Ratha Yatra did not agree. According to them this would amount to rejecting an important convention and would hurt the devotees’ feelings. The matter went to the High Court of Odisha, the ruling of which, ignoring many subtle details of both the case and the ruling, went in favour of Shankaracharya’s advice and instructed the Government to discharge its responsibility with respect to the maintenance of law and order.

For some reason which is unclear, the core temple administration invited Sri Sankaracharya to come alone to perform his traditional worship on the Rathas. He was invited through a letter – one does not know why no representative of the committee came to invite him in person as well, a courtesy he deserved. He refused to come without his associates. He said on television that this restriction on him was humiliating. When he did not participate in Ratha Yatra, a convention was broken. Later, after the Ratha Yatra was over, the king of Puri, said on television that what had happened was wrong and that he was unaware that such a letter had gone to Sri Shankaracharya. He also said that it was not up to any committee to tell Sri Shankaracharya how he has to perform his worship on the Rathas, i.e., whether alone or with associates, and if the latter, how many of them. One would presume that likewise, he believed, no questions in the same regard could be asked to him as well. Incidentally he too seems to have been requested to take a reduced number of his associates on to the Rathas for the performance of his seva which is known as chera pahanra, which is essentially sweeping of the floors of the Rathas.
Following the Court order, the administration did not allow the devotees to climb the Rathas and have sparsha darshan. Police cordoned off the Rathas with iron barricades and devotees had darshan from outside the cordon. But as it sometimes happens, the implementation of an administrative decision turns out to be more prohibitive than necessary – the devotees could not touch even the Rathas because of the barricades, even when the Deities had gone to Gundicha Ghara where they remain for seven days. Devotees traditionally touch the Rathas and the ropes with which they are pulled, both of which are considered extremely sacred, but they could not touch the Rathas this time, although this was not part of the Court order.

Many devotees expressed great happiness at being able to have clear darshan of the Deities. This did not happen earlier, when scores of devotees climbed on the Rathas and covered the Deities. For those on the ground and there would be thousands of them, it was very difficult to have a clear darshan of the Deities, which was very disappointing for them. This year this did not happen. Many devotees thanked the government for this and were equally thankful to Sri Shankaracharya for making it possible.

There were of course others who said with a touch of sadness and disappointment that they could not have sparsha darshan, they could not embrace and caress the Ones they revered most and loved most. They had come from distances with hopes of this but felt very disappointed. A middle aged woman spoke for many when she said if all this was so sinful, why didn’t he, i.e., Sri Shankaracharya, say so earlier? And why didn’t, we would like to add, the Gajapati Maharaja, who is the foremost among the sevakas of Jagannath, all these years?

Conventions of the Temple have undergone changes and the same thing will continue to happen, which must not surprise us. As times change, conventions are bound to change. Only in 2006 a convention was broken with when responding to the demands of the situation the temple administration put ladders for the devotees to climb the Rathas and another convention was done away with some two decades ago when the dahukas (ritual sarathis of the Rathas) were directed to stop using erotic language, a tantric practice, while ritually exhorting the pullers of the Rathas. 
Now what is curious about the Temple administration’s consulting Sri Shankaracharya is the following: someone hitting the devotees on the Rathas or harassing them there about money, is a law and order problem and is by no means a religious issue. For all concerned about the smooth conduct of the Ratha Yatra festival, it is a challenge to find an effective way to organize the darshan on the Rathas, so that at any point of time only a manageable number of devotees remain on a Ratha. If there is some undesirable happening, the police must act in permissible ways or record the victim’s complaints and initiate inquiry. Incidentally, assault cases are not at all frequent; it is in no one’s interest to assault devotees. Pushing and jostling and shouting are to be expected when there is overcrowding. As for foreigners climbing the Rathas, until a decision is made, they could be dissuaded from doing by the security staff on duty at the Rathas. Such devotees need to be informed about the relevant constraints by an active information dissemination service system of the Temple administration and the government. 

If at all Sri Shankaracharya had to be consulted, why wasn’t he consulted on a number of connected issues rather than a single one? For instance, there is the question of Hindus, who are foreigners, being given discriminatory treatment, such as not being allowed to enter the Temple. It sounds reasonable when they ask for the same religious rights as enjoyed by the Indian Hindus. For some time the issue of the Temple entry for physically challenged and for very old persons who are unable to climb the steps of the Temple has been raised. Some of the people of these categories want wheel chairs to be allowed inside the temple. Sri Shankaracharya could have been consulted on this as well. These are all obviously related issues. Having said this, I must add that these are not merely religious issues; these are very much public issues as well. Not just Jagannath, Jagannath worship too transcends religion.

By the way, there was an interesting fall out of Sri Shankaracharya’s views and the Court decision on sparsha darshan on the Rathas. Going by a newspaper report, some VIPs and others who were inside the temple when the Deities were being brought to the Rathas had sparsha darshana and when a servitor raised the question as to whether it wasn’t gravely sinful to touch the Deities, a young cabinet minister seems to have said that there was no religious prohibition about touching the Deities when they are not on the Rathas.

The Temple administration has erred by looking for a religious solution to an essentially administrative matter. It is undeniably a complex issue but it is one that has to be resolved within the administrative framework with sensitivity.