SWAMI ACHUTANAND AND THE ADI HINDU MOVEMENT
This essay concentrate’s on the untouchable poor and explores their experience of caste distinctions in the towns of Uttar Pradesh, their urge for new forms of caste identities and the nature and significance of caste and religion based movements among them. In particular, the inter-connections and symbiosis between their identities based on caste, religion, status, labor, deprivation, inequality and domination are examined, that too particularly in reference to Uttar Pradesh.
Untouchable Poor in the urban milieu and Bhakti Resurgence
From the late 19th century, untouchable caste groups from rural areas began to migrate to Allahabad, Benares, Kanpur and Lucknow, where demand for the menial services they performed was expanding.
The nature of incorporation of untouchable rural migrants in the urban labor force marked a change from their past economic and social relations of work in the countryside. In the towns, the untouchables ceased to be servile laborers of the higher castes, and worked instead as paid municipal employees or domestic servants of the British, and some times in factories. This did not necessarily bring them affluence or economic self- sufficiency, but the nature of the urban occupations of untouchables came to undermine their direct caste subordination at work.
Colonial sociology and British classification of caste groups on the basis of occupation tended to fix the untouchables in particular kinds of urban jobs, especially as sweepers, scavengers and skinners or handlers of dead animals. Before 1934 they were not recruited to the subordinate ranks of the police force. They settled in slums or in other words they developed slums.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the untouchable migrants were exposed to two contrary trends.
01.Caste domination to a large extent ceased to be a feature of occupational
02.Continued caste distinctions in employment or educational opportunities and settlement patterns, as well as their general poverty, thwarted economic or social improvement.
These two simultaneous processes together appear to have created urgency among untouchables to assert themselves and to undermine caste barriers, for it was in the early 20th century in the towns that heterodox bhakti devotionals gained a large following among urban untouchables. Bhakti was a way of worshipping god through devotion and personnel communion, in which one’s caste could be eliminated or could become irrelevant, as all were considered to be equal in the eyes of god.
Devotionals or bhakti had been the dominant form of Hindu worship in medieval north India for several centuries. From the latter part of the 15th century, bhakti became broadly bifurcated into the SAGUNA and NIRGUNA traditions. Followers of Saguna bhakti believe the divine being to be with form or attribute, and hence they worship anthropomorphic manifestations of gods. On the other hand believers of Nirguna bhakti, in contrast, worship a formless universal god, but have, at the same time, faith in the partial embodiment of god like poet-saints, such as Ravidas or Kabir. Historically Saguna bhakti, with its most important north Indian literary expression in the works of Tulasidas and Surdas, had been a powerful religious force, followed by divergent cast groups. Saguna bhakti provided a socially integrative message to unify all castes through devotional worship, but affirmed a framework of belief based in the varnashrama dharma and the caste system. While Saguna bhakti represents the dominant version of north devotional Hinduism, nirguna bhakti developed partly in opposition to it among lower castes as a heterodox devotional alternative, and partly to resist hierarchical caste system. Nirguna bhakti was widespread in the masses of urban untouchables in the early 20th century. Although nirguna bhakti had developed gradually in forth India from the 15th century onwards amongst lower-caste groups, this tradition remained a subordinate, minority tradition, subject to hegemony of the saguna tradition.
When the untouchable migrants settled in the towns, they reconstituted their caste Panchayati in urban areas, which dealt with internal disputes among members of caste groups and stipulated the religious and social practices to be observed. Many of these Panchayati were named after bhakti gurus. Temples to gurus were reconstructed with the donations of Panchayati or from others or from the assistance of the priests, or financed by the small untouchable families. Town wide procession was used to be organized on the occasions of bhakti guru’s birth days, by 1920’s. Regular bhakti services in the one form or the other used to took place. Like bajans, kirtans, etc. Bhakti was conceived to explicitly and primarily as an egalitarian ideology which opposed the cast hierarchy.
Bhakti was believed to have history from pre-Aryan period before the advent of Vedic Hinduism. And it was believed mostly that it was developed by thinkers like Mahavir, Buddha, Kabir, Ravidas, Dadu, Paltu and Sattakop. Some of the 20th century untouchable preachers argue that even the upholders of Vedic Hinduism had to acknowledge the philosophical and theological superiority of pre-Aryan bhakti and thus incorporated it in their religious folds.
The idea of the pre-Aryan origin of bhakti devotionals, along with the exclusive claim of the untouchables over egalitarian, heterodox bhakti, lent fuel to an emerging belief that the untouchables were the original Indians or Adi Hindus , and in turn, developed into a social movement in the early 1920’s as the Adi Hindu movement. So it is implied to be understood that the caste system was introduced by the Aryans on the rest. While bhakti posited caste equality, the emerging Adi Hindu ideology constructed a theory of ancient racial origin of untouchables in order to claim backs their supposed original rights and power.
Emergence of the Adi Hindu Movement
It emerged against a background of new social and political developments that affected the untouchables from the 1920’s. Shifts in urban local policies after the First World War began to place increasing restrictions on the economic activities of a large number of untouchables. It became to find space for settlements to the untouchables, in addition to many other hard ships. The second generation of urban untouchables, therefore, increasingly began to seek means to get better jobs and education, as well as to find avenues for engagements with institutional politics and to organize themselves to contend with local policies. This was the backdrop against which bhakti resurgence evolved into the Adi Hindu movement.
The educational benefits, Bhakti egalitarian outlook, urban exposure…etc made second generation untouchables to formulate the ideology of Adi Hinduism. Swami Acchutanand (1879-1933), an untouchable gained extensive knowledge of religious texts, and he along with some other persons like Ram Charan (1888-1938) took up various activities for the uplift of the untouchable sections. Some among them joined Arya samaj, but latter had difference with it and spitted into two groups, one in support of and other in opposition of. They grew suspicious of Arya Samaj activities, such as they believed that the Arya Samaj was not genuinely working for the uplift of the untouchables but trying to use against the Muslim population in India. They also criticized the sudhi program or purification project of the Arya Samaj.
According to the view of Swami Acchutanand, the Aryan invaders had subjugated and imposed Vedic Hinduism on the original Hindus, and deprived them of their bhakti religion, which had been supposedly practiced prior to the advent of the Aryans. According to the biographer of Acchutanand, he also read R.C. Dutt’s Bengali translation of the Rig Vedas, and had discussed religious issues with the missionaries of the Theolosophical Society and with Jain and Buddhist sadhus.
Acchutanand had become aware of the racial and religious differences between the Aryans. He had concluded from accounts of warfare in Hindu religious texts between dasyus (bandits or plunderers) or asuras (demons) and Aryan gods that these were references to the conquest of ancient pre- Aryan races in India by the Aryan invaders to the conquest of ancient pre-Aryan races by the Aryan invaders.
Soon after their rift with the Arya Samaj in the early 1920’s, the untouchable leaders began to propagate the concept of an Adi Hindu original race and bhakti as their separate, pre Aryan religion. A book entitled "Mool Bharathasi aur Arya" (original inhabitants of India and the Aryans) was published, written by Swami Bodhanand. The Kumbh Mela at Allahabad of 1928-29 saw the most strident proclamation of Adi Hinduism. At this most of the sects of Adi Hindu bhakti was held, in which Karbirpanthi, Ravidas and Shivnarayani groups participated. By 1924 local Hindu sabhas had been organized in urban areas.
The emphasis of the Adi Hindu movement was on the shared religious perspective between the Adi Hindu preachers and local untouchable groups who practiced bhakti. The Ravidas chamar Panchayati in Kanpur, for instance, declared Acchutanand as the leader of their community in the 1920’s and chamar's in Kanpur in large numbers attended meetings convened by the Adi Hindu sabha and addressed by Acchutanand.
In Allahabad, the chamar’s of the cantonment area had declared that they constitute a self- contained community, having broken away from high-caste Hindus, and declared their festivals separately in 1926. Similarly in Lucknow in April 1927 various chamar Panchayati held a joint meeting, where they pledged their support to the Adi Hindu movement and resolved to form a volunteer corpus. The informal nature of links between apex Adi Hindu organizations in the towns and local caste groups in urban areas contributed to the strength and breadth of the movement. A police report in 1922 referred to a spirit of revolt among untouchables, which appears to be an allusion to bhakti resurgence and the development of the Adi Hindu movement.
The Adi Hindu ideology was particularly attractive to the mass of the untouchables and was espoused by them because it provided them with a historical explanation for their own poverty and deprivation, and presented them not only with a vision of their past power and rights, but also with hopes of regaining their lost rights. The Adi Hindu leaders were in fact providing an ideology to a receptive audience that was already seeking means to claim rights and privileges in urban society.
Adi Hindu Ideology: A statement of Rights against Exclusion:
Its emphasis was less on caste oppression or exploitation, which might have been the chief concern if the movement had emerged in rural areas, and more on ritual exclusion, which was directly relevant to the urban untouchables. To challenge the exclusion of untouchables, the Adi Hindu leaders not only argued for caste equality, but also highlighted a view that the untouchables had been deprived of their original rights through force and political machinations by the higher castes, and that their rights should be restored.
Adi Hindu leaders like Acchutanand highlighted introspective dimension of bhakti and gave this religious concept a new social significance. Spiritual introspection was accorded supreme importance as the only way to arrive at true knowledge and to evolve one’s own world view. Introspection, it was held, would lead to self- realization or self-knowledge. This was in turn facilitating the articulation of an autonomous value system that was not derived from or imposed by the higher castes.
The Adi Hindu leaders denied that untouchables should perform only low and impure occupations. They pointed out that the untouchables were forced to do such kind of work by the higher castes.
The claim of a separate racial origin of the untouchables was substantiated by arguing that bhakti was a pre-Vedic religion. Even though bhakti had its roots in Hinduism, the Adi Hindu leaders denied such associations. Bhakti was claimed to be a distinct and egalitarian religious tradition that pre-dated Vedic Hinduism.
They portrayed bhakti as the distinctive religious heritage of the untouchables, and posited the egalitarianism of bhakti against the inequalities of Vedic Hinduism. It some how spread beyond the ranks of the literate leadership because it provided a political vocabulary to the untouchables to claim rights and opportunities in urban society. The leaders drew upon the familiar religious idiom of bhakti and animated it with visions of a new order of equality and rights.
Self-assertion and Social Reforms
Medieval bhakti devotionals had rejected idolatry in Vedic Hinduism and the trappings of ceremonial worship that shrouded god behind a veil of rituals. They viewed promotion of Hindu ceremonies as a strategy of the upper castes to impoverish the lower castes, by constant economic dependence or debt bondage to the upper castes. So they preached the need for the reform of social and religious practices as a means of achieving economic self-sufficiency and occupational diversification. When these things will be followed strictly then savings can be done and better education can be achieved. These ideas were seriously considered by the caste Panchayati. Informal savings were encouraged and followed by some Panchayati, for cultivating the habit. There registered a sharp decline in the taking up of low menial works. The annual report o the Benares municipal Board in 1924-25 stated that the number of chamar’s performing customary sweeping and scavenging in households had declined dramatically, while there was a corresponding increase in the number of sweepers employed y the municipality. Though inter dining were encouraged among different untouchable castes, it resulted as a failure.
Institutional Politics and Party Affiliations:
By the early 1930’s , majority of Adi Hindu leaders turned their concentration on bargaining within political representative institutions and concentrated on matters of public policy making. Agitational politics or social and religious activism gradually came to assume a lower priority for them. Having established a base of support for the Adi Hindu movement and having demonstrated the strength of their constituency, the leaders now concentrated on consolidating their own position within political institutions.
Acctutanandh saw British rule, with the possibility of political representation of the untouchables that it presented, as a source of salvation for the untouchables as opposed to the ill will of the upper castes. The refusal of congress to accept some of the demands of lower-caste untouchables caste politicians in constitutional deliberations in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, especially for separate electorate, had gradually persuaded many untouchable leaders throughout India to rely on interest group politics. The untouchable poor often rallied behind their leaders in political campaigns. However, support for the leaders on this basis could only be a limited nature, usually focused on specific issues. The Adi Hindu movement appeared to lose its momentum by the mid- 1930’s, at least in public political campaigns. But this movement was however kept alive through localized initiatives, and primarily through continued bhakti religious expansion among the poorer untouchables. However the anniversaries of gurus and other festivals started to occupy place in calendars. But political agitations, pressure activities were continued now and then according to situations.
"Adi Hindu Depressed Classes Association", one of a splinter group demanded rights as well as preferential treatment. The political events were organized to put forward demands for separate political rights as well as government jobs, scholarships and entry to schools and colleges. When Simon Commission visited they tried to present their chatter of demands.
Large public meetings were organized occasionally in urban areas as part of pressure groups, political campaigns, etc thousands of untouchables used to attend. In such meetings they used to cities Gandhi and Congress too. They conducted extensive campaigns against the Gandhian position.
Some leaders of the Adi Hindu Association preffered to avoid the help of the Congress in organizing social reform works and in setting up schools for untouchables. Another section opted for a policy of alliance and formed a break away party called the Depressed Classes League, who inclined to cooperate with Congress. But any how Congress failed to provide any alternative emanicipatory ideology to the harijans to include them in the Hindu fold.
From the mid 1930’s a left wing within Congress, tried to organize untouchables on class basis. but any how bhakti and Adi Hindu ideology was still prevalent in them. Though Madan Mohan Malaviya, tried to incorporate untouchables in the Hindu nationalist fold, under Arya Samaj and Hindu's Mahasabha's support his attempts were not yielded substantial results.
Critical Out Look
01. To the untouchables, the nationalist and reformist tendencies seemed to be irrelevant. Which were based on purity and pollution. Because purity and pollution undermined their social and cultural exclusion.
02. Bakthi and Adi Hindu formed the dominant form of their political expression and identity, though they involved in agitation politics to some extent.
03. The movement failed to penetrate into the rural areas.
04 Social and cultural reforms were left aside from the starting of 1930's and concentrated only on political activities.
05. Though political activities were taken up, they failed to forge alliances with like minded groups and carry on activities.
06. Lacked strategically commitment for the annihilation of caste hierarchy
07. Tried to deviate from Hindu ritualistic traditions and festivals, and desired to improve socially, culturally and religiously too.
But, any how the attempts of Adi Hindu leadership is appreciatable.They done to the best of their ability and marked a historical record. The movement stands as a source of inspiration to the rest and better lessons can learn by analyzing the past movement.