A controversy that recalls the debates around Sabarimala and whether the Lingayats constitute a separate religious community is brewing in Samithope, a coastal village in Kanyakumari, the country’s southernmost district and constituency. At its heart is what constitutes Hinduism and how far the State can intervene in the affairs of sects and cults that claim to be non-Hindu traditions.
Samithope is the headquarters of Ayya Vazhi, the sect that follows the teachings of 19th-century radical reformer Ayya Vaikunta Swamigal. Its head, Bala Prajapati Adigalar, is angry with the AIADMK and BJP for what he feels is an attempt by the State to subsume Ayya Vazhi within Hinduism and take over the sect’s main shrine at Samithope.
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This should be a cause of worry for Pon Radhakrishnan, senior BJP leader and Union Minister of State for Shipping and Finance, who is seeking re-election. Adigalar accuses Radhakrishnan of plotting against Ayya Vazhi and holds the minister responsible for the state’s Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Department taking control of the shrine’s administration in March.
Ayya Vazhi has over 10 lakh followers, mostly among Nadars, an OBC community dominant in the southern Tamil Nadu districts of Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi. In Kanyakumari, where Radhakrishnan, a Hindu Nadar, is engaged in a tough and polarised contest with another Hindu Nadar, Congress MLA and businessman H Vasanthakumar, every vote will count. Vasanthakumar, who hails from a village neighbouring Samithope, has been assiduously cultivating Ayya Vazhi followers, with his Vasanth TV starting a daily programme on the teachings of Vaikunta Swamigal.
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Radhakrishnan refused to comment on Adigalar’s claims, but said Samithope needs “development”.
Adigalar, 72, argues that Vaikunta Swamigal (1808-1851) is not just another Hindu social reformer but a religious figure who broke with Arya Dharma and established his own faith tradition. He believes that to call it a Hindu reformist sect is to refute the basic teachings of Swamigal.
Swamigal, a contemporary of the musician-king of Travancore Swati Thirunal, was born in the Nadar community, which faced serious caste discrimination. A self-taught scholar of Hindu Puranas and epics as well as the great ethical text Thirukkural, Swamigal evolved a religious doctrine that privileged self-respect, equality, charity, truth, love and mercy over the ritualistic traditions of Hinduism. His dharma was militant in its refutal of Brahminism and the caste order. He asked his followers to wear a headgear when the ruling castes refused to let the lower castes wear a turban even while a carrying a load, or upper garments. He founded a ‘samattuva samajam’ for propagating the brotherhood of people across castes and propagated inter-dining. The Nizhalthankals he established were places that offered shelter and food to weary travellers, which also became places that spread his teachings.
Scholars like A K Perumal, however, are sceptical of the claim of it as a separate faith. While Perumal respects Adigalar as a scholar and a religious leader, he prefers to see Ayya Vazhi as a Hindu reformist sect. He also argues against comparisons with the Lingayat tradition. A separate religion status to Lingayats has long been a contentious political issue in Karnataka.
At Samithope shrine where the Swamigal had lived and taught, every pilgrim is expected to wear a turban as she enters it, and share food and water with fellow pilgrims. A mirror greets the pilgrim in the sanctum sanctorum, to signal that God is within. In Swamigal’s lifetime itself, Samithope had grown as a challenger and alternative spiritual centre to the neighbouring Sucheendram temple, a citadel of Brahminical Hinduism and caste society.
The Ayya Vazhi has fought an extended court battle to establish its character as a distinct non-Hindu faith. Adigalar says it is “our constitutional right to protect our distinctiveness” as a separate faith. Sitting at his modest residence within the Samithope shrine compound, Adigalar says that former chief minister J Jayalalithaa had promised him that the state government would respect the distinct tradition of Ayya Vazhi. “But now the state government is a slave of the Central government. The leaders swear by Amma, but it is chumma (meaningless)… If this government returns to power, it will wipe out Vaikunta Swami’s teachings.”
Mahatma Gandhi is central to Adigalar’s political vision. “Gandhi got us Independence, but he is not to be seen today. This country will survive only if we rediscover Gandhi,” he says. Adigalar, who was in the forefront of the initiatives to establish communal peace after Hindu-Christian clashes in the district in 1980s, also says that religion should not be used to further political goals.
Adigalar and his four brothers, who form a direct lineage with Swamigal and are the custodians of the Samithope shrine, administer the temple affairs with offerings by devotees. The pilgrims who stay over at the shrine and the mentally disturbed people who have made the compound their home are fed thrice a day. Adigalar claims that the shrine has never sought State funds.
But while the response to the State takeover of the Samithope shrine was muted, as elections near, the debate clearly has not seen closure yet.