TEESTA SETALVAD remembers Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra, who campaigned for a clean Ganga with a committed heart and a rationally trained mind.
Before he could light the lamp for the daily evening aarti at the Sankat Mochan mandir last Wednesday evening (March 13, 2013), Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra breathed his last. The mahant , whose modest abode was at the legendary Tulsighat of Benaras, succumbed to lung congestion at 75. A post-graduate from the Benares Hindu University, Dr. Mishra was also a hydraulic engineer by profession using his scientific knowledge and spiritual strength to urge cynical governments to get his beloved Ganga mai re-born in her life-sustaining image.
Gifted with two critical faculties, as he put it, he had come to become the voice for a clean and re-born Ganga. “There is a necessary interface between the two, a committed heart and a rationally trained mind,” he shared in a candid conversation with me in 2006 after his beloved temple and city had been ripped by the violence of twin bombings. “Today men of science have gradually begun to accept that there is a world beyond the mere physical. I have been saying for over 25 years that the fish in the Ganga are dying; soon we, human beings living on its banks, will follow. I have been working on the issue of purification of fresh waterbodies with the Ganga as the symbol. The Ganga catchment area provides sustenance to 40 crore human lives. Domestic sewage and industrial pollution contributes to 95 per cent of the pollution and this can be stopped.” He never lost a public opportunity to raise this issue. It was in the aftermath of the vicious violence, however, that his deep conviction met another kind of challenge when he rose to the highest demands of all faiths when he called for peace.
Seven years ago to a week, on March 7, 2006, a week before the festival of Holi could be celebrated, twin bomb blasts rocked the holy city on the banks of the Ganga and sent resounding shock waves throughout the country. A total of 23 persons were killed, 21 of them worshippers within the precincts of the Sankat Mochan temple, a temple devoted to Lord Hanuman and to whom the devout offer special prayers on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The calculated acts of violence were aimed beyond the lives that they took, the ultimate provocation. Located on the banks of the holy Ganga, Kashi is the pilgrimage centre for the devout and central to Hindu scriptures and religiosity, Hindustani music and poetry. Deep grief and legitimate outrage could have spilled into spiralling violence.
Instead, drawing deep from the spirituality and mysticism that has woven itself around Kashi, devotees responded by continuing their darshan before Lord Hanuman within 40 minutes of the tragedy, close to the spot where blood had been spilt hours earlier. Temple mahant , Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra, led the devout in his calm way, refusing to let this blow tarnish the temple’s tradition of inclusiveness and tolerance. Best efforts for politico-religious figures to gain entry were thwarted.
“My first response was to calm people down, to prevent them from fleeing. Hanumanji ki kripa se; hum log kya hai, hum to nimmit matra hai, hamare paas koi aisi shakti nahin (by the grace of Lord Hanuman, we believe that we are nothing, the force comes from above). Television channels had started their broadcasts, all we said to them was, ‘ Shanti kisi bhi haal mein banaye rakhna hai (Peace must be maintained at all cost)’,” was what the mahant told me. It was a tragic moment in the temple’s 400-year history; for the first time ritual worship at the temple had to stop. After the ritual evening bath at the temple that evening, around 9.45-10.00 p.m., he decided that the aarti , an evening ritual to the lord, and all other rituals must resume. “That was a critical decision, a good decision. The aarti happened even if 40 minutes late. This one action diffused the atmosphere of fear, anger and dejection,” he recalled. After the aarti , special ablutions are performed and the devout get a glimpse of Lord Hanuman. This ends then with a kirtan and a smaller aarti . Reluctant to leave his beloved temple, he made it clear to the local police that temple rituals would begin again at 4.30 a.m. the next day as usual. Adversity, says the cliché, draws out the best or the worst in us. The mahant’s call for calm and peace made the tide turn, nationally. By the next morning, residents of the city — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians — demonstrated, in peaceful outrage against the acts of terror.
Burkha-clad women, traders and Muslim clergy were not only visible in their protest and grief but could also be seen offering prayers at the temple. Any outsider could have mistaken Tulsighat for a Muslim neighbourhood. “People in Kashi live together, breathe together, love the holy Ganga together. For centuries this has meant shared devotion, music, poetry. Benaras has given the world Krishna Maharaj and Bismillah Khan. For me, the words of Ramcharitmanas tell me that Sita and Ram are everywhere; if I believe that is so, I must love all. This sentiment pervades all faiths. Places of worship must not be used to gain political profit.”
People in Kashi live together, breathe together, love the holy Ganga together.