Suicide of three persons there raises questions about maths

The self-immolation of three devotees of Sri Ganeshwar Avadhoot Maharaj in the Chowli Math near Bidar on Monday raises several questions about religious institutions like maths that are worlds unto themselves, with little accountability to any overarching authority.

Jagannath Swami (30) of Nagur in Andhra Pradesh, Eera Reddy Swami (45) of Manur in Andhra Pradesh, and Pranav Swami (16) of Chowli village, immolated themselves on the math premises on Monday. While Jagannath Swami was staying in the math for over 15 years, Eera Reddy Swami was there for nearly 7 years, Pranav Swami had left home two years ago to stay with Sri Ganeshwar Avadhoot Maharaj.

The incident comes five weeks after what appeared to be suicide of Sri Ganeshwar Avadhoot Maharaj, the reclusive seer who founded the math. He also had left a suicide note. While the police suspect that he had consumed poison, the devotees did not file any complaint. His body was buried without a post-mortem.

“Some inmates told us that Ganeshwar Avadhoot had spoken about mass suicide along with his followers,” said a police officer investigating the case. The math attracted a large number of devotees from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. But its inmates remained reclusive and its activities were shrouded in mystery to outsiders, including residents of Chowli village. “We seldom saw the seer coming out of his room. He used to deliver weekly discourses. But that had stopped a few years back,” said Basavaraj Channappa, a resident of Chowli.

The math was started by Shiva Kumar, a young man from Gugwad in Sangli district bordering Athani in Karnataka. He was brought to Chowli by Sangayya Swamy a police officer in 1989 or 90. Sangayya Swami was murdered in the early 90s, though the police say it was not related to the affairs of the math.

Sri Ganeshwar Avadhoot, as he began to be called in Chowli, set up a small math on a piece of farmland donated by Omkarappa, a village resident. Locals called the seer Chowli Mutya.

Chowli Mutya was a Marathi-speaking Lingayat. But the math was not run on Basaveshwara’s ideals. It has no idols of Basaveshwara or other Sharanas. Instead, there are over 100 statues and idols of Chowli Mutya. One of the statues is over 40ft high.

The math’s finances and influence expanded in the last decade. Land prices in Chowli shot up after 2007 when the outer ring road of Bidar passed through the village. The math’s expansion plans suffered as land prices soared and Chowli farmers refused to part with their land. This had led to some disputes too. Some devotees lodged cases against land owners of Chowli village. For instance, devotees pressured the police to arrest a person called Basavarajappa and a few others for the alleged kidnapping of Maruti Swamy, a devotee who went missing on January 31, said Pandhari Nath, a resident of Chowli.

16 branches

The math has 16 branches spread across Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, and each branch is independent in its own right. “People who are complaining of police failure should realise that the devotees did not allow the police to investigate the earlier cases properly,” said a senior police officer.

Uncertainty ahead

“The math’s future is uncertain. We have lost Jagannath Swami, who was running the math. Now we are directionless,” said Aravind Patil, a devotee from Humnabad. “We had met Deputy Commissioner P.C. Jaffer seeking advice about the math management. He suggested that devotees should set up a trust. Elders of Chowli village and a few devotees held a meeting to discuss the issue, and agreed to set up a trust. But it has not been formed yet,” he said.