Does the growth of 'deras' and ashrams in hybrid architectural styles mark a new material culture?

The age of discourse around Hindu values and reform movements appears to have been replaced in the present by the age of the guru and the baba

Updated - January 14, 2018 09:48 am IST

Published - January 13, 2018 05:16 pm IST

The Satsang hall at Dera Sachkhand Ballan.

The Satsang hall at Dera Sachkhand Ballan.

It is one of the ironies of our moment in history that at the time when the idea of a secular nation state was taking root, there was also a raging debate on the idea of Hinduism, its past and its many presents. Decades later, when Hindutva has firmly taken root, the idea of Hinduism and its future in public discourse is oddly absent.

The 19th century was the age of reform, revision and of a reinscription of ideas. European nationalism sparked ideas of reform and led to a dynamic if uneven exchange of ideas between India and the West. Thinkers and ideologues from the West, like Annie Besant and Helena Blavatsky, brought forward ideas of reform.

Spreading gurudom

There were also Hindu reform movements by the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, Vedic revival movements like the All World Gayatri Pariwar, and Vivekananda’s Neo Vedantic movement. Vivekananda was enormously successful in advocating the universality of all religions.

His teachings and travels, and the reach of his publications was exceeded only by those of Gandhi. Most social reformers of the immediate pre- and post-Independence era were ardent nationalists whose objectives were closely tied to those of new India.

However, another shift came in the mid-60s, when Osho, Iskcon, Vishva Hindu Parishad and Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisation all came in quick succession.

Subsequently, the age of discourse around Hindu values and reform movements appears to have been replaced in the present by the age of the guru and the baba, the math or the dera . In a huge resurgence since the 1990s, gurudom has expanded rapidly.

The once relatively humble sphere of ashrams and gurukuls in Haridwar-Rishikesh, Mathura-Vrindavan and Varanasi, constructed at holy or religious sites, steeped in tradition, has made way for expansive deras , usually far from any perceived sacred site, focused instead on dramatic architecture and the development of real estate.

The math as a religious institution is no stranger to India’s religious topography. Historically, many of these are rich repositories of the math’s history and thus able to shed light on religious history, trade, conditions of rule, donations of land and gifts of cash.

Traditional maths are also repositories of material and aesthetic culture. The Jangamwadi math, at Varanasi, for instance, has lakhs of Shiva lingas donated by devotees.

The archives of the Vaishnava maths of Partagali, known as Gokarna Matha, have records in copper plates and documents, in Persian, Marathi and Kannada, that date back to the mid-15th century.

These reveal much about how issues of faith were conducted, from the Vijaynagara period onwards, including the possession of lands, quarrels between pontiffs, the ‘crimes’ of members, and acts of purification. The archives also point to another source of conflict, when the punishment or laws meted out by the math ran counter to the laws of the land.

At the heart of this phenomenon lies precisely this separation from a failing state apparatus and the communitarian support — towards education, health and a restructured sense of community — that new-age maths provide.

Since the 1990s, the televisual guru’s teachings, opulentashrams, high-profile political following, all supported with narratives of healing, or near-magical transformation, have added to the growing mystique of the dera and the math . These vast fast-growing networks receive political patronage — and tax exemption for charitable activities — and in turn become centres of power during elections.

Popular aesthetic

The nationalist aspiration and ideals of 19th and early 20th century Hindu reformers have dovetailed into political patronage and a voluble form of Hindu nationalism. Many of them market an entire way of life — from the consumption of ‘pure’ products to community housing, if not colonies, for the devoted. Even 50 or 100 years later it would be interesting to speculate what the archive of such maths may be like.

Records of acts of welfare, all borne of guru- bhakti participation, like flood relief or blood donation camps, will jostle with political visits and records of new branches, hospitals or educational endowments. Pre-modern beliefs will operate alongside technological advances. In this entire enterprise, the maths’ functioning appears to have become extra-cultural.

From the point of view of this column, what is important is the separation of guru-led belief systems and existing aesthetic practices.

There is the well-known episode that Adi Shankaracharya came to establish the Sringeri math because he saw on the banks of the Tunga river a cobra giving shelter to a frog about to spawn. Deeply impressed by the amity between natural enemies, Shankaracharya lived there for 12 years. The math in this instance became the fulcrum of an aesthetic order.

It may not be an exaggeration to read the present efflorescence of hybrid architectural style grand bhavans, deras and ashrams as marking the cusp of a new material culture. It is one where Brahminical ritual objects may be entirely replaced by a new popular aesthetic.

According to a 2009 study, there are more than 9,000 Sikh and non-Sikh deras in 12,000 villages of Punjab. Most of these are modest, offering food and shelter, while many are well funded, with their own narratives of divinity and political affiliation. Occupying a space that is neither Hindu nor Sikh, they desire and arrive at their own architectural styles.

The Ravidassias, a 21st century sect based on the teachings of the 14th century saint, Ravidas, have made up their own architectural style, as seen in Dera Sachkhand Ballan near Jalandhar. At least two images of Sant Ravidas have been consecrated in 25 kg of gold each. In the decades to come, we may well be immersed in an entirely new 21st century religious visual field.

The writer is an art critic and curator who, while preoccupied with her art website, is also contemplating a book

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