On Monday evening, followers of Mahant Narendra Giri, one of the country’s most influential Hindu seers, found him hanging from a fan in his room in Allahabad’s Baghambari Math. The police said 62-year-old Giri died by suicide.

According to the police, Giri left a suicide note in which he is said to have blamed a disciple named Anand Giri with whom he was embroiled in a property tussle till recently. Anand Giri has been arrested.

Leaders from across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressed their sorrow at Narendra Giri’s death.

The word of akharas

Giri’s influence stemmed from his position as the head of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad. The Parishad is a conglomerate of the 13 recognised Hindu monastic orders, known as akharas, spread across the country.

While an akhara literally means a “wrestling arena”, in this context they are boarding institutions for ascetics. The seers identify themselves as militant defenders of the Hindu faith – thus the word akhara. One of the institutions affiliated to the Parishad, the Nirmohi Akhara, was one of the main parties in the Ayodhya Ram temple title dispute.

Narendra Giri belonged to the Niranjani akhara, whose seers worship the deity Kartikeya. He spent his early years in Haridwar.

Giri is believed to have joined the Niranjani akhara, the second largest of the 13 orders, and been initiated sometime in the mid 1980s.

Since 2004, Giri has headed Allahabad’s Baghambari Math and been the chief priest in the city’s Bada Hanuman temple.

A hardliner

In 2014, Giri was elected head of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad. He was re-elected in 2019.

While Giri was known to be close to politicians across the board, he is said to have drawn close to the Bharatiya Janata Party in recent times. This is unsurprising, perhaps, since Giri was a hardliner when it came to matters related to the Hindu faith.

Giri reportedly called for demolition of mosques in Kashi and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. “Like the Babri Masjid, temples were also demolished at Kashi and Mathura to build mosques,” he reportedly said. “...The mosques must be demolished.”

After the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Nirmohi Akhara in the Ram Mandir case, he is supposed to have played an active role in raising money for the construction of the temple.

After Giri became its chief, the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad also took an immoderate stance on several matters. It passed resolutions opposing conversions and called for strict action against Christian missionaries. The Parishad under him also passed a resolution opposing animal slaughter during the Muslim festival of Eid.

Meanwhile, Giri’s death has run into a controversy with many contesting the police’s suicide version. His dispute with Anand Giri, whom he is said to have blamed in his suicide note, had allegedly been resolved. In fact, Anand Giri is said to have apologised to Narendra Giri.

Doubts have also been cast over the suicide note he allegedly left behind. Some of his supporters claiming that Giri did not know how to write.

“It is surprising that someone of his stature should commit suicide over some small property dispute,” said a veteran journalist who has extensively reported on the world of Hindu ascetics.