A violent clash between two groups of Naga sadhus for a top post in their akhara during the ongoing Simhastha Kumbh at Ujjain last week has prompted two questions – is the spiritualism of ascetics being overshadowed by their interest in property and wielding influence, or is this altercation an exception that has nothing to do with the larger community of Naga sadhus?

The assertion of Rahul Puri – one of the Naga sadhus who received a bullet injury as the two sides clashed at Ujjain – that important positions in akharas are bought for huge amounts of money reflects the complexities of power play in these monastic orders.

Rahul Puri belongs to the Avahan akhara, one of the seven militant ascetic orders of Shaiva persuasion. Together with three Vaishnav akharas and another three akharas owing allegiance partly to Sikhism and partly to Shaivism, they control most of the ascetic space of Hinduism and its largest religious gathering, the Kumbh Mela.

When money talks

The power play that erupted in the Avahan akhara on May 12 left nearly a dozen Nagas injured. The coveted post of Shri Mahant – the reason for the clash between two groups of Nagas – is crucial in the functioning of the akhara. There are in total four Shri Mahants representing four sets of marhis or ascetic lineages, who together take all the decisions for the akhara with regard to its real estate holdings and other assets.

Theoretically, Nagas of a particular set of marhis elect their Shri Mahant in a democratic manner. But success requires a set of skills, of which by far the most important seems to be money and muscle power. Though a Shri Mahant is elected for a period of six years, he continues to influence the functioning of the akhara even after he gives up his post.

Last year, the Kumbh Mela at Nasik was rocked with controversy after the Agni Akhara made beer bar owner Sachin Dutta the Mahamandaleshwar (high priest) with a new name, Sachidanand Giri. There were criminal charges pending against Dutta. The allegations of money having been paid to obtain the title created such a controversy that the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, the body representing all akharas, had to intervene and ban the entry of all Mahamandaleshwars facing criminal charges into the Kumbh Mela.

During the Allahabad Kumbh of 2013, the Juna and Mahanirvani akharas faced similar charges of having received huge amounts of money from Radhe Ma and Swami Nithyanand respectively for anointing them as Mahamandaleshwars.

Asceticism and crime

In Ayodhya, the nerve centre of Vaishnav akharas, allegations of disciples killing their gurus to usurp precious temple land and ashrams are common. That is obvious from the cases in the local courts.

“Almost 90% cases in Ayodhya are of this very nature,” said Ranjit Lal Varma, an advocate in Faizabad, the district in which the holy town is located. “Crimes being committed for mahantship is merely a reflection of what has been happening here for quite some time."

According to Varma, the situation is no different in other Hindu religious centres, including Haridwar, Allahabad and Varanasi – which are the traditional centres of Shaiva akharas.