Madurai adheenam row: The Tamil Saivite math’s shift towards Hindutva

The recent divisive speech by the Madurai Adheenam’s seer, Desigar Gnanasambandar, brings into question if the sect, once dedicated to Tamil forms of worship, is making a clear shift towards the Sangh’s Hindutva agenda.
The 293rd Madurai Adheenam
The 293rd Madurai Adheenam

The DMK’s publication mouthpiece, Murasoli, recently slammed the Madurai Adheenam’s seer, Desigar Gnanasambandar, for his comments on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Stalin and the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE), a state government department.

The article was responding to a speech made by the seer at a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) conference held in Madurai on June 6. The conference was attended by the heads of the Madurai Adheenam, Kovai Kamatchi Adheenam, the Mannargudi Jeeyar, among others. “Holy temples have become politicians’ dens,” the Madurai Adheenam said at this conference. “They rob from the faithful and call it Dravida Nadu.”

Desigar Gnanasambandar took over as the 293rd head of the Madurai Adheenam in August last year, after the previous head, Gnanasambanda Desika Paramacharya, died. The Madurai Adheenam, which has traditionally been headed by men from the Vellalar community, a Forward Caste, is believed to have been established over thousands of years ago by Thirugnana Sambandarperumal. The Adheenams are Saivite sects that have traditionally been dedicated to Tamil forms of worship and are part of the state’s non-Vedic culture. Historians point out that the Adheenam tradition has had a covert history of defying Brahmin hold, north Indian worship brought into the land by the then Tamil kings. Also, it must be noted, the previous Madurai Adheenam was widely seen as a secular figure.

A divisive, communal speech

The recent speech, apart from the dig at the ruling DMK, has drawn criticism on several counts. Opening his speech with praise for the VHP ‘revolutionaries’, the seer went on to praise Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Our students who went to Ukraine to study were saved from gun fire by him. People asked if we would ever be able to build the Ayodhya temple, we’ve done it. I will say one thing to the [state] government, you cannot survive if you lay a finger on our temples.”

He also made communal comments targeted at Muslim and Christian communities. “Can anyone get away with destroying a mosque in this country?” and later added, “I was speaking to a Christian priest recently, he spoke ill of the Prime Minister.” The seer also said, “They say Mary, Mariam and Maariamma are equal and throw sand in our eyes. We are unable to run temples properly, we get nothing, we can’t even run schools.” Maariamma refers to the range of female folk deities worshipped across Tamil Nadu, which have over the years been appropriated into the Hindu pantheon.

The seer also claimed that temples had lost their wealth because of government involvement. “Tamil Nadu’s culture and traditions are only in the temples. All our wealth is gone. They call themselves Dravidians and refuse to smear holy ash, or throw away the holy ash. But on Ramzan they wear kullas (skullcaps).”

Madurai’s Adheenam even referred back to an incident from 1995 when AIADMK cadres had put up posters depicting then CM, Jayalalithaa, as Mary. “Christians were up in arms about that. The party immediately apologised to them and took down the posters, but people feel free to speak ill of our gods without consequences.”

In his speech, the seer further passed comments about the HR&CE Minister Sekar Babu, claiming that temples under the minister’s jurisdiction were not in good condition.

The seer also took a swipe at actor Vijay, claiming that he had “insulted temples and Hindu gods in his films,” leading to furor from fans of the popular star. The Madurai seer seemed to have been referring to lines from a film over two decades old, Thullatha Manamum Thullum. Despite the scenes having nothing offensive, the seer claimed that Vijay was “insulting Pillaiyar (the Tamil name for Ganesha)” and that “his films should be boycotted.”

Vijay has earlier been targeted by the BJP for dialogues in his film Mersal that were critical of the Union government’s GST policy. At the time, Tamil Nadu BJP’s H Raja, while criticising the dialogues, had pointedly made references to the actor’s Christian middle name, despite the actor almost never using it publicly.

This isn’t the first time the seer has made questionable statements. In an interview with the Tamil news channel Thanthi TV earlier this year, he was asked his opinion on the state government’s move to enable women to become archakars (priests) too. “It’s distasteful enough to see women join the police forces,” he replied. “Womanhood means tenderness. They must focus on staying at home and looking after their husbands. But now women are in every field, see how disastrous it has been with just women joining the police.”

Interestingly, these comments are a far cry from the views held by his predecessor, Gnanasambanda Desika Paramacharya, the 292nd head of the Madurai Adheenam. Gnanasambanda publicly professed secular views. At a press conference given in 2015, the 292nd seer said, “the need of the hour is religious harmony,” adding that all people across castes and religions across the world are “children of god. This is what every religion says in their scriptures.” He also quoted in Arabic the relevant verses from the Quran, offering the Tamil translation supporting his earlier statement. He quoted verses from the Bible too, encouraging people to “love thy neighbour”.

Who are Adheenams, how did the saffronisation happen?

AK Perumal, a folk historian, tells TNM that the far-right shift of a Tamil Saivite sect must be seen in tandem with the Hindutva project of building a homogenous identity. “There was a time when Saivites and Vaisnavites in the state could not stand each other, but now they have been brought together under the Hindu umbrella. The Tamil Saivism of the Adheenams began as a direct confrontation to north Indian Saivite traditions that had the patronage of the Chola kings. The Adheenams endorsed worship in Tamil, rooted in the context of the land. There are even many references to Sivan in Sangam literature. The Adheenams viewed him as a Tamil god.”

To this effect, the previous Madurai seer stated in an interview, “In the 4,158 songs that Thirugnana Sambandarperumal has written, not in one place has he used the term ‘Hindu’. We Tamils should not use the term Hinduism. We must say Saivite or Vaishnavite instead.” The 292nd head of the Madurai Adheenam was addressing the media after a fire broke out at the famous Meenakshi Amman temple in the city.

Incidentally, similar controversies broke out in Karnataka in 2018 when the government moved to recognise Lingayats, another Saivite sect, as a separate religion. Right-wing hardliners were quick to brand the move an attempt to “divide Hindus”. Yet, Lingayat leaders viewed the separate categorisation as a simple re-setting of an identity that had existed prior to colonisation. As Pranav Kuttaih, writing for TNM at the time, pointed out, with Lingayats reclaiming their roots, the RSS was worried that other marginalised groups and unrecognised religions would also start questioning if they really are Hindus.

In Tamil Nadu, earlier this year, several organisations dedicated to Tamil forms of worship, such as the Deva Thamizhar Peravai, came together to protest the hold of the Dikshitars, a Brahmin caste, over the famed Chidambaram temple in Cuddalore. These organisations have been fighting for years for the right to access the revered Sithambalam Medai (platform), in order to sing Tamil hymns to the deity, visible from this platform. This year’s protests had been sparked by an incident in February. A group of Dikshitars had assaulted, abused with casteist slurs and driven away a Dalit woman attempting to access the Sithambalam Medai. Those who had come together to protest were from various Dalit and intermediate castes. They saw the right to worship in Tamil as defying Brahminical, Sanskritised worship.

Interestingly, Perumal adds, “Tamil Saivite traditions also worked to undermine Brahmin hegemony, though they were covert about it instead of directly confrontational. Such as dismissing the need for Sanskrit in worship.” This, however, does not mean that the tradition served to dismantle caste structures entirely. “The Madurai Adheenams pick their head seers almost entirely from the Saiva Vellalar community (Forward Castes),” Perumal says.

Advocate Karur Rajendran, a member of the Deva Thamizhar Peravai, also weighed in on the caste aspect. “If you go towards the Coimbatore side, the Adheenam is from the Gounder community (a politically dominant, intermediate caste).”

In Perumal’s view, the shift to hardline Hindutva has been a recent but steady process of assimilating varied identities under a singular, Hindu one. The folk historian says that, as is clear from the Maduai seer’s speech as well, the atheism professed by DMK leaders like M Karunandhi and Stalin, are used to fan a false sense of Hindu majoritarian victimhood. “It is organisations like the RSS that have been working in the shadows. They point to instances like Karunanidhi drinking nombu kanji (a type of rice gruel) with Muslims during Ramzan, but that the late chief minister would refuse to take part in Hindu rituals.” This has been the method in the last decade, Perumal adds. In this regard, the Madurai seer’s statements at the VHP rally are only the latest in such insinuations.

Perumal also points out that Hindutva attempts to play on identities is certainly not limited to the Adheenam traditions. “Note how the BJP became involved in the Devendra Kula Vellalar row.” This row was led by the Puthiya Tamilagam party, which demanded that the name of the Scheduled Caste Pallar community be changed to Devendra Kula Vellalar and that they no longer be identified as SC, but as Most Backward Caste.

The renaming, it must be remembered, was a contentious issue, as many within the Pallar community did not want to give up their SC categorisation. K Krishnasamy, the leader of Puthiya Tamilagam, has also been vocal in his support of the Modi government.

 The right-ward shift of communal and religious identities throws open the question of what mechanisms are at work for such mobilisation to happen.

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