Mixing religion with politics: What the Ayyappa Bhakta Sangamam aimed to do

The Sangamam was a powerful show of the precarious trend of mixing politics with religion, which the state has never experienced to this magnitude.
Mixing religion with politics: What the Ayyappa Bhakta Sangamam aimed to do
Mixing religion with politics: What the Ayyappa Bhakta Sangamam aimed to do
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The people of Kerala hardly ever see Mata Amritanandamayi at public meetings. The followers of the leader of the Amritanandamayi Mutt get to see her mostly at prayer meetings, her birthday celebrations at the mutt in Vallikkavu in the suburbs of Kollam district and in other branches of the mutt in the state, while sometimes they have to be content with the telecast of her events on the Amrita television channel.

On Sunday it was altogether a different experience for her followers to see Amritanandamayi sitting and even speaking at the Ayyappa Bhakta Sangamam (Ayyappa Devotees’ Gathering). The Sangamam was held at Putharikandam Maidanam in the state capital, a venue known for protests by political parties and non-elite groups. That’s why, at least for some people, the coming together of all the sanyasis at one venue was nothing short of astounding. The unity displayed – unlike at most meetings held at the ground – was not for a public cause.

The religious gathering was to support the agenda of opposing the entry of young women into Sabarimala and was a show of strength against the Left government’s act of implementing the Supreme Court verdict on the same. The gathering was organised by the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, an organisation whose name has become familiar only after the Sabarimala conundrum.

It should be remembered that it was at the same venue that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had challenged the right wing agenda with a strong declaration that certain rituals and traditions needed to change with time and that some are meant to be broken.

Not a usual gathering

For the social and cultural fabric of the state, a high dose religious gathering for a cause like this is quite unfamiliar. The Sabarimala Karma Samithi pitched in where the BJP failed.

“They were able to mix politics with religion well. In the past, the youth wing of the CPI (M) the DYFI, had used the religiously significant ‘kuruthola’ in its processions. Only after Balagokulam, a BJP unit for children, began showing Krishna and Radha in its processions that the CPI (M) had realised the threat in it. The Sangamam was a powerful show of the precarious trend of mixing politics with religion, which the state has never experienced to this magnitude,” a source close to the CPI (M) said.

“This time the right wing was able to win over the Nair Service Society (NSS). The presence of Amritanandamayi at the meeting prompted the CPI (M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan himself to come up with a statement on her,” he added. NSS represents the dominant Nair caste in the state.

On Sunday, Kodiyeri argued that there was no logic to the claim that Ayyappa's celibacy would be threatened by young women visiting the temple, an issue in which Amritanandamayi is supporting the Hindu right wing.

"Why did she participate in this event? Amritanada Matham should operate beyond political (be apolitical). There are people of different political beliefs who are followers of Amritanandamayi. There are many believers in Kerala who are her followers. But this RSS's Karma Samithi programme in which Amritanandamayi is participating is not one that respects the faith of even these followers.

The Karma Samithi's protest is on the premise that Ayyappa is a celibate god and young woman should therefore not visit him. But Amritanandamayi is someone who has people of all ages, including women visiting her. Amritanandamayi is a celibate. Has anything happened to her celibacy just because all these people visited her? So what is the logic behind Amritanandamayi lending support to the Karma Samithi?,” Kodiyeri said.

Though Kodiyeri's speech has become controversial, it is evident that the CPI (M) understands that the presence of Amritanandamayi at the programme can have a ripple effect.

“The Karma Samithi was also able to get the former head of the Sivagiri Mutt, Swami Prakashanananda, to attend the event. This is the first time in Kerala that religious heads and leaders are involving themselves in an issue that is political as well. So far they all used to abstain from such issues. Sabarimala could be the first issue in which politics is directly linked to religion,” a political critic said.

Sivagiri Mutt is headquarters of Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham.

The BJP, on its part, ended its protest on the Sabarimala issue without meeting its objective. Two prominent leaders of the party, State General Secretary K Surendran and V Muraleedharan MP, kept themselves away from the winding up of the hunger strike in front of the Secretariat on Sunday showing that all is not well within the party. But the party found hope in the Sangamam, where some even called for voting the BJP to power.

However, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) General Secretary Vellappally Natesan slammed the Sangamam, calling it a gathering of dominant caste people. “There was no representation of oppressed castes, good that I didn’t take part though they had invited me. They have a strong political agenda under the cover of spirituality,” he said. SNDP is a community organisation representing the Ezhavas.

As the spiritual leaders take centre-stage, leaders of several community organisations representing the oppressed classes continue to support the government on the entry of young women into the temple since the beginning.

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