Temple as the Political Arena in Kerala
The left in Kerala faces a serious crisis when it encounters the cultural politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is a complex and unfolding situation demanding serious attention, and the familiar modes of analysis may not help much.
Currently, the temple-centred activities are major cultural enterprises in Kerala. There is no mistaking the boom in temple constructions, refurbishing and reviving of defunct temples, and also a renewed claim on the “public” that is staged across Kerala in recent years. How can we understand this phenomenon at a time of growing concern over the rise of Hindutva politics across India?
Much of the debates on Hindutva politics appear to start or end with the Narendra Modi government and its way of functioning. At the same time, the political intervention of the Sangh Parivar in the everyday cultural field does not receive equal attention. Temples in Kerala have been identified as a field of cultural politics by the Parivar. At the same time, the left and democratic forces have been compelled to intervene in temples as a response to Hindutva appropriation of temple culture. In short, temples have been developing as the political arena in contemporary Kerala.1 Yet, the existing temple culture too provides extensive opportunities to enlarge the ideological base of Hindutva politics.
Resurgence of Temple Activities
The temple-centred activities in Kerala have increased substantially in the last 20 years. Thousands of temples function under the four Devaswom boards of Kerala—Guruvayur, Travancore, Cochin and Malabar—and many more are under private ownership. Each Devaswom board is ruled by a trust which comprises the government-nominated as well as community-chosen members. Many temples are run by caste associations too. Temples owned by elected committees—with members from different castes—have emerged in the last 20 years. The nature of such committees is determined by the power of different caste groups in the locality. The number of Dalits is negligible in all these committees, though their number is gradually increasing.
The majority of these temples are alive with various programmes and festivals throughout the year drawing a large number of people. Temple activities are not centralised; they are widespread, decentralised and autonomous. While, thousands of people directly work as committee members and office-bearers of temples, tenfold people work in the “programme committees.” They meet people personally for fund-raising to meet the festival expenditure. The Hindu communities have pursued diverse belief systems. Therefore, till recently there was no homogeneity in their relationship with temple as an institution. What appears to characterise the contemporary moment is a certain process of homogenisation, wherein these communities begin to see temples as “Hindu” worship places. (There are different worship systems.) Therefore, there is a distinct tendency to convert local worship places like kavu,2koolithara,3 etc, into “temples.” It is an attempt to create the temple as a normative idea of the Hindu worship place. It, of course, ensues out of a complex historical process. Yet, it is marked by the immense sociopolitical power and cultural domination of Brahminical ideas that increasingly generate a consent among Hindu communities to see the temple as the normal, that particularises and/or renders deviant any other existing worship system. Equally significant is that the Hindu right creates this normalisation and also feeds into it. This phenomenon is new and demands attention.
Hindutva cultural politics is used directly or indirectly for the resurgence of temple activities in Kerala. Its involvement can be dated to at least as early as the 1960s. Its first public intervention on temple issue was related to Angadipuram Thali temple in 1968 along with K Kelappan, a freedom fighter and former Indian National Congress (INC) leader, who formed the Malabar Kshetra Samrakshana Samithi (MKSS) in 1967. Later, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader, P Madhavan and his colleagues took an initiation to transform MKSS into Kerala Kshetra Samrakshana Samithi (KKSS) in 19754 and got registered at 1977.
In 1972, Madhavan instituted a training centre for priests called Thantra Vidya Peedham (TVP) in Aluva. Now it is thriving with many students who study tantra vidya, related to temple rituals. Admission is limited only to Brahmin boys. Many high-profile priests (acharyas) of today had been trained in TVP. Advaithasramam in Kulathoor village, run by an RSS sympathiser and a swami, gets TVP’s regular interactions and lectures. The Tantric Research Centre at Irinjalakuda, which publishes books and articles on tantra vidya and temple rituals, was set up by an RSS sympathiser. The Veda study classes of the Kashyapa Veda Research Foundation, run by a sympathiser of the RSS, have become highly popular recently. Many of the temples are controlled by RSS activists across the state. RSS conducts drills and parades in temple compounds, uses temples as centres to spread their ideology among Hindu communities. Religious speeches, temple programmes increasingly take the shade of saffron politics. According to their own claims, the KKSS controls more than 500 temples and is associated with another 3,000 temples (Nidhin 2015).All these RSS projects become one with popular religious practices of the Hindu community, by encouraging ritual practices, promoting astrologers, and temple priests persuading people to visit temples by conducting new rituals and programmes. They are continuously pushing forward their agenda.
The Left’s ‘Counter’ Project
The mainstream Left parties resist the RSS’s involvement in temples mainly in three forms. One, as these left parties are based on secular values and liberal ideas, they espouse both atheism and separation of state and religion, as a part of their commitment. I am not explaining this point because I consider the other two points appear to go against the grain of the left thought.
The second form is their attempt to take over the committees or administrative bodies of temples to resist RSS’s involvement. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M)—is leading such efforts in Kerala. They not only appropriate temple committees, but are even willing to build temples to resist RSS activities (Philip 2015a).A former RSS karyavahak told me about their activities related to temples and the resistance from the CPI(M) activists:
…they CPI(M) realised RSS threat. Therefore, they started massive counter-campaign against us. They intervene in temple committees and create a lot of issues. They resisted Ravi5 and successfully blocked him from his activity. Their campaign against Rajiv explained who he was, and what was his aim. CPI(M) stopped his entry to the Nochadu.6 They alleged that he was creating conflicts in society and also communal tensions. They pictured him as a Hindu extremist. Villagers were interested in temple renovation and activities, but their mentality was not ready to accept RSS at all. … At the time of silanyas for Ram Janmabhumi temple, we (RSS) had conducted sila pujas in many temples to propagate our aim. CPI(M) resisted the attempts to conduct sila puja in temple at Velliyoor (Kozhikode district). They took a stand that temple is for believers not for the RSS programme. They massively blocked the programme with the help of believers around the temple. They [CPI(M)] were in majority of temple committee.
The third form of resistance is an attempt to prevent the RSS’s involvement through certain programmes and rituals. The CPI(M) activists involve themselves in religious functions to convince the people, especially CPI(M) supporters that they have to keep a safe distance from the religious ceremonies of RSS. Recently, one of the CPI(M) branches in Kannur District Committee organised a rally of children on god Janmashtami (birth anniversary of god Krishna) to counter the rally conducted by Balagokulam, an organisation of RSS. During the rally, they used a tableau which represents crucifixion of Narayana Guru by RSS and carried the photographs of Marx, Stalin, and Harkishan Singh Surjeet along with images of god Krishna (Philip 2015b).Such activities are visible examples of appropriation. However, these are not a replica of RSS programmes. A left-sympathiser from Kannur district told me:
The worship places like temples and kavus in party villages7 are functioning under control of CPI(M). Party cadres and leaders might not be the administrators of these places but definitely they are hardcore followers of the party. Earlier, families or desakkar (people who lived in a locality) offered the kalasam for the festivals of kavu; but now, for more than 20 years, it is offered by vayanasala (local library) committees working under the CPI(M) branch committees. You can hear the announcement from the festival venue like ‘kalasam from AKG8 vayanasala is about to reach in temple compound’. It is very common in our place.
These second and third forms of interventions are contradictory to the familiar position of the left on matters “religious.” The left parties engage in strategic and flexible practices. It is not something that emerged recently, but has been practised right from the beginning of the emergence of the communist movement in Malabar.
Crisis of the Left
But do these resistances actually effectively counter the RSS’s cultural political project? Is there any difference of symbolic system of sacredness between the temples run by CPI(M) and RSS? Is there any conscious alternative approach in ritual practices and religious programmes? The left is only conscious about the prevention of organisational intervention of Sangh Parivar in temple administration. Their concern is limited to organisational expansion of Sangh Parivar through temple-centred activities.
Largely, rituals and religious practices are following existing dominant practices, irrespective of administrative changes. Most of the temples follow rituals based on Thantra Samuchayam—a basic text on temple rituals. Brahmanical hierarchies in temples are dominant in both RSS- and CPI(M)-administered temples. Pujaris (priests) and tantris (supreme priests) are usually Brahmins even in the left-controlled temples. Critical understanding of caste-bound practices in temples is completely lacking in their “counter” activities. Temples administrated by sympathisers of Congress9 too are not significantly different in ritual practices.
Sangh Parivar’s temple-centred cultural politics is largely successful even without their organisational involvement. Their political ideology is Brahminical and closely associated with existing temple practices. Therefore, a temple-centred Hindu person has the potential to associate with the political world of Hindutva ideology through the everyday religious discourse of Hindutva. But, subaltern worship practices are detached from the larger Hindu mythology, ritual practices and cultural sphere. Most of them are confined to their faith; not associated with an ideology existing in the locality.10 But in the “new” temples, faith is woven with certain ideologies.Such local ideologies are available for consumption, and consequently, all are potential recruits.
The left is facing a serious crisis when it encounters the RSS’s cultural politics and the dominant cultural practices which exist in temples. It is a result of the intellectual dilemma it faces in contemporary India between modern secular rational thoughts it publicly professes and the practical issues it faces in everyday encounter with religious politics that compels it to intervene in those religious practices.
It is a complex and unfolding situation demanding serious attention and the familiar modes of analysis may not help much. A genre of opinions—mainly from journalists and in the social media—harps on the “diluting ideological conviction” of the left framing itself in the Western experience of so-called secularisation and rationalistion of religion. Another set of arguments consider it as the Hinduisation of the communist party. Both these begin with the preset idea of “ideal” left party that is committed to a “pure” secularism. The current practices located in very specific sociocultural and political context ask us to be attentive to left’s encounter with unique experiences rather than idealised ideological positions. What is happening on “real” ground when the left intervenes into temples and the religious field?
Their practical strategies for cul-tural intervention paradoxically follow “dominant Hinduism.” They mechanically repeat the words of spiritual leaders and thinkers like Narayana Guru, Vagbhatananda, Brahmananda Sivayogi,11 who were critical of the dominant religious practices of that time, but they fail to reflexively engage with their thoughts to develop a new theoretical perspective in cultural practices. Similarly, Dalit intellectuals have developed cultural criticism towards Hinduism and its caste practices. Both of these intellectual traditions are underexplored by the left to develop their cultural political approach on temple. Left conceives interventions in temples as a short-term strategy (thus no need for theoretical work?!) with modern secular rational ideas as a well-thought long-term programme. This appears to be the locus of the crisis of political intervention of the left in religious field to resist RSS’s cultural politics. Resurgence of temple activities in Kerala is not a direct intervention of the Sangh Parivar. However, that resurgence is being effectively utilised by the Sangh Parivar for a strong cultural politics.
1 The recent tragedy at Paravur Puttingal temple in Kollam district reveals extensive political influence of temple committee which they used for bypassing the legal and administrative barriers to conduct competition of fireworks.
2 Kavu is a traditional sacred space, a small piece of forestland, associated with snake worship.
3 It is a local worship place of Pulaya community in north Malabar.
4 Madhavji, 1988, Kshetra chaithanya rahasyam, PDF downloaded from http://sreyas.in.
5 The name has been changed.
6 Nochadu is a village panchayat in Kozhikode district of Kerala.
7 The term party village is used to refer to the village which follows one political party line. It was initially used by journalists.
8 A K Gopalan, the late communist leader from Kerala.
9 A few Congress leaders like V D Satheesan have recently launched public attacks on the RSS and Vishva Hindu Parishad agenda.
10 The division between faith and ideology was made by Ashis Nandy (1998).
11 Three radical Hindu saints at the time of reform movements in the 20th century Kerala.
Nandy, Ashis (1998): “The Politics of Secularism and Recovery of Religious Toleration,” Secularism and Its Critics, Rajeev Bhargava (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Nidhin, T R (2015): “Allow Those Believing in Hindu Faith to Enter Temples,” New Indian Express, 18 May, http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/2015/may/18/Allow-Those-Be....
Philip, Shaju (2015a): “A Temple in Kannur Answer to BJP’s Prayers,” Indian Express, 11 May, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/a-temple-in-kannur-i....
— (2015b): “Krishna, Marx Together in Kerala CPM Janmashtami,” Indian Express, 6 September, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/krishna-marx-togethe....
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