By Soumya Ranjan Patnaik*
The raging controversy over devotees climbing the chariots and touching the deities during the annual Rath Yatra has emerged as a huge challenge for all Odias. Lord Jagannath and the world famous Rath Yatra still remain our best identity. But the way we have been quarrelling among ourselves and violating all rules and norms in our effort to sort it out, is highly undesirable.
The conduct of the new government, which has just received a massive mandate from the people of Odisha, and its ministers has surprised and pained us. Instead of discussing the real issue, we are engaged in pointless arguments. In the process, we are making the problem more intractable rather than finding a solution to it.
There are rules, norms and traditions for the conduct of the affairs of the Shree Jagannath temple. These are not of recent origin; they date back to several centuries. These norms also prescribe ways for a solution in case of a dispute. Before 1960, a committee headed by the Gajapati Maharaja of Puri used to look after the affairs of the temple. The Shankaracharya of Gobardhan Peeth used to be consulted whenever there was a dispute of a religious nature. The opinion of Shankaracharya was the final word and accepted by all.
But after 1960, the state government directly intervened in the affairs of the temple and took over its management. However, it has not led to any change in the relationship between the management committee and the Shankaracharya. Even now, the opinion of the Shankaracharya is sought whenever there is a dispute or a difference of opinion on a matter relating to religion or scriptures. Once the Shankaracharya has given his opinion on an issue, any further debate is undesirable. If this happens, no system can run.
Just as the verdict of the Supreme Court is final in all matters as per the Constitution, the ruling by the Shankaracharya is final and needs to be accepted by all in matters related to the management of the Shree Jagannath temple.
The systems in place for the rituals of the temple and the management of the Rath Yatra are exclusive religious matters of the Hindus. Our Constitution believes in secularism. The government should never interfere in religious matters.
But the conduct of the government reminds one of the proverb; “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” It is the duty of the government to take necessary steps to carry out the Shankaracharya’s decision. It should try to prevent any untoward incident or a law and order situation over it.
What could be the possible fall-out of the Shankaracharya’s decision?
What is forcing the government into such unwarranted interference in the matter? After all, the Shankaracharya’s decision does not appear to be one that could lead to any serious fall outs.
On the contrary, there is a real threat of a law and order situation if anything is done against the Shankaracharya’s verdict. The view that the Shankaracharya has given after studying the scriptures, consulting the pundits and keeping the religious feelings of the devotees in mind will be conducive to the safety of the pilgrims and the smooth conduct of the Rath Yatra. It is not clear why the government is bent on pursuing such a confrontational course despite all this.
Who is going to lose if devotees are barred from climbing the chariots? What problems would the Daitapatis, who are opposing the Shankaracharya’s decision, face in such an event? In fact, they can carry out the rituals assigned to them better and in a more organised manner.
No one is challenging the Daitapatis’ crucial hereditary role in the conduct of the Rath Yatra. The devotees are eternally grateful to them for these services. No matter what we do in return for these services, it will not be enough.
But unfortunately, money is at the root of the whole problem. The Daitapatis stand to lose out on the ‘dakshina’ that devotees pay them while climbing the chariots and touching the deities. In view of this, we propose that the government should earmark a sizeable honorarium for the services rendered by Daitapatis during the Rath Yatra.
It has been argued that our Lord Jagannath is different from other Hindu gods and goddesses. He is a god of the common man, His daily activities are exactly like those of a common man. He belongs 100% to the devotees. Therefore, the Shankaracharya’s decision would create a void between the Lord and his devotees during the only time in the year when he descends on the Bada Danda (Grand Road).
The counter argument to this is : is it possible to allow lakhs of devotees who congregate on the Bada Danda for the Rath Yatra to mount the chariots and touch the deities? Will it not restrict the right to ascend the chariots only to those with money, muscle and political power? If all devotees want to climb the chariots to have a darshan of the Lord, can the government control the possible stampede and law and order situation that would inevitably follow?
The Shankaracharya’s decision, in contrast, would actually prevent such a scenario. We hope that the devotees who want to climb the chariots and have a darshan would realise this.
India is a Hindu majority nation. There are numerous gods and goddesses and religious institutions in this country. But we Odias are often ashamed when we see the systems that govern the rituals in other religious places. Even as we continue to boast that our Lord is the Lord of the Universe, our devotees have to endure the most disorganised system and unbecoming behaviour in our holiest shrine.
The time for a change is now.
There can be perhaps no better opportunity to initiate the change than this.
*The author is the Editor-in-Chief of odishasuntimes.com and ‘Sambad’. This article is the English translation of the signed editorial he has written on the front page of ‘Sambad’ in its Tuesday ( 17 June 2014 ) edition. Please log in to sambadepaper.com for the orginal Odia piece published under his column “Ama Ghara Ra Haalchaal’