Hinduism and Religious Denominations

Once every 12 years, the Kumbha Mela takes place at Prayaga in Uttar Pradesh. Similarly three other Kumbha Melas take place at Haridwara, Nashik and Ujjain. Depending primarily upon the placement of Jupiter in the vedic astrological chart, the timings of these melas are determined. The mela at Prayaga is the world’s largest religious congregation with over 120 million participating in it. The mela has its own unique customs, rituals and ceremonies — the main ritual being the taking of the ‘snana’ or bath in the ‘sangama’ of Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati rivers. Other distinct ceremonies include the traditional arrival of sadhus and sants, bhajans, feeding of the devotees and other pujas. The Kumbha mela yatra finds mention in multiple puranas. It’s exact origin is next to impossible to trace. In other words, this tradition is thousands of years old.

Rich and poor Hindus. Upper caste and lower caste Hindus. North Indian and South Indian Hindus. All of them participate in these ceremonies at the same time.

Sabarimala in Kerala has an ancient Ayyappa temple. Every year at least 40 to 50 million devotees visit the temple after completing a strict vrata (penance) of 41 days. The yatra typically culminates around the makara sankranti in January. Each devotee who undertakes this yatra follows a strict regimen involving restrictions on food, dress, personal habits (control over speech, giving up comforts and so on). He undertakes a spiritual cleansing journey during the vrata visiting numerous temples around the country and then finally reaches Sabarimala and pays his respects to the deity. The temple is many hundreds of years old and the tradition of the Sabarimala yatra is also similarly ancient.

Rich and poor Hindus. Upper caste and lower caste Hindus. North Indian and South Indian Hindus. All of them, keeping aside their differences, undertake the vrata and yatra.

The Pandharpura Wari is an annual pilgrimage undertaken by the devotees of Lord Panduranga at Pandharapura. This unique pilgrimage involves a padayatra (foot journey) of over 200kms from Dehu to Pandharapura and involves carrying of the padukas of Sant Dhyaneshwar, Sant Tukaram and others. At least a million devotees participate in this ritual every year. The journey takes 21 days to cover and culminates on the Ekadashi of the month of Ashada. The ‘Varkaris’ — people who undertake this pilgrimage — follow their own unique set of rituals including dress, singing of bhajans, food practices and so on. It is estimated that this practice is at least 7 centuries old.

This pilgrimage brings together people from multiple strata and sects of Maharastrian Hindu society (and indeed other parts of India).

The Kanvar Yatra is yet another annual pilgrimage that is undertaken by the devotees of Shiva. The ‘kanwarias’ — chiefly from North India — undertake a journey of several hundred kilometers with the intention of obtaining the holy water of river Ganga. The chief destination of these pilgrims are Haridwara, Gangotri and Gaumukh. Using a unique ‘kanwar’ (containers suspended on a pole), these devotees fetch Ganga water from the holy places back to their temples in their hometowns. Recent estimates indicate at least 12–13 million people participating in these yatras every year. Although the number of participants has increased in the recent years, the tradition itself is hundreds of years old.

Just like the other yatras described above, the kanwar yatra too brings together people of all sects and categories from Hinduism.

A close study of the above traditions of Hinduism makes one thing clear. Religious congregations culminating at a certain pilgrimage place during a certain part of the year — i.e. at a particular desha and at a particular kaala — is a very ancient and integral part of Sanatana Dharma. Such practices are undertaken by Hindus irrespective of their caste, sect or economic and social status. Each of such practices have their own unique traditions, customs and rituals. Each of these practices serve to bring Hindus together — they unite the practitioners of Sanatana Dharma.

Yet, neither our Constitution, nor our Governments, accord any formal recognition or status for such practices!

Our Constitution grants certain special privileges, vide Article 26, to ‘religious denominations’. Such ‘denominations’ are given freedom to establish and manage their own institutions, manage their own ‘affairs of religion’ and the freedom to acquire and administer property.

However, in spite of having adherents running into millions, the practitioners of our unique traditions cannot get any protection from our Constitution. One must remember here the primary goal of recognising and according privileges to denominations. It is NOT so that they can get into the business of acquiring and managing properties. The real goal of these privileges are so that those unique subgroups, within any religion, are able to preserve and enrich their unique customs and traditions. From that perspective, none are more qualified to get those privileges than the practitioners of our traditional yatras!

In the recent Sabarimala judgment, the definition of what constitutes a ‘religious denomination’ has been given as follows:

for any religious mutt, sect, body, sub-sect or any section thereof to be designated as a religious denomination, it must be a collection of individuals having a collective common faith, a common organization which adheres to the said common faith, and last but not the least, the said collection of individuals must be labeled, branded and identified by a distinct name…….

……..For a religious denomination, there must be new methodology provided for a religion. Mere observance of certain practices, even though from a long time, does not make it a distinct religion on that account….

As becomes clear from reading the above, the current definition of a religious denomination serves perfectly to leave out most unique congregations of Hinduism. Our kumbha mela yatris, our Sabarimala Ayyappans, our Kanwarias, Varkaris, Amarnath yatris and numerous other practitioners will NOT qualify to get any protection or benefits from our Constitution since they do not constitute a formal oraganisation.

But, like I said above, the philosophy behind recognising a religious denomination in our Constitution is to accord protection and support to the traditions and customs of the adherents. The blind borrowing of European terminologies, rooted in Abrahamic cults, has meant that the rights in the Constitution are being denied to Hindus in spite of qualifying from a purpose point of view.

We must remember that our Constitution provides a generic right to all citizens to practice religion. BUT this right is subject to public health, order and morality. With an increasing population and massive urbanisation, many Hindu practices (being pagan in nature) are BOUND to cause a strain on natural resources. This is NOT to say the practices themselves are at fault. Our changing social and economic conditions are causing this inevitable confrontation. In the coming days, many of our practices are going to be questioned, and legally challenged, citing public health, public order and environmental concerns as reasons. The challenge on bursting firecrackers during Deepavali is a very good example.

Unless there is special protection encoded into our Constitution, overcoming these objections through our legal system and indeed our Governments is going to be mighty difficult.

It is time our Constitution recognised the unique nature of Hinduism. The protection for practices and traditions MUST be extended to all groups of religious believers and not just to formally identified subgroups. In the Indian context, groups of people belonging to a religion, undertaking certain practices, as long as it is rooted in tradition, MUST be recognised as a religious denomination.

This is the only way we are going to protect our magnificent, and ancient, dharmik customs and traditions.

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