Decades ago, he dreamt of temples in his father’s village home in Uttarakhand. There was little else to do then. Soon, he was to discover that his religion was in danger: India was on the verge of partition. The boy, all of 21 then, felt a divine calling.
After rigorously studying asceticism and the Sanskrit scriptures, he went on to occupy the seat of the Gorakhnath temple and be addressed as Peethadheesh (supreme temple authority). Mahant Avaidyanath soon realised that he was holding a post where religion had to eventually give way to politics. “Nobody listens to a voice bereft of political power,” says the ailing mahant and four-time MP from Gorakhpur, now 86.
Meanwhile, the temple has taken in its fold political thoughts of all hues. “We know the Samajwadi Party or even our own Bahujan Samaj Party will not do much when it comes to the communal question; after all, we get emotional protection from the temple,” says Umesh Bharti, a Dalit from a locality called Malin Basti (literally, an area inhabited by lower castes). The basti has no love for the BJP too. Voting for it, residents say, will only make them more subservient to the ruling elite (upper castes). “The temple protects us, not its so-called caretakers,” Umesh says.
Of course, there are opponents to this political tilt to religion. “The communal tension that swept eastern UP in December-January last year is because of the fact that so-called Hindutva forces have taken over the temple,” says SP leader Zafar Amin. “Imagine, an MP (Yogi Adityanath) fasting in the city to force the police to declare curfew when there was no such provocation,” he says. “You cannot run a city on the whims and fancies of a man occupying a high table in a temple,” adds Siddharth Priya Srivastav of the Congress.
The clout of the temple and Adityanath can be gauged from the fact that he had threatened to field candidates in 70 assembly segments against his own party, the BJP. The party managed to get him to drop the idea. He is now its trump card.
But Mahant Avaidyanath is unaffected by all the criticism. His heir, Adityanath, is doing well. What does worry him though is the Maoists coming to power in nearby Nepal. “They want to de-link their country from the royalty, who have for centuries given patronage to the Gorakhnath temple,” he says.