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A Radiant Faith: Mahima Dharma of Odisha

By Ishita Banerjee-Dube 

“For two weeks now there has been a rumour that a group of men and women had entered the temple of Jagannath in Puri by force with a pot of rice. That time the bhog of Jagannath was being served. The men and women refused to listen to the doorkeepers and tried to move towards the idol of Jagannath. A tussle broke out between the doorkeepers and the attackers in which one member of the group died on the spot. The others threw cooked rice all over the place, desecrated the bhog of Jagannath, threatened to burn Jagannath and left the place. A serious offence was committed within a few moments; but up until now there has been no news of the arrest and trial of offenders. If there is any semblance of truth in the rumour, Jagannath is in great danger. It is surprising that no serious step has so far been taken for the protection of Jagannath.”

If this report in the Utkala Deepika (the first Odia daily) of 12 March, 1881, voiced the serious concern and consternation occasioned in middle-class Odia society by the ‘rumour’, the notorious act of ‘attack’ on the temple of Jagannath brought a marginal faith to the notice of British colonial administrators. Exhaustive enquiries were carried out and detailed reports drawn up on the sect, its founder, beliefs, and practices. The final report, published in the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1882, was titled ‘On a sect of Hindu Dissenters who profess to be the followers of Alekh’. The report coalesced several references to an itinerant ascetic in the figure of Mukunda Das, who had come to be called Mahima Swami by his followers as the preacher, and called the faith, Alekh Dharma.

The first report on the Dharma had appeared in the Utkala Deepika of 1 June, 1867. It stated that ‘a new faith’ was spreading in the princely states bordering Cuttack. It had been founded by a phalahari sanyasi (an ascetic who survived on fruits), who lived on Kapilas hill in Dhenkanal. The ascetic had initially subsisted on fruits, later had drunk milk, but in the end, he lived only on water. He worshipped Siva. One day, on the directions of sunya (the great void), he cut his matted locks and gave up his vocation as a mere renouncer. He began wearing the bark of a tree and spread a dharma that disregarded caste distinctions, forbade idol worship and rituals, and advocated a belief in one isvara (god). The sanyasi was said to command great respect and was described as ati nirlobh (completely free of greed). He was also praised for his efforts to feed a large number of people at a time of scarcity.

While this initial report hinted at the quick success attained by the new preacher, a later one (1873) expressed concern at the disregard of norms of caste and commensality by ‘Mahima Babaji’ and his disciples that incensed kings and Brahmans. By the time colonial officers set out to conduct their enquires in the early 1880s, Mahima Swami was dead and his deification as the human incarnation of the Absolute whose glory he preached was complete.

How had this happened? In order to answer this, we need to understand the significant presence of Kaliyuga as a metaphor for an era of evil in popular perceptions of time. Kaliyuga is the last and the worst of the four progressively deteriorating epochs that complete a time cycle in classical Hindu time reckoning before a new beginning. Its importance lies in the fact that it has not come to an end and is believed to be brought to an end by a human incarnation of the divine who will appear on earth to reestablish true faith. This belief, current in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism, has been given particular force and popularity in Odisha by malikas, apocryphal texts that prophesy the destruction of the world through the appearance of a redeemer. Colonial records mention that malikas were in wide circulation in Odisha and that the adherents of Mahima Dharma were “in possession of a book of predictions.” At the same time, they ascribed the identification of Mahima Swami as the human form of the Absolute to the gullibility and irrational thought of simple, unlettered folk.

Conditions in nineteenth century Odisha were troubled and turbulent. The onset of colonial rule (1803), new revenue settlements and increased taxation, greater stringency in caste rules, including in the practices of the temple of Jagannath, the Lord of all and the central deity of Hinduism in Odisha, and the devastating famine of 1866 made the strong presence of Kaliyuga palpable; several new faiths emerged through the century and many of their preachers gave themselves out to be incarnations. Most of these faiths did not survive. Mahima Dharma did. Its founder, moreover, never claimed to be an avatar; nor did he believe in miracles.

Mahima Swami’s deification and his faith’s success rested on his simple message worked out in radical practices. The message advocated belief in a formless, all pervasive, indescribable/beyond writing (Alekh) Absolute who has created the world out of his mahima (radiance/glory) and was accessible to all through pure devotion. This rendered redundant temples and rituals, priests and pilgrimage, and interrogated complex ritual and social hierarchies of caste and kingship, and the role of Brahmans as mediators between gods and men.

The message went together with the ascetic’s austere, itinerant lifestyle and complete detachment. He slept on bare ground, never spent more than one night at a place, and only asked for cooked rice as alms that he ate together with his disciples from the same pot. Significantly, he accepted cooked rice from all households, including that of ‘untouchables’, but refused to accept it from kings and Brahmans, demonstrating thereby a complete disdain for their high social status. The practice of sharing cooked rice from the same pot moreover, contravened caste proscriptions on eating and threw a direct challenge to the sanctity of the mahaprasad of Jagannath that is meant to be shared by the Brahman and the chandal from the same pot. All this together with the Swami’s efforts to feed a large number of people at a time of scarcity made him appear as the true redeemer and his faith as the true faith (satya dharma) to a host of subordinate peoples who laboured under ritual and social discrimination.

Where does the Dharma stand now? Belief in the divinity of Mahima Swami caused serious crisis when he died in 1875/76. He was not meant to die. A large and disparate group of adherents, initiated into monastic and lay orders by the preacher, were left without a nominated successor, permanent structures, and written precepts. At this time of crisis, Bhima Bhoi, a ‘blind’, unlettered khond (adivasi) poet, emerged as a leader in western Odisha; he was bestowed with the ‘eyesight of knowledge’ by the Swami to compose inspired verses in praise of the Absolute and of the preceptor. The couplets noted down by Brahman scribes came to constitute the theosophy-philosophy of the faith. More importantly, they were sung in collective gatherings of bhaktas and aided the construction of a Mahima Dharmi community.

Bhima Bhoi aroused the ire of the renouncers of the Dharma by taking to the life of a householder and by initiating women into the monastic order. He cut off his links with Joranda in Dhenkanal where the ascetics decided to construct a samadhi (memorial) for the Guru. He established in own ashram in Khaliapali near Sonepur in western Odisha and emerged as the leader of a large group of followers who gradually came to regard him as the founder of the faith and an incarnation of the Absolute. His life became a rich source of legends and his compositions were apprehended in diverse ways.

The ‘attack’ on the temple in 1881 offers a vivid illustration of such apprehension. Bhima Bhoi was not connected with the incident in anyway. His compositions, however, mentioned that Lord Jagannath had recognised Mahima Swami as the incarnation of the Absolute and had left the temple of Puri to become his first disciple. At a time when the Dharma was facing trouble and dissension, and adherents were groping for ways to deal with a difficult reality, Dasaram, a lay disciple of western Odisha, received a swapnadesh (command in a dream) to march to Puri and burn the idols of the Jagannath trinity. Jagannath had left the temple, but the idols were hampering the spread of satya dharma in Kaliyuga. This command inspired a bunch of ‘lowly’, ‘uncivilised’, and ‘beggarly’ devotees to set out on a spectacular mission. They did not succeed. Dasaram died and the rest were tried and sentenced. But the audacity of their act caused great consternation in upper circles.

Surprisingly, this daring act has been almost erased from the history of the faith by the dominant group of ascetics who set up the memorial in Joranda. With the replacement of a mobile preceptor by a static memorial, Mahima Dharma got institutionalised. The memorial grew into a huge complex with rituals and ceremonies and an annual pilgrimage, and emerged as the Gadi, headquarters of Mahima Dharma. Formal histories of the faith were written and the Mahima Dharma’s relationship with Jagannath and Hinduism was reworked to make the Dharma a ‘sect’ within Hinduism.

At the same time, homogenization has been accompanied by newer understandings and novel deployment by lay followers. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, members of a new group within the Dharma in Sambalpur surprised a German scholar with the mystifying statement that Kaliyuga had come to an end. It had ended in 1965, when Satyanarayan Baba, the deceased founder of this group, had appeared on earth. Satyanarayan Baba, an incarnation of Bhima Bhoi, had come to preach a new mantra (incantation) for the new era. Mahima Dharma retains its plurality and vitality as it continues to invest its members with hope and confidence.

Note: This essay is based on my own extensive research on Mahima Dharma. For further details see, Ishita Banerjee-Dube, Religion, Law, and Power: Tales of Time in Eastern India, 1860-2000, London, Anthem Press, 2007; Anthem India, 2012.

Bio:
Ishita Banerjee-Dube is Professor and researcher at the Center of Studies of Asia and Africa at El Colegio de Mexico. She has been Visiting Professor at the Department of History at Syracuse University and Visiting Researcher at the South Asia Program of Cornell University, USA; Fellow at the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, India; Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, India; and Fellow at the Süd-Asien Institut, University of Heidelberg, Germany. She has taught a wide range of courses that address gender issues, nation and power, modern history and contemporary India, anthropological history, Subaltern Studies and postcolonialism. Her areas of research include issues of culture, gender, power, religion and identity in Indian society.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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