Slut-Shaming Radhe Maa

The manufactured controversy over the godwoman’s attire demonstrates the sexism that is rampant in our society, writes Ajachi Chakrabarti.

The newspaper I last worked at was part of a media conglomerate, and shared office space with the group’s Hindi news channel. This arrangement was occasionally inconvenient—an eager beaver recording a voiceover at the top of his voice just as you’re frantically trying to hammer out words; correspondents setting up for their newsroom interviews just outside our editor’s cubicle, which made delivering proofs an obstacle course.


It more than made up for these petty grievances, however, by delivering constant entertainment on the televisions that hung over our desk. When it wasn’t angry panellists going at it at the top of their voices, it was the utterly ridiculous headlines they would choose for segments that were no less bizarre (my favourite, during a half-hour show about Asaram Bapu’s diet in jail: “Asaram ban gaya Papitaram!”). We didn’t really listen to the actual debates—the televisions would be muted—but that was never an impediment for our enjoyment.

One of the few times I listened to an actual debate was on my first day, as I waited in the reception for someone in HR to show up and process me. It was the vehemence of the argument that drew my attention, especially because of the participants; what could possibly get a full panel of sadhus, those embodiments of the peaceful sanatan dharma, so riled up?

The objections of the male panellists were on expected lines: men representing diverse, often feuding, akhadas closing ranks and rejecting change on the grounds of it-has-always-been-thus.

Their grouse, it turned out, was against the proposed Shri Sarveshwar Mahadeo Vaikuntdham Muktidwar Akhada Pari. Alleging centuries of marginalisation of female ascetics in the existing 13 akhadas—monastic orders—and exclusion from the power structures in mainstream Hinduism, one Trikal Bhawanta Saraswati had started a 14th, women-only, akhada. The proposal had been roundly rejected every time it was put forward at ecumenical councils, but this time the founders were adamant; they would go ahead come what may.

The objections of the male panellists were on expected lines: men representing diverse, often feuding, akhadas—a couple of weeks later some of them would come to blows on live TV over the Sai-Shankaracharya schism—closing ranks and rejecting change on the grounds of it-has-always-been-thus. A 14th akhada was impossible because Adi Sankaracharya had sanctioned only 13. “Even if all four peeths want, a 14th akhada cannot be formed,” claimed Nagendra Giri, one sadhu. God forbid we change a 1,500-year-old tradition in a 3,000-year-old religion in the interest of social justice! What do you want next, an end to caste oppression?

Martand Puri, mahamandaleshwar in the Shri Panchayati Mahanirvani Akhada, had a more refined but equally disingenuous argument, choosing to altogether ignore the allegations of marginalisation and discrimination within the existing akhadas that had prompted the demand for a separate akhada in the first place. “All arguments about gender and discrimination end when you become a sanyasi,” he said. “But this akhada is founded on the question of gender, when the fact is that women have already been given their rightful place in the 13 akhadas.”

 

The next time I came across the name of Trikal Bhawanta was while researching this piece, when I read an announcement earlier this month by Dwarkapeeth Shankaracharya Swami Swarupanand Saraswati at the Nashik Kumbh Mela. “Sadhvi Trikal Bhawanta of Pari Akhada, Radhe Maa of Mumbai and Sachchidananda Giri have no right to participate as ascetics in the shahi snan and should take bath as civilians,” he thundered at a press conference.

News reports about the exclusion didn’t carry any reason for Bhawanta’s ostracism. This was in part because her attempts to secure representation for her akhada, which has attracted hundreds of sadhvis from around the country, at the Nashik Kumbh, and the bullying tactics of the plenipotentiaries of the akhada system in order to stop her, have become a media sideshow in their own right. She has alleged she was drowned out by the national anthem when she tried to speak at one event, that she was manhandled and pushed off the stage by Mahant Gyandas Maharaj—who calls himself president of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad, though 10 of the 13 mahants on the Parishad seem to think otherwise—and his acolytes, that she fears for her life. Gyandas added his voice to Saraswati’s call for a ban, adding, “The entry of pretenders is rising in the sacred arena of the sadhus and mahants.”

While the brouhaha has generated a smattering of articles and panel discussions, however, it’s nothing compared to the giant three-tent media circus that surrounds the most famous person on that blacklist. Radhe Maa is the flavour of the month ever since allegations of harassment over dowry were made against her, and it’s no surprise that media coverage of the statement focused on her.

By bracketing Trikal Bhawanta with two controversial figures, the establishment ensured tough questions about her exclusion wouldn’t be asked of them.

That, I suspect, was no accident. By bracketing Trikal Bhawanta with two controversial figures—Sachchidananda is a security guard-turned-liquor and real estate baron-turned-spiritual leader, which, despite the precedent of Valmiki, is apparently an unacceptable career graph—the establishment ensured tough questions wouldn’t be asked of them. The success of the move can be seen in the following lede to a DNA “analysis” piece:

The biggest blow to Hinduism — triggering a crisis of faith — has been inflicted not by outside forces of infidels, but from within, by some of its so-called spiritual gurus. The self-styled godmen and women who have made a mockery of faith by leading gullible devotees up the garden path to salvation. The latest to join the league of dubious characters are Swami Sachidanand, Radhe Maa and Trikal Bhawanta.

The picture that went with the story was that of Bhawanta, despite the fact that the story about how “so-called spiritual gurus have amassed huge wealth by exploiting the vulnerabilities of the rich and poor devotees” didn’t mention a single charge against her.

 

This piece is not about Trikal Bhawanta. However, the reaction of the powers that be in mainstream Hinduism to her crusade is an example of how our society cuts women who overstep their bounds down to size, how easy it is for such misogynist tactics to work.

It isn’t quite business as usual, after all, for the Hindu establishment to close its doors to ordained high priests just because they have been accused of criminality. In fact, our sadhus are usually great devotees to the mantra of “innocent until proven guilty”.

It also provides an explanation for the extraordinary decision to ban Radhe Maa from attending the Kumbh Mela. It isn’t quite business as usual, after all, for the Hindu establishment to close its doors to ordained high priests—Radhe Maa was anointed mahamandaleshwar by the Juna Akhada in 2012—just because they have been accused of criminality. In fact, our sadhus are usually great devotees to the mantra of “innocent until proven guilty”.

Here, for instance, is Mahant Ravindra Puri of the Mahanirvani Akhada, defending his order’s anointment of Swami Nithyananda as mahamandaleshwar in 2012, despite the controversial sadhu facing charges under IPC sections 376 (rape), 377 (unnatural sex), 120B (criminal conspiracy), 506 (threat to life) and 420 (cheating): “Nithyananda may have been facing charges, but it is his personal life and we have nothing to do with that. We should keep in mind that the charges have not yet been proved.” Even though fresh accusations of rape emerged in 2014, Nithyananda has been invited to attend the Nashik Kumbh along with his disciples.

Asaram Bapu, booked by the Delhi Police under sections 342 (wrongful confinement), 376, 506 and sections of the Juvenile Justice Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, is not a mahamandaleshwar, but he has no shortage of mahamandaleshwars speaking up for him, whether it is Nithyananda himself or Sunil Shastriji Maharaj at the Dharma Raksha Manch last year.

Even though fresh accusations of rape emerged in 2014, Nithyananda has been invited to attend the Nashik Kumbh along with his disciples.

Of course, Asaram and Nithyananda are small fry when compared to Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, the 69th Shankaracharya and peethadipati of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham. He has held on to both titles for over two decades despite spending nine years under the cloud of having orchestrated the murder of Sankararaman, a temple manager and former devotee. (The case collapsed after witnesses refused to co-operate, and Saraswathi was found not guilty in November 2013 despite having confessed to the police in 2004.) He is still facing trial for ordering his henchmen in 2002 to assault S Radhakrishnan, an auditor, for pointing out irregularities in the math’s finances, but his status as the holiest man in Hinduism has never been under threat; he has never been barred from attending a Kumbh Mela.

Colour me sceptical, therefore, of this sudden impulse towards propriety among the Hindu establishment. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s terrible that Radhe Maa would—if the charges against her are true—instigate her devotees to harass their daughter-in-law for more dowry, or talk farmers into committing suicide. But for a faith whose highest authorities routinely use their piety to shield themselves from allegations of serious criminality, where it is almost a rite of passage for an ashram to be accused of land grabbing, where it is an open secret that exalted posts can be bought and sold, it is hypocritical to single out Radhe Maa for such unprecedented censure.

 

In any case, let us stop pretending that the controversy around Radhe Maa is about the dowry harassment case. The real reason everybody is interested in her, the real reason why most have even heard of her, is that photographs of her wearing a red miniskirt emerged on social media.

Let us stop pretending that the controversy around Radhe Maa is about the dowry harassment case. The real reason everybody is interested in her is that photographs of her wearing a red miniskirt emerged on social media.

Here’s what happened. On 8 August, Radhe Maa’s official website was hacked by one “Santya Haxor”, who posted the controversial pictures and left the following message on the “Contact Info” page:

Fuck You Radhe Maa. Stop Fooling Innocent People

Why I did this attack?

  1. She runs a Sex Scandle. And traps innocent young women in it.
  2. She is total fraud and has no relation with illumination.
  3. Her money goes to the underworld which is used against the nation.

Mr Haxor didn’t provide any evidence to support his claim of a “sex scandle”; no “innocent young women” have come forward with allegations either. Neither is there anything to suggest that her money has been used for anti-national activities, by the underworld or otherwise. She is probably a total fraud who has no relation with illumination, but that doesn’t change the fact that this was a criminal act that compromised her privacy for no ostensible public good.

Of course, that was not how most of us saw it. Rahul Mahajan, an aspiring politician-turned-reality television star whose father was the minister behind the Information Technology Act of 2000—which, among other things, criminalises hacking—posted the photos on Twitter, triggering a national outpouring of equal parts outrage and ridicule. Almost overnight, Radhe Maa became a national punchline. When she finally spoke out in her defense, she was lampooned for the way in which she enunciated the word ‘pious’.

She is probably a total fraud who has no relation with illumination, but that doesn’t change the fact that this was a criminal act that compromised her privacy for no ostensible public good.

To understand how the controversy was unfolding and how the nation was reacting to it, I tuned in to the old sister channel; its tagline, after all, promised to provide me the “Desh ki Dhadkan”. I found the following segment:

The 13-minute discussion begins with footage of Radhe Maa fainting after being doorstepped by journalists being played on loop, as the sanctimonious anchor mocks her play-acting, suggesting that the whole thing was a scripted performance. A senior journalist is brought into the discussion to agree with her, as the two pat themselves on the back for the power of the media to make people collapse by just asking a question. Never mind that it wasn’t as if Radhe Maa and her disciples had called a press conference; these were hostile questions being asked by a baying crowd who had been camped for hours between them and their car, and had to be faced sooner or later. The sight of her weeping in the backseat of her car, insisting that God will give her justice, cameras constantly flashing in the background, is touching, if a little melodramatic.

 

After having squeezed as much juice as possible out of that first footage, the anchor goes on to provide us a background to the story, ignoring the pretence that anyone cares about the dowry case and focusing only on the pictures. “Durga ki avatar ya ashleelta ki misaal?” the banner headline asks. After a series of photos of her in her more “divine” look, they hit us with the photo—Radhe Maa lying on a couch in her matching red miniskirt and boots, a picture that the voiceover dude, who has turned the judgement in his voice up to 11, insists is too obscene for us to see, despite her being fully clothed. A giant black rectangle marked “CENSORED” covers most of her legs, suggesting the photo is much racier than it actually is.

What do these pictures prove anyway? Not any of Santya Haxor’s claims, for one. Do they really prove that she is a fraud? This is not a woman who pretended to be austere; she appears in all her public darshans wearing designer saris, ample jewellery and dollops of makeup. Is it really that much of a stretch that she’d wear Western clothing in private?

Radhe Maa has faced criticism for behaviour we never seem to have a problem tolerating, especially when it’s a man. What do these pictures prove anyway? Not any of Santya Haxor’s claims, for one. Do they really prove that she is a fraud? This is not a woman who pretended to be austere; she appears in all her public darshans wearing designer saris, ample jewellery and dollops of makeup. Is it really that much of a stretch that she’d wear Western clothing in private? How she spends her money, surely, is her business. (There are no allegations of her having misappropriated funds; she has said that she will immolate herself if any embezzlement is found.)

She has been denigrated for being rich and powerful, though we as a society have rarely had a problem with rich and powerful sadhus. Remember Chandraswami? Her practice of embracing devotees has been called obscene, even though it is by no means unprecedented—thousands of devotees line up to be hugged by Mata Amritanandamayi, for instance, but no one ever calls Amma obscene. And just in case you’re going to argue that Western clothing and/or habits constitute fraud for a Hindu religious figure, allow me to introduce you to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

sadhguru-jaggi-vasudev_020811014419

Hailing from a small town in the border district of Gurdaspur in Punjab, Sukhwinder Kaur was an unemployed mother of two whose husband abandoned her to settle abroad. She turned first to sewing and then to religion in order to carve out a life for herself and her children. “Around the age of 23,” the bio on her website reads, she “decided that she was no longer a householder and dedicated herself completely to God. However, devotees who had in those months attached themselves to her refused to let her wear the robes of a sanyasin. They adorned her as an act of devotion”. She was asked to play the role of a living avatar of the goddess, little more than a flesh-and-blood idol. It was a plum role, and once she made it to Bollywood, a lucrative one as well, earning her the devotion of the rich and powerful. Over the years, like any godman, she leveraged their devotion for wealth, wealth for power. Eventually, however, like Trikal Bhawanta, she had to learn an important lesson about religion, or at least mainstream Hinduism: it’s a man’s world.

 

After four years of pretending to study mechanical engineering—in Goa of all places—Ajachi Chakrabarti chose to pursue a career in journalism largely because said career didn't require him to wear formal shoes. He writes about culture and society, and believes grammar is the only road to salvation.

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