The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism, Part 34

BY: SUN STAFF - 15.3 2019

Galta-ji Temple

A serial presentation of the Mughal effect on Vaisnava society.

We closed the last segment of our 'Mughal Influence' series with a description of how the Ramanandis came to have a presence in Galta:

"During the reign of Prthviraj Singh (1503-1527), a devotee of Lord Ramacandra named Payahari Krsnadasa had settled in Galta, a valley near the present day city of Jaipur.

Payahari was a grand-disciple of Ramananda, the fourteenth century North Indian reformer of the South Indian sampradaya (lineage) of Ramanuja. Payahari worshiped Sita-Rama, not Radha-Krsna.

Payahari had settled in a cave in the Galta Valley. He had converted Queen Balan Bai to Ramanandi Vaisnavism, and she in turn had convinced her saintly husband, King Prthviraj, to sponsor the establishment of a Ramanandi monastery in Galta. Thereafter, Galta had become the northern headquarters for the Ramanuja sect. For six generations the Ramanandi mahantas (temple heads) had enjoyed a privileged position in the Amber kingdom. But Govinda's arrival in Amber and His popularity with the royal family challenged the Ramanandi hegemony."

Baladeva Vidyabhusana, The Gaudiya Vedantist by Nayana-ranjana das, Back to Godhead (Jan/Feb 1991)

As we have previously discussed, the Mughal emperor Akbar had also established a branch of his royal court at Galta. The Ramanandi cult arrived there sometime between 1503-1527, while Akbar's court arrived approximately 50 years later. The question is whether or not Akbar's influence spread from the Shankarite community to the Ramanuja camp and the Ramanandis, who later interfaced with our own Sampradaya Acarya, Baladeva Vidyabhusana.

An interesting historical viewpoint is provided in the book, Peasants and Monks in British India by William R. Pinch. The reader will recall our previous references to Pinch, who wrote about Akbar's intervention in the massacre of Naga sadhus at Thaneswar, in Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires(2006). In his earlier book, Peasants and Monks in British India (1996), the author likewise considered the Thaneswar battle in the context of the militarization of sadhus. Here, he also mentions the trend of taking up arms as expressed by the Sikhs, when Guru Govind Singh made the decision to militarize the Nanakpanth in 1699 – another historical event that has ties to the Mughal influence in India.

Pinch gives an overview of the subject here:

"Similarly, it is possible to perceive the social dimensions of militarization by looking within Shaiva and Vaishnava monastic traditions regarding the decision to take up arms. For example, a widely accepted Dasnami legend recorded by J. N. Farquhar in the early twentieth century held that Shaiva monks took up arms during the reign (and with the approval) of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) to defend brahman sanyasis against the persecutions of Muslim fakirs. While the motivational elements of this tradition can be challenged on the basis of both historical and historiographical evidence, it is perhaps more significant that Farquhar also related his general impression that the arming of Shaivas relied on the heavy recruitment of shudras into the elite ranks of the Dasnami order. Whether shudras were indeed actively recruited as soldier Dasnamis, or whether the assertion of past military recruitment became a convenient way of explaining the increasing number of shudras in the order, the fact remains that today certain segments of orthodox, high-caste Dasnamis avoid commensal relations with warrior monks because of the latter's supposedly low origins."

The author goes on in Peasants and Monks to fast-forward the story of the Ramanandis in Galta to a point in the early 1700's, when a fascinating conclave of leaders from the four Vaisnava Sampradayas came together in Galta, and cooperatively decided to take up arms.

"One can see stronger suggestions of the involvement of shudras (and, indeed, others of low and marginal status such as women and untouchables) in traditions relating to Vaishnava monastic soldiering. One important Vaishnava narrative holds that the arming of bairagis was the product of a conscious decision made in 1713 by leaders of the four main Vaishnava sampraday—often referred to collectively as the chatuh-sampraday, namely, the orders organized around the teachings of Vishnuswami, Madhvacharya, Nimbarkacharya, and Ramanujacharya (in which Ramanandis were included). [1] According to this tradition, the major Vaishnava mahants met at Galta, a temple complex and monastic center very near Jaipur, and decided to resort to arms to defend against increasing attacks by Shaiva monks. Significantly, the Galta meeting in 1713 also marked the emergence of Ramanandis (those who look to Swami Ramanand for inspiration) as the dominant force not only among the followers of Ramanujacharya's teachings, but among Vaishnavas in north India generally. [2]

The Galta tradition provides an interesting twist, however: it was also decided in 1713 to declare the untouchable, shudra, and female members of Ramanand's original fourteenth-century coterie of disciples as "illegitimate" transmitters of tradition; in other words, untouchables, shudras, and women would continue to be admitted as Ramanandi novitiates, but henceforth they would have to link themselves to the Ramanandi past via one of the original male, twice-born (in this case, either brahman or kshatriya) disciples of Ramanand. While on the one hand this decision may have reflected the rise of caste mores amongst Vaishnavas, I prefer to interpret it as a move by socially conservative Vaishnavas to limit the ideological effects of what may have been a heavy influx of non-twice-born Ramanandis."

It's interesting to note that Pinch makes a statement in the passage above that 'the Galta meeting in 1713 marked the emergence of Ramanandis as a dominant force', which stands in contrast to the historical events discussed by Nayana-ranjana das in the BTG article, Baladeva Vidyabhusana, The Gaudiya Vedantist, in which Nayana-ranjana Prabhu describes the settlement of the Ramanandis in Galta during the reign of Prthviraj Singh, 1503-1527. Payahari, the original Ramanandi settler in Galta Valley, had converted Queen Balan Bai to Ramanandi Vaisnavism, and her husband, King Prthviraj, patronized the first Ramanandi monastery there.

So while the Ramanandis did not become a dominant force until 1713 according to Pinch, they were dominant enough two hundred years prior to have converted the local royals and, perhaps, to have been one of the reasons Emperor Akbar was attracted to bring his own court to Galta.



From Peasants and Monks in British India by William R. Pinch:

[1] Ramanand's status as a follower of Ramanujacharya became a contentious issue in the early twentieth century, at which time a radical faction succeeded in transforming the hagiography of the order by removing Ramanujacharya from the preceptor genealogy, or guru-parampara. See chapter 2 for an extended discussion of the debate surrounding this ideological change and its social and cultural dimensions.

[2] For the Galta tradition, I rely on Richard Burghart, "The Founding of the Ramanandi Sect," Ethnohistory 25, no. 2 (Spring 1978): 129–31.