Bairagis: The tradition of saint-warriors in India

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Bairagis: The tradition of saint-warriors in India

Thursday, 19 August 2021 | Raj Singh

Bairagis: The tradition of saint-warriors in India

Sage-warriors in Mughal and British India gave a new dimension to ‘Ahimsa' by training to use weapons to protect temples and monasteries

According to historian Jadunath Sarkar, the Jat ruler Nawal Singh got a lot of support from Swami Balananda and his Lashkar in the battle of ‘Jats of Bharatpur’ with Mirza Najaf Khan. He writes that in the Mughal-Jat struggle, especially in the battle of Barsana, the Bairagi soldiers, under the leadership of Swami Balananda, bravely fought the Mughals. However, despite the martyrdom of about 2000 Bairagi soldiers, the Mughals won the war.

Weapons of war and non-violence seem to contradict each other. Yet, history stands witness to sage-warriors in Mughal and British India who gave a new dimension to the concept of ‘Ahimsa’ by training in the use of war weapons as has been described in the ancient Hindu scriptures. Evidence of the sages’ mastery in war is found in a painting in Akbarnama in which two groups of sadhus are fighting with swords. In the book Bijak, Kabir Das has mentioned the financial prosperity and war skills of sages.

History has ample evidence of army of sadhus who were trained to protect temples, monasteries and religious gurus in the Vaishnava sects namely Nimbarka, Ramanandi and Vishnu Swami since the 15th century, but the credit for organising and uniting this army of Bairagi Sadhu saints goes to Swami Balananda. The saint-warrior is also credited with building prestigious temples, including the famous Mahavir temple in Patna in 1730.

In early 16th century, Acharya Bhavanand organized military monks in the Ramanandi sect. It is described as ‘Ramdal’ in the texts of this sect. and it finds mention in Vaishnava Kabir. They were under the control of a Bairagi Acharya. This group used to gather for Kumbh mela at Prayag, Nashik, Ujjain and Haridwar.

Acharya Bhavananda, followed by Acharya Anubhavananda, Virjanand and Swami Balananda, became the most ardent of acharyas of Bairagis and made Rajasthan the centre for their military organization. Jaipur and Bharatpur were their major centres where strategic meetings and activities were held.

Another army of the Nimbarka sect was stationed at Neem Ka Thana in Rajasthan in the 16th century. An army of 1700 Naga Sadhus was also there, named as Badi-Jamaat and Chhoti-Jamaat. A contingent of fighting Sadhus was at Dadupanthi Mutt in Narayana near Jaipur. By the end of the 17th century, this army of sadhus under Mahant Jaitaram’s leadership had become very strong. While the armies of the kings of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bharatpur and Kullu were adorned by the Bairagi saint-warriors, the Gonsai army led by Anoop Giri and Rajendra Giri served the armies of several states including the Maratha army.

Although there were many saint- warriors in the Bairagi tradition, the names of Swami Balananda and his Guru Virjanand are notable in the 18th century. The Balananda Mutt of Jaipur is an eyewitness to the valor of these saint-warriors. Historians in many prestigious universities in England and America have conducted research and written books about these religious warriors. In 1721, Swami Balananda unified the four Vaishnava sects into a military-like organization. He unified the Ramdal, the Madhav sect, the Vishnuswami sect and the Dharma warriors of the Nimbarka sect, and formed three anis (battalions) - Digambara, Nirvani and Nirmohi — and seven akhadas - Digambara, Nirvani, Nirmohi, Khaki, Niralambi, Santoshi and thereafter Mahanirvani. Vishnuswamy. Jhadia Nirmohi and Maladhari Akharas were added later.

Dadupanthi Vaishnava warriors also came with the Nirmohi Akhara. Thus,a very powerful military organization of bairagis emerged. From the reign of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur, to the reign of Pratap Singh, this organization in the Balananda Mutt was extremely powerful. Swami Balananda not only remained the Rajguru but also participated in many wars.

By 1818, Jaipur was completely controlled by the East India Company. Thereafter, the military power of the Vaishnava sects established at the Balananda Math Jaipur eroded by 1826. The state of Bharatpur also came under the suzerainty of the British, where the Bairagi army had an impressive presence. The then head of Balananda Math, Mahant Sevadas, the commander of Bairagi army, became powerless and left for a spiritual life in Lohargal. Gradually, other saint-soldiers also migrated across the country. As a result, this powerful organization of saint-warriors stood reduced to a mere symbolic presence in the Kumbh arena in the present times.

(The author is a Senior Officer of the Central Government and these are his personal views.)

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