Vitthal and Rukmini have been liberated! In a recent Supreme Court decision, the tyrannous Badwes and Utpats, hereditary priests at Pandharpur, have been stripped of their powers. This climaxes years of agitation and movement activity directed against the priests.
Vitthal (Vithoba, or Pandurang) is the favorite deity of Maharashtra. His Varkari cult is supreme. Every year lakhs of devotees walk hundreds of miles on the “Vari” or pilgrimage to Pandharpur. During the medieval period, for centuries a strong bhakti movement lived, centered on Vitthal, ranging from Namdev and Dnaneshwar to Cokhoba and Tukoba.
From Namdev and Cokhoba onwards to Tukoba there was opposition to the Badwes and Utpats controlling the temple rites and preventing untouchables from entering the temple, doing so-called religious rites of puja in a brahmanical manner. From 1948, Sane Guruji, a socialist leader of the freedom movement, sat in an indefinite fast demanding the entry of untouchables into the temple. This struggle was victorious because of popular pressure. But still the control remained with the brahman priests. So in the post-independence period the struggle continued.
Because of this opposition to the brahmanic control, in 1968 the Government appointed a commission, the Nadkarni Commission. Its report was given and advised that all control should be given to a government appointed committee and employees appointed by the committee should do the pujas and rights of Badwes etc. should be taken away. On this background, in 1973 a freedom fighter Shelar Mama did an indefinite fast to death in Hutatma Chauk, Mumbai. A law regarding the Pandharpur temple was passed in 1973 by both houses of the Maharashtra government. The Brahmanic forces challenged the law in the court. The case went on and on; finally it went to the High Court. The high court gave a decision on 16-11-2006. Badwes and Utpats took the case to the Supreme Court. finally there was a movement called Vithoba-Rakumai Mukti Andolan led by Shramik Mukti Dal which brought pressure on the government. There was a meeting with the chief minister and it was asked of him that he should at least do something for early expedition of the case. So last month the final decision was given, Badwes and Utpats are out of the temple.
One flaw remains in the law. It states, “Amidst recitation of Vedic hymns purushsukta, the deity is bathed with the water followed by a bath with five nectars, milk, curds, honey, ghee and a sugar followed by plain and scented water.” The purush sukta is of course the Rg Vedic verse which justifies the caste hierarchy by seeing brahmans as born from the mouth, ksatriyas from the shoulders, vaishyas from the thighs and shudras from the legs of an original sacrificial man. This has no place in the worship of a detiy standing for social equality and anti-caste inclusiveness.
On 30 March Shramik Mukti Dal will hold a victory celebration in Pandharpur to mark their rejoicing at the decision, and demand the removal of the purush sukta from the ceremonies.